Ike and Religion
A site on presidents and religion:
The schools were three in number; churches abounded. From memory alone I can identify seven and everybody I knew went to church. (The only exception were people we thought of as the toughs—poolroom sharks, we called them.) Social life was centered around the churches. Church picnics, usually held on the riverbank, were an opportunity to gorge on fried chicken, potato salad, and apple pie. The men pitched horseshoes, the women knitted and talked, the youngsters fished, and everyone recovered from the meal.
--Dwight D. Eisenhower
Sunday morning, in the small, Midwestern town of 1900,
echoed with the pealing of church bells—a reminder to go to worship. Sunday was
devoted to church. Services began in the morning with Sunday School,
followed by the regular service, and ended with an evening service. All dressed
in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, and children were on their best
behavior, even when the sermon was long and beyond their understanding. Hymns
were a popular part of the service, and among the favorites were "
Sunday School began with teachers presenting a lesson from the Scriptures. Older children took turns reading verses from the Bible, and younger children enjoyed Bible picture cards and religious scenes on the walls. The Sunday
School secretary moved from class to class to collect the
offering. At the conclusion of Sunday School, the
day’s attendance and the amount of the offering were announced. Adults attended
their own Sunday School classes where they studied
maps of the
Their religious beliefs dictated the prevailing standards of community morality. Gambling, card playing, dancing, smoking, and drinking liquor were prohibited. Profanity, immodest dress, and immoral behavior aroused strong public condemnation. The lower class—termed "ne’er-do-wells"—generally ignored the rules of a society they didn’t fit into, and the upper-middle class suffered no real consequences for breaking the code as long as it did not flaunt violations publicly. In word, at least, all "good" citizens condemned evil practices, and yet many towns had as many saloons as churches.
Newspapers printed articles that promoted proper conduct for boys and girls. Respectable young men were to practice personal cleanliness and get to bed early; avoid bad company, drinking, smoking, or chewing; attend church; and dress and act modestly. To do otherwise was to be a "fast young man." Girls were to conduct themselves with modesty, seriousness, and thoughtfulness in preparation for marriage and motherhood. Nonetheless, many girls loved their stylish clothes and showed off using the latest, risky expressions such as "I thought I should die!" and "Now you’re real mean!" One small community was concerned about the "bicycle problem"—groups of young people riding bicycles to neighboring towns to visit on Sunday afternoons—a clear violation of the Sabbath.
Ministers enjoyed a position of dignity and respect in the community. Few had a formal education, and a minister’s salary was low and undependable. There was little or no social life outside church activities. Ministers sometimes
performed up to six Sunday services in addition to the midweek prayer meeting. They performed weddings, baptisms, and funerals and made calls to the bedsides of the sick and dying. Ministers were expected to preside over ice cream socials, W.C.T.U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) meetings, and holidays such as July 4th celebrations and Decoration Day. Small fees were paid for funeral and wedding services, and some ministers substitute taught in the local schools.
In 1900, the churches were the center of social life for the community. Church was a proper place for boys to get to meet girls and walk
them home after church. Church festivals presented entertainment programs to raise money; at Church fairs, women sold food and auctioned off donated items. Some churches even held lotteries, despite the anticipated complaints. Church picnics and ice cream socials were well-attended summer pastimes, and covered-dish or potluck dinners were held year round.
Summer time brought a wave of popular revival meetings.
They were a much anticipated annual event for many parishioners.
Visiting evangelists preached "fire-and-brimstone" sermons in tents set up on the outskirts of town. Members of the audience
"testified" about their religious experiences and how they had been "saved." "Sinners" were encouraged to come forward to pray for their salvation.
By the 1920s and 30s, the central role of the churches in the community would undergo serious outside challenges. The moral code was weakening, and people were less inclined to follow the example of ministers and churches. Many blamed the aftermath of the Great War (World War I) for the decline in public morality. Whatever the reason, the churches now had competition for social activities, and, for good or bad, technological progress brought the rest of the world to the small Midwestern town.
Jacob and Rebecca Eisenhower and their children—including
Dwight’s father, David—came to
The men dressed in black and wore black felt hats. They grew heavy beards and wore their hair long and combed straight back. Women wore long black dresses, avoiding decoration of any kind. On their heads, women wore a covering called a "prayer veiling," and, when outside the home, they put on a large black bonnet with a long, gathered skirting along the bottom.
Growing up, Dwight and his brothers attended Sunday School at the Church of the Brethren in Christ in
Although Dwight D. Eisenhower never joined the church of his youth, its influence was evident in his behavior and beliefs throughout his life.
"One Cheer" for Civil Religion?
by William Inboden http://www.modernreformation.org/wi04onecheer.htm
The pastor of my local church caused no small stir
several years ago when he removed the American flag from its perch just behind
the pulpit. Indeed, he removed it from the sanctuary entirely. As you might
imagine, this provoked some consternation among at least a few members, who no
doubt wondered if this brash new pastor, late of graduate school and ministry
This is not to say that the virtually ubiquitous American flags in sanctuaries across the
What is civil religion? According to historian (and Christian) Wilfred McClay, civil religion is “that strain of American piety that bestows many of the elements of religious sentiment and faith upon the political and social institutions of the
This is the first and by far most vital distinction to keep in mind. Though civil religion may at times draw on biblical resources, though it may on occasion employ Christian imagery, though it may appeal to many professing Christians, it differs from biblical Christianity in fundamental ways. Christianity holds that the people of God are all those who, irrespective of tribe or tongue, have repented of their sins, trusted wholly in Christ’s substitutionary death for their forgiveness, been reconciled to God through his redeeming grace, and joined in the life of the church. Civil religion instead often holds that God’s people are those who dwell in a particular nation-state and faithfully uphold their civic duties. Christianity holds that man’s chief end is, in the words of the Westminster Confession, to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Civil religion, at its worst, holds that God’s chief end is to preserve and bless the nation-state. Christianity is worship of the one true God. Civil religion, at its most pernicious, is idolatry.
It must quickly be said, however, that civil religion is not always this problematic, or even this objectionable. When the distinction between civil religion and biblical Christianity is kept clear, the former can at times serve as a helpful and even necessary source of civic virtue. In other words, civil religion at its best functions as a sort of natural theology affirming certain truths that God has revealed in creation. These might include that God is above governments and ordains their authority, that he has bestowed on man certain rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, that he is the source of all material goods and blessings, and that all people and nations are subject to his judgment, both here and in the hereafter. It is good and right for governments and peoples to acknowledge a sovereign divine lawgiver, provider, and judge. Civil religion at its best affirms these truths. In doing so, it can help produce good citizens and even a good society. But it cannot save sinners.
Civil Religion in History
Civil religion is nothing new. In some ways it is as old as both church and state. What the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon famously observed about ancient
Civil religion is inseparable from history, particularly because it often bases itself on a distinctive view of the past. Rather than attempt a comprehensive survey of civil religion throughout American history, this essay will focus on just two periods in our nation’s past, the founding and the early Cold War years, to illustrate how civil religion originated and to show how this view of the past informs the present. Indeed, some of today’s most contested political debates often appeal to the question of just how religious—or irreligious—were
Out of this context came one of the most famous yet least understood sermons in American history. John Winthrop, the hardy leader of one of the earliest groups of Puritans, in 1630 preached a message to his companions while they sailed onboard their ship, the Arbella, to
[W]e shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
The “city upon a hill,”
self-consciously echoing Christ’s words in Matthew, referred not to a new
nation-state but to a new church community. It would serve as a gospel model
first to their fellow Englishmen and then to the rest of the world. Note also
The many glories of colonial
In other words, rather than being founded as a distinctively Christian nation-state, the birth of the
Consider the following examples. Most obviously, Thomas Jefferson’s affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal . . . [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” reiterates the conviction that our rights came ultimately from God, not government or man. Less well-known are the resolutions adopted by the Continental Congress throughout the Revolutionary War, setting aside particular days for “Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer.” One such resolution, issued in 1777 and distributed throughout the churches of the land, called on all Americans to “join the penitent confession of their manifold sins … and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.” Several themes emerge here: awareness of sin, dependence on God’s providence, the urge to stay faithful, the belief that God had a special relationship with
These examples are just a few of many that well illustrate the emerging civil religion. Here it is crucial to remember that the American founders employed a natural theology rather than a revealed theology to establish the intellectual foundations of their new land. Just look again at the language of the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” In short, the God that most of the founders believed in epitomized reason, virtue, order, and liberty—though not necessarily perfect holiness, wrath, love, and grace. As Mark Noll has observed, most of the founders (many of whom were not orthodox Christians) found in God what they most admired in humanity. It might also be said that they found in religion what they most admired in their nation.
Civil Religion in the Modern Era
It was such a creed that in part prompted Eisenhower’s most infamous, yet revealing, comment on religion. On
This quote by Eisenhower illustrates the worst and the best of civil religion. At its worst, doctrine and theological truth-claims are rendered largely irrelevant. Of particular concern to Christians, the redeeming work of Christ is wholly disregarded, replaced by moralism and a crude, nonredemptive natural theology. At its best, it unites a society around a few basic truths, including the distinction between creature and Creator, the supremacy of God over government, and the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. If Irving Kristol could muster “two cheers for capitalism,” in the same spirit we might say that civil religion merits just one cheer.
A contemporary observer in Eisenhower’s day, the Jewish social scientist Will Herberg considered the nature and paradox of the altogether new faith that he saw emerging in
Civil Religion in the
Surveying our present situation, Wilfred McClay describes civil religion’s “inherently problematic relationship to the Christian faith or any other serious religious tradition. At best, it provides a secular grounding for that faith, one that makes political institutions more responsive to calls for self-examination and repentance, as well as exertion and sacrifice for the common good. At worst, it can provide divine warrant to unscrupulous acts, cheapen religious language, turn clergy into robed flunkies of the state and the culture, and bring the simulacrum of religious awe into places where it doesn’t belong.”
The civil religion of the Eisenhower era is essentially the version still with us today. Blandly patriotic, optimistic, therapeutic, more spiritual than confessional, it reinforces much of the pervasive “religiosity” in
Do these confusions mean that American Christians shouldn’t be patriotic? Not in the least. Indeed, an honest assessment of the considerable abundance of common grace goods that the
It is right for all Americans—Christian and non-Christian—to recognize the supremacy of God over the governing institutions that he ordains, the divine source of our rights and freedoms, and that all of us will be held to account for our actions. In this sense, being a “good American” may sometimes not conflict with being a “good Christian.” But sometimes the two are wholly incommensurate. What must be guarded against is making our penultimate loyalty—to country—into our ultimate loyalty. Love of God and loyalty to his kingdom must always be ultimate; anything else is idolatry.
If Gibbon identified the cynicism of the
William Inboden (Ph.D,
In this article, Dr. Inboden has cited Wilfred McClay,
“The Soul of a Nation,” The Public Interest, Spring 2002; and Edward Gibbon,
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols. (New York: The Modern
Library, 1995), vol. 1, p. 22. The quotation from John Winthrop is taken from
“A Model of Christian Charity,” in Mark Noll and Roger Lundin,
eds., Voices from the Heart: Four Centuries of American Piety (Grand Rapids,
MI: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 4–6. Dr. Inboden’s
quotation from Perry Miller is from “Errand into the Wilderness,” in Jon Butler
and Harry Stout, eds., Religion in American History (New York: Oxford
University Press), p. 41. His citation of the 1977 Continental Congress
resolution is quoted in James Hutson, Religion and
the Founding of the
[This is an edited version of a paper published in the JW Research Journal, vol. 6, #2, July-Dec., 1999.]
Why President Eisenhower Hid His Jehovah's Witness Upbringing
Jerry Bergman, Ph.D
It is commonly reported even in authoritative works about President Eisenhower that he was raised as a River Brethren by parents that were active in the River Brethren church. In fact, Dwight D. Eisenhower was raised a Jehovah's Witness, a sect commonly called Russellites or Bible Students until 1931. His mother was active in the sect from 1895, when Dwight was five years old, until she died. Eisenhower's father was also an active member, although after 1915 he eventually no longer considered himself a Witness.
All of the Eisenhower boys left the Jehovah's Witness religion when adults and openly opposed major aspects of Watchtower teaching, although some of the values they learned from their Bible studies probably influenced them throughout their lives. Some Watchtower values may even have been reflected in Dwight's statements against war made in his latter life. Nonetheless, the Eisenhower's endeavored to hide the full extent of their mother's and family's Watchtower involvement although they did at times admit their affiliation with them. The reasons why the Eisenhower boys took great pains to hide their early Watchtower associations are discussed.
The story of the religious upbringing of the Eisenhower boys is critically important in understanding both the Watchtower and the boys themselves. The most dominant religious influence in the Eisenhower home from the time the boys were young was Watchtower theology and beliefs. Both parents were deeply involved and highly committed to much of the Watchtower theology throughout most of their children's formative years. Ida probably took the lead religiously, and David Eisenhower later became disillusioned with many Watchtower teachings; nonetheless the religion also influenced him later in life.
As adults, none of the Eisenhower boys formally followed the Witness teachings and theology and even tried to hide their Jehovah's Witness upbringing. The eldest son, Arthur, once stated that he could not accept the religious dogmas of his parents although he had "his mother's religion" in his heart (Kornitzer, 1955:64).
Although none of Mrs. Eisenhower's boys were what she and other Witnesses called "in the truth," she was hopeful that they would someday again embrace the religion in which they were raised. They openly rejected much of the Watchtower theology and medical ideas, especially its eschatology and millennial teachings. Nonetheless their Witness upbringing clearly influenced them. Even in later life, Dwight preferred "the informal church service" with "vigorous singing and vigorous preaching" like he grew up with (Dodd, 1963:233). Ida was relatively supportive of them during most of their careers, often stating that she was proud of them and their accomplishments, even those achievements that violated her Watchtower faith.
Eisenhower Family Background
The values of Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower's parents and their home environment reflected themselves in the enormous success of all of their children. Probably the most dominant influence in the Eisenhower home was religion, primarily the Jehovah's Witnesses (known as Bible Students until 1931) and to a much lesser extent the River Brethren (Dodd, 1994).
Both parents were active in the Watchtower during most of the Eisenhower children's formative years. Eisenhower's mother, Ida Eisenhower, stated she became involved with the Watchtower in 1895 when she was 34 and Dwight was only five years old (Cole, 1955:190). Ida was baptized in 1898, meaning she was then a Jehovah's Witnesses minister.
Furthermore, Ida did not flirt with her involvement in the Witnesses as
claimed by some but "was a faithful member of Jehovah's Witnesses for 50
years" (Fleming 1955:1). In Dwight's words she had "an inflexible
loyalty to her religious convictions." According to the
current Watchtower president Milton G. Henshel,
"Ida Eisenhower was one of the most energetic [Watchtower] preachers in
The River Brethren Background of Ike's Parents
Ida grew up in
Eisenhower's parents met when they were both students at a small United
Brethren college in
Neither David or Ida ever became deeply involved in this sect, although, it is often incorrectly stated that "Ida and David Eisenhower were River Brethren" (Miller, 1987:77-78). David's father Jacob and his brothers Ira and Abraham were members, but Ike's cousin, the Reverend Ray L. Witter, son of A.L. Witter, claimed that, although Ida and David came to Brethren services for several years, neither was ever an actual member nor did they regularly attend for any length of time (Miller, 1987:77-78; Dodd, 1959:221).
The Eisenhower's house in
Left to right: Dwight, Edgar, Earl (baby), Roy, Arthur.
Close family friend R.C. Tonkin even stated that he "never knew any of
the family to attend the
Evidence that Dwight may have occasionally attended Sunday school at
Abilene's River Brethren Church includes the claim by John Dayhoff
(listed in the 1906 church records as a member of Dwight's class) that he went
to Sunday school with him. When Dwight did attend according to the regular
teacher, Ida Hoffman, he evidently "never seemed to pay any attention or
take any interest in the lesson" (Davis, 1952:49). Three of the Eisenhower
children including Dwight are listed in the 1906 Souvenir Report of the Brethren
Sunday School of Abilene, Kansas as involved in the church, but no mention is
made of their parents. The listing of the three boys was likely partly due to
the influence of Jacob, Dwight's grandfather, an active
When David's Uncle Abraham, a self-taught veterinarian, decided to became an
itinerant preacher he rented his house to David on the condition that Jacob
could live there (Lyon, 1974; Dodd, 1963). David Eisenhower's family then moved
into Abraham's house at
The many other relatives and friends who were River Brethren also likely had some influence on Dwight's religious development. He was physically and emotionally surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandfathers and a great-grandfather, most of whom were lay members or preachers in one of the Brethren or Holiness sects (Dodd, 1994). Gladys Dodd concluded the Brethren, whom Dwight joined on occasion for worship, "were a clannish lot, glued together by common ties of unique appearance and modes of baptism, abhorrence of war, and the like" (Dodd, 1994:1).
Background of the Eisenhower's Joining the Watchtower
A major catalyst that precipitated Dwight's parents leaving the River
Brethren and joining the Watchtower involved Ike's eight-month old brother,
Paul, who died of diphtheria in 1895. This tragedy devastated the Eisenhower's,
and the theological explanation that Paul is in heaven provided by the River
Brethren did not satisfy them. At this time, three neighborhood women were able
to comfort the Eisenhower's with the hope that they would soon see their son.
This comfort was the Russellite teaching that death
was merely sleep, and that all those in the grave will be resurrected shortly.
In 1895 it was taught that this resurrection would occur in the new world which
was expected to arrive before 1914, a mere nine years away then (Gruss, 1976). The three women - Mrs. Clara Witt, Mrs. Mary
Thayer, and Mrs. Emma Holland - also sold Ida a set of volumes which were then
titled Millennial Dawn (later renamed Studies in the Scriptures) and a
David and Ida's interest in Armageddon (the war the Watchtower teaches God
will destroy all of the wicked, i.e. all non Witnesses) and the imminent return
of Christ was highly influenced by the Watchtower preoccupation with end times
events, especially the date of Armageddon. Likely, too, other acquaintances
aside from Watchtower followers shared an interest in end-times date predicting
including by their uncles Abraham and Ira, both of whom were evidently
influenced by the end-times date speculation of the Tabor,
Dodd concluded from her extensive study of the Eisenhower family religious
involvement that Ida soon became a "faithful and dedicated Witness and
actively engaged as [a] colporteur [missionary] for the Watch Tower Society
until her death" (Dodd, 1959:245). Soon the force that dominated the lives
of everyone who lived in the Eisenhower frame house in
1902 Eisenhower family portrait.
Back row: Dwight, Edgar, Earl, Arthur,
Front row: David, Milton, Ida.
The Eisenhower's held weekly Watchtower meetings in their parlor where the boys took turns reading from and discussing Watchtower publications and Scripture. Dwight Eisenhower was also involved in these studies--he claimed that he had read the Bible completely through twice before he was eighteen (Jameson, 1969:9). Ambrose concluded that the degree of religious involvement of the Eisenhower boys was so extensive that
David read from the Bible before meals, then asked a blessing. After dinner, he brought out the Bible again. When the boys grew old enough, they took turns reading. Ida organized meetings of the ... Watchtower Society, which met on Sundays in her parlor. She played her piano and led the singing. Neither David nor Ida ever smoked or drank, or played cards, or swore, or gambled (Ambrose 1983:19-20).
This upbringing no doubt had a major influence on all of the Eisenhower boys. R.G. Tonkin estimated that when the Eisenhower boys were young the size of the class was "about fifteen people" (1952:48).
The Watchtower followers met in Eisenhower's home until 1915 when the growth
of the local congregation forced them to rent a local hall for their services.
Later a large Watchtower meeting house (now called a Kingdom Hall) was built in
Mary Thayer first introduced the
Ida remained active in the Watchtower her whole life. In a letter to a fellow Witness Ida stated she has "been in the truth since ninety six [1896 and I] ... am still in ... it has been a comfort to me ... Naomi Engle stay [sic] with me and she is a witness too so my hope [sic] are good" (Fleming, 1955:3; Cole, 1955:192).
Dwight's Father's Religious Background
Dwight was also influenced by the religious ideas of his father, David Eisenhower. Although his early upbringing was in the River Brethren and he briefly attended the Lutheran, then later the Methodist church before and during his college days, he converted to the Watchtower a few years after his wife did. David Eisenhower actively served the Watchtower for many years as an elder and Bible study conductor, a role which he occasionally alternated with L.D. Toliver (Dodd, 1959:225). Neal even claimed that David Eisenhower was led by the Watchtower into "mysticism" because of David's use of "an enormous wall chart" of the Egyptian pyramids to predict the future. David taught his boys Watchtower last-days theology from this chart when they were growing up. The ten feet high and six feet wide chart "according to David . . . contained prophecies for the future as well as confirmation of biblical events. Captivated by the bizarre drawing . . . [Dwight] spent hours studying David's creation" (Neal, 1984:13).
This pyramid chart was of the Pyramid of Giza in
. . . religious beliefs materialized in the form of an impressive (five or six feet high, ten feet long) wall chart of the Egyptian pyramids, by means of which he proved to his own satisfaction that the lines of the pyramids--outer dimensions, inner passageways, angles of chambers, and so on--prophesied later Biblical events and other events still in the future. As might be expected, this demonstration fascinated his children; the chart came to be one of the family's most prized possessions (Lyon, 1974:38).
Russell obtained from the Pyramid many of his prophesies, especially the year 1914 when the end of the world was expected to occur (Franz, 1993:20). The pyramid was also used to confirm Watchtower dispensational theology. Earl Eisenhower claimed that his father used the chart when he was in the Watchtower to prove "to his own satisfaction that the Bible was right in its prophecies" (Kornitzer, 1955:136).
The pyramid was of such major importance to early Watchtower theology that a
huge ten foot concrete
pyramid was selected as a fitting memorial to C. T. Russell when he died. It
still stands close to Russell's grave near
A few years later, the second president of the Watchtower, Joseph F. Rutherford, condemned the pyramid teaching in no uncertain terms, one of many of his doctrinal changes that initiated several Watchtower schisms (Rutherford, 1928; Dodd, 1959:243). Dodd noted that the chart was still in the family home as late as 1944, but in 1957 she could no longer locate it in either the family home or the Eisenhower museum nearby and learned that the chart and other Watchtower effects were disposed of (Dodd, 1959:242-243). Dodd concluded the Watchtower items were probably destroyed by the family to reduce their embarrassment over their parents' involvement in the Jehovah's Witnesses. David's commitment to the Watchtower eventually changed and later he openly became an opposer.
Dodd concludes that "by 1919 David Eisenhower's interest in Russell had
definitely waned and before his death in 1942 he is said to have renounced the
doctrine of Russell" (1959:224). In a letter to Edward Ford, David stated
that one factor causing his disillusionment with the Watchtower was the failure
of their end of the world prophecies including 1914 and 1915 (Ford, 1995).
After he left the Watchtower fellowship, his son Arthur claimed that David
remained a student of the Scriptures, and his religious "reading habits
were confined to the Bible, or anything related to the Bible" but not
Watchtower literature. Although, the Bible was central to David Eisenhower's
Edgar Eisenhower stated that his father left the Watchtower partly because he "couldn't go along with the sheer dogma that was so much a part of their thinking." His sons later adamantly claimed that David accompanied his wife on Watchtower activities primarily in an effort to appease her. Watchtower accounts usually referred only to Ida as a Witness, supporting the conclusion that David had left the Watchtower after 1915.
David Eisenhower died in March of 1942 at the age of 78. At this time Ida's nurse, Naomi Engle, was, "a strong-willed Witness who arranged a Jehovah's Witness funeral for David even though he had made it clear before his death that he was no longer a [Watchtower] believer" (Miller, 1987:80). The service was conducted by Witness James L. Thayer assisted by another Witness, Fred K. Southworth.
Problems Surface over the Eisenhower's Watchtower Involvement
The Eisenhower's Watchtower involvement created many family conflicts. The Russellites taught that the Brethren and all other churches
were not pleasing to God. Their second president, lawyer Joseph F. Rutherford
(1916-1942), viciously attacked all religion with slogans such as all
"religion is a snare and a racket" (Dodd, 1959). The Watchtower under
... were rabidly opposed to Russellism. As late as 1913 ... the Evangelical Visitor advertised a pamphlet entitled "The Blasphemous Religion which teaches the Annihilation of Jesus Christ" as the "best yet publication against Russellism" and the editor thought every River Brethren minister should read it. In 1928, one of the Brethren ministers, Abraham Eisenhower (David's brother), wrote to the Evangelical Visitor concerning Russellism: "Oh, fool-hearted nonsense. It is the devil's asbestos blanket to cover up the realities of a hell fire judgment. The word of God will tear off this infamous lie and expose the realities of an existence of life after death." This strong statement would reflect the general attitude of most of the Eisenhower's (Dodd, 1959:246).
The River Brethren have much in common with the Mennonites, and both were once called "the plain people" because of their simple lifestyle and dress. Although the sect has generally modernized and even in the early 1900s they no longer placed as much emphasis on details of clothing as formerly, they were still comparatively strict in the 1800s. Marriage could be dissolved only by death, hard physical work was a prime virtue, and after the turn of the century members could not use or even grow tobacco.
The early Watchtower teachings were also similar in some ways to the River Brethren, both of which have in major ways changed since the Eisenhower's became involved in 1895 (Dodd, 1959). Furthermore, "a number of the River Brethren had become followers of Russell" (Dodd, 1959:234). Although major differences existed especially in doctrine, the many similarities include both groups were pietistic Protestant conservative sects opposed to war, although on somewhat different grounds. Both sects also stressed the importance of Biblical study, both condemned many worldly habits and both were then very concerned about the last days prophesy and eschatology.
Attempts to Hide their Watchtower Background
Dwights religious background is discussed by many writers, but most contain much misinformation. The misinformation about the religion of Dwight's parents is compounded by the fact that many Eisenhower biographies and even writings by the Eisenhower sons often declined to fully and honestly acknowledge their parents' actual religious affiliation (Fleming, 1955:1; Eisenhower, 1969). In a collection of personal recollections Edgar Eisenhower admitted only
Our parents' religious interests switched to a sect known as the Bible Students. The meetings were held at our house, and everyone made his own interpretation of the Scripture lessons. Mother played the piano, and they sang hymns before and after each meeting. It was a real old time prayer meeting. They talked to God, read Scriptures, and everyone got a chance to state his relationship with Him. Their ideas of religion were straightforward and simple. I have never forgotten those Scripture lessons, nor the influence they have had on my life. Simple people taking a simple approach to God. We couldn't have forgotten because mother impressed those creeds deep in our memories. Even after I had grown up, every letter I received from her, until the day she died, ended with a passage from the Bible (McCullun, 1960:21).
Even President Eisenhower's spiritual mentor and close friend, Billy Graham,
was led to believe that Eisenhower's parents "had been River Brethren, a
small but devoutly pious group in the Mennonite tradition." Many authors
referred to the Watchtower faith only as "fundamentalists" or
"Bible students," the latter term the Jehovah's Witnesses used only
up until 1931 (Beschloss, 1990; Knorr,
The specific nature of the religion is uncertain. The parents appear to have left the River Brethren for a more primitive and austere sect, something referred to as the Bible Students, and they would later gravitate to the evangelical sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses (Lyon, 1974:38).
Bela Kornitzer mentions only that the Eisenhower's were "Bible Students," had "fundamentalist religious beliefs" and studied "the writings of 'Pastor Russell'" but does not mention that Russell was the Watchtower founder (1955:14, 22, 32). (When Russell died in 1916 his writings were almost immediately replaced those of the new president, "Judge" J.F. Rutherford, resulting in several major schisms in the movement and their transformation into Jehovah's Witnesses).
Even works that include extensive discussions of Eisenhower's religious upbringing, such as the aforementioned Bela Kornitzer's book, discuss primarily his River Brethren religious background which had influenced Dwight primarily during his preschool years, if at all.
A Drew Pearson column stated that President Eisenhower's mother "once sold Bible tracts for the Jehovah's Witnesses," implying that she only flirted with the Witnesses and was never deeply involved (1956:6). Edmund Fuller and David Green, after claiming that Eisenhower's parents were River Brethren, noted that the President's grandfather was the Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, a Brethren minister, and that "the Eisenhower boys' religious training was strict, fundamentalist, and somewhat Puritanical. They were well schooled in Scripture" (1968:213).
Even more common is to totally omit the name of the predominant religion
that Dwight was raised in and its importance in the Eisenhower boy's formative
years (For example see Larson, 1968). In one of the most detailed histories of
Eisenhower's early life,
The Eisenhower boys' Watchtower background is not widely known or acknowledged likely also in part due to the antagonism many people had then, and still have today, against the Watchtower (Sellers, 1990). This antagonism is illustrated in the wording of a quote claiming that "late in life" Ida became, "of all things, a member of the sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses..." (Gunther, 1951:52).
Accounts of the Eisenhower family history commonly repeat the claim that Dwight's parents were River Brethren or were not directly involved with the Watchtower (Miller, 1944). Typical is a Time article that stated only that Ike's "parents were members of the River Brethren, a Mennonite sect," adding that "along with their piety, the Eisenhower's gave their sons a creed of self-starting individualism" (Time, Apr. 4, 1969:20). Another account claims that Eisenhower's parents were members of a Protestant sect called the River Brethren and brought up their children in an old-fashioned atmosphere of puritanical morals. Prayer and Bible reading were a daily part of their lives. Violence was forbidden, though in a family of six boys the edict was a bit hard to enforce (Whitney, 1967:311).
Why the Eisenhower Boys Tried to Hide their Watchtower Past
According to Pearson, when confronted with his religious ancestry, David Eisenhower looked for a
delicate way to clear the family name of this affiliation. He is sensitive about the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in saluting the flag or serving under arms. At the same time, he doesn't want to appear prejudiced against any religious sect. Both Ike and his brother, Milton, have discussed the problem with spiritual advisors. But they haven't quite figured out how to disclaim Ida Eisenhower's relations with the Jehovah's Witnesses without offending the sect and perhaps stirring up charges of religious prejudice (Pearson, 1956:6).
Pearson also adds the often repeated claim that "Ida was influenced in her old age by a nurse who belonged to the sect. Being Bible-minded, old Mrs. Eisenhower cheerfully agreed to help the Jehovah's Witnesses peddle Bible tracts. Actually, both of Dwight's parents were staunch members of a small sect called River Brethren" (Pearson, 1956:6). Ironically in a Drew Pearson column published only three months earlier, Jack Anderson said, "Ike is strangely sensitive about his parents' religion. They were Jehovah's Witnesses, though the authorized biographies call them 'River Brethren....'
Both Dwight and his brother Milton checked the manuscript of Bela Kornitzer's book, 'Story of
the Five Eisenhower Brothers.' Afterward
Though Time magazine claimed Ida Stover Eisenhower was a member of
the River Brethren, a Mennonite sect, Time was merely continuing its consistent
policy of slander in all that pertains to Jehovah's witnesses. She was never a
River Brethren. She was one of Jehovah's witnesses.
The first study in the Watchtower magazine in
Kornitzer specifically endeavored to determine the source of Dwight Eisenhower's "greatness," concluding that it came from his family and their values. In Dwight's words, his mother was "deeply religious," and he once stated that his mother
had gravitated toward a local group known as The Bible Class. In this group, which had no church minister, she was happy. Sunday meetings were always held in the homes of members, including ours. The unusual program of worship included hymns, for which mother played the piano, and prayers, with the rest of the time devoted to group discussion of a selected chapter of the Bible (1967:305)..
Although the group preferred the label Bible Students before 1931, when they met they usually did not study the Bible but primarily Watchtower publications.
In the early 1900s the study focus was a set of books called Studies in the Scriptures written by C.T. Russell and his wife, and also the current issues of The Watchtower magazine. Although the Eisenhower boys usually skirted around the issue of their religious upbringing, Dwight Eisenhower once openly acknowledged that the group his parents were involved with was the Jehovah's Witnesses:
there was, eventually, a kind of loose association with similar groups throughout the country ... chiefly through a subscription to a religious periodical, The Watchtower. After I left home for the Army, these groups were drawn closer together and finally adopted the name of Jehovah's Witnesses (1967:305).
Eisenhower then adds, "They were true conscientious objectors to war. Though none of her sons could accept her conviction in this matter, she refused to try to push her beliefs on us just as she refused to modify her own" (1967:305). Conversely Dwight's mother was not happy about her sons violation of Watchtower beliefs especially their attitudes toward war.
Many reporters termed Dwight's mother "a religious pacifist" (for example see Life Magazine, 1969) as Dwight did. The Watchtower has established in the courts that they are not pacifists but conscientious objectors, opposed only to wars initiated and carried out by humans. The Watchtower teaches that involvement in war, except those that God wants us to fight, is not only a violation of God's law that "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shall love thy neighbor" but is also wrong because Watchtower doctrine considers it an improper use of time in these last days before Armageddon. They taught their followers to be dedicated to converting others before the end, which since the late 1800s has been taught by the Watchtower to be "just around the corner." They are in their words "conditional pacifists" although the Watchtower often argues against all war on pacifist grounds. In Dwight's words, his mother "was opposed to militarism because of her religious beliefs" (Kornitzer, 1955:87).
Jehovah's Witnesses then also eschewed all political involvement because
they felt--and still teach today--that the soon-to-be-established
Often Ida's alleged pacifism is given as the reason for her opposition to
Ike's military career when the actual reason was Watchtower theology. An
example was her reaction to his leaving for
. . . mother and twelve-year-old brother Milton
were the only family members there to see him off. His mother was unable to say
Alden Hatch, after recounting the consternation Ida had over Dwight
Both Ida and David, but especially Ida, were avid readers of The
Watchtower, and at the time of Ida's death there was a fifty-year
collection in the house on
The neighbor was Mrs. James L. Thayer, one of the women that originally converted Mrs. Eisenhower. The disposal of Dwight's parent's Watchtower literature, charts and other Watchtower items was only one indication of the many conflicts the Eisenhower boys likely experienced over their parent's esoteric religion. These conflicts may be one reason why none of them ever became involved in the Watchtower or even a fundamentalist church.
Another account illustrates the press' tendency to avoid revealing the
Eisenhower parents' Watchtower involvement. When Ike graduated from
Why were the Eisenhower's (and the press) so reticent about honestly revealing the religion of their parents? One reason is revealed in an article published in the official Watchtower magazine called Awake!
As for the pallbearers. The American
Legion particularly, and also the Veterans of Foreign Wars, are repeatedly
ringleaders in mob violence against Jehovah's witnesses. Hundreds of instances
could be cited, but illustrative is the one occurring the Sunday before Mrs.
Eisenhower's death, in near-by
Unfortunately, this article did not discuss how the Watchtower's teachings and policy on military service, education and involvement in "false religion" contributed to the conflicts noted in the above quote. Dwight's religious orientation as an adult was described as "moderate and tolerant, simple and firm," quite in contrast to the confrontative, pugnacious Watchtower sect of the first half of this century (Fox, 1969:907).
Other reasons for the press' and the Eisenhower boys' lack of honesty about
their Watchtower background include embarrassment over the Watchtower's
opposition to the flag salute and all patriotic activities, vaccinations and
medicine in general, the
germ theory and their advocating many ineffectual medical "cures"
radio solar pads, radiesthesia, radionics,
iridiagnosis, the grape cure, and their staunch
opposition to the use of aluminum
cooking utensils and Fluoridation of drinking water. Dwight Eisenhower had
good reasons to hide his Watchtower background when he ran for president.
Both Eisenhower and Stevenson were vigorously challenged by some
Protestant[s]...for their religious ties. The association of
Eisenhower's mother with the Jehovah's Witnesses was exploited to make the GOP
candidate appear as an "anti-Christian cultist" and a "foe of
The thesis that the Eisenhower boys were embarrassed by their parents' Watchtower involvement is supported by the problem which developed when the Watchtower tried to exploit Mrs. Eisenhower's name for their advantage. One reason for the Eisenhower boys' concern was because Jehovah's Witnesses were generally scorned by most churches and society in general, especially at the turn of the century. Virtually no college-educated people were members, and the education level even today is still extremely low, among the lowest of all religious denominations (Cosmin and Lachman, 1993). A problem that the Eisenhower boys faced in the 1940s, according to Edgar Eisenhower, was that "the deep, sincere and even evangelical religious fervor" of their mother was used by the Watchtower "to exploit her in her old age" (Kornitzer, 1955:139).
This concern prompted Edgar to write a letter in 1944 to the Jehovah's Witness who was caring for his mother when she was 82. As was the practice then for all members, young and old--and as Jehovah's Witnesses today are well known for-- Witnesses go from door-to-door and "witness" on the street corners, primarily by selling their literature. Edgar evidently felt that the Eisenhower name was being exploited in this work and objected to his mother "being taken out of the home and used for the purpose of distributing [Watchtower] religious literature" (Kornitzer, 1955:139). Edgar added that he was "willing to fight" for his mother's "right to continue to believe as she saw fit, but ... she could be easily and mistakenly influenced in performing any service which would be represented to her as helpful to the advancement of religious beliefs" of the Watchtower (Kornitzer, 1955:139). His concern was that his mother should no longer
be taken from place to place and exhibited as the mother of General Eisenhower--solely for the purpose of attempting to influence anyone [to accept the Watchtower beliefs] ... I want mother shielded and protected and not exposed or exhibited ... mother's home should be maintained solely for her intimate friends and relatives and ... no stranger should be permitted to live in the house regardless of who he may be ... (Kornitzer, 1955:139).
This problem was eventually solved by removing the Jehovah's Witness who was then caring for Ida Eisenhower, Naomi Engle, a lifelong friend and certainly no stranger to Ida, from Ida's home and replacing her with a Mrs. Robinson, a non-Witness. Would Edgar have objected if Ida was allowed to use the Eisenhower name for a cause such as education, health or even a church such as the Lutherans or Methodists? Part of what he likely objected to was what he felt was the Watchtower exploiting her to spread a set of beliefs that he and his brothers firmly and openly disagreed with, i.e., the Watchtower Millennial theology.
Did Ida Eisenhower Die a Jehovah's Witness?
When researching Eisenhower's religion "Since so little original documentation exists, most historians have relied on interviews with persons who knew David and Ida" (Branigar 1994:1). Of the large amount of information available, one has to determine which conclusions were historically accurate--sometimes no easy task. One of the most reliable sources is Gladys Dodd's thesis because she used scores of personal interviews with the family, many of whom she was personally acquainted with, to study the religious background of the Eisenhower family in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, some Watchtower sources are questionable.
Dr. Holt, the director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower library in
The source of this information was Mrs. Robinson, who became Ida's nurse
after Engle's dismissal. She claimed that Engle and another Witness conned Ida to
write her name several times on a blank sheet of paper under the pretense of
giving her "practice." According to Mrs. Robinson, the most legible
signature was then physically cut from the sheet and pasted on the bottom of
the letter to Mr. Boeckel which was not written by
Mrs. Eisenhower but by Engle. Endacott concluded
Engle had "more loyalty to the Witnesses" than to the Eisenhower's to
whom she was distantly related. Later "in one of her lucid moments Ida
told Mrs. Robinson what had happened and gave the sheet with the cut out name
to her. When the Eisenhower foundation took over the home, Mrs. Robinson told
me the story and gave me the sheet which I still have" (
This letter she allegedly
wrote was to a Richard Boeckel, a young man who
had become a Jehovah's Witness while still in the army (Boeckel,
1980). In August of 1944 Boeckel attended a
Watchtower assembly in
A friend returning from the United Announcers Convention of Jehovah's
Witnesses, informs me of meeting you there. I rejoice with you in your
privilege of attending such convention. It has been my good fortune in the
years gone by to attend these meetings of those faithfully proclaiming the name
of Jehovah and his glorious kingdom which shortly now will pour out its rich
blessings all over the earth. My friend informs me of your desire to have a
word from General Eisenhower's mother whom you have been told is one of the
witnesses of Jehovah. I am indeed such and what a glorious privilege it has
been in associating with [other Witnesses]. . . . Generally I have
refused such requests because of my desire to avoid all publicity. However,
because you are a person of good will towards Jehovah God and His glorious
Theocracy I am very happy to write you. . . . It was always my desire and my
effort to raise my boys in the knowledge of and to reverence their Creator. My
prayer is that they all may anchor their hope in the
To encourage Boeckel to accept Watchtower
doctrines, the letter mentioned several current events which the Watchtower
then taught was evidence that Armageddon would occur very soon, concluding that
"Surely this portends that very soon the glorious Theocracy, the long
promised kingdom of Jehovah...will rule the entire earth and pour out manifold
blessings upon all peoples who are of good will towards Him. All others will be
removed [killed at Armageddon]. Again, may I urge your ever faithfulness to
these 'Higher Powers' and to the
This Ida Eisenhower letter, Endacott concluded, was "not in the words of Ida, who at the
time could hardly write her own name" and evidentially she was not always
mentally alert although her physical health was good. Her memory started to fail
soon after her husband died and was at times so poor that she could not even
remember her own son's names (Eisenhower, 1974:188). Furthermore, this letter
is very well written quite in contrast to the letter she wrote in her
own hand dated 1943 (see Cole 1955). When the Eisenhower sons found out
about this event (evidentially a reporter published the letter putatively
written by Ida Eisenhower to Mr. Boeckel) and other
similar incidences, they wrote to Engle exploiting Ida (Kornitzer
1955). The letter was evidentially ignored by Engle and then
It would appear that Richard Boeckel would immediately be suspicious when he received the letter with Mrs. Eisenhower's signature obviously taped on it. He should have confirmed that the letter was genuine before he made claims about receiving a letter from Ida Eisenhower. His story and a photo reproduction of the letter was published in Marley Cole's book Jehovah's Witnesses and other sources, and Boeckel repeated the claims about the letter in his life story published in the October 15, 1980 Watchtower. At the minimum, the Watchtower Society, Mr. Boeckel, and Marley Cole have unethically presented a letter as genuine evidentially without verification. If Mrs. Eisenhower's letter is verified to be valid, the allegations that her letter is a forgery should be squashed. So far the Watchtower has not answered several inquiries about this matter. The Eisenhower museum has agreed to pay for a handwriting expert to examine the letter, but all attempts to obtain the cooperation of the Watchtower have so-far failed.
Merle Miller related an experience involving Boeckel and this letter which reveals the irony of Eisenhower's mother's faith:
. . . one time when Boeckel
refused, as a good Witness must, to salute his superior officers at
Suspicion that the letter was a forgery is also supported by a Watchtower teaching called The Theocratic Warfare Doctrine. The Theocratic Warfare doctrine essentially teaches that it is appropriate to withhold the truth from "people who are not entitled to it" to further the Watchtower's interests (Reed, 1992; Franz, 1971:1060-1061). Reed defines Theocratic War Strategy as the approval to lie "to outsiders when deemed necessary" and also to deceive outsiders to advance the Watchtower's interests (Reed, 1995:40). In the words of Kotwall the Watchtower teaches that "to lie and deceive in the interest of their religion is Scripturally approved" (Kotwall, 1997:1). Jehovah's Witnesses do not always lie outright, but they often lie according to the court's definition--not telling "the whole truth and nothing but the truth," which means the court requires the whole story, not half-truths or deception (Bergman 1998). In the words of Raines, theocratic warfare in practice means "deceiving" to protect and advance the interests of "God's people" especially God's "organization the Watchtower" (Raines, 1996:20).
Nonetheless I found no evidence that either parent was not a devoted Watchtower adherent when the Eisenhower boys were raised. If Mrs. Eisenhower's allegiance to the Watchtower waned as she got older, this would not affect the fact that her boys were raised as Witnesses, but would help us to better understand Ida Eisenhower.
In conclusion, Ida probably did not resign from the Witnesses and still saw herself as one. The reasons for concluding Ida Eisenhower mailed other letters at about the same time that she allegedly mentioned her Witness commitment to Boeckel include a handwritten letter to fellow Witness Mrs. H. I. Lawson of Long Island, N.Y., in 1943 (Cole, 1955). Although this letter could be a forgery as well, no one has voiced this concern yet.
New York Times,
In addition, a front page Wichita Beacon (April 1943) article about
Ida's Watchtower assembly attendance gave no indication that she was then
disenchanted with Jehovah's Witnesses. The article stated that "the 82
year old mother of
Conversely, some hints exists that Mrs. Eisenhower's loyalty to the
Watchtower, in contrast to the common perception, waned as she grew older. All
of her sons left the Watchtower, as did her husband, all whom became opposed to
many of their teachings. Furthermore, when J. F. Rutherford became the
Watchtower president in 1916, their teachings changed drastically.
On the other hand, very good reasons existed for the Eisenhower family to
attempt to distance themselves from the Watchtower--reasons which were made
clear by some of Eisenhower's opponents, some evidently who planned to use this
information to hurt Eisenhower's political career. As noted above,
The Charge that Dwight was Irreligious
Although the Eisenhower brothers tried to conceal their Watchtower background, they did not hide the fact that their home environment was dominated with "Biblically literalistic" values and because "all" the Eisenhower children were "fundamentalists" the Bible was for them the
. . . one authoritative guide, read every morning at family prayers, quoted again and again when family decisions were in the making. Both father and mother could quote the Bible for any occasion and almost from beginning to end.... They owned a concordance, but the sons remember that on the rare occasion when reference to it became necessary both parents were almost furtive in seeking its aid (Hutchinson, 1954:364).
Ida and David Eisenhower's religious beliefs clearly influenced their children, and their "unorthodox if not eccentric" religious views were not forced upon them. Neal claims that in violation to Watchtower policy the Eisenhower boys were "encouraged to reach their own conclusions," regarding religion and this may have influenced them to have "later joined more conventional Protestant denominations ..." (Neal, 1984:13). Neal concluded that by setting high standards and teaching the value of high moral principles, their parents had given their sons a "quiet strength" (Neal, 1984:13).
Dwight Eisenhower and his brothers, as is true of about half of those who are raised in the Watchtower sect, left when they became adults--yet they were no doubt influenced by the Watchtower belief structure and many of its ideals. As is true of many persons raised Witnesses, though, they could not accept many of the Watchtower's major theological teachings. One of the primary Watchtower beliefs that the Eisenhower boys evidently did accept later in life was the value of the Bible. Dwight Eisenhower once stated "if each of us in his own mind would dwell upon the simple virtues--integrity, courage, self-confidence, and unshakable faith in his Bible--would not some of our problems tend to simplify themselves?" (Fuller and Green, 1968:216).
A major part of Jehovah's Witness doctrine is a required belief in creationism. The first book that they published against evolution was the 1898 work The Bible Versus the Evolution Theory and the most recent book they published on this topic was in 1985 called Life--How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or By Creation? The latter book was published in 27 languages and as of 1999 had a total printing of over 30 million copies. This teaching may have influenced certain statements Eisenhower made such as
We are a religious nation today because in the Declaration of
Dwight then cites a number of times where he turned to God, and the events that occurred after he did so lent evidence to his conclusion that in his opinion he believed God intervened in response to his prayer. Specifically during his World War II campaigns, Dwight constantly asked for "God's guidance in making the right decision," and during the eight years which he was president he "never opened a cabinet meeting without a minute of silent prayer" (Quoted in Gamman, 1969:3). Of course how sincere his outward display of piety was is difficult to judge.
As is also true of many Witness children, the Eisenhower children could not accept the Watchtower teaching that it is a waste of time to obtain a college education or pursue a career because this experience may damage ones faith and also because the end of the world was expected any day. Nor could they accept the Watchtower teaching that all world events are strictly under God's control, and it is futile to try to interfere with them because life and world affairs are like a movie script that has already been written and can be played out only accordingly to the script.
A major motivation to hide their Witness background was likely an attempt to overcome the stigma of being raised in a fundamentalist sect, yet Dwight repeatedly stated that he accepted many of his parents' beliefs. In Dwight's words, "We boys are all religious but we don't go around saying 'I am a religious man' any more than we would say, 'I am an honest man,' or 'I am a clean man,' ..." (Miller 1987: 77) John Bonnell put it this way: "To the very close of his life Dwight Eisenhower carried in his mind and heart the indelible imprint of his parents' religion" (1971:219). Merlin Gustafson claims that one evidence of this imprint was that, "within a few months" after taking the oath of office, Eisenhower was popularly known as the "most religious President in our history." Examples of Eisenhower's religious actions that earned him this title include:
He helped sponsor a nationwide moral crusade and religious revival, and in general he sought to encourage the cause of American religious interests. During his administration the highly publicized Prayer Breakfasts were begun and "Under God" was placed in the pledge of allegiance to the flag. He proclaimed Days of Prayer for the nation, backed the organization known as Foundation for Religious Action and invited Billy Graham and other prominent religious leaders to the White House. And he delivered hundreds of messages, both written and oral, to religious organizations (1969:610-613).
Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency was said by one author to have been a crusade for "moral and religious" goals (Gustafson, 1969:612). The reticence of the Eisenhower's to honestly reveal their religious background also produced a number of ironies. Many of those who attacked Eisenhower did so on the grounds that he "never joined a church until after he became President" implying that his Sunday worship as President "smacked of hypocrisy" (Fuller and Green, 1968:218). Although most of Eisenhower's adult years "were spent outside organized religion" and he was 63 before he formally joined a church, his behavior, personal statements and beliefs on religion must be carefully evaluated before judging him in this area (Dodd, 1963:233).
"My friends, before I begin the expression of those thoughts that I deem appropriate . . . [to] ask that you bow your heads." Low exclamations of surprise rippled along the press tables, for this prayer was not a scheduled part of the program. Turning the "inaugural platform into an alter of worship," the President, the first ever to open his inaugural address with a plea for divine guidance, addressed his first words, not to the nation, but to God. . . . the prayer, which he had composed himself . . . was as follows: "Almighty God . . . my future associates in the executive branch of the Government join me in beseeching that Thou wilt make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people . . . regardless of station, race, or calling. May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concept of our Constitution, hold to differing political beliefs, so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and for Thy glory. Amen" (Dodd, 1959:1-2).
Eisenhower also ardently defended the convictions of his parents even though he disagreed with many of them. This conclusion is apparent in a letter that Eisenhower mailed during the last week of one of his major World War II campaigns. Dictated to his brother Arthur on May 18, the letter is a response to a story about his mother's Jehovah's Witness faith, stressing her alleged "pacifism" and the irony of Mrs. Eisenhower's son being a general (Ambrose, 1970:187). Eisenhower ignored the claim that Jehovah's Witnesses are pacifists and simply told Arthur that his mother's happiness in her religion "means more to me than any damn wise crack that a newspaper man can get publicized" (Miller, 1987:79). His respect for his mother is also vividly revealed in his words:
I should like so much to be with my Mother these few days. But we're at war. And war is not soft, it has no time to indulge even the deepest and most sacred emotions. I loved my Dad. I think my Mother [is] the finest person I've ever known. She has been the inspiration for Dad's life and a true helpmeet [sic] in every sense of the word (Eisenhower, 1981:50-51).
The value that Dwight most strongly developed later in his life which may have had its roots in his mother's religion was his strong opposition to war as a solution to human conflicts. He even stated he doubted that people who hated war because of academic or dogmatic reasons detested it as much he did:
I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as only one who has seen
its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.... War is the least acceptable
solution of our problems.... War settles nothing." He stated the same
conviction in an address at
One reason that he detested war, he stated, was because his military career forced him to experience "bodies rotting on the ground," smell " decaying human flesh," and to visit field hospitals where he was exposed to "desperately wounded" war victims. Dwight added that although he hated war, he hated the Nazis even more.
Nor did Ida cut her son off because he became part of the military. Watchtower policy until recently requires the disfellowshipping of all members who allow themselves to be involved in the military, even as an employee for a war armament plant.
In spite of her son's violation of Watchtower norms, Ida evidently never
shunned him as Watchtower policy required. For example, in 1913, after
attending a Witness convention in
One explanation for this special treatment is that shunning was then not as rigidly enforced as today. Another is that after Dwight became a general, Ida may have been given special consideration due to her son's prominence. As late as 1943 she was still a Witness in good standing--as shown by the 1943 picture of her on the front page of the Wichita Beacon that documented her involvement in a Witness assembly in that city (Fleming, 1955:1).
Probably the most incongruous example of special treatment was Ida's funeral
service which was conducted by Witnesses, yet was officiated by a lieutenant
colonel. Ida Eisenhower died on
Although Dwight Eisenhower stated that his mother was highly "individualistic" and "not able to accept the dogma of any specific sect or denomination," Miller notes that "that is what Eisenhower wanted to believe and perhaps at times actually did, but Ida herself contradicted it" (Miller, 1987:78). The Witnesses are required to rigidly conform to the Watchtower beliefs, and little deviance is allowed even in what most people regard as very minor areas of life. Violation of this requirement results in total cutting off, and not even Witness relatives can normally associate with those who are disfellowshipped.
Note: I wish to thank Barbara Dury,
Associate Producer of 60 Minutes, for the initial impetus to complete this
study, and the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library staff in
Public domain photos from the Dwight
D. Eisenhower Library,
Ambrose, Stephen E. The Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1970.
_________. Eisenhower: 1893-1952.
Anderson, Jack. "Is His Vote Record Related To Payroll?" Merry-Go-Round
Bergman, Jerry. "The Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses Branch of
_________. The Theocratic Warfare Doctrine: Why Jehovah's Witnesses Lie
Beschloss, Michael R. Eisenhower, A Centennial Life.
Boeckel, Richard A. "A Soldier who Became a Preacher" The Watchtower ( Oct. 15, 1980), 24-29.
Bonnell, John Sutherland. Presidential Profiles; Religion in the Life of American Presidents. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971).
Branigar, Thomas. Letter to the author,
Cole, Marley. Jehovah's Witnesses, The
Barry A. and
Dodd, Gladys. The Religious Background of the
Eisenhower Family. Bachelor of Divinity Thesis,
Nazarene Theology Seminary,
_________. "The Early Career of Abraham L. Eisenhower, Pioneer
_________. Letter from author dated
Endacott, J. Earl. Records, Documentary
Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease, Stories I tell to Friends Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1967.
_________. The Eisenhower Diaries (Robert H. Fervell, Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1981.
Eisenhower, Milton S. The President is Calling GardenCity, New York: Doubleday, 1974.
Fleming, Helen. "Ike's Mom Jehovah Witness 50 yrs., Say group leaders;
preacher from door to door in Abilene, Director reports."
Ford, Edward , Jr. correspondence to author dated Sept. 1995.
Fox, Frederick. "Pro Ike." Christian
Franz, Frederick (Ed.). Aid to Bible Understanding.
________. Jehovah's Witnesses; Proclaimers
of God's Kingdom.
Freese, Arthur. "Man of the 20th century" (Interview with Milton Eisenhower) Modern Maturity. Dec-Jan., 1975 17(6):25-28).
Fuller, Edmund and David E. Green. God in the
White House; The Faiths of American Presidents .
Gammon, Roland (Ed.). Eisenhower speech reprinted
in (Roland Gammon Ed.) All Believers Are Brothers.
Graham, Billy. Just As I Am; The Autobiography of Billy Graham. (San Francisco: Harper 1997), chapter 12 "The General who Became President" 188 - 206.
Gunther, John. Eisenhower, The Man and the Symbol. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1951.
Gustafson, Merlin. "Religion of a President."
Christian Century. (
Hatch, Alden. General Ike; A
Biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Hendon, David and James Kennedy. "Civil Religion" Journal of Church and State. 391 39 (2) 1997, 390-391.
Hutchinson, Paul. "The President's religious
faith," Christian Century.
Henshel, Milton G. Chicago Daily News.
Jameson, Henery B. "Ike buried in
_________. "Eisenhower book stirs a controversy: conceals fact that parents were Jehovah's Witnesses." Awake! ( Sept. 22, 1955. 36(18), 3-4.
_________. "Appreciated Parents" Awake! Ap. 22, 1975, 56(8):30.
_________. "Conspiracy against Jehovah's name" Watchtower
Kornitzer, Bela. The
Great American Heritage; The Story of the Five
Kotwall, B. J. "The Watchtower Society
Encourages Lying." The Investigator Magazine
Larson, Arthur. Eisenhower; The President Nobody
Lyon, Peter. Eisenhower; Portrait of the Hero.
McCullun, John Six Roads From
Miller, Francis Trevelyn. Eisenhower, Man and Soldier. (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1944)
Miller, Merle. Ike the Soldier; As They Knew Him.
Neal, Steve. The Eisenhower's.
Nevin, David. "Home to
Pearson, Drew. "Eisenhower's seek to clear mother of affiliation with
religious sect." Merry-Go-Round in the
Pickett, William. Dwight David Eisenhower and American
Raines, Ken. "Deception by JWs
Reed, David. "Court Rules; Watchtower Booklet Recommends 'Untrue' Testimony Under Oath." Comments from the Friends, Spring, 1992.
_______. Dictionary of J.W. eez: The Loaded Language Jehovah's Witnesses Speak. (Assonet, MA.: Comments from the Friends, 1995): 40.
Russell, Charles Taze. Studies in the
Scriptures; Series III, Thy Kingdom Come Chapter 10, "The Testimony of
God's Stone Witness and Prophet, The Great Pyramid in
________. Studies in the Scriptures; Series I, The Plan of the Ages .
Rutherford, Joseph. "The Alter in
Sellers, Ron. How Americans View Various Religious Groups. Report by Barna Research Group, 1990
Sider, Morris E. . Archivist for the Brethren in
Taylor, Allan (Ed.). What Eisenhower Thinks.
Time Eisenhower: Soldier of peace."
Time "I Chose My Way."
Whitney, David C. The American Presidents. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1967.
Watchtower Publication Awake! "Should Christians be
Pacifists" (May 8, 1997, 78(9): 22-23); "Why Jehovah's Witnesses are
not Pacifists" and "Pacifism and Conscientious Objection - is there a
difference?" 73 - 81 The Watchtower (