It was President Ulysses Grant who once declared America had three political parties: Republicans, Democrats and Methodists. The great general who won the Civil War was himself a lifelong Methodist, raised in the church and marrying a pious Methodist woman, Julia Dent. Grant himself was not considered very devout, although often church going and respectful. In his final months, as he famously and heroically struggled to complete his memoir to ensure his family’s financial security, he was surrounded by a then renowned Methodist minister who later became bishop. Grant was baptized in his final days, even as his friend Mark Twain, a religious skeptic, mocked the Methodist pastor’s claims that Grant had spiritually awakened.
Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Flood tells the story. After his presidency, ensconced in a New York investment firm, Grant believed himself wealthy. The firm was actually a giant fraud, and his suave younger partner, to whom Grant had entrusted all, squandered the firm’s entire portfolio. Grant was left virtually penniless, and was forced to write articles for income, which he enjoyed, and which transitioned into a full memoir of his life through the war, published by Twain, who realized its global potential.
Early in his writing, Grant was diagnosed with untreatable throat cancer, forced to abandon his beloved cigars, and compelled to complete his autobiography in a race against death, a race just barely but triumphantly won. Grant’s potently spare prose made his two volume work a best selling masterpiece that enriched his widow, as Grant had hoped.
During his final year, after his financial collapse, a tearfully appreciative Grant found redemption of sorts at Methodism’s Ocean Grove Campground in New Jersey. About 10,000 Civil War chaplains and other religious workers rapturously received him there amid prayer and hymns. The introducing Methodist chaplain veteran vigorously defended Grant’s integrity against allegations about the causes of Grant’s financial insolvency. “No combination of Wall Street sharpers shall tarnish the fame of my old commander for me,” he told cheering thousands. Grant briefly responded with an emotion choked recollection of Christian “good works” by his audience during the war.
Rev. John Philip Newman was the Grants’ pastor first during the presidency at Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC and later, in New York, at the Central Methodist Episcopal Church, where Grant was a trustee until his bankruptcy obliged his resignation when he was unable to pay the pew rental. Grant had also dispatched him on a diplomatic assignment in Asia. Newman was an accomplished organizer of churches and charities, a global traveller and author. He also enjoyed publicity, telling reporters outside Grant’s house that prayers were keeping the old general alive.
Supposedly unsure whether her ailing husband was ever baptized, but probably just seeking reassurance, Julia Grant asked Newman to baptize Grant when he seemed close to death, only to be revived by a syringe injection of brandy. (Grant likely was baptized as a baby, since his mother was devout and reputedly a regular reader of Methodism’s Christian Advocate.) Methodist Sunday school children in New York serenaded Grant outside his home. Newman joined the Grants for family devotions and a dinner that included General William Sherman. Later Newman followed the Grants to the mountain cottage where Grant would die. Grant declined Newman’s request that he publicly take the Eucharist in outdoor worship at the nearby hotel, professing himself unworthy. Newman was present when Grant died and afterwards led a private funeral at the cottage, pronouncing of Grant in a 90 minute adulatory sermon, “We’ll done, good and faithful servant.” He recalled leading Grant in private prayer, which Twain later claimed was “rot,” while admitting Grant was “taciturn” about his faith. The Methodist bishop of New York was also there, as he and Newman both later were at the massively attended interment of Grant’s body in New York in what would become a landmark tomb.
In his public speeches, Grant upheld traditional American civil religion and acknowledged Providence. He commended the separation of church and state, reputedly having resented the Episcopal Church’s spiritual domination of West Point while attending. Likely his parents’ Methodism influenced his anti-slavery views and his strong nationalism. Emotionally reticent, he rarely if ever described his personal faith in recorded comments. Although Twain, a bitter agnostic who later talked his own wife away from her faith, was dismissive of Reverend Newman, it is not impossible that the dying Grant, who shared with the pastor about his physical “suffering,” expressed the devout sentiments that the Methodist minister claimed.
Grant lived and died dutifully. In response to a visiting Catholic priest representing Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, he thanked the “Christian people of the land” for their prayers during his well publicized demise. He also thanked Jewish Americans for their solicitations. During the Civil War’s Vicksburg campaign he had controversially tried to expel Jewish merchants from the theater, an order that President Lincoln overrode. Grant later worked hard to compensate for his error, becoming the first U.S. president to dedicate a synagogue.
The Methodist churches that Grant attended in Washington and New York no longer stand. But his pre-Civil War church in Galena, Illinois, including his pew, remains much as it was.