Ron White’s new biography of General and President Ulysses Grant has justifiably received plaudits for highlighting Grant’s deep commitment to civil rights for freed black people after the Civil War. His book, American Ulysses, will contribute to Grant’s rising presidential reputation.
But White, who attended Princeton Seminary, and whose books credit religion’s influence in American history, has importantly highlighted Methodism’s lifelong influence on Grant. Although White doesn’t specifically make the connection, Methodism almost certainly fueled Grant’s post-war and presidential passion for protecting blacks from disenfranchisement and violence.
Few writers about Grant acknowledge his religious sensibility. Often he’s portrayed as religiously indifferent. At his death, his friend and publisher Mark Twain mocked claims from a Methodist minister of Grant’s deathbed piety. But White writes:
Grant’s religious odyssey has been overlooked or misunderstood. He is a son of Methodism. When the fastest-growing Protestant denomination in the nineteenth century decided to build a national church in Washington, as one of its trustees Grant took part in its dedication four days before his inauguration as president in 1869. The unrecognized person in Grant’s faith story is John Heyl Vincent, his Methodist pastor in Galena who went on to found the now world-famous Chautauqua Institution in New York in 1874 and summoned President Grant to participate there the following summer.
Grant was raised by his anti-slavery parents who helped found the Methodist church of Georgetown, Ohio. It was a small brick sanctuary with benches (not pew rentals) and separate entrances for men and women. Circuit riders commonly stayed at the Grant home. The Grants worshiped non-emotively, sang hymns robustly, believed in personal holiness and entire sanctification, and rejected dancing, cards and cussing. Their son would heed these practices, though he would in later years infamously stumble with alcohol.
Young Grant fell in love with and married a devout Methodist, Julia, a minister’s granddaughter, and during their courtship they attended church and camp meetings, including with Grant’s West Point classmate and friend James Longstreet, later a Confederate general. After their marriage they attended Methodist churches in Detroit, St. Louis, and Galena, Illinois, where Grant befriended the young pastor John Heyl Vincent, later a celebrated bishop.
Vincent recalled of their first meeting that Grant’s “animation and earnestness… surprised and interested me,” after which “I often watched, during the public services in my church at Galena, the calm, firm face of my interesting hearer.” When Grant and other soldiers left Galena for the Civil War, it was Vincent who dispatched them with prayer at the train station.
As representative of the United States Christian Commission during the war, Vincent visited Grant, who recalled to his pastor “the pleasure of listening to your feeling discourses from the pulpit.” Near war’s end, Grant invited Vincent to join a boat ride with himself and President Lincoln. Vincent, citing his obligation to preach to troops, declined, prompting Grant to admit, “he had not attended church three or four times since he got into the war,” partly because he was continuously responding to urgent dispatches. Returned from the war, Grant worshipped at Vincent’s church in Chicago and had Vincent speak on his behalf when Grant greeted welcoming crowds in Galena.
President Grant and the First Lady attended the new Gothic sanctuary of Washington’s Metropolitan Methodist Church, where Grant was a trustee, and whose pastor was John Philip Newman, later a bishop. Not unmindful of Methodism’s national influence, Grant once observed there were “three political parties in the United States: the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Methodists.” He donated to foreign missionaries and sought church help in crafting government policy toward Indian tribes, remarking: “I do not believe our Creator ever placed different races of men on this earth with the view of having the stronger exert all his energies in exterminating the weaker.”
In 1874 Grant’s old friend Rev. Vincent invited the President to an outdoor Sunday school teachers’ educational conference on Lake Chautauqua, where Grant was greeted by a crowd of 20,000, and where Grant stayed in a tent. Vincent presented him wth two Bibles and would found the permanent and still popular Chautauqua Institution.
Grant’s presidency was tarnished by corruption by his appointees although never by Grant himself. His pastor Otis Tiffany, who had conducted his daughter’s wedding, observed: “Absolutely incapable of servility, he could not suspect other men of fawning sycophancy. The soul of honor and manliness himself, a man who was a stranger to indirection and falsehood, General Grant could not comprehend how men could be dishonorable and false by method.” And: “Attacked by public men and the press as a dishonest and corrupt man, he came to believe that honest men were surest to be abused. Consequently he stood by men who were under fire.”
When Grant was swindled and bankrupted after his presidency, a Methodist chaplain from Civil War days told Grant before a huge crowd at the Methodist Ocean Grove campground in New Jersey: “No combination of Wall Street sharpers shall tarnish the luster of my old Commander’s fame for me.” Grant responded with tears.
Less pleasantly, a Methodist publication editor, visiting Grant with his pastor, would later publish Grant’s privately disparaging remarks about General Winfield Scott Hancock, then the Democratic presidential nominee, prompting the former president’s displeasure.
When dying from cancer, Grant was visited by his old pastor Rev. Newman, who found that Grant “manifests dependence on God in prayer more than I have ever known him to do,” and who privately determined: “I must get nearer to his soul and call forth a clear religious experience.” Julia Grant approved while Mark Twain scoffed. Newman spoke at Grant’s funeral. Across the nation, in San Francisco, a Methodist bishop hailed Grant as “a soldier, who conquered a great people and ennobled them by the moderation with which he used his victory; a ruler who healed the wound in the breast of the nation and made its people one, by the impartiality of his administration.”
Surely other Methodists hailed Grant for advocating on behalf of black people in the South, in whose defense he dispatched troops during Reconstruction and legally neutralized the Ku Klux Klan. The north was weary of further southern entanglements, but Grant strove to defend civil rights when he could as long as he could. He had been nonpolitical before the war but was zealous afterwards.
As president, Grant told visiting black leaders: “In your desire to obtain all the rights of citizens I fully sympathize,” as a “ticket on a railroad or other conveyance should entitle you to all that it does other men,” and “I wish that every voter of the United States should stand in all respects alike. It must come.”
Civil rights eventually did come, long after Grant was gone. He merits credit for his exertions, and Methodism likely merits some credit for Grant’s stalwart convictions. Biographer Ron White merits credit for sharing the mostly forgotten story.