From Preacher to President

by Bernard R. DeRemer

James A. GarfieldOn March 3, 1850, James A. Garfield noted in his diary his determination to obey the gospel. The following day he recorded what is perhaps the clearest salvation testimony ever given by one who would become president of the U.S.: "Today I was buried with Christ in baptism and arose to walk [in] newness of life.' For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Later he expressed pleasure that God was blessing meetings in the little local schoolhouse, where 17 had already professed faith in Christ.

Born near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1831, Garfield grew up in poverty after his father's death. But he attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College), where he built fires, swept rooms, and rang the bell for a small stipend.

Garfield taught in district schools, then became active in local Disciples of Christ groups; soon he was preaching himself. Though never formally ordained (customary for his denomination and that day), he ministered in various churches, preaching a salvation message from such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:17 and exhorting believers.

Later he attended Williams (Mass.) College, where he distinguished himself in debating and was graduated with honors in 1856. He married Lucretia Rudolph, a former classmate.

Returning to Hiram, he became principal, instilling new life into the school. He read widely in literature and other fields; many Greek and Latin diary entries testify to his mastery of those subjects.

Earlier aversion to politics gradually gave way; Garfield began to feel that a Christian's duty was to participate in public affairs as he might have opportunity. He won a Republican seat in the Ohio Senate in 1859, studied law, and distinguished himself denouncing slavery and secession, while advocating force to preserve the Union.

When the Civil War broke out, he became a lieutenant colonel in the 42nd Ohio Infantry; his military leadership was called superb. Later, he resigned his commission as a major general to enter the U.S. House of Representatives, where he began serving as the youngest member of Congress and remained 17 years. He chaired the Appropriations Committee and actively defended a conservative monetary policy. He continued attending church but was unable to preach so often as before because of the enormous demands of his office.

In 1880 Garfield was elected to the U.S. Senate, but never occupied the seat. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, where, after a 35-ballot deadlock, he was nominated (as a "dark horse") for president.

Garfield's humble origin (he was the last president to be born in a log cabin, the only one to have been a preacher), his political record, and a vigorous campaign brought him a narrow victory in the general election. His brief, busy, and dramatic time in the White House laid the foundation for improved relations with Latin America, began customs and postal reforms, and strengthened presidential power.

Garfield was "one of the few scholarly men" to become president. He loved poetry and classics and "used to entertain his friends by simultaneously writing Latin with one hand and Greek with the other."

Suddenly tragedy struck. On July 2, 1881, (less than four months after inauguration), he was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged lawyer and disappointed office seeker, and seriously wounded. He was to endure an agonizing series of relapses and rallies.

The nation's hearts were heavy with helpless agony during the three-month ordeal. His fortitude won the admiration of all who saw him. He constantly ran some degree of fever and was never entirely free of discomfort. (In that simple pre-nuclear era, no major crisis forced resolution of the thorny question of presidential disability and succession.)

One Sunday morning Garfield heard church bells and was told that people were praying for him. "God bless them," he murmured.

At first, he seemed to improve following a move to New Jersey and sea air, but after pneumonia developed he sank rapidly. The end came on Sept. 19. His 210-pound frame had wasted away to 135. His wounds probably would not have been fatal today, but then "surgeons still extracted bullets with unsterilized instruments."

The valiant soldier for Christ and country had fought his last fight, finished his course, and kept the faith.

Adapted from Sunday Digest, ©David C. Cook Pub. Co. Used by permission.

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