On June 20, 1971, former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower joined members of the Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church for the congregation’s Sunday morning worship service. According to an article in the local press, the visit “provided Mrs. Eisenhower with a sense of the fellowship and community emphasized by the Brethren in Christ denomination.”
How did a former First Lady come to visit a church whose sponsoring denomination had, historically at least, spurned political involvements?
Believe it or not, the First Lady had a historical connection to the Brethren in Christ Church through her husband, the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose grandfather had been a Brethren in Christ minister and bishop in the nineteenth century.
More immediately, the connection came about through the initiative of former Carlisle pastor Roy H. Wenger. At the time, Wenger was serving as a member of the Messiah College Board of Trustees. While attending the groundbreaking ceremonies for a new campus building named in honor of the late President Eisenhower’s grandfather, Wenger met the former First Lady and casually invited her to attend a service at Carlisle.
Walter Winger, pastor of the Carlisle Church in 1971, recollects:
Roy was [standing] beside her, and in typical Roy Wenger fashion, he said to her, “You know that your husband was raised in the Brethren in Christ Church?” And she said, ”Oh yeah, I knew that, but I’ve never been in a Brethren in Christ church. I’d like to go sometime.” And Roy said, “Great. Will you come to one of our services? Over in Carlisle? It’s just a few miles from here.” And she said, “Well, who is the pastor there?” And Roy said, “I know him well. He’s the Rev. Walter Winger.” And she said, “Have him send me an invitation.” And so Roy comes home pretty enthused and says, “I think Mamie will come over if you invite her. . . . She wants an invitation.” I said, “Great.” So I wrote her an invitation, as polished as I could, and shortly got a letter back saying, “Yes, my staff will arrange it,” then a little while later I get a phone call and . . . we set a date.
For security reasons, Eisenhower’s social secretary swore Winger to secrecy, allowing him to tell only the church board members about the First Lady’s impending visit. On the morning of her arrival, the church cordoned off a pew for the First Lady and her Secret Service detail, and Winger announced her visit from the pulpit. He recollects that the church was “nicely filled” during her visit, and that members of the congregation appreciated the opportunity to shake hands and be photographed with the First Lady after the morning service. “We enjoyed [her visit] immensely,” he reminisces.
You can read more about this event, and other memorable occurrences in the history of the Carlisle Church, in my book, Committed to Community: A Centennial History of the Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church.