Why President Eisenhower Hid His Jehovah's Witness Upbringing
Jerry Bergman, Ph.D
Northwest State College, Ohio
It is commonly reported even in authoritative works about President Eisenhower that he was raised as a River Brethren by parents that were active in the River Brethren church. In fact, Dwight D. Eisenhower was raised a Jehovah's Witness, a sect commonly called Russellites or Bible Students until 1931. His mother was active in the sect from 1895, when Dwight was five years old, until she died. Eisenhower's father was also an active member, although after 1915 he eventually no longer considered himself a Witness.
All of the Eisenhower boys left the Jehovah's Witness religion when adults and openly opposed major aspects of Watchtower teaching, although some of the values they learned from their Bible studies probably influenced them throughout their lives. Some Watchtower values may even have been reflected in Dwight's statements against war made in his latter life. Nonetheless, the Eisenhower's endeavored to hide the full extent of their mother's and family's Watchtower involvement although they did at times admit their affiliation with them. The reasons why the Eisenhower boys took great pains to hide their early Watchtower associations are discussed.
The story of the religious upbringing of the Eisenhower boys is critically important in understanding both the Watchtower and the boys themselves. The most dominant religious influence in the Eisenhower home from the time the boys were young was Watchtower theology and beliefs. Both parents were deeply involved and highly committed to much of the Watchtower theology throughout most of their children's formative years. Ida probably took the lead religiously, and David Eisenhower later became disillusioned with many Watchtower teachings; nonetheless the religion also influenced him later in life.
As adults, none of the Eisenhower boys formally followed the Witness teachings and theology and even tried to hide their Jehovah's Witness upbringing. The eldest son, Arthur, once stated that he could not accept the religious dogmas of his parents although he had "his mother's religion" in his heart (Kornitzer, 1955:64).
Although none of Mrs. Eisenhower's boys were what she and other Witnesses called "in the truth," she was hopeful that they would someday again embrace the religion in which they were raised. They openly rejected much of the Watchtower theology and medical ideas, especially its eschatology and millennial teachings. Nonetheless their Witness upbringing clearly influenced them. Even in later life, Dwight preferred "the informal church service" with "vigorous singing and vigorous preaching" like he grew up with (Dodd, 1963:233). Ida was relatively supportive of them during most of their careers, often stating that she was proud of them and their accomplishments, even those achievements that violated her Watchtower faith.
Eisenhower Family Background
Born on October 14, 1890 at Denison, Texas, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the thirty-fourth President of the United States. He served for two terms, from 1953 to 1961. His parents, David and Ida Eisenhower, owned a modest two-story white framed house on South 4th Street in Abilene, Kansas. Ida, a frugal hard-working woman, planted a large garden on their three acre lot to raise much of the family's produce needs. Neal claimed that the Eisenhower's were able to feed their growing family only because of this small farm which included cows, chickens, a smokehouse, fruit trees and a large vegetable garden (Neal, 1984). Dwight and his five brothers (Arthur (b. 1886), Roy (b. 1892), Earl (b. 1898), and Milton (b. 1899) plus David) were raised in Abilene, Kansas.
The values of Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower's parents and their home environment reflected themselves in the enormous success of all of their children. Probably the most dominant influence in the Eisenhower home was religion, primarily the Jehovah's Witnesses (known as Bible Students until 1931) and to a much lesser extent the River Brethren (Dodd, 1994).
Both parents were active in the Watchtower during most of the Eisenhower children's formative years. Eisenhower's mother, Ida Eisenhower, stated she became involved with the Watchtower in 1895 when she was 34 and Dwight was only five years old (Cole, 1955:190). Ida was baptized in 1898, meaning she was then a Jehovah's Witnesses minister.
Furthermore, Ida did not flirt with her involvement in the Witnesses as claimed by some but "was a faithful member of Jehovah's Witnesses for 50 years" (Fleming 1955:1). In Dwight's words she had "an inflexible loyalty to her religious convictions." According to the current Watchtower president Milton G. Henshel, "Ida Eisenhower was one of the most energetic [Watchtower] preachers in Abilene" (Fleming, 1955:1). The Watchtower Society had a major religious influence on Dwight until 1914 when he went to West Point (Dodd, 1959; Eisenhower, 1969).
The River Brethren Background of Ike's Parents
Ida grew up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and originally attended a Lutheran Church. Hutchinson concluded Ida showed a "deep interest in religion from her earliest years" (1954:364). As a school girl Ida studied the Bible extensively and quoted freely from it--she once memorized 1,365 Biblical verses in six months, a fact cited with pride by several of her sons (Neal, 1984:13). The Sunday school records in the Lutheran Church at Mount Sidney near Staunton, Virginia, still contain her Bible memorizing record.
Eisenhower's parents met when they were both students at a small United Brethren college in Lecompton, Kansas called Lane University. After they married at Lecompton on September 23, 1885, they both dropped out of college (Hatch, 1944). Although they each completed only one term, their desire for education persisted--and reflected itself in their strong support for their sons' educations (Kornitzer, 1955). Evidently it was Ida's husband who introduced Ida to the group popularly called River Brethren partly because many of his relatives were involved in this community.
Neither David or Ida ever became deeply involved in this sect, although, it is often incorrectly stated that "Ida and David Eisenhower were River Brethren" (Miller, 1987:77-78). David's father Jacob and his brothers Ira and Abraham were members, but Ike's cousin, the Reverend Ray L. Witter, son of A.L. Witter, claimed that, although Ida and David came to Brethren services for several years, neither was ever an actual member nor did they regularly attend for any length of time (Miller, 1987:77-78; Dodd, 1959:221).
The Eisenhower's house in Abilene, Kansas, 1895.
Left to right: Dwight, Edgar, Earl (baby), Roy, Arthur.
Close family friend R.C. Tonkin even stated that he "never knew any of the family to attend the River Brethren Church" (Tonkin, 1952:48). Both church records and oral history indicate that Dwight attended around 1906 for less than a year (Sider, 1994). Note: The term River Brethren is commonly used in the literature which discusses President Eisenhower, but the officially registered name during the Civil War and after is The Brethren in Christ Church. The term River Brethren is used here because virtually all references to Eisenhower's religion use this term. This term caught on because the first churches were located near rivers.
Evidence that Dwight may have occasionally attended Sunday school at Abilene's River Brethren Church includes the claim by John Dayhoff (listed in the 1906 church records as a member of Dwight's class) that he went to Sunday school with him. When Dwight did attend according to the regular teacher, Ida Hoffman, he evidently "never seemed to pay any attention or take any interest in the lesson" (Davis, 1952:49). Three of the Eisenhower children including Dwight are listed in the 1906 Souvenir Report of the Brethren Sunday School of Abilene, Kansas as involved in the church, but no mention is made of their parents. The listing of the three boys was likely partly due to the influence of Jacob, Dwight's grandfather, an active River Brethren Church minister until his death in May of 1906.
When David's Uncle Abraham, a self-taught veterinarian, decided to became an itinerant preacher he rented his house to David on the condition that Jacob could live there (Lyon, 1974; Dodd, 1963). David Eisenhower's family then moved into Abraham's house at 201 Southeast Fourth Street. David was also connected with the River Brethren through his employment at the church-owned Bella Springs Creamery. He worked at the Creamery from the time he moved to Abilene until he retired (Ambrose, 1983:19-20).
The many other relatives and friends who were River Brethren also likely had some influence on Dwight's religious development. He was physically and emotionally surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandfathers and a great-grandfather, most of whom were lay members or preachers in one of the Brethren or Holiness sects (Dodd, 1994). Gladys Dodd concluded the Brethren, whom Dwight joined on occasion for worship, "were a clannish lot, glued together by common ties of unique appearance and modes of baptism, abhorrence of war, and the like" (Dodd, 1994:1).
Background of the Eisenhower's Joining the Watchtower
A major catalyst that precipitated Dwight's parents leaving the River Brethren and joining the Watchtower involved Ike's eight-month old brother, Paul, who died of diphtheria in 1895. This tragedy devastated the Eisenhower's, and the theological explanation that Paul is in heaven provided by the River Brethren did not satisfy them. At this time, three neighborhood women were able to comfort the Eisenhower's with the hope that they would soon see their son. This comfort was the Russellite teaching that death was merely sleep, and that all those in the grave will be resurrected shortly. In 1895 it was taught that this resurrection would occur in the new world which was expected to arrive before 1914, a mere nine years away then (Gruss, 1976). The three women - Mrs. Clara Witt, Mrs. Mary Thayer, and Mrs. Emma Holland - also sold Ida a set of volumes which were then titled Millennial Dawn (later renamed Studies in the Scriptures) and a subscription to Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence, now named The Watchtower. Ida soon became involved and influenced her husband to join a short time later.
David and Ida's interest in Armageddon (the war the Watchtower teaches God will destroy all of the wicked, i.e. all non Witnesses) and the imminent return of Christ was highly influenced by the Watchtower preoccupation with end times events, especially the date of Armageddon. Likely, too, other acquaintances aside from Watchtower followers shared an interest in end-times date predicting including by their uncles Abraham and Ira, both of whom were evidently influenced by the end-times date speculation of the Tabor, Iowa evangelistic sect called the Hephzibah Faith Missionary Association (Dodd, 1994:2).
Dodd concluded from her extensive study of the Eisenhower family religious involvement that Ida soon became a "faithful and dedicated Witness and actively engaged as [a] colporteur [missionary] for the Watch Tower Society until her death" (Dodd, 1959:245). Soon the force that dominated the lives of everyone who lived in the Eisenhower frame house in Abilene was religion (Kornitzer, 1955:134). Dwight Eisenhower's faith was "rooted in his parents' Biblical heritage," and the Eisenhower boys' upbringing was "steeped" in religion (Fox 1969:907; Lyon, 1974:38).
1902 Eisenhower family portrait.
Dwight, Edgar, Earl, Arthur, Roy.
Front row: David, Milton, Ida.
The Eisenhower's held weekly Watchtower meetings in their parlor where the boys took turns reading from and discussing Watchtower publications and Scripture. Dwight Eisenhower was also involved in these studies--he claimed that he had read the Bible completely through twice before he was eighteen (Jameson, 1969:9). Ambrose concluded that the degree of religious involvement of the Eisenhower boys was so extensive that
David read from the Bible before meals, then asked a blessing. After dinner, he brought out the Bible again. When the boys grew old enough, they took turns reading. Ida organized meetings of the ... Watchtower Society, which met on Sundays in her parlor. She played her piano and led the singing. Neither David nor Ida ever smoked or drank, or played cards, or swore, or gambled (Ambrose 1983:19-20).
This upbringing no doubt had a major influence on all of the Eisenhower boys. R.G. Tonkin estimated that when the Eisenhower boys were young the size of the class was "about fifteen people" (1952:48).
The Watchtower followers met in Eisenhower's home until 1915 when the growth of the local congregation forced them to rent a local hall for their services. Later a large Watchtower meeting house (now called a Kingdom Hall) was built in Abilene (Dodd, 1959:244). The composition of early Russellite group in Abilene is described by Dodd as follows:
Mary Thayer first introduced the Watch Tower to the Eisenhower's. This company together with L.D. Toliver and the R.O. Southworths constituted the nucleus of the Abilene congregation of Russellites. From 1896 until 1915, the Bible Students ... met on Sunday afternoons at the Eisenhower home for their meetings. During most of this twenty year period, David Eisenhower (and occasionally L.D. Toliver) served the class as the Bible-study conductor, or "elder" as the group called its leader (1959:236).
Ida remained active in the Watchtower her whole life. In a letter to a fellow Witness Ida stated she has "been in the truth since ninety six [1896 and I] ... am still in ... it has been a comfort to me ... Naomi Engle stay [sic] with me and she is a witness too so my hope [sic] are good" (Fleming, 1955:3; Cole, 1955:192).
Dwight's Father's Religious Background
Dwight was also influenced by the religious ideas of his father, David Eisenhower. Although his early upbringing was in the River Brethren and he briefly attended the Lutheran, then later the Methodist church before and during his college days, he converted to the Watchtower a few years after his wife did. David Eisenhower actively served the Watchtower for many years as an elder and Bible study conductor, a role which he occasionally alternated with L.D. Toliver (Dodd, 1959:225). Neal even claimed that David Eisenhower was led by the Watchtower into "mysticism" because of David's use of "an enormous wall chart" of the Egyptian pyramids to predict the future. David taught his boys Watchtower last-days theology from this chart when they were growing up. The ten feet high and six feet wide chart "according to David . . . contained prophecies for the future as well as confirmation of biblical events. Captivated by the bizarre drawing . . . [Dwight] spent hours studying David's creation" (Neal, 1984:13).
This pyramid chart was of the Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and in fact was a central teaching of the Bible Students (Dodd, 1959:242). The chart was first published by the Watchtower in Millennial Dawn, Vol. 1 in 1898 and a large wall size version was available later. The chart played a prominent role in Watchtower theology for more than 35 years and was of such importance to David that his
. . . religious beliefs materialized in the form of an impressive (five or six feet high, ten feet long) wall chart of the Egyptian pyramids, by means of which he proved to his own satisfaction that the lines of the pyramids--outer dimensions, inner passageways, angles of chambers, and so on--prophesied later Biblical events and other events still in the future. As might be expected, this demonstration fascinated his children; the chart came to be one of the family's most prized possessions (Lyon, 1974:38).
Russell obtained from the Pyramid many of his prophesies, especially the year 1914 when the end of the world was expected to occur (Franz, 1993:20). The pyramid was also used to confirm Watchtower dispensational theology. Earl Eisenhower claimed that his father used the chart when he was in the Watchtower to prove "to his own satisfaction that the Bible was right in its prophecies" (Kornitzer, 1955:136).
The pyramid was of such major importance to early Watchtower theology that a huge ten foot concrete pyramid was selected as a fitting memorial to C. T. Russell when he died. It still stands close to Russell's grave near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Russell specifically condemned mysticism as demonism and taught that the pyramid had nothing to do with mysticism but was a second revelation, a "Bible in stone" which both added to and confirmed the Holy Scripture record (Russell, 1904:313-376).
A few years later, the second president of the Watchtower, Joseph F. Rutherford, condemned the pyramid teaching in no uncertain terms, one of many of his doctrinal changes that initiated several Watchtower schisms (Rutherford, 1928; Dodd, 1959:243). Dodd noted that the chart was still in the family home as late as 1944, but in 1957 she could no longer locate it in either the family home or the Eisenhower museum nearby and learned that the chart and other Watchtower effects were disposed of (Dodd, 1959:242-243). Dodd concluded the Watchtower items were probably destroyed by the family to reduce their embarrassment over their parents' involvement in the Jehovah's Witnesses. David's commitment to the Watchtower eventually changed and later he openly became an opposer.
Dodd concludes that "by 1919 David Eisenhower's interest in Russell had definitely waned and before his death in 1942 he is said to have renounced the doctrine of Russell" (1959:224). In a letter to Edward Ford, David stated that one factor causing his disillusionment with the Watchtower was the failure of their end of the world prophecies including 1914 and 1915 (Ford, 1995). After he left the Watchtower fellowship, his son Arthur claimed that David remained a student of the Scriptures, and his religious "reading habits were confined to the Bible, or anything related to the Bible" but not Watchtower literature. Although, the Bible was central to David Eisenhower's thinking, Milton added that his father also "read history, serious magazines, newspapers, and religion literature" (Kornitzer, 1955:261).
Edgar Eisenhower stated that his father left the Watchtower partly because he "couldn't go along with the sheer dogma that was so much a part of their thinking." His sons later adamantly claimed that David accompanied his wife on Watchtower activities primarily in an effort to appease her. Watchtower accounts usually referred only to Ida as a Witness, supporting the conclusion that David had left the Watchtower after 1915.
David Eisenhower died in March of 1942 at the age of 78. At this time Ida's nurse, Naomi Engle, was, "a strong-willed Witness who arranged a Jehovah's Witness funeral for David even though he had made it clear before his death that he was no longer a [Watchtower] believer" (Miller, 1987:80). The service was conducted by Witness James L. Thayer assisted by another Witness, Fred K. Southworth.
Problems Surface over the Eisenhower's Watchtower Involvement
The Eisenhower's Watchtower involvement created many family conflicts. The Russellites taught that the Brethren and all other churches were not pleasing to God. Their second president, lawyer Joseph F. Rutherford (1916-1942), viciously attacked all religion with slogans such as all "religion is a snare and a racket" (Dodd, 1959). The Watchtower under Rutherford even taught all priests and ministers are of Satan leading their flocks to eternal damnation (Bergman, 1999). As a result of this and other teachings, Dodd observed that the River Brethren and other denominations at the turn of the century:
... were rabidly opposed to Russellism. As late as 1913 ... the Evangelical Visitor advertised a pamphlet entitled "The Blasphemous Religion which teaches the Annihilation of Jesus Christ" as the "best yet publication against Russellism" and the editor thought every River Brethren minister should read it. In 1928, one of the Brethren ministers, Abraham Eisenhower (David's brother), wrote to the Evangelical Visitor concerning Russellism: "Oh, fool-hearted nonsense. It is the devil's asbestos blanket to cover up the realities of a hell fire judgment. The word of God will tear off this infamous lie and expose the realities of an existence of life after death." This strong statement would reflect the general attitude of most of the Eisenhower's (Dodd, 1959:246).
The River Brethren have much in common with the Mennonites, and both were once called "the plain people" because of their simple lifestyle and dress. Although the sect has generally modernized and even in the early 1900s they no longer placed as much emphasis on details of clothing as formerly, they were still comparatively strict in the 1800s. Marriage could be dissolved only by death, hard physical work was a prime virtue, and after the turn of the century members could not use or even grow tobacco.
The early Watchtower teachings were also similar in some ways to the River Brethren, both of which have in major ways changed since the Eisenhower's became involved in 1895 (Dodd, 1959). Furthermore, "a number of the River Brethren had become followers of Russell" (Dodd, 1959:234). Although major differences existed especially in doctrine, the many similarities include both groups were pietistic Protestant conservative sects opposed to war, although on somewhat different grounds. Both sects also stressed the importance of Biblical study, both condemned many worldly habits and both were then very concerned about the last days prophesy and eschatology.
Attempts to Hide their Watchtower Background
Dwights religious background is discussed by many writers, but most contain much misinformation. The misinformation about the religion of Dwight's parents is compounded by the fact that many Eisenhower biographies and even writings by the Eisenhower sons often declined to fully and honestly acknowledge their parents' actual religious affiliation (Fleming, 1955:1; Eisenhower, 1969). In a collection of personal recollections Edgar Eisenhower admitted only
Our parents' religious interests switched to a sect known as the Bible Students. The meetings were held at our house, and everyone made his own interpretation of the Scripture lessons. Mother played the piano, and they sang hymns before and after each meeting. It was a real old time prayer meeting. They talked to God, read Scriptures, and everyone got a chance to state his relationship with Him. Their ideas of religion were straightforward and simple. I have never forgotten those Scripture lessons, nor the influence they have had on my life. Simple people taking a simple approach to God. We couldn't have forgotten because mother impressed those creeds deep in our memories. Even after I had grown up, every letter I received from her, until the day she died, ended with a passage from the Bible (McCullun, 1960:21).
Even President Eisenhower's spiritual mentor and close friend, Billy Graham, was led to believe that Eisenhower's parents "had been River Brethren, a small but devoutly pious group in the Mennonite tradition." Many authors referred to the Watchtower faith only as "fundamentalists" or "Bible students," the latter term the Jehovah's Witnesses used only up until 1931 (Beschloss, 1990; Knorr, 1955). Lyon even stated
The specific nature of the religion is uncertain. The parents appear to have left the River Brethren for a more primitive and austere sect, something referred to as the Bible Students, and they would later gravitate to the evangelical sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses (Lyon, 1974:38).
Bela Kornitzer mentions only that the Eisenhower's were "Bible Students," had "fundamentalist religious beliefs" and studied "the writings of 'Pastor Russell'" but does not mention that Russell was the Watchtower founder (1955:14, 22, 32). (When Russell died in 1916 his writings were almost immediately replaced those of the new president, "Judge" J.F. Rutherford, resulting in several major schisms in the movement and their transformation into Jehovah's Witnesses).
Even works that include extensive discussions of Eisenhower's religious upbringing, such as the aforementioned Bela Kornitzer's book, discuss primarily his River Brethren religious background which had influenced Dwight primarily during his preschool years, if at all.
A Drew Pearson column stated that President Eisenhower's mother "once sold Bible tracts for the Jehovah's Witnesses," implying that she only flirted with the Witnesses and was never deeply involved (1956:6). Edmund Fuller and David Green, after claiming that Eisenhower's parents were River Brethren, noted that the President's grandfather was the Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, a Brethren minister, and that "the Eisenhower boys' religious training was strict, fundamentalist, and somewhat Puritanical. They were well schooled in Scripture" (1968:213).
Even more common is to totally omit the name of the predominant religion that Dwight was raised in and its importance in the Eisenhower boy's formative years (For example see Larson, 1968). In one of the most detailed histories of Eisenhower's early life, Davis said only that Ida later "sought out an even more 'primitive' and rigid Christianity" than River Brethren, leaving the reader up in the air as to what this group might be (1952:111). An extensive search by the author of the major depositories of President Eisenhower's letters and papers revealed he wrote virtually nothing about his feelings about the Watchtower or even religion in general except that reviewed here.
The Eisenhower boys' Watchtower background is not widely known or acknowledged likely also in part due to the antagonism many people had then, and still have today, against the Watchtower (Sellers, 1990). This antagonism is illustrated in the wording of a quote claiming that "late in life" Ida became, "of all things, a member of the sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses..." (Gunther, 1951:52).
Accounts of the Eisenhower family history commonly repeat the claim that Dwight's parents were River Brethren or were not directly involved with the Watchtower (Miller, 1944). Typical is a Time article that stated only that Ike's "parents were members of the River Brethren, a Mennonite sect," adding that "along with their piety, the Eisenhower's gave their sons a creed of self-starting individualism" (Time, Apr. 4, 1969:20). Another account claims that Eisenhower's parents were members of a Protestant sect called the River Brethren and brought up their children in an old-fashioned atmosphere of puritanical morals. Prayer and Bible reading were a daily part of their lives. Violence was forbidden, though in a family of six boys the edict was a bit hard to enforce (Whitney, 1967:311).
Why the Eisenhower Boys Tried to Hide their Watchtower Past
According to Pearson, when confronted with his religious ancestry, David Eisenhower looked for a
delicate way to clear the family name of this affiliation. He is sensitive about the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in saluting the flag or serving under arms. At the same time, he doesn't want to appear prejudiced against any religious sect. Both Ike and his brother, Milton, have discussed the problem with spiritual advisors. But they haven't quite figured out how to disclaim Ida Eisenhower's relations with the Jehovah's Witnesses without offending the sect and perhaps stirring up charges of religious prejudice (Pearson, 1956:6).
Pearson also adds the often repeated claim that "Ida was influenced in her old age by a nurse who belonged to the sect. Being Bible-minded, old Mrs. Eisenhower cheerfully agreed to help the Jehovah's Witnesses peddle Bible tracts. Actually, both of Dwight's parents were staunch members of a small sect called River Brethren" (Pearson, 1956:6). Ironically in a Drew Pearson column published only three months earlier, Jack Anderson said, "Ike is strangely sensitive about his parents' religion. They were Jehovah's Witnesses, though the authorized biographies call them 'River Brethren....'
Both Dwight and his brother Milton checked the manuscript of Bela Kornitzer's book, 'Story of the Five Eisenhower Brothers.' Afterward Milton privately asked Kornitzer to delete a reference to their parents' membership in the Witnesses sect" (Anderson, 1956:16b). In one of the last interviews given by the family, Milton said only that "we were raised as a fundamentalist family. Mother and father knew the Bible from one end to the other" (Quoted in Freeze, 1975:25). The Watchtower's response to this common omission was as follows:
Though Time magazine claimed Ida Stover Eisenhower was a member of the River Brethren, a Mennonite sect, Time was merely continuing its consistent policy of slander in all that pertains to Jehovah's witnesses. She was never a River Brethren. She was one of Jehovah's witnesses. The first study in the Watchtower magazine in Abilene, Kans., started in her home in 1895. Her home was the meeting-place till 1915, when a hall was obtained. She continued a regular publisher with Jehovah's witnesses till 1942, when failing health rendered her inactive; but she remained a staunch believer (Knorr, 1946:7).
Kornitzer specifically endeavored to determine the source of Dwight Eisenhower's "greatness," concluding that it came from his family and their values. In Dwight's words, his mother was "deeply religious," and he once stated that his mother
had gravitated toward a local group known as The Bible Class. In this group, which had no church minister, she was happy. Sunday meetings were always held in the homes of members, including ours. The unusual program of worship included hymns, for which mother played the piano, and prayers, with the rest of the time devoted to group discussion of a selected chapter of the Bible (1967:305)..
Although the group preferred the label Bible Students before 1931, when they met they usually did not study the Bible but primarily Watchtower publications.
In the early 1900s the study focus was a set of books called Studies in the Scriptures written by C.T. Russell and his wife, and also the current issues of The Watchtower magazine. Although the Eisenhower boys usually skirted around the issue of their religious upbringing, Dwight Eisenhower once openly acknowledged that the group his parents were involved with was the Jehovah's Witnesses:
there was, eventually, a kind of loose association with similar groups throughout the country ... chiefly through a subscription to a religious periodical, The Watchtower. After I left home for the Army, these groups were drawn closer together and finally adopted the name of Jehovah's Witnesses (1967:305).
Eisenhower then adds, "They were true conscientious objectors to war. Though none of her sons could accept her conviction in this matter, she refused to try to push her beliefs on us just as she refused to modify her own" (1967:305). Conversely Dwight's mother was not happy about her sons violation of Watchtower beliefs especially their attitudes toward war.
Many reporters termed Dwight's mother "a religious pacifist" (for example see Life Magazine, 1969) as Dwight did. The Watchtower has established in the courts that they are not pacifists but conscientious objectors, opposed only to wars initiated and carried out by humans. The Watchtower teaches that involvement in war, except those that God wants us to fight, is not only a violation of God's law that "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shall love thy neighbor" but is also wrong because Watchtower doctrine considers it an improper use of time in these last days before Armageddon. They taught their followers to be dedicated to converting others before the end, which since the late 1800s has been taught by the Watchtower to be "just around the corner." They are in their words "conditional pacifists" although the Watchtower often argues against all war on pacifist grounds. In Dwight's words, his mother "was opposed to militarism because of her religious beliefs" (Kornitzer, 1955:87).
Jehovah's Witnesses then also eschewed all political involvement because they felt--and still teach today--that the soon-to-be-established kingdom of God on earth--the millennium--was the only solution to all worldly problems (Kornitzer, 1955:276). In Milton Eisenhower's words, his parents were as good Jehovah's Witnesses "more concerned with the millennium which, unfortunately, hadn't come in their day, than they were with contemporary social institutions" (Kornitzer, 1955:278). All of the Eisenhower boys disagreed with the Watchtower view in this area. Milton also stated his parents were aloof from politics but ". . . as I became older, I used to hold many conversations with them in a futile attempt to show them that they were wrong" (Kornitzer, 1955:277). Of course, as Watchtower followers, Ida and, until he left, David were not allowed to be involved in politics--even voting became a disfellowshipping offense in the 1940's.
Often Ida's alleged pacifism is given as the reason for her opposition to Ike's military career when the actual reason was Watchtower theology. An example was her reaction to his leaving for West Point in the summer of 1911, as reported by Pickett. At this time Dwight's
. . . mother and twelve-year-old brother Milton were the only family members there to see him off. His mother was unable to say a thing, Milton remembered, "I went out on the west porch with mother as Ike started uptown, carrying his suitcase, to take the train. Mother stood there like a stone statue and I stood right by her until Ike was out of sight. Then she came in and went to her room and bawled" (Pickett, 1995:8).
Alden Hatch, after recounting the consternation Ida had over Dwight attending West Point--to the extent she hoped he would fail the entrance exam so he would not go, claims that the reason was her "abhorrence to war" (Hatch, 1944:21). Ida's opposition was actually for several reasons, and consequently she hid from her sons her "weakened faith" and "grief" that resulted from Ike's pursuing a military career. The Eisenhower sons' embarrassment about their parents' involvement in the Watchtower is vividly revealed in the following account:
Both Ida and David, but especially Ida, were avid readers of The Watchtower, and at the time of Ida's death there was a fifty-year collection in the house on South East Fourth Street. The publication had arrived by mail from 1896 to 1946. It was Milton who bundled up the fifty-year collection of the presumably embarrassing magazines and got them out of the Eisenhower house and away from the eyes of reporters. He gave them to a neighbor and Witness (Miller, 1987:79).
The neighbor was Mrs. James L. Thayer, one of the women that originally converted Mrs. Eisenhower. The disposal of Dwight's parent's Watchtower literature, charts and other Watchtower items was only one indication of the many conflicts the Eisenhower boys likely experienced over their parent's esoteric religion. These conflicts may be one reason why none of them ever became involved in the Watchtower or even a fundamentalist church.
Another account illustrates the press' tendency to avoid revealing the Eisenhower parents' Watchtower involvement. When Ike graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1915, his mother presented to him a copy of the American Standard version of the Bible used by the Watchtower because it consistently used the term "Jehovah" for God. When Ike was sworn in as president for his second term, this Bible was used (see photograph London Daily News Feb 2, 1957:1). The press reports of this account, though, usually did not quote the words the President actually read which were "Blessed is the nation whose God is Jehovah" but instead substituting the word "Lord" for "Jehovah." The Watchtower concluded that this misquote was an attempt to distance President Eisenhower from his parents' faith by not using a term that was at this time intimately connected with the Jehovah's Witnesses sect (Knorr, 1957:323-324).
Why were the Eisenhower's (and the press) so reticent about honestly revealing the religion of their parents? One reason is revealed in an article published in the official Watchtower magazine called Awake!
On September 11, 1946, Mrs. Ida Stover Eisenhower died in Abilene, Kans. Private services were conducted at the home, and public services were handled by an army chaplain from Ft. Riley. Was that in respect for Mrs. Eisenhower? Pallbearers were three American Legionnaires and three Veterans of Foreign Wars. Was that appropriate? ... In 1942 her husband, also one of Jehovah's witnesses, died. One of Jehovah's witnesses preached the funeral service. Mrs. I.S. Eisenhower, like all Jehovah's witnesses, believed religion a racket and the clergy in general, including army chaplains, to be hypocrites. She harbored no special pride for "General Ike;" she was opposed to his West Point appointment. It was gross disrespect to the deceased for an army chaplain to officiate at the funeral.
As for the pallbearers. The American Legion particularly, and also the Veterans of Foreign Wars, are repeatedly ringleaders in mob violence against Jehovah's witnesses. Hundreds of instances could be cited, but illustrative is the one occurring the Sunday before Mrs. Eisenhower's death, in near-by Iowa. There war veterans broke up a public Bible meeting of Jehovah's witnesses, doing much physical violence. Hardly appropriate, then, was it, for such to act as pallbearers? Only death could keep the body of Mrs. Eisenhower from walking away from a funeral so disrespectful of all that she stood for (Knorr, 1946:7).
Unfortunately, this article did not discuss how the Watchtower's teachings and policy on military service, education and involvement in "false religion" contributed to the conflicts noted in the above quote. Dwight's religious orientation as an adult was described as "moderate and tolerant, simple and firm," quite in contrast to the confrontative, pugnacious Watchtower sect of the first half of this century (Fox, 1969:907).
Other reasons for the press' and the Eisenhower boys' lack of honesty about their Watchtower background include embarrassment over the Watchtower's opposition to the flag salute and all patriotic activities, vaccinations and medicine in general, the germ theory and their advocating many ineffectual medical "cures" including phrenology, radio solar pads, radiesthesia, radionics, iridiagnosis, the grape cure, and their staunch opposition to the use of aluminum cooking utensils and Fluoridation of drinking water. Dwight Eisenhower had good reasons to hide his Watchtower background when he ran for president. Roy noted that Eisenhower's religious background was used by some to argue that he was not fit to become president:
Both Eisenhower and Stevenson were vigorously challenged by some Protestant[s]...for their religious ties. The association of Eisenhower's mother with the Jehovah's Witnesses was exploited to make the GOP candidate appear as an "anti-Christian cultist" and a "foe of patriotism" (Roy, 1953).
The thesis that the Eisenhower boys were embarrassed by their parents' Watchtower involvement is supported by the problem which developed when the Watchtower tried to exploit Mrs. Eisenhower's name for their advantage. One reason for the Eisenhower boys' concern was because Jehovah's Witnesses were generally scorned by most churches and society in general, especially at the turn of the century. Virtually no college-educated people were members, and the education level even today is still extremely low, among the lowest of all religious denominations (Cosmin and Lachman, 1993). A problem that the Eisenhower boys faced in the 1940s, according to Edgar Eisenhower, was that "the deep, sincere and even evangelical religious fervor" of their mother was used by the Watchtower "to exploit her in her old age" (Kornitzer, 1955:139).
This concern prompted Edgar to write a letter in 1944 to the Jehovah's Witness who was caring for his mother when she was 82. As was the practice then for all members, young and old--and as Jehovah's Witnesses today are well known for-- Witnesses go from door-to-door and "witness" on the street corners, primarily by selling their literature. Edgar evidently felt that the Eisenhower name was being exploited in this work and objected to his mother "being taken out of the home and used for the purpose of distributing [Watchtower] religious literature" (Kornitzer, 1955:139). Edgar added that he was "willing to fight" for his mother's "right to continue to believe as she saw fit, but ... she could be easily and mistakenly influenced in performing any service which would be represented to her as helpful to the advancement of religious beliefs" of the Watchtower (Kornitzer, 1955:139). His concern was that his mother should no longer
be taken from place to place and exhibited as the mother of General Eisenhower--solely for the purpose of attempting to influence anyone [to accept the Watchtower beliefs] ... I want mother shielded and protected and not exposed or exhibited ... mother's home should be maintained solely for her intimate friends and relatives and ... no stranger should be permitted to live in the house regardless of who he may be ... (Kornitzer, 1955:139).
This problem was eventually solved by removing the Jehovah's Witness who was then caring for Ida Eisenhower, Naomi Engle, a lifelong friend and certainly no stranger to Ida, from Ida's home and replacing her with a Mrs. Robinson, a non-Witness. Would Edgar have objected if Ida was allowed to use the Eisenhower name for a cause such as education, health or even a church such as the Lutherans or Methodists? Part of what he likely objected to was what he felt was the Watchtower exploiting her to spread a set of beliefs that he and his brothers firmly and openly disagreed with, i.e., the Watchtower Millennial theology.
Did Ida Eisenhower Die a Jehovah's Witness?
When researching Eisenhower's religion "Since so little original documentation exists, most historians have relied on interviews with persons who knew David and Ida" (Branigar 1994:1). Of the large amount of information available, one has to determine which conclusions were historically accurate--sometimes no easy task. One of the most reliable sources is Gladys Dodd's thesis because she used scores of personal interviews with the family, many of whom she was personally acquainted with, to study the religious background of the Eisenhower family in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, some Watchtower sources are questionable.
Dr. Holt, the director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower library in Abilene, Kansas indicates that the Watchtower may be involved in passing documents off as real which are evidently forgeries (1999). Specifically, interviews with family members has led J. Earl Endacott, a former Eisenhower library curator, to conclude that it was a 1944 incident which led to the dismissal of Ida's nurse, Mrs. Engle, who was then an active Jehovah's Witness.
The source of this information was Mrs. Robinson, who became Ida's nurse after Engle's dismissal. She claimed that Engle and another Witness conned Ida to write her name several times on a blank sheet of paper under the pretense of giving her "practice." According to Mrs. Robinson, the most legible signature was then physically cut from the sheet and pasted on the bottom of the letter to Mr. Boeckel which was not written by Mrs. Eisenhower but by Engle. Endacott concluded Engle had "more loyalty to the Witnesses" than to the Eisenhower's to whom she was distantly related. Later "in one of her lucid moments Ida told Mrs. Robinson what had happened and gave the sheet with the cut out name to her. When the Eisenhower foundation took over the home, Mrs. Robinson told me the story and gave me the sheet which I still have" (Endacott, N.D.).
This letter she allegedly wrote was to a Richard Boeckel, a young man who had become a Jehovah's Witness while still in the army (Boeckel, 1980). In August of 1944 Boeckel attended a Watchtower assembly in Denver where he met Lotta Thayer, Ida's neighbor from Abilene. In his conversations with her, Boeckel explained the difficulty of being a Witness in a military environment. Thayer then reportedly told him that her neighbor was General Eisenhower's mother, and added that "she's one of Jehovah's Witnesses" and asked Boeckel if he would like her to write to him (Knorr, 1980:24-29). Boeckel wrote Ida, and part of the letter Ida allegedly wrote back to him stated,
A friend returning from the United Announcers Convention of Jehovah's Witnesses, informs me of meeting you there. I rejoice with you in your privilege of attending such convention. It has been my good fortune in the years gone by to attend these meetings of those faithfully proclaiming the name of Jehovah and his glorious kingdom which shortly now will pour out its rich blessings all over the earth. My friend informs me of your desire to have a word from General Eisenhower's mother whom you have been told is one of the witnesses of Jehovah. I am indeed such and what a glorious privilege it has been in associating with [other Witnesses]. . . . Generally I have refused such requests because of my desire to avoid all publicity. However, because you are a person of good will towards Jehovah God and His glorious Theocracy I am very happy to write you. . . . It was always my desire and my effort to raise my boys in the knowledge of and to reverence their Creator. My prayer is that they all may anchor their hope in the New World, the central feature of which is the Kingdom for which all good people have been praying the past two thousand years. I feel that Dwight my third son will always strive to do his duty with integrity as he sees such duty. I mention him in particular because of your expressed interest in him. And so as the mother of General Eisenhower and as a Witness of and for the Great Jehovah of Hosts (I have been such for the past 49 years) I am pleased to write you and to urge you to faithfulness, as a companion of and servant with those who "keep the commands of God and have the testimony of Jesus" (Quoted in Cole, 1955:194-195).
To encourage Boeckel to accept Watchtower doctrines, the letter mentioned several current events which the Watchtower then taught was evidence that Armageddon would occur very soon, concluding that "Surely this portends that very soon the glorious Theocracy, the long promised kingdom of Jehovah...will rule the entire earth and pour out manifold blessings upon all peoples who are of good will towards Him. All others will be removed [killed at Armageddon]. Again, may I urge your ever faithfulness to these 'Higher Powers' and to the New World now so very near." The letter dated August 20, 1944, evidently had the taped signature "Ida Eisenhower" affixed to it and closed with "Respectfully yours in hope of and as a fighter for the New World" (Cole, 1955:191).
This Ida Eisenhower letter, Endacott concluded, was "not in the words of Ida, who at the time could hardly write her own name" and evidentially she was not always mentally alert although her physical health was good. Her memory started to fail soon after her husband died and was at times so poor that she could not even remember her own son's names (Eisenhower, 1974:188). Furthermore, this letter is very well written quite in contrast to the letter she wrote in her own hand dated 1943 (see Cole 1955). When the Eisenhower sons found out about this event (evidentially a reporter published the letter putatively written by Ida Eisenhower to Mr. Boeckel) and other similar incidences, they wrote to Engle exploiting Ida (Kornitzer 1955). The letter was evidentially ignored by Engle and then Milton was given the task of dismissing her. At this time, Milton hired non-Witness Mrs. Robinson to help take care of Ida.
It would appear that Richard Boeckel would immediately be suspicious when he received the letter with Mrs. Eisenhower's signature obviously taped on it. He should have confirmed that the letter was genuine before he made claims about receiving a letter from Ida Eisenhower. His story and a photo reproduction of the letter was published in Marley Cole's book Jehovah's Witnesses and other sources, and Boeckel repeated the claims about the letter in his life story published in the October 15, 1980 Watchtower. At the minimum, the Watchtower Society, Mr. Boeckel, and Marley Cole have unethically presented a letter as genuine evidentially without verification. If Mrs. Eisenhower's letter is verified to be valid, the allegations that her letter is a forgery should be squashed. So far the Watchtower has not answered several inquiries about this matter. The Eisenhower museum has agreed to pay for a handwriting expert to examine the letter, but all attempts to obtain the cooperation of the Watchtower have so-far failed.
Merle Miller related an experience involving Boeckel and this letter which reveals the irony of Eisenhower's mother's faith:
. . . one time when Boeckel refused, as a good Witness must, to salute his superior officers at Fort Warren, he said that he was a Witness and that his refusal to salute was "based on my understanding of the Bible." One officer reportedly said, "General Eisenhower ought to line you Jehovah's Witnesses up and shoot you all!" Boeckel then, again according to The Watchtower, said, "'Do you think he would shoot his own mother, sir?' "'What do you mean by that?' "Reaching in my pocket and taking out Sister Eisenhower's letter, I handed it to him. . . . He read the letter ... [and] handed it back to me. 'Get back to ranks,' he said, 'I don't want to get mixed up with the General's mother'"(Miller, 1987:79).
Suspicion that the letter was a forgery is also supported by a Watchtower teaching called The Theocratic Warfare Doctrine. The Theocratic Warfare doctrine essentially teaches that it is appropriate to withhold the truth from "people who are not entitled to it" to further the Watchtower's interests (Reed, 1992; Franz, 1971:1060-1061). Reed defines Theocratic War Strategy as the approval to lie "to outsiders when deemed necessary" and also to deceive outsiders to advance the Watchtower's interests (Reed, 1995:40). In the words of Kotwall the Watchtower teaches that "to lie and deceive in the interest of their religion is Scripturally approved" (Kotwall, 1997:1). Jehovah's Witnesses do not always lie outright, but they often lie according to the court's definition--not telling "the whole truth and nothing but the truth," which means the court requires the whole story, not half-truths or deception (Bergman 1998). In the words of Raines, theocratic warfare in practice means "deceiving" to protect and advance the interests of "God's people" especially God's "organization the Watchtower" (Raines, 1996:20).
Nonetheless I found no evidence that either parent was not a devoted Watchtower adherent when the Eisenhower boys were raised. If Mrs. Eisenhower's allegiance to the Watchtower waned as she got older, this would not affect the fact that her boys were raised as Witnesses, but would help us to better understand Ida Eisenhower.
In conclusion, Ida probably did not resign from the Witnesses and still saw herself as one. The reasons for concluding Ida Eisenhower mailed other letters at about the same time that she allegedly mentioned her Witness commitment to Boeckel include a handwritten letter to fellow Witness Mrs. H. I. Lawson of Long Island, N.Y., in 1943 (Cole, 1955). Although this letter could be a forgery as well, no one has voiced this concern yet.
New York Times, Sept. 12, 1946, p. 7.
In addition, a front page Wichita Beacon (April 1943) article about Ida's Watchtower assembly attendance gave no indication that she was then disenchanted with Jehovah's Witnesses. The article stated that "the 82 year old mother of Americas famous military leader. . . was the center of attraction at the meeting Sunday, and her name was heard in just about every conversation, speech and discussion. The program's subject was 'how to become a good Jehovah's Witness." No evidence exists that only a year later she rejected Watchtower teachings or had resigned. These facts do not prove the letter is not a forgery, nor do they demonstrate the commonly alleged view that she became a Witness only in her later years when she was becoming senile, as often implied by many authors.
Conversely, some hints exists that Mrs. Eisenhower's loyalty to the Watchtower, in contrast to the common perception, waned as she grew older. All of her sons left the Watchtower, as did her husband, all whom became opposed to many of their teachings. Furthermore, when J. F. Rutherford became the Watchtower president in 1916, their teachings changed drastically. Rutherford introduced many - if not most - of their more objectionable teachings such as their opposition to medicine, flag salute, vaccines, blood transfusions, and all other religions, all of which Rutherford regarded as "a snare and a racket" and of Satan. If Rutherford had retained the teachings of the first president, C.T. Russell, I believe the Eisenhower family concerns about the Watchtower would not have been nearly as great.
On the other hand, very good reasons existed for the Eisenhower family to attempt to distance themselves from the Watchtower--reasons which were made clear by some of Eisenhower's opponents, some evidently who planned to use this information to hurt Eisenhower's political career. As noted above, Roy noted that Eisenhower's religious background was used by some to argue that he was not fit to become president.
The Charge that Dwight was Irreligious
Although the Eisenhower brothers tried to conceal their Watchtower background, they did not hide the fact that their home environment was dominated with "Biblically literalistic" values and because "all" the Eisenhower children were "fundamentalists" the Bible was for them the
. . . one authoritative guide, read every morning at family prayers, quoted again and again when family decisions were in the making. Both father and mother could quote the Bible for any occasion and almost from beginning to end.... They owned a concordance, but the sons remember that on the rare occasion when reference to it became necessary both parents were almost furtive in seeking its aid (Hutchinson, 1954:364).
Ida and David Eisenhower's religious beliefs clearly influenced their children, and their "unorthodox if not eccentric" religious views were not forced upon them. Neal claims that in violation to Watchtower policy the Eisenhower boys were "encouraged to reach their own conclusions," regarding religion and this may have influenced them to have "later joined more conventional Protestant denominations ..." (Neal, 1984:13). Neal concluded that by setting high standards and teaching the value of high moral principles, their parents had given their sons a "quiet strength" (Neal, 1984:13).
Dwight Eisenhower and his brothers, as is true of about half of those who are raised in the Watchtower sect, left when they became adults--yet they were no doubt influenced by the Watchtower belief structure and many of its ideals. As is true of many persons raised Witnesses, though, they could not accept many of the Watchtower's major theological teachings. One of the primary Watchtower beliefs that the Eisenhower boys evidently did accept later in life was the value of the Bible. Dwight Eisenhower once stated "if each of us in his own mind would dwell upon the simple virtues--integrity, courage, self-confidence, and unshakable faith in his Bible--would not some of our problems tend to simplify themselves?" (Fuller and Green, 1968:216).
A major part of Jehovah's Witness doctrine is a required belief in creationism. The first book that they published against evolution was the 1898 work The Bible Versus the Evolution Theory and the most recent book they published on this topic was in 1985 called Life--How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or By Creation? The latter book was published in 27 languages and as of 1999 had a total printing of over 30 million copies. This teaching may have influenced certain statements Eisenhower made such as
We are a religious nation today because in the Declaration of Independence they stated their full reliance on 'the laws of nature and nature's God' and because they published before the world the self-evident truths: 'that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights ....' In contrast with this concept of the sacredness of life, modern atheistic dictatorships treat men as nothing more than animals or educated mules. How many materialistic psychologists and smart-alec professors sneer that men invented God in a childly search for security; yet I have noticed that men in the foxholes or at the moment of death turn to some higher Power for comfort and courage.... although I have seldom displayed or discussed my religious philosophy with anyone, a deep Bible-centered faith has colored my life since childhood. Devout parents, who loved the Bible as dearly as life itself, made sure of that. Indeed, before I was eighteen, I had read through the entire Bible and discussed it, chapter by chapter, with my mother (Quoted in Gamman, 1969:3-4).
Dwight then cites a number of times where he turned to God, and the events that occurred after he did so lent evidence to his conclusion that in his opinion he believed God intervened in response to his prayer. Specifically during his World War II campaigns, Dwight constantly asked for "God's guidance in making the right decision," and during the eight years which he was president he "never opened a cabinet meeting without a minute of silent prayer" (Quoted in Gamman, 1969:3). Of course how sincere his outward display of piety was is difficult to judge.
As is also true of many Witness children, the Eisenhower children could not accept the Watchtower teaching that it is a waste of time to obtain a college education or pursue a career because this experience may damage ones faith and also because the end of the world was expected any day. Nor could they accept the Watchtower teaching that all world events are strictly under God's control, and it is futile to try to interfere with them because life and world affairs are like a movie script that has already been written and can be played out only accordingly to the script.
A major motivation to hide their Witness background was likely an attempt to overcome the stigma of being raised in a fundamentalist sect, yet Dwight repeatedly stated that he accepted many of his parents' beliefs. In Dwight's words, "We boys are all religious but we don't go around saying 'I am a religious man' any more than we would say, 'I am an honest man,' or 'I am a clean man,' ..." (Miller 1987: 77) John Bonnell put it this way: "To the very close of his life Dwight Eisenhower carried in his mind and heart the indelible imprint of his parents' religion" (1971:219). Merlin Gustafson claims that one evidence of this imprint was that, "within a few months" after taking the oath of office, Eisenhower was popularly known as the "most religious President in our history." Examples of Eisenhower's religious actions that earned him this title include:
He helped sponsor a nationwide moral crusade and religious revival, and in general he sought to encourage the cause of American religious interests. During his administration the highly publicized Prayer Breakfasts were begun and "Under God" was placed in the pledge of allegiance to the flag. He proclaimed Days of Prayer for the nation, backed the organization known as Foundation for Religious Action and invited Billy Graham and other prominent religious leaders to the White House. And he delivered hundreds of messages, both written and oral, to religious organizations (1969:610-613).
Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency was said by one author to have been a crusade for "moral and religious" goals (Gustafson, 1969:612). The reticence of the Eisenhower's to honestly reveal their religious background also produced a number of ironies. Many of those who attacked Eisenhower did so on the grounds that he "never joined a church until after he became President" implying that his Sunday worship as President "smacked of hypocrisy" (Fuller and Green, 1968:218). Although most of Eisenhower's adult years "were spent outside organized religion" and he was 63 before he formally joined a church, his behavior, personal statements and beliefs on religion must be carefully evaluated before judging him in this area (Dodd, 1963:233).
Hutchinson added Eisenhower seldom wrote a speech "without some reference to the nation's need for spiritual strength. He attends church more frequently than most of his predecessors. He goes to prayer-meeting breakfasts. His cabinet sessions begin with a prayer. He is never too busy to receive church delegations and several of his most important speeches have been delivered at church gatherings" (Hutchinson, 1954:362). The role of religion in Dwight's life was evidently so central that "again and again, as he wrestles with the requirements of the presidency, Abilene shows through. Its mark is plain on him. Most of the time it helps to steady his thinking and give his leadership confident direction. Occasionally, it betrays him into a belief that some problems are simpler than they are, and their solutions quickly to be found" Hutchinson, 1954:362). An example of how Dwight's religious background showed through occurred on January 20, 1953, after Eisenhower was sworn in as President before Chief Justice Vinson he said:
"My friends, before I begin the expression of those thoughts that I deem appropriate . . . [to] ask that you bow your heads." Low exclamations of surprise rippled along the press tables, for this prayer was not a scheduled part of the program. Turning the "inaugural platform into an alter of worship," the President, the first ever to open his inaugural address with a plea for divine guidance, addressed his first words, not to the nation, but to God. . . . the prayer, which he had composed himself . . . was as follows: "Almighty God . . . my future associates in the executive branch of the Government join me in beseeching that Thou wilt make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people . . . regardless of station, race, or calling. May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concept of our Constitution, hold to differing political beliefs, so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and for Thy glory. Amen" (Dodd, 1959:1-2).
Eisenhower also ardently defended the convictions of his parents even though he disagreed with many of them. This conclusion is apparent in a letter that Eisenhower mailed during the last week of one of his major World War II campaigns. Dictated to his brother Arthur on May 18, the letter is a response to a story about his mother's Jehovah's Witness faith, stressing her alleged "pacifism" and the irony of Mrs. Eisenhower's son being a general (Ambrose, 1970:187). Eisenhower ignored the claim that Jehovah's Witnesses are pacifists and simply told Arthur that his mother's happiness in her religion "means more to me than any damn wise crack that a newspaper man can get publicized" (Miller, 1987:79). His respect for his mother is also vividly revealed in his words:
I should like so much to be with my Mother these few days. But we're at war. And war is not soft, it has no time to indulge even the deepest and most sacred emotions. I loved my Dad. I think my Mother [is] the finest person I've ever known. She has been the inspiration for Dad's life and a true helpmeet [sic] in every sense of the word (Eisenhower, 1981:50-51).
The value that Dwight most strongly developed later in his life which may have had its roots in his mother's religion was his strong opposition to war as a solution to human conflicts. He even stated he doubted that people who hated war because of academic or dogmatic reasons detested it as much he did:
I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as only one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.... War is the least acceptable solution of our problems.... War settles nothing." He stated the same conviction in an address at Pittsburgh in October 1950, when he said "Possibly my hatred of war blinds me so that I cannot comprehend the arguments that its advocates adduce. But, in my opinion, there is no such thing as a preventive war. ... the fact [is] that war begets conditions that beget further war (Quoted in Taylor, 1952:91).
Dwight D. Eisenhower
(With the Tank Corps, Camp Meade, Maryland, 1919.)
One reason that he detested war, he stated, was because his military career forced him to experience "bodies rotting on the ground," smell " decaying human flesh," and to visit field hospitals where he was exposed to "desperately wounded" war victims. Dwight added that although he hated war, he hated the Nazis even more.
Nor did Ida cut her son off because he became part of the military. Watchtower policy until recently requires the disfellowshipping of all members who allow themselves to be involved in the military, even as an employee for a war armament plant.
In spite of her son's violation of Watchtower norms, Ida evidently never shunned him as Watchtower policy required. For example, in 1913, after attending a Witness convention in Washington and spending a week in Watchtower Headquarters in Brooklyn, the Eisenhower's visited their son at West Point (Fleming, 1955:1). Nor is there any evidence that Ida Eisenhower experienced problems with the Watchtower because of associating with a son who obviously violated a major Watchtower policy (Dodd, 1959).
One explanation for this special treatment is that shunning was then not as rigidly enforced as today. Another is that after Dwight became a general, Ida may have been given special consideration due to her son's prominence. As late as 1943 she was still a Witness in good standing--as shown by the 1943 picture of her on the front page of the Wichita Beacon that documented her involvement in a Witness assembly in that city (Fleming, 1955:1).
Probably the most incongruous example of special treatment was Ida's funeral service which was conducted by Witnesses, yet was officiated by a lieutenant colonel. Ida Eisenhower died on September 11, 1946, in Abilene, Kansas, after a four-year illness. The pall bearers wore "the uniform caps of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars" (Hutchinson, 1954:365). This activity has been forbidden by the Watchtower for decades and although it was sufficient grounds for expulsion, she was never disfellowshipped after she died.
Although Dwight Eisenhower stated that his mother was highly "individualistic" and "not able to accept the dogma of any specific sect or denomination," Miller notes that "that is what Eisenhower wanted to believe and perhaps at times actually did, but Ida herself contradicted it" (Miller, 1987:78). The Witnesses are required to rigidly conform to the Watchtower beliefs, and little deviance is allowed even in what most people regard as very minor areas of life. Violation of this requirement results in total cutting off, and not even Witness relatives can normally associate with those who are disfellowshipped.
Note: I wish to thank Barbara Dury, Associate Producer of 60 Minutes, for the initial impetus to complete this study, and the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library staff in Abilene, Kansas, for their enormous help and encouragement in this research, especially Thomas Branigar, library Archivist. I also thank the Eisenhower Room staff at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio for their critical research assistance (Defiance College had an interest in Eisenhower's religious activities because the college is a denominational school and a past president was a former Eisenhower speech writer. Furthermore, the bond between the college and Eisenhower resulted in the college's archive having fairly good holdings on Eisenhower). I also wish to thank Dr. Morris Sider of the Brethren in Christ Church Archives at Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania, and Gladys Dodd, who used extensive primary sources to produce the definitive study of the Eisenhower religious background.
Public domain photos from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas.
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_________. Eisenhower: 1893-1952. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
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Bergman, Jerry. "The Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses Branch of Protestantism" in America's Alternative Religions, Ed. by Timothy White Albany, NY: State University of New Press, 1995, p. 33-46.
_________. The Theocratic Warfare Doctrine: Why Jehovah's Witnesses Lie in Court. Clayton, CA: Witness Inc 1998.
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_________. "The Early Career of Abraham L. Eisenhower, Pioneer Preacher," Kansas Historical Quarterly 29 (Autumn 1963).
_________. Letter from author dated Oct. 8, 1994.
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_________. The Eisenhower Diaries (Robert H. Fervell, Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1981.
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Fleming, Helen. "Ike's Mom Jehovah Witness 50 yrs., Say group leaders; preacher from door to door in Abilene, Director reports." Chicago Daily News, June 25, 1955, pp. 1,3.
Ford, Edward , Jr. correspondence to author dated Sept. 1995.
Fox, Frederick. "Pro Ike." Christian Century. July 2,1969 Vol. 86.
Franz, Frederick (Ed.). Aid to Bible Understanding. New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1971.
________. Jehovah's Witnesses; Proclaimers of God's Kingdom. Brooklyn, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania 1993).
Freese, Arthur. "Man of the 20th century" (Interview with Milton Eisenhower) Modern Maturity. Dec-Jan., 1975 17(6):25-28).
Fuller, Edmund and David E. Green. God in the White House; The Faiths of American Presidents . New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968.
Gammon, Roland (Ed.). Eisenhower speech reprinted in (Roland Gammon Ed.) All Believers Are Brothers. New York: Doubleday, Garden City, 1969), 3-4.
Graham, Billy. Just As I Am; The Autobiography of Billy Graham. (San Francisco: Harper 1997), chapter 12 "The General who Became President" 188 - 206.
Gruss, Edmond. The Jehovah's Witnesses and Prophetic Speculation. Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976.
Gunther, John. Eisenhower, The Man and the Symbol. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1951.
Gustafson, Merlin. "Religion of a President." Christian Century. (April 30, 1969), 610-613.
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Jameson, Henery B. "Ike buried in Abilene; Massive crowd for Eisenhower funeral" Abilene Reflector--Chronicle, Memorial Ed. 1969.
Knorr, N.H. "Religion Void of Principle." Awake! Oct 22,1946, 27(20): 323-324.
_________. "Eisenhower book stirs a controversy: conceals fact that parents were Jehovah's Witnesses." Awake! ( Sept. 22, 1955. 36(18), 3-4.
_________. "Appreciated Parents" Awake! Ap. 22, 1975, 56(8):30.
_________. "Conspiracy against Jehovah's name" Watchtower 78(11): 323-324. June 1, 1957
Kornitzer, Bela. The Great American Heritage; The Story of the Five Eisenhower Brothers. New York: Farrar Straus, and Cudahy, 1955.
Kotwall, B. J. "The Watchtower Society Encourages Lying." The Investigator Magazine Australia 1997.
Larson, Arthur. Eisenhower; The President Nobody Knew. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1968.
Lyon, Peter. Eisenhower; Portrait of the Hero. Boston: Little, Brown and Co 1974.
McCullun, John Six Roads From Abilene, Some Personal Recollections of Edgar Eisenhower . Seattle, Wash.: Wood and Reber, Inc., 1960.
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Miller, Merle. Ike the Soldier; As They Knew Him. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1987.
Neal, Steve. The Eisenhower's. Lawrence, Kans: University Press of Kansas 1984.
Nevin, David. "Home to Abilene." Life (April 11,1969 Vol 66 No 14 ), 24.
Pearson, Drew. "Eisenhower's seek to clear mother of affiliation with religious sect." Merry-Go-Round in the Defiance Crescent News. (Dec. 19, 1956): 6.
Pickett, William. Dwight David Eisenhower and American Power. Wheeling, Ill.:Harland Davidson, Inc., 1995.
Raines, Ken. "Deception by JWs in Court, OK with Judge?" JW Research Journal. 3(2) Spring 1996, p. 20.
Reed, David. "Court Rules; Watchtower Booklet Recommends 'Untrue' Testimony Under Oath." Comments from the Friends, Spring, 1992.
_______. Dictionary of J.W. eez: The Loaded Language Jehovah's Witnesses Speak. (Assonet, MA.: Comments from the Friends, 1995): 40.
Ralph Lord, Roy. Apostles of Discord; A Study of Organized Bigotry and Disruption on the Fringes of Protestantism. Boston: Beach Press, 1953.
Russell, Charles Taze. Studies in the Scriptures; Series III, Thy Kingdom Come Chapter 10, "The Testimony of God's Stone Witness and Prophet, The Great Pyramid in Egypt," Allegheny, PA: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1904.
________. Studies in the Scriptures; Series I, The Plan of the Ages . New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1914 Front page.
Rutherford, Joseph. "The Alter in Egypt." Pt. 1 The Watch Tower. 49(22):339-345, Nov. 15, 1928; Pt. II. Dec. 1, 1928, 49(23):355-362).
Sellers, Ron. How Americans View Various Religious Groups. Report by Barna Research Group, 1990
Sider, Morris E. . Archivist for the Brethren in Christ Church, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. Interviews of various dates, and correspondence to the author dated October 24, 1994.
Taylor, Allan (Ed.). What Eisenhower Thinks. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Tonkin, R.G. "I grew up with Eisenhower." Saturday Evening Post,May 3,1952.
Time Eisenhower: Soldier of peace." April 4, 1969:19-25.
Time "I Chose My Way." Sept 23, 1946: 27.
Whitney, David C. The American Presidents. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1967.
Watchtower Publication Awake! "Should Christians be Pacifists" (May 8, 1997, 78(9): 22-23); "Why Jehovah's Witnesses are not Pacifists" and "Pacifism and Conscientious Objection - is there a difference?" 73 - 81 The Watchtower (Feb 1, 1951 72(3): 67- 73; Christendom or Christianity, which is the light of the World? (New York, NY:Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1955), 24-26 subtitled "Is a Christian a Pacifist?"
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