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The Christian Facing Death: American History, President William McKinley

July 31, 2019 3 comments

My summer reading has included a light yet interesting American history title, Walter Lord’s The Good Years: From 1900 to the First World War, published in 1960.  I’ve liked all of Lord’s history books so far (he is probably best known for his work on the Titanic, but others include the Alamo and the Escape from Dunkirk in 1940), engaging accounts of several American history events that include the many viewpoints of the people involved.  What I found of particular interest in this book are the accounts of the U.S. Presidents during these years, starting with a brief look at McKinley’s last days, through the Roosevelt years to the end with Woodrow Wilson – these men, their faith and religious views.

Though lesser known than America’s Founding Fathers, articles about these men still show up in Christian blogs, such as several from the Gospel Coalition over the past three years:

The chapters in Walter Lord’s book address specific events, and the various Presidents within the context of these events, including their professed faith.  Theodore Roosevelt was a very moral/law focused president who always saw the political/legal issues of his day from “his own view” of what was right and wrong.  Woodrow Wilson had been the president of Princeton University and described by Lord as a Calvinist (“that inflexible Calvinist streak that ran so deeply in him”).  Very little is said of one-term President Taft, and nothing of his religion; he was a Unitarian.  From additional information online, it turns out that Wilson was from the Presbyterian tradition but a theological liberal, and Roosevelt was ecumenical to the point of including people of other beliefs within his definition of Christianity (a common trait even among early 21st century Christian-professing presidents).

William McKinley stands out as the only President from this era who made a credible Christian profession, something especially seen in how he faced his own death, glorifying God in his dying days after being shot at close range by anarchist Czolgosz.  He had a good reputation, a generally well-liked and beloved President, a very kind and pious man.  Later history has tended to overlook him, especially after his successor Theodore Roosevelt, and people in our day may disagree about his politics; his view described by Walter Lord:  On the question of annexing the Philippines, he had prayed to God for guidance, and it came to him in the night:  “There was nothing left to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and Christianize them and by God’s grace to do the very best we could by them as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died.”

The chapter on McKinley is primarily about his assassination, and here McKinley’s godly character really shows forth, as described in these excerpts from Lord’s account:

A few minutes after the shooting, when the President’s men were on the floor tackling the assassin:

Slumped in his chair, McKinley looked up at the scuffle.  Even at a time like this, he couldn’t bear to see anyone hurt.  ‘Go easy with him, boys,’ the President pleaded.

Near his death several days later:

Occasionally, McKinley murmured a few disconnected lines from ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ once or twice some phrase from a prayer.  The press polished this into an eloquent farewell:  ‘Good-bye all.  It is God’s will.  His will, not ours, be done.’  Later evidence suggests he was not so articulate, but there is no doubt that such were his thoughts.  Dr. Park, who watched the President throughout his illness, was amazed that any man could be so gentle, long after it couldn’t possibly be a pose.

‘Up to this time,’ the doctor recalled years afterward, ‘I’d never really believed that a man could be a good Christian and a good politician.’

It is the great test we all will come to:  how we face our own death; it is something that we know will be met by God’s grace, “dying grace” that is given when it is needed – yet, as Alistair Begg pointed out in a few messages in the “Hand of God: Finding His Care in All Circumstances” series, it is something we need to think about and prepare for, before we can really live, a matter we all must resolve by coming to God and the salvation He gives us in Christ.

McKinley lived the Christian life, as a successful leader, and then died well – kindness expressed that day to the man who had assassinated him, and then continued gentleness, acceptance, and trusting in God’s will for him, throughout the next several days until his death 8 days later.