President’s Day is a holiday that’s evolved from separate birthday celebrations honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to a combined day paying tribute to all our nation’s executives. “The Uniform Monday Holiday Act” of 1971 solidified its placement on the third Monday of February.
Honoring all presidents is a gracious and generous gesture, though most will agree not all presidents are worthy of equal adulation. The office, yes, but not the man. There have been numerous admirable chief executives and others who did more harm than good.
But on this holiday weekend, I was thinking about the many pastors who have ministered to the men who have served this nation in the Oval Office. In recent years, Dr. Billy Graham is often credited with crossing party lines and serving as a spiritual adviser to 13 White House occupants, even earning the nickname, “Pastor to the Presidents.”
Dr. Graham’s first visited President Truman. He was reportedly closest to Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, and friendly with the Bush family.
The Baptist minister John Gano is credited with baptizing George Washington. He was a member of the Continental Army and even participated in the famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night and the Battle of Trenton. When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, pastor Gano was selected to pray to officially mark its conclusion.
President Washington’s successor, John Adams, once wrote that he was “a church going animal for seventy-six years, i.e. from the cradle.” Lemuel Briant wasn’t Adams’ pastor as president, but he was as a young man. President Adams remembered him as “a jocular and liberal scholar and divine.” Reverend Briant was controversial for his day, preaching about the need for faith to be vibrant and not frozen in rigid formality. Adams was deeply bothered with the way his pastor was attacked.
As president, Abraham Lincoln was extremely close to Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, who was Chaplain of the United States Senate and pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. “I like Gurley,” President Lincoln once wrote. “He doesn’t preach politics. I get enough of that during the week, and when I go to church, I like to hear the Gospel.”
Dr. Gurley’s messages moved the Lincolns, so much so that as their young son Willie lay dying, the little boy told his mother he wanted the contents of his piggy bank to go to their church. In the throes of the Civil War, the pastor was once seen approaching the White House at 7 a.m., a full two hours before normal business. Dr. Gurley wrote about the experience.
“As I passed out the gateway which leads up to the White House and stepped on the street, I was joined by a member of my congregation,” the pastor recalled. “‘Why doctor,’ said my friend, ‘it is not nine o’clock. What are you doing at the Executive Mansion?’ To this I replied, ‘Mr. Lincoln and I have been having a morning chat.’ ‘On the war, I suppose?’ ‘Far from it,’ said I. ‘We have been talking of the state of the soul after death. That is a subject of which Mr. Lincoln never tires. I have had a great number of conversations with him on the subject.’”
Almost one-hundred years later, Reverend George M. Docherty, then pastor of the same church, was preaching one Sunday morning. As usual, President Dwight Eisenhower was in attendance. It was February 7, 1952, and he was speaking on the occasion of “Lincoln Day” and stressing that “Under God” should be added the Pledge of Allegiance.
“There was something missing in the Pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristics and definitive factor in the American way of life,” Reverend Docherty said. “Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, “the United States of America,” it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer and sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity.”
President Eisenhower agreed. Two days later, a bill was introduced in the House introducing the new language. President Eisenhower signed it into law on June 14, 1954.
Our president matters – and the pastors to those presidents matter, too.
Happy Presidents Day.