Jack and NellePAUL KENGOR
Nelle Reagan had a heart for God, and she did her best to impart that faith to her son Ronald. It was her aspiration that he should one day take that faith to the world.
"You can be too big for God to use, but you cannot be too small."
an annotation in Nelle Reagan's Bible
Suffering through the freeze, in the northwest corner of the state, was idyllic little Dixon, home to Jack and Nelle Reagan and their two sons. Dixon sits some one hundred miles west of Chicago, and less than an hour's drive to the Mississippi River and the Iowa border. The town is geographically unusual by Illinois standards: the terrain of Illinois is largely flat, but Dixon is nestled among woods and rolling hills. Most of the state was dusted by a fine snow blowing across naked fields, the kind of cutting snow that hurts when it assaults uncovered faces. Dixon, however, enjoyed some protection on that frigid day.
Long before Ronald Reagan, the town already had its run-ins with presidential history. On May 12, 1832, Captain Abraham Lincoln and his company of mounted volunteers arrived at Fort Dixon on the Rock River to serve in the Blackhawk War. Lt. Col. Zachary Taylor was in command, and Lt. Jefferson Davis swore in recruits. At that moment, three future presidents saluted together in obscure Dixon: Taylor became U.S. president in 1848, Lincoln in 1860, and Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy shortly thereafter. (A colorful painting of the encounter by local artist Fran Swarbrick resides today in the building where Ronald Reagan attended school.)
A continent away on that January day in 1924, fifty-three-year-old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lay near death in an even colder in many ways Bolshevik Russia. He had few hours remaining. As Lenin clung to life, twelve-year-old Dutch Reagan clung to his hymnal in the comfort of a pew near the front of the First Christian Church in Dixon, beside his beaming mother, Nelle. Filled with the spirit, Nelle had just finished her closing prayer with her True Blue Sunday school class.
Though no one in that contented congregation could know it, this was the start of a spiritual pilgrimage that would lead that boy in the front pew to a spot in front of a bust of a grim Lenin at Moscow State University sixty-four years later, inspired with a religious drive very much like what he and his mother had felt that Sunday in 1924. As Reagan would recognize, Lenin too had been moved by a kind of religious zeal, though very different from his own. It was the clash of their belief systems that would make possible their rendezvous on May 31, 1988.
And it was Nelle Reagan who would inculcate her innocent boy with a set of beliefs that helped convince him of the need to defeat the Soviet Union. She and the faith she imparted were the central forces in his life. Without them it is difficult to imagine Ronald Reagan becoming president, let alone mounting a crusade against "godless Soviet communism."
From all evidence, it appears that Ronald Reagan's faith peaked in intensity at the bookends of his life during his youth in Dixon, and again in his mature years as president and former president of the United States.
The origins of Reagan's faith were forged in the 1910s, his first decade of life, and the ideas he formed there persisted in his belief system through the 1990s. They predated by far his key political beliefs, which weren't set in stone until the late 1940s and, by some measure, until his Republican conversion in the 1960s. The historical record demonstrates abundantly that Reagan was driven by those core political convictions. What has gone overlooked is how deeply, and for how much longer, his core religious convictions moved him.
How did he come by his spiritual beliefs? There were a number of key influences.
Nelle and Jack
Ronald Reagan's parents were John Edward and Nelle Clyde Wilson Reagan, called simply Jack and Nelle by their friends (and by their children, at their own request). Jack was a first-generation Irishman, Nelle from Irish-English-Scottish stock. Both hailed from the town of Fulton, in Whiteside County, Illinois, where they were born within eleven days of each other in July 1883. A couple of decades later they were married, on a crisp fall day in November 1904 at the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Fulton.
Nelle's stronger commitment drew Dutch toward her faith. She made her life a model of Christian virtue, and her example begged emulation. At ease with herself and in helping others, Nelle Reagan proved herself a woman of genuine faith, warmly expressed.
Jack's influence did make its mark on Dutch's faith though in other, less flattering ways. Whereas Nelle apparently thought about God not just daily but constantly, her husband was consumed with something else: making a living. Money dominated his thoughts. The Reagans had little or no savings, and Jack's obsession with money seemed less a matter of greed than of survival. He scraped and scrapped so that he and his family could get by. And before long, drinking a lot of drinking was helping him cope with his ever-present financial struggles.
"They were awful poor," said the Reagans' neighbor Cenie Straw. Another neighbor, Helen Lawton, recalled that her family frequently sent plates of food to the Reagan house. Lawton's father even built a hinge onto the Reagan kitchen window, so food could be easily set inside. "It wasn't that we had so much," said Lawton, "but we had a garden. And they only had an electric plate to cook on."
Jack was a shoe salesman with a habit of chasing rainbows. He uprooted the family at every turn. Throughout young Dutch Reagan's childhood, his family never owned a home; they were always on the hunt for an affordable rental.
From February to May 1911, the family lived in a second-floor apartment above the bank in Tampico, where Dutch was born. Baby Ronald lived in his first home only four months before the family moved to 104 W. Glassman Street, a house opposite the rail depot outside of town; they stayed there until December 1914. The family's next Christmas was spent in the big city, near the University of Chicago, where the Reagans rented two apartments. Jack sized up patrons in the shoe section of Marshall Field's department store. It was not an easy stay for young Dutch, who almost died from a bout with bronchial pneumonia.
This event took place several years before he was baptized. He later thanked that previous tenant as "an anonymous benefactor to whom I owe much." Jack's never-ending moves may have brought his family desolation, yet in retrospect his son Ronald might have reflected (as he generally did) that even his family's trials seemed to be part of God's plan.
From Galesburg, the Reagans hit the road again. As American doughboys fought the Kaiser in Europe, the Reagan family occupied no less than three different residences in Monmouth between early 1917 and August 1919. The stay in Monmouth was hardly uneventful. The family moved there when Dutch was in second grade. Shortly after, the jubilant Illinois town celebrated the end of WWI; that was followed by the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. Dutch was alarmed by the sight of townspeople donning masks, of the wreaths with black ribbons that adorned local doorways. Affected areas were quarantined, and schools, libraries, dance halls, even churches closed, though ministers were busier than ever tending to the dying. The mounting toll was chronicled in a death column in the daily paper.
The flu hit Nelle as well. Though it wiped her out, and she nearly perished, ultimately Reagan's mother escaped the early death that came to millions of young mothers around the world. Nelle had been a healthy middle-aged Midwestern woman before the epidemic, but at her worst Dutch, Moon, and Jack thought she was a goner. The experience brought the idea of mortality close to home for all of them.
The Reagans were back in Tampico through December 1920, in an apartment on Main Street above Pitney's Shoestore, where Jack was shop manager. Though his return to Tampico was brief, Reagan, ever the optimist, would have nothing but fond memories of his second stay, which he called his "Huck Finn years." But happiness was halted again shortly thereafter, as the Reagans reloaded the Model T.
The family finally "settled" in Dixon shortly thereafter, though they would live in five different rented houses portions of which they subleased to pay their own rent before Dutch left for his first job at WOC radio in Davenport, Iowa, in 1932.
Dutch spent many of his days without playmates in these years, entertaining himself in the yard, on the porch, in the parlor, in the attic. Then, just as he was finally settling in and beginning to make friends his natural good looks always helped Jack packed the bags and the whole miserable process would repeat itself. As a young man, then, Ronald Reagan came to see a danger in making friends the risk that any new friend would sooner or later disappear from his life forever. Decades later, he acknowledged that his nomadic life as a child had probably made him "a little slow in making friends. In some ways I think this reluctance to get close to people never left me entirely."
This created a void in the young Reagan a hole that religion came to fill. In need of a rock of reliability, he looked to where his mother, his heart, and his desolation pointed him upward. And in God he found what he perceived as a permanent friend. No matter how often Jack Reagan should relocate his family, his son saw that he could get close to God without any fear of abandonment. God the Father was always in his place, constant, always with the boy, and always in his perfect heaven. Dutch Reagan may have been a stranger to all those peering kids, but he was never foreign to God, who knew him wherever he went.
Years later, in remarking on Reagan's apparent aloofness, his good friend Paul Laxalt said that the president was a "loner" even in his relationship with God. Perhaps this is no surprise, considering that he first sought and connected to God as a lonely boy.
This is not to suggest that Ronald Reagan's spirituality was purely emotional a "crutch," as skeptics often characterize religious faith. At a relatively young age Reagan's became an intellectual Christianity, and it would remain so. But his religious beliefs were always marked by a degree of emotionality, and there's no doubt that the emotional appeal of religion was a key factor in his boyhood.
Intriguingly, another failing of Jack's may have contributed further to Dutch's turn to God. It came to a head on a brisk February evening in Dixon in 1922, shortly after young Reagan's eleventh birthday. He had just strolled up the 800 block of South Hennepin, returning from a basketball game at the YMCA. He knew that Nelle was out on a sewing job, trying to scare up a few dollars, and he was expecting to come home to an empty house. Instead, he was shaken by the sight of Jack sprawled out in the snow on the front porch, passed out, flat on his back, freezing, too inebriated to make it to the door. "He was drunk," his son later remembered. "Dead to the world." The boy leaned over and smelled the whiskey escaping through his dad's long snores. His hair was soaked with melted snow, matted unevenly against the side of his reddened face.
Jack's arms were stretched out, recalled his son, "as if he were crucified as indeed he was." He had been taken by the "dark demon in the bottle." Dutch stood over his father for a minute or two, not sure how to react. He wanted to simply let himself in the door, go to bed, and pretend his dad wasn't there.
Dutch grabbed a fistful of the old man's overcoat and heaved him toward the door. He dragged him into the house and to the bedroom, out of the way of the weather's harm and the neighbors' fixed attention. It was a sad moment for father and son. Dutch felt no anger, no resentment, just grief. This was the man who until that point had always carried him. Surely, to see his father so out of control must have frightened him. His world was in chaos again, just when it seemed to have stopped spinning, when Dixon appeared to be the last stop on the Reagan family train.
The event occurred at a crucial time in young Reagan's spiritual development. Four months later he would be baptized, starting life over as a child of God; the thought of his father sprawled spread-eagle in the snow might have lingered in Reagan's mind that day, as it would for the rest of his life.
Nelle chose the Disciples of Christ denomination, also known today as the Christian Church. Founded as separate entities in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky, the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ were unified at a meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, on New Year's Day 1832 before moving westward. By the 1830s, Illinois was proving ripe territory for the spread of the Disciples. One historian described the farmer-preacher pioneers of the Disciple movement in Illinois as "the voice of democracy, of individualism in the religious sphere." There, in the early 1900s, the Disciples eventually reached Nelle Reagan.
Biographers usually begin the story of Nelle's own faith in Dixon, but her role in the church in Tampico deserves attention. In the last months before Jack moved the family yet again, Nelle was very active in the church on 201 Fremont Street. Drawn by a 1910 revival held there, one source claims that Nelle ran the pastorless church virtually single-handed, writing bulletins, preparing Sunday programs, prodding the congregation to better support the struggling church, and even possibly doing a fair amount of preaching. The preaching itself is difficult to confirm, though not out of the realm of possibility. Even after moving to Dixon, Nelle made frequent trips back to Tampico to help her old church, with Dutch in tow.
Settled in Dixon, Nelle joined a local Disciples congregation led by Reverend Harvey Waggoner. The group first met in the basement of the town's YMCA until it could raise funds for a building. The new church opened at 123 S. Hennepin on June 18, 1922. Nelle became a leader, eventually a pillar, in the local church. Aside from the minister, she was perhaps its most visible face. Among the congregation's fourteen officers she was the only one who wore two hats and often more, whether directing the choir, missionary society, the "Cradle Roll" nursery, or some other function. The vigorous congregation boasted fourteen Sunday school classes each week. Among these, Nelle's True Blue class was the largest. The church directory for 1922 registered thirty-one students in her class; the pastor's class had only five, his wife's nine. It was said that if Nelle had had the education she would have taken the pulpit herself; no doubt today she would have been ordained.
Nelle gave religious readings, both outside the church and within a service for which she was in great demand. Blessed with an engaging voice and the confidence of a natural performer qualities she passed on to her son she also acted in many plays. She was the only performer to hold two roles in a May 1924 drama called The Pill Bottle, described in the town paper as "a delightful portrayal of missionary work." In June 1926, she brought the house down at the Baptist church with a reading titled "The Ship of Faith." "Mrs. Reagan is one of Dixon's favorite readers," the Telegraph informed, "and has appeared before many audiences, always greatly pleasing them."
Nelle was renowned in Dixon for her recitations, self-written stories and poems that were frequently published locally. Some of these focused not just on God but also democracy. Eight years after the WWI armistice, Nelle published an "Armistice Day Poem" in the November 11, 1926, Telegraph, in which she urged that "God forbid that we forget" those soldiers who gave their lives. Those brave men, wrote Nelle, "have won for the world democracy, and doomed forever and always the cruel autocracy." One Wednesday afternoon in 1927, Nelle appeared at the American Legion to give what was described as a "splendid talk" on the boyhood of George Washington surely a story that must have made an impression on young Dutch.
Typically, however, Nelle's thoughts and works were fixed heavenward. A firm believer in the power of prayer, she led prayer meetings at church. When the minister vacationed in Missouri, she was put in charge of Mid-week Prayers, and she led discussions on prayer outside the sanctuary. Along with four other women, Nelle acted as a "leader," providing "home prayer services." In a January 1926 prayer discussion held at the home of Mrs. James Kindig, described by the Telegraph as "most interesting," Nelle said: "We cannot expect to get much out of prayer, unless we put much in it. . . . Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you."
Nelle's commitment to the Disciples was never restricted to the Dixon town lines. She also offered a hand to other churches in the area. When the Disciples congregation in Grand Detour underwent reorganization in 1928, Nelle endured the snowy drive each Thursday in February to help the church's Young People's Choir.
When our little daughter was about four years old, she developed what seemed to be tonsillitis. The doctor said it was that and prescribed medicine. . . . We returned to him several times for a couple of weeks, and he prescribed other medicines, but they did no good. Finally, an abscess developed on her neck, which swelled to twice . . . normal size. She become so ill she could neither eat nor sleep. . . . On Sunday morning my husband said to me, "Why don't you go to church? It will do you good." . . . [The pastor] spoke on how we as Christians should accept death. I could hardly take the sermon because we did not know whether our daughter was going to live. When the service was dismissed, I couldn't leave my seat. At last, everybody had left except Mrs. Reagan who was on the platform gathering up the music that the choir members had left.Another member of the congregation recalled:
Many of us believed Nelle Reagan had the gift to heal. She never laid on the hands or anything like that. It was the way she prayed, down on her knees, eyes raised up and speaking like she knew God personally, like she had had lots of dealings with him before. If someone had real troubles or was sick, Nelle would come to their house and kneel and pray. Maybe she didn't always pray herself a miracle, but folks could bear things a lot better after she left.Given such stories, which quickly became common knowledge in the Reagans' congregation, it is hardly surprising that even as an adult Nelle's son believed so strongly in the power of prayer.
"Lemme tell you," one Dixon resident later commented, "Nelle was a saint." That was not a rare sentiment. "If there is such a thing as a saint on earth, it is Nelle Reagan," said Mildred Neer. Cenie Straw agreed: "Nelle was too good for this world." One member of the congregation called Nelle a leader "everybody loved."
Nelle Reagan dedicated her life quite earnestly to the "poor and helpless." It was a promise she is said to have made to her own mother on her mother's deathbed. Nelle extended her ministry to hospitals and mental institutions, to the tuberculosis (TB) sanitarium every Thursday, and in her weekly visits to the local jail, where she came equipped with apples, cookies, and her Bible. By all accounts, neither the prisoners nor the contagious TB gave her a moment's pause.
She gave special attention to those behind bars. After a modest lunch of crackers at the dress shop, where she worked as a seamstress, she headed faithfully to the jail to read the Bible to the incarcerated. One contemporary said that Nelle's flair as an "elocutionist" notably in her "dramatic readings" of Scripture made her a favorite among prisoners.
There are even accounts of criminals allegedly changing their behavior as a direct result of her ministry one actually in the midst of a criminal act. According to Cenie Straw, who was active in the church, the "kid" in question had been released from jail. Having hitched a ride to nearby Sterling, he was planning on pulling out his concealed gun and holding up the driver. As he sat in the car contemplating his dirty deed, he thought of what Nelle had told him about Jesus during one of her jail visits, and had a change of heart. "Goodbye, thanks for the ride," he reportedly told the driver, stepping out of the car. "You'll find a gun in the back of the seat. I was going to use it, but I was talking to a woman at the jail. . . ."
Some of those men released and welcomed into the Reagan house were African Americans "coloreds," in the language of the time. Here was one of many ways that Dutch learned racial tolerance. And prisoners weren't the only ones to whom she extended hospitality: on one occasion two visiting basketball players, both black, had no place to stay in town. Young Ronald brought them home to spend the night and have breakfast. The two visitors stood hesitantly at the door, fearing their friendly host's mom would change her mind when she saw their skin color. When Nelle saw the three of them she smiled and said "Come in, boys."
Among Nelle's chief concerns at church was the Missionary Society, which she served as president. In March 1921, she assembled a group of sixty at a local home where a collection was taken for the poverty-stricken of Europe. She even did some work on behalf of Russian believers. In the summer of 1924, she helped raise money to erect a chapel for the Russian church in New York City, a symbolic act that showed solidarity with Russian Christians.
Nelle was a prodigious newspaper reader, who followed international events closely out of personal interest and a sense of Christian obligation. It was another interest that found its way into her itinerary: in April 1927, at the home of the Fellows family on 723 Peoria Avenue, for example, she held a talk on Japan and the status of Christianity there.
A few months later, at her own home, Nelle hosted the Woman's Missionary Society; the topic was "The Large World My Neighborhood." The theme of the discussion was that the world was slow in applying the spirit of Christ to nations and relationships; such broader fellowship, the ladies all agreed, would provide "the great cure for war, crime, and sin of every kind." Such confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit was not unlike the thinking of Ronald Wilson Reagan sixty years later.
Nelle Reagan had a heart for God, and she did her best to impart that faith to her son Ronald. It was her aspiration that he should one day take that faith to the world. And she began his training with a particular book that would make a major impression on her young son.
Paul Kengor. "Jack and Nelle." Chapter One in God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004): 1-16.
The foregoing is excerpted from God and Ronald Reagan by Paul Kengor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Reprinted with permission of the author, Paul Kengor and HarperCollins Publishers.
Copyright © 2004
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