When you hear the name “Garfield,” you most likely think of the fat, orange cat who spends his days sleeping and eating lasagna. What you may not know about Garfield the cat is that his creator, Jim Davis, named the lovable curmudgeon after his grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis. His grandfather was, obviously, named after James Abram Garfield, the United States’ 20th president. President Garfield has the distinction of being the only ordained minister to have served as President and is one of only two Presidents who were members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). President Lyndon B. Johnson was the other Disciple. President Reagan had been raised as a Disciple of Christ, and although he attended a Presbyterian Church in adulthood, he did not transfer his membership until after his Presidency.
Garfield’s presidential candidacy is very peculiar and completely unconventional. In 1880, seven years before the founding of this congregation, he was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention for John Sherman, a fellow Ohioan, and hopeful nominee. As he took the stage at a contentious convention in Chicago, Garfield’s opening words were an attempt to unify a bitterly divided party. He began, “This assemblage seems to be a human ocean in tempest . . . but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured.” The audience fell silent as Garfield called upon his gifts as an orator. With each gesture and a cadence of a frontier sermon, the delegates began to grow more and more excited. As his speech neared its conclusion that would hopefully rally the divided delegates to join forces with his friend John Sherman and ultimately lead to a moment when a nomination for Sherman might be received from the crowd, Garfield graveled his voice and asked: “What shall we do?” A lone and unnamed delegate broke the stunned silence and shouted, “Nominate Garfield!” A preacher is rarely caught off guard, especially one as gifted as Garfield. He desperately tried to recast his remarks toward nominating Sherman. It was hopeless. On the 34th ballot, Garfield received 17 votes. The preacher rose in anger and scolded the delegates for not voting for Sherman. “The announcement contains votes for me. No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name and vote for him in this convention. Such consent I have not given—” Before he could finish, the convention chairman gaveled him out of order. On the 36th ballot, Sherman threw his support behind Garfield and he was nominated to run for President. As the celebration commenced, Garfield excused himself and returned to his modest hotel room, closed the door and sat in silence overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility that had been placed upon him by his party. In the subsequent moments and occasions where he was congratulated on his nomination, he would apologize. “I suppose I am morbidly sensitive about any reference to my own achievements,” Garfield acknowledged. “I so much despise a man who blows his own horn, that I go to the other extreme.”
Five months later, he was elected president. On March 4, 1881, he was sworn in and delivered an inaugural address passionate in its emphasis on the rights of freed slaves. Biographer Candice Millard recounts, “Former slaves in the crowd openly wept.” Many more Americans wept six months later when Garfield died of the gunshot wound he received on July 2, 1881. Garfield’s modesty would make him seem wildly out of place in today’s political arena, but it fits his role as a preacher and Christian.
Great leaders who change both our society and the human heart are those of great character and humility. They are the pastors who help put away the tables and chairs, the elders who run the dishwasher, the deacons who vacuum, the Sunday School teachers who spend their life teaching of God’s love to students whose attendance fluctuates wildly, and every believer who recognizes that our task is not to glorify our congregation, but to glorify the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. It is these leaders, both in the church and in our society at large, whose words and actions encourage us to, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They’re everywhere—but rarely rewarded. And that’s probably how they want things to be.