The following post is from Russell Pulliam. Russ is an Indianapolis Star columnist who directs the Pulliam Fellowship summer intern program for the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic. Russ serves as a ruling elder in the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis.
The historian without the Spirit has a hard time grasping the impact of Christian faith in history. Faith seems silly or irrelevant. Missing faith in Christ, he has a hard time understanding Christ’s impact in others.
That very loose paraphrase of I Corinthians 2:14 helps explain some missing chapters of Indiana history.
Digging a little deeper beyond the traditional state history textbooks, it turns out that Christian faith played a significant part in the lives of several key leaders who are known more for their accomplishments than their faith in Christ. They were great leaders in many respects, yet the greatness was rooted in Christ.
James Faris and I have been teaching a church school class, Second RP, Indianapolis, on the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in Indiana history, with James majoring in the growth of denominations and me assigned to heroes of the faith in state history. The research for the class has helped me see that well-written biographies can show us the unfolding of Scriptures in a person’s life.
One example is Isaac McCoy (1784-1846), an Indian missionary who sought justice for native Americans as well as their salvation and growth in Christ. He grew dismayed as his fellow settlers in Indiana sold alcoholic beverages to Indians and took their land in some unfair bargains. He and his wife Christiana lived among the Indians, loved them, preached the gospel to them, adopted some whose parents were killed or died and taught them farming and opened up schools for their children. The liquor traffic led McCoy to advocate for a separate state for Indians, with their own representation in Congress. That vision never was adopted by the national government, but the McCoys offered an important alternative to the tragic wars against native Americans and their subsequent confinement to reservations.
LIFE LESSON: McCoy’s life may look like a political failure. He never got Congress or several presidents to do justice for native Americans in a major way. Yet he left us a role model of how to pursue the Scriptures against prevailing popular opinion and offer faithfulness as an alternative.
Another example is Levi Coffin (1798-1877), a businessman in eastern Indiana. He dedicated his businesses and home to freedom for slaves, having moved from North Carolina to get away from the corrupt influence of slavery. He became known as the president of the Underground Railroad, trusting God for safety when slave bounty hunters came to his house in search of escapees from the South. Later Coffin and his family moved to Cincinnati, to start a business dedicated to goods made by free labor, or a boycott of slave labor businesses. He sought Christ’s kingdom even if it meant a business loss. “If by doing my duty and endeavoring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of the Divine Master,” he commented. “If I was faithful to duty, I felt that I would be preserved and that I could make enough to support my family.”
LIFE LESSON: Like McCoy, Coffin was not politically successful in seeing slavery abolished. He was faithful in smaller things, in helping to free about 2,000 slaves. We can obey Scripture even when we do not enjoy a majority consensus. Coffin’s life could be an encouragement as we attempt to offer alternatives to legal abortion.
Washington DePauw (1822-1887) is known because an Indiana liberal arts school was named after him because he rescued what was Asbury University from bankruptcy a couple of years before he died. DePauw was the state’s most prominent and successful entrepreneur after the Civil War, building a plate glass business in New Albany, on the Ohio River. He was prominent enough that Democrats tried to get him to run for governor. But he had other priorities, even beyond his business. He put his organizational skills to work in setting up an all-day Sunday School for New Albany children whose parents generally did not go to the church. The school seemed to be a mix of child evangelism, discipleship and preparation for the workplace and served hundreds of young people. The university under his name is still going strong, though it has lost its evangelical emphasis. Yet his greatest reward in the final judgment may have more to do with his ministry to needy young people.
LIFE LESSON: Our greatest kingdom contribution may come outside our primary vocation. DePauw was an excellent entrepreneur and civic leader and applied those gifts to a ministry to children and teens. This ministry is less well documented but may have been the way he pleased the Lord the most.
Lew Wallace (1827-1905) is famous for writing the best-selling novel of the 19th century, Ben Hur. Yes see the 1959 movie, with its eleven Oscar awards. But read the book, which manages to exceed the film in excellence and popularity. A Civil War general, Wallace never liked the law practice, his source of income while he aspired to write great stories. As a young person he pondered the birth of Jesus, especially from the perspective of the wise men. He was what we might today call a nominal or indifferent believer. He started on the Jesus story about ten years before publication, realizing as he did the research that he needed to come to some kind of conviction about Jesus Christ. A fellow Civil War general, Robert Ingersoll, preached some of his atheism to Wallace on a train ride together, and Wallace started pondering and researching the life of Christ. “Long before I was through with my book, I became a believer in God and Christ,” he later explained. The story led some readers to commit their lives to Christ and others to pursue overseas mission service. Wallace wrote other books and was governor of the New Mexico territory and ambassador to Turkey. President James Garfield gave him the Turkey assignment after reading Ben Hur and telling Wallace to write some more novels. But Ben Hur seems to be one of a kind, like Handel’s Messiah.
LIFE LESSON: Wallace shined with Ben Hur because he put his keen research and writing skills to work on one of the most vital questions – who is Jesus Christ?
Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) is best known as the president who served in between two terms of Democrat Grover Cleveland. Harrison was an anti-slavery Republican who was a very competent but uncharismatic public servant after the Civil War. Spiritually he was one of the strongest of the presidents, thanks to a Christian mother and the influence of the Second Great Awakening. Some fellow believers thought politics was too dirty for a person of faith. His response: “Such should remember that civil society is no less an institution of God than the Church, that society can in no sense exist without government, and that man is the instrumentality appointed to administer this government.” His life illustrates Psalm 75:6-7 and God’s sovereign control over promotion and demotion. He lost an election for governor of Indiana because James “Blue Jeans” Williams was more of a man of the people. Harrison won the Republican nomination for president 12 years later only on the seventh ballot. He won a close race over Grover Cleveland, then lost in 1892 to Cleveland. He was not a gregarious backslapper. Yet he was an excellent administrator and lawyer, one of the most competent of his era. These attributes came from a personal faith in Christ. He was an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis from 1860 to his death in 1901.
LIFE LESSON: Harrison did not have the natural attributes we associate with presidential campaigns. He lacked charisma and charm. Yet sometimes the Lord has an assignment for us, and He controls the promotions.
What these heroes of Indiana seem to share is a dedication of their lives and skills to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, or the application of Scripture to issues of their day. Isaac McCoy did it with native Americans, swimming upstream against the culture. Levi Coffin did it with his work to end slavery. Wash DePauw dedicated his organizational business skills to opening doors of opportunity for young people. Lew Wallace dedicated his story-telling capacity to a story about Christ, from Ben Hur’s Jewish perspective. Benjamin Harrison dedicated his political skills to a principled approach to politics. With Paul, they could say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”