JACK M. HOLL, The Religious Journey of Dwight D. Eisenhower: Duty, God, and Country. DLibrary of Religious Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021. Pp. 345. $29.99 US.
Dwight David Eisenhower remains probably the most famous American to ever attend a Brethren in Christ Sunday school. For at least a few weeks in the summer of 1904, the young Kansan was a pupil at the Abilene church—a fact preserved on a roster now held at the Brethren in Christ Archives at Messiah University. That fact alone should make Jack M. Holl’s new religious biography of Eisenhower of interest to readers of Brethren in Christ History and Life.
Holl, a historian who has held posts at universities and at the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Energy, has published this study in the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company’s Library of Religious Biography series. This series seeks to “open a window to the sometimes surprising influence of religion on the lives of influential people and the worlds they inhabited,” according to the publisher’s website. In this study, then, Holl is interested in understanding both Eisenhower’s personal faith and its influence on his life and career, as well as how his faith shaped and was shaped by the contexts in which Eisenhower lived and worked. Holl here is plowing new ground. “Eisenhower’s religious beliefs do not play large in traditional Eisenhower biography,” the author admits. “Every biographer acknowledges the importance of religion in his upbringing in Abilene, but after Eisenhower left home for West Point in 1911, religion disappears as a major theme in his biography and few emphasize the influence his deeply engrained religious beliefs had on his public life and work” (9). Holl seeks to remedy this gap in the scholarship. He argues that Eisenhower saw himself as very religious despite not being evidently or publicly devout (9) because for Eisenhower—as for much of mid-twentieth century America—religious faith was a matter of civic duty, of national loyalty. Indeed, Holl’s main argument is that “among [Eisenhower’s] most important contributions to American political and religious thought was his ardent advocacy of civil religion” (14), a belief “that God has specially blessed the American people, their country, and their history” (15). Eisenhower’s embodiment and advocacy of civil religion, Holl further asserts, was central to his political agenda as president, functioned as a bulwark against Communism in the early years of the Cold War, and was inclusive, not exclusive—“a prerequisite for lasting, stable, democratic government” that “welcomed anyone who could affirm the basic principles of democracy, swear an oath of allegiance, and serve the country” (14-15).
Given this main argument, readers of this journal may rightly ask how Eisenhower—raised by devoutly sectarian parents and bearing deep ties to the politically quietist Brethren in Christ Church—developed this particular brand of sectarian religiosity. Holl argues that Eisenhower, who rejected the faith of his parents and grandparents without ever denigrating it, translated some of its basic moral claims—about the worth of all people, about the importance of community and loyalty—into a nonsectarian set of values that could sustain his upward mobility, first to West Point and the U.S. military, and eventually to the presidency of Columbia University and, later, of the United States. Eisenhower’s historical circumstances were formative here, too. The Cold War context, Holl argues, pressed Eisenhower to develop a way of talking about faith—civil religion—that was also nonsectarian but that inspired fidelity to democracy and to country.
Those interested in Holl’s treatment of Eisenhower’s Brethren in Christ background will be most interested in the book’s second chapter, “The Man from Abilene, 1890-1909.” Here Holl centers Eisenhower’s upbringing in the small Kansas town that was colonized by Brethren in Christ migrants in the 1870s. Those migrants included Dwight’s grandfather, Bishop Jacob Eisenhower; Dwight’s uncle, Abraham, who would go on to become a colorful and prolific Brethren in Christ holiness evangelist; and Dwight’s father, David. Holl provides a solid overview of what he calls the “River Brethren tradition” (19ff). Significantly, the name “Brethren in Christ” does not appear anywhere in Holl’s account—a reflection, perhaps, that the name of this religious community was in flux in the 1860s and 1870s, when the migrants arrived in Kansas, although the name Brethren in Christ would certainly have been in use widely by the time of Eisenhower’s childhood.
In his chapter, Holl emphasizes key church doctrines such as the authority of the Bible and God’s sovereignty, and practices such as adult baptism and plain dress. He gives less time than one might expect to the fact that these East Coast farmers-turned-migrants discovered the doctrine of holiness in this new land, filled as it was with the extreme triumphs and tribulations that might draw one to a teaching about the possibility of Christian perfection in this lifetime. He also puts more emphasis on the church’s premillennial beliefs in the imminent return of Christ than other historians have done.
One of the signature values of Holl’s treatment of the Eisenhower’s Brethren in Christ background is that he writes from the perspective of a social historian. He does not take the church’s official beliefs or doctrinal statements as determinative of how they lived, worked, and worshipped. Instead, he pays close attention to how people lived, worked, and worshipped and then draws conclusions about their beliefs and convictions (whether or not those behaviors and ideals always matched perfectly with church teaching). This social historical approach is perhaps most apparent in Holl’s treatment of the economics of the Eisenhower family and the larger Brethren in Christ community in which they were situated. Specifically, he effectively debunks myths around the Eisenhower family’s poverty (26-30), and in doing so indicates just how wealthy many Kansas Brethren in Christ were while also underscoring the mutual aid practices of the church at this time (22-23, 27-30, 36-37). He notes, for instance, that Bishop Jacob Eisenhower repeatedly ensured financial care for his son, David, and his family after his son’s failed business ventures, even though the Eisenhowers never joined the Brethren in Christ Church. According to Holl, “the Eisenhowers’ River Brethren network of relatives and friends [provided] substantial family linkage and occasional financial support” for David, Ida, and their sons for many years—a fact that Holl characterizes as evidence of the church’s extensive and generous religious practice of caring for its own.
One of the challenges in assessing Holl’s book is its lack of documentation. The book contains no footnotes or other in-text documentation, although it does include a rather substantive bibliographic note on various primary and secondary sources. In an author’s note, Holl indicates that the publisher found his documentation too extensive and decided to remove all footnotes (presumably to make the book friendlier to a non-scholarly audience). The notes are preserved in Holl’s archival collection at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, but when I contacted the library to acquire a copy of the notes, the staff indicated that Holl’s collection was yet unprocessed and therefore not available to the public. In short, then, there is no way right now to fully assess Holl’s source base, especially for his treatment of Eisenhower’s Brethren in Christ background.
Despite this drawback, Holl’s biography is a solid treatment of a famous figure with Brethren in Christ connections, and well worth reading for those interested in our church’s history.