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Presbyterians and the American Presidency: Honoring the 57th Presidential Inauguration

January 16, 2013

From the Executive Director...

In 1913, Presbyterian elder Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated President of the United States.  The former president of Princeton University and governor of the State of New Jersey came from a long line of Presbyterian ministers and elders.

Presbyterians Grover Cleveland (left) and Benjamin Harrison (right) ran against one another in the 1892 presidential election.

Woodrow Wilson was neither the first nor last Presbyterian to serve in the nation’s highest elected office.  Andrew Jackson, born of Scotch-Irish roots in South Carolina, worshiped at First Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee in his later years. James Buchanan was raised Presbyterian, attended various churches, and later joined a Presbyterian church after his presidency.  His successor, Abraham Lincoln, worshiped at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. but never officially joined any church.

Grover Cleveland, son of Presbyterian minister Richard Cleveland, would serve as President for two terms (1884-1888; 1892-1896) and was defeated in 1888 after his first term by Presbyterian Benjamin Harrison. Several years after he left the White House, Harrison published a book titled, This Country of Ours.  The autographed copy of the former president’s book in the PHS library reads like an expanded Sunday school lesson on morality, ethics and polity.   That should come as no surprise considering that Harrison was also a Presbyterian elder and a former Sunday school teacher.

Other American presidents had ties to the broader Reformed family. Martin Van Buren is reported to have attended a Dutch Reformed church in his home town of Kinderhook, New York.   Theodore Roosevelt had early connections with the Dutch Reformed church but later worshiped in an Episcopal church with his second wife, Edith. James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan claimed an early affiliation with the Disciples of Christ, though Reagan began worshiping in a Presbyterian church in 1963 and later joined the Bel Air Presbyterian Church after his presidency.

The last American president who worshiped in a Presbyterian church during his presidency was Dwight Eisenhower.  Prior to election, “Ike” claimed no church affiliation, though his family was River Brethren, a Mennonite sect.  Twelve days after taking the oath of office, Eisenhower was baptized, confirmed, and became a communicant member of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. After his presidency, he joined the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.