The Practical Faith of Theodore Roosevelt: Presbyterian and Paternal Influences | Presbyterian Historical Society

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The Practical Faith of Theodore Roosevelt: Presbyterian and Paternal Influences

June 3, 2019
Theodore Roosevelt and his family at Oyster Bay, NY, undated. MAPCASE 30.22.

--by Richard W. Reifsnyder                                                                                                            

“The old lion is dead.” Archie Roosevelt telegrammed these words to his older brother, Kermit, to announce their father’s death in 1919, a hundred years ago. Theodore Roosevelt (TR), whose explosive vitality had shaped so much of American life for a generation, had lived only to the age of sixty. He was buried in Oyster Bay, NY, in an Episcopal service led by the rector of Christ Church, the church of his wife Edith, which he attended regularly when at home at Sagamore Hill. When TR was a boy, however, he often attended the First Presbyterian Church of Oyster Bay, the village where his family spent their summers beginning in 1874, and which became his permanent residence. Later, and well into adulthood, he maintained friendships with the church’s pastors.

I served at the Oyster Bay church for more than a decade (1981-1994), living in the manse which had been built in 1886 in part with funds supplied by TR and a sister in honor of their father. To this day the Roosevelt name, memory, and spirit continue to be very much alive in that place.[1] Although the religious roots of the Roosevelt family were Dutch Reformed, for the sake of convenience and proximity, and because of TR’s mother’s heritage, they generally attended a neighborhood Presbyterian church. Theodore Roosevelt was significantly shaped by his Presbyterian roots, and he developed a deep, if theologically unsophisticated, faith. He attended church regularly his entire life, or spent time in personal devotion if circumstances--such as his period exploring ranching in the Dakotas--prevented church-going. This essay and two companion essays to follow explore TR’s Presbyterian connections and how his understandings of Christianity and church impacted his career as a politician and public servant.


The Roosevelt family lived in New York City on East 20th Street and attended the nearby Madison Square Presbyterian Church, where the future President was baptized on April 21, 1860. The church, a pioneer in the budding institutional church movement and a strong supporter of outreach to immigrants, was later well known for its crusading pastor, Charles Parkhurst, an inspiration and ally for TR’s reforming efforts as the city’s police commissioner. When the family moved uptown to W. 57th Street in 1873, they initially began attending the newly built sanctuary of the historic Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church of St. Nicholas. But, perhaps yielding to the influence of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr’s (TR Sr.) Georgia-born and Presbyterian-bred wife Martha, and their earlier Presbyterian connections, the family soon began attending the nearby Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. The Irish-born pastor John Hall became a close family friend. There was a long-standing connection between the Fifth Avenue church and the one in Oyster Bay. Following the Civil War, wealthy New York families increasingly found the north shore of Long Island a congenial vacation spot. A number of accomplished businessmen associated with the Fifth Avenue church also took leadership in the Oyster Bay congregation, providing financial stability that enabled the church to build a magnificent Victorian Gothic sanctuary in 1873. TR Sr. was elected for a three-year term as Trustee in 1877, though he served only a year before dying from causes related to an extended illness.[2]

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, New York, undated. [Pearl ID: 13972]

Although the Fifth Avenue and Oyster Bay churches had roots in the more theologically stringent Old School Presbyterian tradition, the Madison Square Presbyterian Church of Theodore’s early years was affiliated with the more evangelistic New School. By 1870, the Old School and New School had reunited, and there is little evidence that the Roosevelts were caught up in doctrinal disputes. The senior Roosevelt was more interested in mission, serving on Madison Square’s Mission Committee for fifteen years, visiting regularly with poor families in the area of the church’s Mission Sabbath School, and becoming an advocate for the community’s physical and spiritual needs. Early in his life TR witnessed the importance of the church and especially the centrality of service and outreach to its ministry. To TR’s father, faith meant doing things for Christ.

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In the diaries TR kept as a young man he regularly reported on his church attendance and made occasional comments on the service of worship. He praised Dr. Hall’s sermons at Fifth Avenue, observing after one service at Oyster Bay, “I like our simple Presbyterian form for the service so much, for it always makes me think.” He went on to admit, “I generally do not do much thinking on serious subjects.” He was twenty years old at the time.[3]

Early in his life TR witnessed the importance of the church and especially the centrality of service and outreach to its ministry. To his father, faith meant doing things for Christ.

As a boy “Teedie” was subject to severe asthma attacks. Biographer David McCullough suggests that it was more than coincidental that a preponderance of these attacks occurred on Sunday. His father, at home for the Sabbath, would pay special attention to his son as a result and might even propose a ride together as therapy instead of church.[4] However Teedie viewed church as a child, he, and indeed all of TR Sr.’s children, sought their father’s affirmation and treated him with an awe bordering on worship. His father was “the best, wisest and most loving of men, the type of all that is noble, brave, wise, and good,”[5] the young Roosevelt wrote in his diary. This opinion only deepened throughout his life.

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. devoted more of his attention to religious and charitable activities than he did to the family business. He helped found the New York Orthopedic Hospital and the Museum of Natural History, but he was especially devoted to the Children’s Aid Society and the Newsboys' Lodging House—home to hundreds of stray boys—that he visited every other Sunday night. For Theodore his father personified the “Greatheart” character in Bunyan’s allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. Deeply religious, TR Sr. led family prayers and on Sundays expected his children to offer a summary of the morning’s sermon. In his Autobiography TR mentions that all four children attended Sunday school at the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, while TR Sr. taught a class at the Mission Sabbath School, an evangelistic outreach. Spurred on by his father’s example, TR himself taught a mission class for three years as a teenager. He continued teaching at an Episcopal church during his four years at Harvard—until he was told he’d have to resign. “I am a Presbyterian and would not become an Episcopalian,” he explained. Offended by this intolerance, he found a new venue.[6]

Although the family continued to regularly attend Presbyterian churches, on December 2, 1874, at the age of sixteen, TR joined St. Nicholas’ Dutch Reformed Church. The pastor, Dr. James M. Ludlow, reported that TR came frequently to talk with him about religious matters before coming to believe it was his “duty” to declare his faith publicly. [7]

Teddy Roosevelt letter to Dr. Henry McCook regarding his Scotch-Irish heritage, 1899. Rare Doc. R677t. View full-sized image or view letters in Pearl

Throughout his life, Roosevelt, while appreciating his religious heritage, was largely impervious to doctrinal distinctions and broadly supportive of practical approaches to Christianity. In a time when the new methods of biblical criticism were causing conflict in churches, especially those in the Reformed tradition, Roosevelt held to a simple, straightforward, commonsensical approach to the Bible. In an address to members of the Long Island Bible Society in June 1901, TR stressed the civic importance of the Bible, which was not only “essential to Christianity but essential to good citizenship.” In his judgment the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule were the foundation of what mattered most in life—the development of character—because citizens of good character were essential to the welfare of a nation.[8] His second wife, Edith, was impressed with his “deep knowledge of the Bible.”[9]

In stressing character as the central quality of a person of faith, TR was following the example of his father. “Take care of your morals first, your health next and finally your studies,” TR Sr. wrote to his son during college. The elder Roosevelt’s death in February 1878 devastated his namesake, whose diary entries for the next year reflected a near despair (relieved only when he met his future first wife, Alice Lee). “I believe, help thou my unbelief,” TR wrote, quoting the prayer of the despairing father in Mark 9:24. His father had set a remarkably high standard. TR Sr. was “so deeply religious” and “free of cant,” that TR felt his life “a weak useless one in comparison.” He tried to console himself by reading his father’s favorite scriptures, including John 14, and in a rare moment of doctrinal affirmation acknowledged the comfort of a belief in eternal life. Worshipping in the Oyster Bay church months after his father’s death, TR felt he “could see him sitting in the corner of the pew as distinctly as if he were alive.” [10]

First Presbyterian Church, Oyster Bay, NY, undated from RG 425. 

Significantly, TR determined his purpose in life would be “with the help of God” to “lead such a life as [my father] would have wished.” For a time he tried to imitate his father’s charitable commitments, such as to the Newsboys' Lodging House, but TR’s temperament required more active pursuits. Early on in life he took as his motto, “Trust in the Lord, and do good” (Psalm 37:3). He frequently pointed to Micah 6:8 as providing direction for his actions, “[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Some would argue that the future President was strongest on justice, less generous with mercy, and distinctly lacking in humility.) TR affirmed the reminder that anyone leaving the Oyster Bay church saw stenciled on the wall, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22). Significantly, this was the biblical text on which he placed his hand when he was inaugurated President in 1905. “I am no believer in faith without works,” he commented. The stress in each of these texts is on action, on “doing.” It was that kind of practical faith that drove Theodore Roosevelt throughout his life.

In contrast to his religious musings after his father died, he would comment little when his first wife Alice died in 1884 following childbirth—just eleven hours after his mother also died. He simply entered an “X” and “[T]he light has gone out of my life” in his diary. A joint funeral attended by over two thousand people was held at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Alice had been a member. However he dealt personally with these deep losses, and for all his continued external religious practices, TR resisted talking or writing about the emotional side of faith. He was not outwardly introspective until late in life. “You could not talk with him about it,” a friend said about this dark period. TR does not even mention Alice in his autobiography. He simply plunges into activity, engaging in politics, traveling west to invest in cattle ranching, and soon remarrying and starting a new family. [11]

“Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22)....This was the biblical text on which Roosevelt placed his hand when he was inaugurated President in 1905.

It was TR's father who had challenged the young Theodore to overcome his frail and sickly constitution by working vigorously to build up his body. TR became an advocate of the “strenuous life.” Though he was a voracious reader and writer, his passions were practical, not philosophical. Once he entered the less-than-respectable world of politics (at least in the eyes of his social class), he was determined to do good, make changes, fight against evil, and be a doer of the word and not a hearer only. In what history remembers as one of his more famous speeches, TR argued that it was “not the critic who counts…who points out…where the doer of deeds could have done them better” but “the man in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat…who errs and comes short...but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

First Presbyterian Church, Oyster Bay, NY, May 2019. Photographs by Richard W. Reifsnyder.

As we will see in the second essay on Theodore Roosevelt’s Presbyterian and Reformed influences, words such as “doer” and “deeds” would become as closely linked to his legacy as the words from James are to the ministry of Oyster Bay church.


Richard W. Reifsnyder retired after 44 years in pastoral ministry in the PC(USA), including 21 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Virginia; he currently serves as part-time pastor of the Falls Village Congregational Church in Connecticut. Rich is a graduate of Duke University, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received a Ph.D. in Church History. Among his publications are articles on the history of church organization and leadership in The Presbyterian Presence series. Rich lives in Salisbury, Connecticut.

[1] William Davison Johnston and Richard William Reifsnyder, A Pilgrimage of Faith. The History of First Presbyterian Church Oyster Bay, New York 1844-1989 (Huntington, N.Y.: Maple Hill Press, 1990) pp.57-58.

[2] Ibid, pp. 1-14, 43-45; Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt. A Strenuous Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), pp. 20-21, 531; Address of Rev. James M. Ludlow, D.D. in Memorial Service for Theodore Roosevelt in his Ancestral Church, the Church of St. Nicholas, January thirtieth A.D. 1919), pp. 17-19. Surprisingly, the Membership Register of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, 1853-1912 (Presbyterian Historical Society) has no listing for Theodore or Martha (Mittie) Roosevelt, in either the numerical or alphabetical register, although they were clearly active in the congregation. The Register of Baptisms notes the baptisms of the three older children, and the Minutes of the Young Men’s Association of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church frequently refers to TR Sr.’s activity as chair of the Visiting Committee in the late 1850s and 1860s. When the family moved uptown in 1873, they apparently joined St. Nicholas Collegiate Church (Dutch Reformed) on March 1, 1876 (Register of Members, pp. 118). This was the church of C.V.S. Roosevelt, TR’s grandfather. Shortly after that, however, they became affiliated with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and although a survey of Session minutes from 1873 to 1878 gives no evidence they actually joined, both of their very well attended funerals (TR Sr. in 1878 and Martha in 1884) were held at Fifth Avenue. They may have attended both churches for a period of time. I am indebted to Francis A. Sypher, archivist of the Collegiate Churches of New York, for his help in untangling the church connections of the Roosevelts.

[3] Diary, July 6, 1879 in Edward P. Kuhn, ed. A Most Glorious Ride. The Diaries of Theodore Roosevelt 1877-1886 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), p.94: Jane Ganfield Fowler, A City Church. The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. 1716-1976 (The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, 1981), pp.124-39.

[4] David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), pp.90-108.

[5] Diary, January 2, 1878 in Kuhn, op.cit., p. 16.

[6] Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1913), pp. 10-11; Diary, January 11, 1880, Kuhn op.cit., p. 125. Corrine Robinson, TR’s younger sister, said their father conducted a Sunday School for the children every Sunday afternoon at 5. She is quoted by Christian Fichthorne Reisner in Roosevelt’s Religion (New York: Abington Press, 1922), pp.207-08. Reisner, a pastor, who at one point had been criticized by TR for misrepresenting him in a sermon, compiled a hagiographic assessment of Roosevelt’s faith based on numerous personal testimonies.

[7] Register of Members, St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, pp. 112-13; Memorial Service for Theodore Rooseveltop cit., pp. 15-19; Reisner, op. cit., 324-26. The membership roster of St. Nicholas Church suggests that TR requested and was granted a certificate of dismission to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on May 2, 1879, but that he never presented the certificate to join Fifth Avenue. The Register of Members for St. Nicholas’ Church for October 17, 1901 notes this fact, and that TR had confirmed he wished to be retained as a member “in full communion of this church.” Thus officially TR maintained his membership in the Dutch Reformed Church despite his attendance of other churches in his lifetime. Membership records at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church indicate that TR’s brother Elliott, sister Corrine, and first wife Alice all joined that church, but there is no evidence that TR himself ever did. (Personal correspondence with Dale Hansen, archivist of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, March 12 and 14, 2019.)

[8] Theodore Roosevelt, “On Reading the Bible: An Address to the Long Island Bible Society, June 6, 1901" (New York: American Bible Society, 1901).

[9] Reisner, op. cit., p. 305.

[10] Letter to TR's mother, March 24, 1878, quoted in Kuhn, op.cit., p.24; Diary, March 26, April 18, 25, May 23, June 9, 1878, Ibid, pp. 25, 27-28, 32 34; TR Sr’s funeral at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church was attended by over 2,000 people. McCullough, op.cit., p. 185.

[11] Diary, February 12, March 17, 26, April 14, 25, June 9, August 4, 1878; February 14, 1884, Kuhn, op.cit., pp. 19-20, 23-5, 27, 29, 34, 44, 228; McCullough, op.cit., pp. 282-88.