William Henry Harrison (1841)
From George Washington to Martin Van Buren and with the lone exception of John Quincy Adams (a devout, albeit doubting, Universalist), the American presidency remained religiously aloof. Socioeconomically, none of the eight pretended, for the sake of political expediency, to be other than who he was.
William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, eschewed public transparency and inadvertently sparked a religious revival of which he knew nothing.
Born into a prominent and wealthy Virginia planter family in Charles City County in 1773, Harrison would become the last president birthed as a British subject. His father, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence and served as governor of Virginia from 1781 to 1784.
An establishment Anglican (Episcopalian), the elder Harrison confronted an ascendant movement for religious liberty for all and church-state separation led by religious dissenters (Baptists foremost) and two future presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
The younger Harrison attended an elite Presbyterian college, only to be removed early by his father due to revival influences at the school. A second educational endeavor came to an abrupt end when William joined an abolitionist organization. (Later, a slave-owning Harrison denied prior abolitionist sympathies.)
Sent to Philadelphia to study medicine, William soon learned of his father’s death. He received land in his father’s will, but no cash to continue his education.
Henry Lee III, Virginia’s new governor and a family friend, arranged for the young man to join the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Regiment as a commissioned junior officer. Assigned to Cincinnati in the Northwest Territory, Harrison fought in the long-running Northwest Indian War. He served capably in the Army, signed a treaty acquiring much of present-day Ohio, attained the rank of lieutenant, married, sold his Virginia landholdings and acquired an Ohio estate, began a family, and resigned from the Army in 1798.
Harrison then accepted a presidential appointment as Secretary of the Northwest Territory (1798), became the first congressional delegate from the Northwest (1799-1800) and served as the first governor of the Indiana Territory (1801-1812).
While governor, in 1811 he again donned military attire to lead a territorial army against a coalition of Native American warriors, emerging victorious in the then-minor Battle of Tippecanoe. In the War of 1812, Major General Harrison commanded the Army of the Northwest, winning a key victory at the Battle of the Thames.
Thereafter, a deistic Harrison joined the Episcopal Christ Church of Cincinnati, though rarely attending services. Politically, terms as a U.S. representative (1816-1819) and senator (1825-1828) preceded a brief appointment by President John Quincy Adams as minister to Colombia (1828-1829).
Returning to his Ohio estate, Harrison supplemented his income with earnings from contributions to a biography of his life. National aspirations remained, yet after an unsuccessful 1836 run for the presidency in the newly-formed Whig Party (created in opposition to the perceived tyranny of Andrew Jackson), Harrison served as clerk of courts for Hamilton County.
Throwing his hat into the presidential ring one more time, Harrison garnered the Whig nomination in 1840 to oppose sitting Democratic president Martin Van Buren. The Democrats mocked Harrison as a folksy old man who preferred sitting in his log cabin drinking hard cider, a reference to a period of time in which Harrison operated a whiskey-distilling business on his estate.
Gauging the public mood, the aristocratic Virginian and his supporters turned the tables on Van Buren by crafting a narrative of a humble frontiersman and brave hero of the great Battle of Tippecanoe, while disparaging the common-born Van Buren as a wealthy elitist.
A reimaged Harrison won the presidency and, on inauguration day, became the first president to be photographed. In his inaugural address of March 4, 1841, partially written by Daniel Webster, he reiterated the secular nature of the nation:
We admit of no government by divine right, believing that so far as power is concerned the Beneficent Creator has made no distinction amongst men; that all are upon an equality, and that the only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.
The new president also paid public homage to Christianity while expressing commitment to religious liberty:
I deem the present occasion sufficiently important and solemn to justify me in expressing to my fellow-citizens a profound reverence for the Christian religion and a thorough conviction that sound morals, religious liberty, and a just sense of religious responsibility are essentially connected with all true and lasting happiness; and to that good Being who has blessed us by the gifts of civil and religious freedom, who watched over and prospered the labors of our fathers and has hitherto preserved to us institutions far exceeding in excellence those of any other people, let us unite in fervently commending every interest of our beloved country in all future time.
One month to the day later, Harrison died of complications from pneumonia, the first president to die in office and his term the shortest of any president.
Reminiscent of earlier efforts to Christianize George Washington upon his death, the minister presiding over Harrison’s funeral at Washington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church declared, absent of any evidence, that the president had recently purchased a Bible, read it daily and intended to join the church the Sunday following his death.
That Harrison rarely mentioned God in his own letters and writings remained unstated.
In a nation grappling with slavery, greed and poverty, the unexpected death of the president briefly reignited the smoldering revival embers of the recent Second Great Awakening. In sermons many Christian pastors and evangelists in the spring of 1841 reminded their listeners that death could come at any time, even in the midst of prosperity.
Some criticized the nature of political elections. Others reiterated the nation’s heritage of church-state separation.
Baptist pastor Samuel F. Smith of Waterville, Maine (author of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) blamed the excitement of the 1840 election for dampening religious fervor, declaring: “In the heat of party strife … Divine things were almost neglected.”
Horatio Potter, minister of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Albany, N.Y., in his “Discourse on the Death of William Henry Harrison,” praised the rejection of “all connection between Religion and the State; leaving, as the Constitution does, this great source of all conservative influence to the voluntary support which it shall be able to command from individuals.”
A brief period of memorial sermons aside, the Virginian and frontiersman, religiously distant and deprived by death of a full term in the White House, left behind one lasting national legacy: the crafting of presidential candidates’ résumés to fit the public mood. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley
These are the ninth and tenth in a series of articles by historian Bruce Gourley on the religious faith of U.S. presidents. Gourley is online editor and contributing writer for Nurturing Faith Journal and executive director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society. His latest book, Baptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of Faith and Freedom, a compilation of articles from the recent series on Baptists and the American Civil War, is now available from Nurturing Faith.