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FIRST-PERSON: U.S. Grant & Christendom

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–I’m a sucker for used book sales, and awhile back, I found myself in the most delightful circumstance.

The YWCA where our church meets was offering books by the pound, or sack, or some other mass/cheap means, and I grabbed what I could. Several of the books came from a series of volumes containing presidential papers and messages, published under the authority of Congress in 1899. Living in Illinois, about a dozen miles north of Chicago’s Grant Park and about 175 miles east of Grant’s home in Galena, I was drawn to Volume VII, the one with the Grant material.

The best we can tell, General and President Ulysses S. Grant was not a Christian. He certainly was not a churchman. Furthermore, he insisted that religious instruction be kept out of public schools, and he pressed for the taxation of church property. But his esteem for the faith was unmistakable, and he saw no problem in granting Christianity special status in national affairs.

Some teach that the United States government, from the very beginning, has insisted on strict indifference to matters of religion. Grasping at the “wall of separation” language in one of Jefferson’s letters (written while he was still stinging from election-season charges of heresy), they attack every vestige of governmental piety they can find, from “In God We Trust” on the coins, to “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. But even so crusty a figure as U.S. Grant knew perfectly well that our nation was grounded in civilization saturated with Christian perspectives. He also knew that the spread of Christianity was singularly beneficial to society.

Of course, one may argue that the following expressions and policies are unfortunate for one reason or another, whether for encouraging “empty civic” piety, for patronizing the Indians or stigmatizing Mormons. Those are interesting matters for discussion, to be sure. But a dispassionate observer would have to agree that governmental language has been much secularized since Grant’s day. The President could not get away with saying some of these things today.

When Grant was born, a half dozen signers of the Constitution, including James Madison, were still living. He himself was the military savior of Lincoln’s army in the Civil War, which was fought to preserve the Union established by the Constitution. He was no outsider to the American enterprise, but one who well understood and cherished the healthy interplay of state and, yes, Christianity.

Certainly, a number of his references to God were generic, such as those found in his Thanksgiving proclamations -– “Almighty Rule of the Universe” (1873); “Father of All Mercies” (1875). And on the Centennial Celebration of the Fourth of July in 1876, he spoke of “the blessings and protection of a Divine Providence.” But he did not stop here. Note these references to Christianity and Christendom:

— Remarks on the American Indian: “This is the first indication of the aborigines desiring to adopt our form of government, and it is highly desirable that they become self-sustaining, self-relying, Christianized, and civilized” (report to Senate and House of Representatives on a Council of Indian Tribes, Jan. 30, 1871).

— Remarks on slavery: “All these liberal steps were taken in the face of a violent opposition directed by the reactionary slaveholders of Havana, who are vainly striving to stay the march of ideas which has terminated slavery in Christendom, Cuba only excepted” (fifth annual message, Dec. 1, 1873).

— Remarks on lynching: “Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax [La.] miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime” (answer to a Senate resolution regarding Louisiana, Jan. 13, 1875).

— Remarks on Polygamy: “In nearly every annual message that I have had the honor of transmitting to Congress I have called attention the anomalous, not to say scandalous, condition of affairs existing in the Territory of Utah, and have asked for definite legislation to correct it. That polygamy should exist in a free, enlightened, and Christian country, without the power to punish so flagrant a crime against decency and morality, seems preposterous. True, there is no law to sustain this unnatural vice; but what is needed is a law to punish it as a crime, and at the same time to fix the status of the innocent children, the offspring of this system, and of the possibly innocent plural wives. But as an institution polygamy should be banished from the land. (seventh annual message, Dec. 7, 1875)

Some would say, “How dare that man defy the Constitution by speaking in this fashion!” But I would ask them, “Are you so sure you know more about the Constitution and the will of its framers than U.S. Grant?”
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

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  • Mark Coppenger