Harry Truman as Baptist President

Article excerpt

Harry Truman followed Franklin D. Roosevelt as president of the United States. Roosevelt, an eloquent, crusading president, had led the nation during the Second World War and died early in his last term. I can remember as a small boy playing with my cousins, the Ericksons, when suddenly Aunt Mae called us to the radio; Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died, and Harry S Truman would become President! (1) Many expected Truman to be a letdown by contrast. He had no college education and had little foreign policy experience. He surprised them, as he surprised Thomas Dewey in the presidential election of 1948. (2) He was decisive, firm, clear, and ethical.

Like Lincoln, Truman came from a Kentucky Baptist family that migrated to another state--in his case, to Missouri not long before his birth. Both sets of grandparents and his parents "were Baptists, the Trumans vehemently so." (3)

Faith Influencing Characteristics and Policies

In Truman's faith, we can see several key themes that explain many of his characteristics and policies as president.

Biblical grounding.--Before he started school, Harry's mother taught him to read with the large-print family Bible as his textbook. He could read nothing else, his eyesight was so bad. He read the Bible through twice by the time he was twelve. During his teenage years, he attended Benton Boulevard Baptist Church in Kansas City, where he was converted and baptized in the Little Blue River. (4) He had "a remarkably broad familiarity with the Bible, citing texts and stories from it with a range and aptness unusual among modern statesmen.... He says [in his diary]: `The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest of all things in the Bible, a way of life, and maybe someday men will get to understand it as the real way of life.'" I dearly hope these were prophetic words for us. (5)

Doing what is right.--His mother impressed him that he should be good and do his best. His devoutly Baptist grandmother had taught him the same: "Her philosophy was simple. You knew right from wrong and you did right, and you always did your best. That's all there was to it." (6) He frequently repeated Mark Twain's epigram, "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." (7)

Baptists descended not from Martin Luther--who insisted on faith alone--but from Puritans who insisted on living a life of obedience to the Lord; and from Anabaptists, who answered Luther that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17, NIV).

Prayer and sense of duty from God.--In May of his first year as President, Truman wrote in his diary that things were going so well that he hardly knew what to think. "`I can't understand it--except to attribute it to God. He guides me, I think.'" It is clear again and again in his diary that prayer was important to him, shaping him and guiding him in these challenging White House days.

Honesty.--Throughout the historical studies of Truman, one reads again and again of how everyone around him was impressed by his honesty with them and with the people. This created a morale inside his administration higher than any recent one. Furthermore, from his beginnings in Missouri to the high position of the presidency, he never used his position to make money. Moreover, he stayed absolutely faithful to his wife, consistently avoiding situations that could even look questionable.

Populism and democracy.--Democracy and identification with the common person are themes in Baptist life. Baptist polity is democratic, without bishops or hierarchy, and we read the Bible for ourselves and pray our own homespun prayers. Truman's frontier Baptist upbringing was populated by workers and farmers, in contrast to the Presbyterian and Episcopalian upper class of his wife Bessie's churches. It showed in his politics. Andrew Jackson, the Tennessee populist president, was his hero.

In his first two speeches in the Senate in 1937, he attacked the greed of large corporations and their unfairness to common people. …