Historian H.W. Brands’ new biography of Ronald Reagan is very good but conveys an incomplete impression about Reagan’s religious faith. Here’s a paragraph about Reagan ostensibly failing to follow up on concern about his dying father-in-law’s lack of faith:
DURING REAGAN’S SECOND year in office, his father-in-law, Loyal Davis, became seriously ill. “Nancy is very depressed about her father’s health and understandably so,” Reagan wrote in his diary. Davis and Nancy’s mother had retired to Scottsdale, Arizona, and his illness prompted repeated flights by Nancy across the country from Washington. Reagan liked and respected his father-in-law and was naturally concerned for his health. But he worried more about his spiritual health. “He’s always been an Agnostic,” Reagan wrote. “Now I think he knows fear for probably the first time in his life.” Reagan couldn’t take the time Nancy did to visit Davis, but he wished he could. “I want so much to speak to him about faith,” he said. “I believe this is a moment when he should turn to God and I want so much to help him do that.” Yet Reagan never found the time, and Davis died a few months later with Reagan’s words unspoken.
But in fact Reagan DID find the time to contact his troubled father-in-law even if he could not visit.
Nancy Reagan told the story on July 27, 1988, to 10,000 delegates to the Student Congress on Evangelism, hosted by Youth for Christ, at the Washington Convention Center, her speech preceding her husband’s the following day:
My father, who died six years ago, was a brilliant man, an internationally known brain surgeon. He was a person of tremendous self-confidence and intellect. So it is ironic that his spiritual life was influenced by a small, petty event that happened in his childhood. When he was a boy, there was a contest in his Sunday school class. The winner was to receive a Bible. My father knew he’d won the contest, for even then he was totally confident in himself and his abilities. He simply couldn’t accept it when the Bible was given to the child of the minister. And in reaction, my father, feeling wronged and disillusioned, allowed no place for faith in his life for the next eighty years.
He would take my mother and me to church and Sunday school, but he’d leave and come back only when it was time to pick us up. My mother had a very deep religious faith; she read her Bible every night. And it was that deep and abiding faith that helped her tremendously at the end of her life.
But my father didn’t have that and at the end of his life, he was terribly frightened. He was even afraid to go to sleep for fear he wouldn’t wake up. He’d move from chair to chair trying to keep awake and, I guess alive. I can’t tell you how much it hurt to see him this way — this man who had always been so supremely confident and strong in my eyes. My husband wrote him two long letters explaining the encompassing comfort he’d receive if he’d just put himself in the Lord’s hands.
I was at the hospital with him, but my father never mentioned to me what happened next; the doctors told me. Two days before he died, he asked to see the hospital chaplain. I don’t know what the chaplain did or what he said, but whatever it was, it was the right thing and it gave my father comfort. I noticed he was calmer and not as frightened. When he died the next day, he was at peace, finally. And I was so happy for him. My prayers were answered.
I vividly recall 29 years ago as a young man reading about Nancy Reagan’s emotional remarks and was moved that the president had taken time from his excruciating schedule to offer spiritual counsel to his dying father-in-law. I’ve never found this story in any history book or biography. It’s very hard to find any account online. Here’s one from UPI by Helen Thomas. And there’s a full text of her recollection here although sadly not of her whole speech. Reagan’s speech text to the Student Congress on Evangelism from the next day, July 28, 1988, is here. And here’s video.
But wouldn’t it be fascinating to see the “two long letters” Reagan wrote to his father-in-law? They presumably survive, likely at the Reagan Library, but I’ve never seen them quoted. I hope they surface. They would tell us a lot about the man and his faith.