A Nation on a Mission

On November 21, 1899, five clergymen representing the General Missionary Committee of the [Northern] Methodist Episcopal Church called on President William McKinley at the White House. After presenting a resolution of thanks to their fellow Methodist, they turned to leave. Suddenly, McKinley said earnestly, "Hold a minute longer! Not quite yet, gentlemen! Before you go I would like to say just a word about the Philippine business. I have been criticized a good deal about the Philippines, but don't deserve it. The truth is I didn't want the Philippines, and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them. … I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. … I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night."

CH 99Order Christian History #99: Faith & the American Presidency in print.

Subscribe now to get future print issues in your mailbox (donation requested but not required).

Finally, he said, the answer came to him "that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States [pointing to a large map on the wall of his office], and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!"

This is one of the most remarkable religious statements ever made by a sitting president, even in an age when people more openly displayed their personal convictions than today. The context of the statement, the Spanish-American War, marked the emergence of the United States on the world scene as an imperial power. McKinley, regarded by many historians as the "first modern U.S. president," was a devout man whose Christian rationale for overseas expansion harmonized with American civil religion of the time— which saw America as a nation through which God had chosen to manifest his will and power in the world. McKinley's personal faith and his vision of the nation's divinely appointed mission were inseparable.

Nothing but a Christian

Born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio, William McKinley Jr. was the son of an ironmaster of modest means. His mother was a fervent Methodist and did all she could to inculcate an evangelical faith in her nine children. At age 10, William went forward at a camp meeting to "profess conversion," and at 16 he became a full-fledged member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Even after becoming president in 1897, McKinley made no effort to hide his faith. In his Inaugural Address he declared, "There is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers, who has so singularly favored the American people in every national trial, and who will not forsake us so long as we obey His commandments and walk humbly in His footsteps." During his years in Washington, he regularly worshiped at the Metropolitan Methodist Church and often entertained guests with Sunday evening hymn sings in the executive mansion. He told a delegation from his denomination, "I am a Methodist and nothing but a Methodist—a Christian and nothing but a Christian."

His speeches, especially during the time of the Spanish-American War and the ensuing peace negotiations, were filled with affirmations of Christian faith and civil religion. On July 6, 1898, after hostilities had ceased, he said that Americans should "offer thanksgiving to Almighty God, who in his inscrutable ways" led American forces "to unscathed triumph in strange lands and distant climes" and "has watched over our cause and brought nearer the success of the right and the attainment of just and honorable peace."

A splendid little war

The Cuban revolt against Spanish rule began in February 1895, and all McKinley's attempts to alleviate the situation through negotiations with Spain failed. Lurid reports of abuses in Cuba inflamed Americans" feelings in favor of the insurgents. In February 1898, the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor by a mysterious explosion (later found to be the result of spontaneous combustion in the ship's coal bunkers) further heightened tensions. When Spain refused to withdraw from Cuba, the situation rapidly deteriorated, and both countries declared war.

With no military planning, the U.S. embarked on a war whose outcome was not at all certain. Yet public opinion was solidly behind it, and the nation's preachers proclaimed it a holy war in which all the forces of righteousness were lined up on the American side. In a little over three months, the country's ill-prepared military and naval units decisively defeated the even more decrepit forces of Spain in the Caribbean and the Philippine Islands. With its quick victory and minimal loss of American lives, the crisis was, as John Hay, the U.S. ambassador in London at the time, put it, "a splendid little war." In an armistice signed on August 12, Spain agreed to the independence of Cuba, the cession of Puerto Rico and Guam to the U.S., and the right for the U.S. to deal with the Philippines as it saw fit. Representatives from the two sides convened in Paris in October to draw up the final peace settlement.

Although public enthusiasm for the establishment of a free Cuba under American protection was enormous, the country was deeply divided over the Philippines. An anti-imperialist movement, especially among members of the Democratic Party, maintained that annexing the Philippines was unconstitutional and inimical to American democratic values, would lead to further wars in the Far East without providing any significant trade benefits, and would confer citizenship upon inferior, half-civilized peoples. Proponents of annexation advanced arguments about American national mission and destiny. Still others said that it was in the country's economic interests to exploit opportunities in East Asia. Youthful imperialists like Albert Beveridge and Theodore Roosevelt insisted that America must assert its vigor and manhood on the world stage.

McKinley was torn by the issue. He kept his ear to the ground and carefully measured public sentiment. During the combat phase of the Spanish-American War when public enthusiasm about overseas ventures was at a fever pitch, he moved to take control of the Hawaiian islands, which had been a hot issue for some time. Seeing that wartime success had enhanced the popularity of his Republican Party and mid•term elections were coming up in November, he edged toward taking a part and finally all of the Philippines as well.

His interview with the Methodist ministers substantiates this. He wrestled for weeks and finally reached a decision. On October 28, John Hay, now Secretary of State, sent a message to the peace commissioners in Paris confirming that the U.S. had destroyed Spanish power in every part of the Philippines and "the President can see but one plain path of duty—the acceptance of the archipelago. Greater difficulties and more serious complications, administrative and international, would follow any other course." He claimed that the president had "been influenced by the single consideration of duty and humanity."

Manifest destiny

After heated debates, the Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris on February 6, 1899, by a margin of one vote. In a speech in Boston ten days later, McKinley declared that the islands "were entrusted to our hands by the war, and to that great trust, under providence of God and in the name of civilization, we are committed. It is a trust we have not sought; it is a trust from which we will not flinch. … We were obeying a higher moral obligation which rested upon us. We were doing our duty by them [the Filipinos] as God gave us the light to see our duty, with the consent of our own consciences, and with the approval of civilization." The Filipinos, McKinley said, were now committed into the guiding hand, liberalizing influences, generous sympathies, and uplifting education "not of their American masters, but of their American emancipators." They would be given peace, order, and beneficent government and would "bless the American republic because it emancipated and redeemed their fatherland and set them in the pathway of the world's best civilization."

One writer in 1899 flatly stated that it was "the duty and the manifest destiny of the United States to civilize and Christianize" the Filipinos. They, of course, did not see things this way. An insurgency by Philippine nationalists against U.S. rule took three years to suppress, cost far more American lives and money than the brief war with Spain, and discredited the justifications for the takeover. Yet Americans continued to believe that "Providence" had chosen their nation to bring liberty, democracy, freedom, and economic development to peoples throughout the world. Americans saw themselves as God's elect nation, which had done great deeds thanks to the strength of his mighty arm. Now the national mission would shift to leadership on the world stage.

This article is from Christian History magazine #99 Faith & the American Presidency. Read it in context here!

By Richard V. Pierard

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #99 in 2008]

Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.
Next articles

Civil Religion in America

Presidents have often served as chief pastors of the nation's shared beliefs

Gary Scott Smith

Hot Words in the Cold War

In his controversial "Evil Empire" speech, Ronald Reagan sought to re-moralize America's conflict with the Soviet Union

Paul Kengor

The American Moses

In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington argued that religion and morality were essential pillars of the new republic

Gary Scott Smith

“The Most Democratic Book in the World”

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were champions of both the Bible and progressive reform

Mark Noll
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis


Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry


Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories