America's First Baptist President
By Timothy George
Warren Gamaliel Harding was the first Baptist to serve as President of the United States and the only Baptist president—thus far—to be a Republican. Neither Baptists nor Republicans are particularly proud of that fact these days, as Harding is generally ranked dead last among the nation’s chief executives. His name is nearly synonymous with the Teapot Dome scandal, only one of many episodes of corruption and graft in his administration—this despite the fact that he was elected in a landslide in 1920 and deeply mourned across the nation when he died suddenly of a heart attack on August 2, 1923. The museum built to honor his memory in his hometown of Marion, Ohio, has been called “the most attractive presidential memorial outside of Washington, D.C.”
Harding was reputed to be a womanizer, a facet of his character long denied by some of his defenders for lack of evidence. That defense can no longer be made. His siring of an illegitimate daughter by one of his paramours, Nan Britton, has recently been confirmed by DNA testing. Harding is said to have had trysts with Britton in the Senate Office Building before he became president and then in the White House itself—Hillary and Jackie had nothing on First Lady Florence, the dour and long-suffering wife of Harding whom he called, not so endearingly, “Duchess.”
More salacious still is the correspondence recently released by the Library of Congress between Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, an off-and-on dalliance which lasted some fifteen years. Harding was forced to pay hush money to Phillips following his election to the presidency. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood makes a movie about Harding’s affair with Carrie. “I love you more than all the world and have no hope of reward on earth or hereafter,” he wrote to her in 1910, “so precious as that in your dear arms, in your thrilling lips, in your matchless breasts, in your incomparable embrace.” It gets better . . . or worse.
Phillips was a suffragette, and there is some irony in the fact that Harding was the first president elected after women were given the right to vote. Phillips had also spent time in Berlin before World War I and was known for her pro-German sympathies during the war. Her (futile) attempt to sway Harding to oppose America’s entry into the war created friction between them and drew the attention of federal investigators. Some have suggested that Phillips herself was a German spy, but that charge remains not proved.
What can we say about Harding’s religious life and his Baptist connections? Harding’s father was a Baptist, but his mother was brought up in the Methodist tradition. When Harding was fourteen years old, she experienced a spiritual awakening at a Seventh Day Adventist camp meeting and asked her Methodist pastor to baptize her by immersion. One witness reported that “Winnie,” as young Harding was called by his family and friends, was also immersed by a Methodist preacher at this time. This would not have been unusual at a time when denominational lines were often blurred and Methodists did not insist on only one mode of baptism. When the Harding family moved from the farm to the town of Marion, Warren and his father affiliated with the Free Communion Baptist congregation there, an offshoot of the Freewill Baptist tradition, which later merged with another Baptist congregation to form Trinity Baptist Church. Harding became a deacon and served as a trustee of this church until he moved to Washington. There, he joined Calvary Baptist Church.
Thomas H. McAfee, Harding’s pastor at Trinity for several years, published an article in 1921, “President Harding as a Churchman.” McAfee presents Harding as a devout layman who was often in church on Sunday and supported the church financially. According to the Rev. McAfee, he was also an eloquent listener, an attentive worshiper, and an ardent singer of hymns whose face was often discernibly aglow with spiritual joy. On some Sundays, though, Harding seemed to have other things on his mind. On January 5, 1913, he wrote to Carrie Phillips: “Didn’t go to church today—it cost me too much last Sunday—so I got up, had a luxurious bath and donned my bathrobe in which to breakfast. Three weeks ago [the robe] touched and covered your beautiful form and that made it hallowed to me, and I wanted contact with it, to make me seem nearer to you.”
Harding was devoted to his mother Phoebe and presented her a bouquet of flowers every Sunday so long as she lived. She had chosen his middle name Gamaliel from the Bible (Acts 5:34; 22:3) in hopes that her firstborn son might become a preacher and teacher of God’s Word. However, Harding always kept his distance from the ardor of his mother’s strict biblicist faith. Unlike his siblings, he did not follow her into the Adventist tradition. The abstemious Adventist lifestyle could not accommodate Harding’s hard-drinking, high-rolling habits. He was known among some of his friends as “Wobbly Warren.” True, he came down on the politically correct side of Prohibition and supported the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment but his public posture and his private practice were quite distinct. Alice Longworth, the fastidious daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, once described presidential poker parties that took place in the White House during the early years of the Harding administration: “The study was filled with cronies, the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand—a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on desk, and spittoons alongside.” Harding, Alice said, was a “slob.”
At a time when “modernism” was becoming fashionable among Baptists and other Protestants in the North, Harding resisted any form of Christianity that was too dogmatic. Francis Russell summarized Harding’s spiritual development this way: “After his first college encounter with the doctrine of evolution, he imagined himself a free thinker, even an atheist, although he would soon relapse into a mild Baptist conformity untouched by his mother’s zeal.”
Harding certainly knew the language of Zion and could declare it with fervor. “I pledge fidelity to our country and to God,” he told the Republicans who nominated him for the presidency. At his inauguration he declared his belief in the “God-given destiny of our Republic” and took the solemn oath of office with his hand on the Old Testament text: “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Mic. 6:8). Woodrow Wilson, Harding’s pious predecessor, had grown up in a Presbyterian manse, where traditional Calvinist theology was respected. Harding’s Christianity, on the other hand, was less catechetical, less intellectual, and less demanding. Instead of a world “made safe for democracy,” he offered the country “a return to normalcy” (Harding’s own phrase), and this meant a spirituality less intense, less straight-laced. The decade of the twenties has been called “a dance between two flames.” Harding was the first president to welcome jazz musicians in the White House and the first to entertain Hollywood stars there.
Shortly before his death, Harding sent a message to the Third Congress of the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Stockholm, Sweden. Addressing himself “to my dear fellow-Baptists,” Harding expressed the hope “that we shall be able to continue in the Christian devotion and the conscious working for God. I believe with all my heart that nothing is more needed in the world today than the practical application of the spirit of Christ.”
What else Harding believed with all his heart is hard to say. Near the end of his life, Harding smoked fewer cigars, and the whiskey and brandy flowed less freely. He continued to attend his Baptist church in Washington and sought counsel from his pastor there, but he stopped going to communion, considering himself unworthy. In his more somber moments, Harding could confess a sense of self-awareness that approaches humility. “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here,” he once admitted.
Following his unexpected death in San Francisco in 1923, Harding’s casket was placed on a train for the long journey back across the country, reversing the course taken by Lincoln’s cortège in 1865, the year in which Harding was born. Herbert Hoover, who had served as Harding’s secretary of commerce, described the response of the masses who came out to mourn their stricken president:
Crowds came silently at every crossroads and filled every station day and night. There was real and touching grief everywhere . . . the affection of the people for Mr. Harding was complete.
His funeral service was held in the Capitol rotunda and included the singing of his favorite hymn, “Lead Kindly Light” by John Henry Newman. The second stanza of this hymn may have been an appropriate epitaph for the 29th president of the United States:I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
Published at First Things, 10.19.15
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.