Who Was the First U.S. President to be Baptized While in Office?

by Ron F. Hale

With a nick-name of “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” maybe Harry S. Truman got that “old time religion” and was baptized. Teddy Roosevelt was a “rough rider” did he have a blinding light experience like Saul (who became Paul) in the book of Acts? What about Bill Clinton?

Do you give up?

It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Some days after his inaugural ceremonies on January 20, 1953, the new president was baptized[i] on the first Sunday of February at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C.

Leading up to the election (in which Eisenhower gained 55 percent of the popular vote and 442-to-89 margin in the Electoral College), he had met with Billy Graham numerous times on the campaign trail. Graham’s spiritual advice seemed to strengthen the new president’s vision for America.

Eisenhower, one of the most powerful military generals of World War II, was seeing a need for spiritual healing in America. He said, “I think one of the reasons I was elected was to help lead this country spiritually.” He went on to say, “We need a spiritual renewal.”

After his Sunday baptism, Eisenhower gave an address from the Oval Office later that evening for the American Legion’s “Back to God” ceremony. He called America back to her spiritual foundations. A few days later, he was the guest of honor at the first-ever National Prayer Breakfast, thereby setting a new tradition in place.

In 1954, Eisenhower was instrumental in Congress adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Very soon, “In God We Trust,” was added to the American postage stamp and our paper money.

After taking his oath of office, President Eisenhower asked the 125,000 people in attendance to bow their heads in prayer. He prayed:

Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.

Seventy million Americans saw and heard this prayer on the television broadcast and it became the talk of the nation.  By the end of the decade, church and synagogue membership had risen to 69 percent, up from 49 percent in 1940.  It can be argued that this president did in fact foster a spiritual renewal in postwar America![ii]

 

[i] The author of this article comes from a Southern Baptist tradition with Anabaptist leanings and realizes that the Greek word baptizó (baptize) means to dip or plunge under water, however, for the sake of unity wishes to focus possible discussion more on the president’s spiritual leadership of a nation—not an “immersion” verses “sprinkling” debate.
[ii] Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, (New York: Basic Books, 2015), ix-xv. While I do not agree with some of the basic premises of this book, the author does share some key facts of the era. This reference represents some of the facts and statements found in the introduction to the book.