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James A. Garfield (1831-1881), the only preacher to ever occupy the White House, was a product of the profound social, intellectual and religious ferment of the early decades of the nineteenth century which produced the American religious movement known as the Disciples of Christ. The first fifty years of Disciple history closely paralleled Garfield’s life. The purpose of this study is to focus on the intimate Garfield-Disciples relationship, and to show its reciprocal nature. Garfield was helped by Disciples in the building of a political base (he won ten consecutive elections in the Western Reserve), and they in turn shared in the prestige and influence of his expanding career.
Garfield was reared on Ohio's Western Reserve, “the principal theatre” of the Disciple movement, and at the age of eighteen (1850) he was baptized by a Disciple preacher. While a student at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (1851-1854), a Disciple academy at Hiram, he cultivated an inner circle of friends and developed the ability to preach for Disciples. Two years at Williams College (1854-1856) enlarged his intellectual horizons and convinced him that the Disciple ministry was “an unpromising field.” By the time Garfield returned to teach at Hiram, he was already formulating plans for entering “the field of statesmanship” through the “educational portal.”
In the first three years after his return to Hiram (1856-1859), Garfield was made president of the Eclectic, married into a strong Disciple family in Hiram, and became “a favorite preacher” among Western Reserve Disciples. At the same time, he was laying the groundwork for a political career with the Eclectic as a base and his beloved “Hiram circle” of Disciple colleagues as associates and supporters. In 1859, with the support of several influential Disciples, Garfield won election to the Ohio Senate and “gained a step in the direction of my purpose.” At the yearly meeting of Disciples he argued that there was a greater need of “manly men in politics” than there was of preachers.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Garfield saw his course clearly. Governor Dennison assured him that successful military leaders would rule the nation for twenty years after the war, and he eagerly accepted command of the Forty-second Ohio. With evangelistic fervor he recruited hundreds of Disciples into his regiment. His avid speech at the 1861 convention of the American Christian Missionary Society led that Disciple organization to adopt a resolution of loyalty to the Union. During Garfield’s military years (1861-1863) he won rapid promotion to the rank of major general, and through the diligent work of his Disciple associates back home he won election to Congress. His congressional career began in December 1863, and continued until the autumn of 1880 when he was elected to the Presidency.
As a member of the Hiram board Garfield initiated a theological department at the school in 1866; and in that same year he was the catalyst behind the establishment of a significant new Disciple periodical called the Christian Standard. He conceived of merging the school and the paper in an effort to make a fight for “a liberal Christianity” within the Disciple movement, but in this he failed. However, he continued to support the “new and better movement” he saw emerging in the ministries of progressive Disciples like Lewis Pinkerton and Burke Hinsdale.
The Disciples were active in Garfield’s presidential campaign, and through his victory they enjoyed the fruits of worldwide publicity for their young religious movement. After Garfield's assassination, they sought to perpetuate his memory in such projects as the Garfield Memorial Church and Garfield University. This study is based on the extensive collection of Garfield manuscripts in the Library of Congress, and throughout the narrative Garfield is left to express himself in his own words as often as possible.
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA
Arts and Humanities | Christianity | Religion
Rushford, Jerry, "Political Disciple: The Relationship Between James A. Garfield and the Disciples of Christ" (1977). Churches of Christ Heritage Center. Item 7.