Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) was a lawyer, a Civil War brigadier general, and eventually the twenty-third president of the United States from 1889-1893. In this letter to his son, Russell Benjamin Harrison, on July 12, 1894, he admonishes the younger Harrison to remain steadfast in the faith. The former president explains to his son, “It’s well to be diligent in your business, and you know how anxious I am that you should succeed – but my dear boy there are things of vastly greater importance. You ought to give more thought to your religious life and duties.” Such a candid and clear call to a higher life came due to a recent incident in which Russell Harrison had cursed in front of his father. President Harrison continues, writing, “Young men are so prone to think there is no danger and to forsake the only safety – God’s grace and help.”

Benjamin Harrison’s faith, however, was not confined to personal letters to his son. While he was sitting president he routinely expressed his faith when acting in an official capacity. Harrison made it evident from the beginning that he and all Americans had God to thank for their country, declaring in his 1889 inaugural address:

No other people have a government more worthy of their respect and love, or a land so magnificent in extent, so pleasant to look upon, and so full of generous suggestion to enterprise and labor. God has placed upon our head a diadem, and has laid at our feet power and wealth beyond definition or calculation. But we must not forget that we take these gifts upon the condition that justice and mercy shall hold the reins of power, and that the upward avenues of hope shall be free to all the people. [i]

Following this introductory address, President Harrison issued several proclamations calling the nation to prayer. Of these included a yearly call for Thanksgiving which continually reinforced the national reliance our country had upon God. Selections include:

A highly favored people, mindful of their dependence on the bounty of divine Providence, should seek fitting occasion to testify gratitude and ascribe praise to Him who is author of their many blessings. It behooves us then to look back with thankful hearts over the past year and thank God for his infinite mercy. – THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATION 1889 [ii]

I do invite the people, upon that day to cease from their labors, to meet in their accustomed houses of worship and to join in rendering gratitude and praise to our beneficent Creator for the rich blessings He has granted to us as a nation, and in invoking the continuance of His protection and grace for the future. – THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATION 1890 [iii]

To God, the Beneficent and the All Wise, who makes the labors of men to be fruitful, redeems their losses by His grace, and the measure of whose giving is as much beyond the thoughts of men as it is beyond his desserts, the praise and gratitude of the people of this favored nation are justly due. – THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATION 1891 [iv]

He [God] has stayed the pestilence at our door; He has given us more love for the free institutions in the creation of which His directing providence was so conspicuous; He has awakened a deeper reverence for law; He has widened our philanthropy by a call to succor the distress in other lands; He has blessed our schools and is bringing forward a patriotic and God-fearing generation to execute His great and benevolent designs for our country; He has given us great increase in material wealth and a wide diffusion of contentment and comfort in the homes of our people; He has given His grace to the sorrowing. – THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATION 1892 [v]

On top of these prayer proclamations, he also issued a special call to prayer on the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. In the proclamation itself Harrison explained the purpose behind it:

In order that the joy of the occasion may be associated with a deep thankfulness in the minds of the people for all our blessings in the past, and a devout supplication to God for their gracious continuance in the future, the representatives of the religious creeds, both Christian and Hebrew, have memorialized the Government to designate an hour of prayer and thanksgiving on that day. [vi]

Therefore, in accordance to the wishes of the Christian and Jewish representatives, Harrison recommended that at 9 o’clock in the morning:

The entire community repair to their respective places of divine worship, to implore the favor of God that the blessings of liberty, prosperity, and peace may abide with us as a people, and that His hand may lead us in the paths of righteousness and good deeds. [vii]

Benjamin Harrison, both in his private life and while before the public eye, always remembered and strove to remind others that God was the source of safety, prosperity, and comfort.

Pictures of the Letter to his Son:

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My dear Son,

I hoped to out get out to see you before I went East but for several weeks I have been very busy, preparing for the argument in the street railway case, and only today finished revising my argument for the printer. I hope we will gain the case. Certainly we had a decided advantage in the argument. If we succeed in the main point, it will make all street property in the state much more valuable.

You ought once in a while to let me hear from you and from your family. I have been not a little concerned about you since my visit to Terre Haute. It’s well to be diligent in your business, and you know how anxious I am that you should succeed – but my dear boy there are things of vastly greater importance. You ought to give more thought to your religious life and duties. And it pained me very much to hear you swear when I was with you. I have known Terre Haute for many years and there are dangers to a young man there that you must avoid. If I could talk with you I would explain fully. But you will understand what I mean, and in some degree appreciate my solicitude for you. I have prayed very much for you that you might be kept from evil. Young men are so prone to think there is no danger and to forsake the only safety – God’s grace and help. I expect to go to New York tomorrow and will be a couple of weeks with Mama – “The Hawthorne, 128 West of 59th St.” is the address.

With much love,
Your father,
Benj. Harrison

[i] Benjamin Harrison, Public Papers and Addresses of Benjamin Harrison (Washington: Government Printing Office), 35. (Find full text here)

[ii] Harrison, Papers and Addresses, 240.

[iii] Harrison, Papers and Addresses, 241.

[iv] Harrison, Papers and Addresses, 241-242.

[v] Harrison, Papers and Addresses, 242.

[vi] Harrison, Papers and Addresses, 243.

[vii] Harrison, Papers and Addresses, 243-244.

* Originally published: August 18, 2017.