Nearer, My God, to Thee by Holly Burke

There are days when it’s good to take a breather from current politics and world affairs and look back at other occupants of the White House such as the twenty-fifth resident—William McKinley. Holly Burke gives us a glimpse into McKinley’s life and death.

President William McKinley was a man of profound Christian faith. He prayed, read the Bible daily, faithfully attended church throughout his life, participated in the ministry of the Methodist church and other Christian organizations, supported missions, displayed genuine compassion for others, frequently testified to his Christian convictions in both public and private, and believed that God directed the course of history and his own life.

 As a Union soldier during the Civil War, the young man wrote in his diary:

“Fall in a good cause and hope to fall in the arms of my blessed Redeemer. This record I want left behind, that I not only fell as a soldier for my Country, but also as a Soldier of Jesus Christ. [His family and friends would be comforted with the solace] that if we never meet again on earth, we will meet around God’s throne in heaven. Let my fate be what it may, I want to be ready and prepared.”

Following the war, McKinley studied law and settled in Canton, Ohio, where he met and married Ida Saxton. The couple had two daughters, one of whom died at age three and the other at four months. Devastated, Ida never recovered from these losses and soon developed epilepsy. McKinley remained a devoted husband to her for the rest of his life. Ida declared in a 1901 interview that few could understand “what it is like to have a wife sick, complaining, always an invalid for twenty-five years, seldom a day well … and yet never a word of unkindness has ever passed his lips. He is just the same tender, thoughtful, kind gentleman I knew when first he came and sought my hand.” According to the Presbyterian Banner, McKinley’s love for his wife was “almost proverbial throughout the nation.”

In 1876, the aspiring politician was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, an office he would hold for the next fourteen years. He then ran for governor of Ohio in 1891, winning by a comfortable margin. While campaigning for governor, McKinley stated, “I pray to God every day to give me strength to do this work, and I believe He will do it!” Two years later, he was reelected governor by an overwhelming majority. In 1896, the Republican National Convention nominated McKinley for president on the first ballot. The governor conducted his entire campaign from his front porch in Canton, giving more than 300 speeches to an estimated 750,000 visitors. In a hotly contested race, McKinley beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan by a margin of about 600,000 votes. He humbly invoked God’s direction in his first inaugural address: “Our faith teaches that there is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers, who has so singularly favored the American people in every national trial, and who will not forsake us so long as we obey His commandments and walk humbly in His footsteps.” On another occasion, he declared, “The greatest discovery a man or a nation can make is to find the truth of God’s Word. More to be prized is it than the discovery of continents, than the discovery of gold mines, than the marvelous discoveries being made in the physical and scientific laboratories of the day. When a man truly gives himself to the study of the Bible he discovers it to be God’s great love story to man. The more profoundly we study this wonderful Book, and the more clearly we observe its divine precepts, the better citizens we will become and the higher will be our destiny as a nation.”

Biblical principles and his personal Christian convictions clearly guided McKinley throughout his presidency. His oath to faithfully execute the office of president was “reverently taken before the Lord Most High. To keep it will be my single purpose, my constant prayer.” Less than a year into McKinley’s first term, a series of complex diplomatic challenges with Spain tested his foreign policy. On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Outraged at the loss of American lives, Congress, the press, and much of the American public constantly pressured the president to declare war. Because McKinley had lived through the gruesome battlefields of the Civil War, he approached the situation with caution. The president quietly explored several other alternatives, including the purchase of Cuba from Spain and allowing Spain to maintain token sovereignty over the island. Both proposals were refused. On April 23, Spain declared war against the United States. Two days later, Congress responded with a declaration of war on Spain.

The conflict itself lasted a little over three short months. After a decisive American victory at the Battle of Santiago, McKinley issued a proclamation of thanksgiving: “[We] should reverently bow before the throne of divine grace and give devout praise to God, who holds the nations in the hollow of His hands and worketh upon them the marvels of His high will, and who has thus far vouchsafed to us the light of His face and led our brave soldiers and seamen to victory.” On August 12, 1898, the United States ratified an armistice with Spain. In December, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war. Under the agreement, Puerto Rico and Guam became American territories, and the Philippines was purchased for a sum of $20 million. The president justified annexation of the Philippines “to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”

Devoid of personal bigotry, McKinley enjoyed a very cordial relationship with both Protestant and American Catholics during his administration. In November 1899, the president hosted the General Missionary Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was praised as “a Christian gentleman, … a devoted husband, and a God-fearing American statesman” who was “actuated by lofty motives.” John Ireland, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St. Paul, paid tribute to McKinley after his assassination: “I knew him closely; I esteemed him; I loved him. He was a true man, honest, pure of morals, generous, conscientious, religious.” Although the political realities of the time prevented McKinley from alleviating the plight of Southern blacks, he stood for racial equality and justice. The Ohioan declared, “Our black allies must neither be forsaken nor deserted. I weigh my words. This is the great question not only of the present, but is the great question of the future; and this question will never be settled until it is settled upon principles of justice, recognizing the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States.” On the subject of voter fraud, he asserted, “Is this system of disfranchisement to be further permitted? Is the Republican sentiment thus to be hushed in the South, and how long? … I answer, No, No! but that the whole power of the Federal Government must be exhausted in securing to every citizen, black or white, rich or poor, everywhere within the limits of the Union, every right, civil and political, guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws…”

In the 1900 presidential election, McKinley stood on an indisputable record of national prosperity and successful foreign diplomacy. Despite the extensive campaign travels of his Democratic rival, William Jennings Bryan, the incumbent received 292 electoral votes to Bryan’s 155. It was the largest margin of victory in thirty years, a testament to the American people’s confidence in McKinley and his capabilities.

Six months into his second term, tragedy struck. On September 6, 1901, while greeting visitors at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, the beloved president was shot twice at point-blank range. His assassin was Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. The Presbyterian Banner reported that after being shot, McKinley’s “thoughts went out in tenderness to his wife, in forgiveness to his enemy, and in unselfish regard for the public interest.”

One of the bullets ricocheted off the president’s jacket and landed in a pocket, but the other penetrated his stomach walls. At the Exposition hospital, surgeons carefully operated on the injury. While a doctor administered ether to sedate McKinley, the wounded man murmured the Lord’s Prayer. After much gentle probing, the surgeons determined that they couldn’t locate the bullet and closed the wound. McKinley was then moved to the home of John G. Milburn, the chairman of the exposition. Throughout his ordeal, McKinley remained calm, cheerful and patient. All who visited the president were impressed by his serenity. An anxious nation waited and prayed. By Thursday, he seemed to be recovering. Unbeknownst to the doctors, gangrene had been slowly creeping along the path of the bullet. Early the next morning, McKinley suffered a collapse. Around 7:40 p.m., he asked to see his wife. In his final conscious moments, the fervent Christian quoted a few lines from his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” His last words were, “Good-bye all, good-bye. It is God’s way. His will, not ours, be done.” At 2:15 a.m. on Saturday, September 14, 1901, President McKinley surrendered his soul to the Savior he had so loved.

Sorrow engulfed the country. Thousands of mourners lined the railroad tracks from Buffalo to Washington, many of whom broke into spontaneous renditions of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in McKinley’s honor. At the Capitol, thousands more viewed the fallen president’s casket as it lay in state. Two public funerals were held at the Capitol and the First Methodist Church in Canton. Charles Manchester, McKinley’s pastor, declared in his eulogy that McKinley was a Christian “in the broadest, noblest sense of the word… He had gained in early life a personal knowledge of Jesus, which guided him in the performance of greater duties … than … any other American President.” Indeed, he had affirmed that he was only able to faithfully discharge his duties because of his faith in God.

“Where he found distrust, he left faith; where he found strife, he left peace; where he found bitterness, he left love; where he found an open wound, he poured his dissolving life as a precious ointment to soothe and heal,” wrote journalist Harry S. Edwards. Ministers challenged Americans to examine their own spiritual state in view of McKinley’s sudden death. Methodist bishop Edwin Andrews emphasized that the president “based his hope on Jesus Christ, the appointed and only Redeemer of men...” Perhaps McKinley’s life is best summed up in his own words: “[A]ll a man can hope for during his lifetime [is] to set an example, and when he is dead, to be an inspiration for history.”