I grew up on “Methodist lore.” Some of it consisted of quotes by John Wesley delivered by my farmstead mother in North Carolina. One of these was “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Another was, “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Another was “If your heart is as mine, give me your hand.” Most pointedly, however, I remember her words the night before I left for college in the fall of 1952. It was the first time I had shared with her that I felt called to be a preacher, and that “announcement” did not come in direct address but in response to the typical question asked of college freshmen by a neighbor, “Donald what do you plan to be?” However, after overhearing my answer and the neighbor’s departure, Mama then asked , “Do you plan to stay in the Methodist Church?” That was because of the influence she knew I was receiving from some Wesleyan Methodists and Nazarenes of the holiness movement (in North Carolina there were no Evangelical United Brethren).
To my mother’s question about remaining Methodist I gave a typical teenage shrug and said, “I guess so.” My little “five feet high” widowed mother looked at me with her almost black Welsh eyes and said, “As far back as we know, our people have been Methodists.” The subject never came up again! Our home church might have been on a five point circuit and might have come very close during World War II of being (in Mama’s words) “closed by the conference” but her loyalty never wavered. Her father had given the land in 1904 to have a Methodist Episcopal Church, South church built on land from his farm because the nearest Methodist Church was “Methodist Protestant” and Grandma wanted bishops! So it was that when I was cut, I bled with Methodist DNA with an “episcopal” accent!!!!
President William McKinley was a staunch Methodist from Canton, Ohio, and his pew there has a plaque indicating that location as where he and “Mother McKinley” worshiped weekly for many years. Sometime in my mother’s own younger years she clipped an article that will seem smaltzy to some, but to Mama it was one more piece in her “blueblood” Methodist lore and loyalty. I discovered it just this week in some old papers of my sister’s as we were moving her to a skilled care unit in a Methodist Retirement Community (My mother was in one for twenty six years; my sister has been in one for twenty-three years!). In these days of fading denominational loyalty, a look into President McKinley’s own loyal Methodism might be a pleasant memory of our illustrious past!
The title of the magazine article from the nineteenth century was “A President Goes to Church With His Mother.”
The spry little woman of 87 smiled proudly at her neighbors. It was Sunday and she was walking to church with her son. He was President of the Untied States, but she was proud of him as if he had been a Methodist bishop.
Everyone knows that William McKinley was devoted to his mother. Everybody knows that he was a devout Christian, taught a Bible class and was superintendent of a Methodist Sunday School. What everybody does not know is that every day of his mother’s life—as a lawyer, a Congressman, Governor of Ohio, and President of the United States, when her did not see his mother, he either wrote or telegraphed her.
In mid-October, 1897, McKinley stepped out of the White House and took a train for Canton just to go to church with his mother. He wanted to walk to church with her like he and his brothers and sisters had when “Mother McKinley” carried her brood to church as soon as they were old enough to toddle at her side to First Methodist Episcopal Church of Canton, Ohio. Nancy Allison McKinley raised five girls and four boys and somehow she seemed to lean on her husband’s namesake. ”William is going to be a bishop someday,” she would say proudly. But when he became the United States President, following his twelve years as a Congressman and four years as Governor, it was all right with her. She assured people he would conduct himself as the Christian gentleman she had reared whether he was bishop or president.
McKinley was elected in 1896. When his mother became ill in 1897, he had her home in Canton connected to the White House by special wire and kept a special train standing by under a full head of stream. One night when she called for him from her bed, attendants wired, ‘Mr. President, we think you better come.’ On Sunday afternoon, December 12, 1897, Nancy McKinley breathed her last in the arms of her big fifty-four year old son. For full an hour after she died, he did not move from her bedside.”
According to the Encyclopedia of World Methodism, McKinley attended Foundry Methodist Episcopal Church while he was in Washington as a Congressman. As president, he joined the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church which was build during the presidency of Methodist Ulysses S. Grant. (It was finished during the administration of Methodist Rutherford B. Hayes) Metropolitan was built by contributions from across the nation as a witness to Methodism in the nation’s capital. In his private papers was a witness to “t he divinity of Christ and Christianity as the mightiest force in the world’s civilizations.
The article copied in long hand by my mother concluded, “Less than four years later, while making a speech in Buffalo, McKinley was cut down by a bullet from the gun of an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. With no bitterness even for his assassin, the dying president said, ‘God’s will be done.’ Then he called for a hymn his mother had taught him, ‘Nearer My God To Thee.’ His body was brought back to Canton and laid to rest beside his mother.”
“Reading a newspaper account of McKinley’s telegram to those at his mother’s bedside when she had died years earlier, Charles M. Fillmore wrote a hymn and dedicated it to the late president, using the dramatic title, ‘Tell Mother I’ll Be There.’ It is written in the idiom and with the theology of many gospel songs of its age:
When I was but a little child, now I recollect,
how I would grieve my mother with my folly and neglect.
And now that she has gone to heaven I miss her tender care.
O Saviour, tell my mother I’ll be there.
Though I was often wayward, she was always kind and good;
So patient, gentle, loving when I acted rough and rude.
My childhood griefs and trials she would gladly with me share.
O Saviour, tell my mother I’ll be there.
One day a message came to me; it bade me quickly come
if I would see my mother ere the Saviour took her home.
I promised her before she died, for heaven to prepare.
O Saviour tell my mother I’ll be there.
Fillmore then added, “Proverbs 22:6—“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
So it was when Methodism and the Evangelical United Brethren waxed strong in the culture and language of what Dr. Thomas Langford and other scholars have called “The Methodist Century.”