by Douglas Schlegel
On Feb. 22, 1831, in New York City, a son was born to a businessman named Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt and his wife, Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt.
Even then, the Roosevelt name was notable in the New York social and business circles, and this son, as well as his brothers, was expected to carry the name and business reputation in a manner consistent with those who had come before.
Cornelius Van Schaack was from a family of deep Dutch-American roots, and they were among many Dutch immigrants in New York at this time. Dutch was still spoken at home, and their children were raised in the Dutch Reformed Church (The original Roosevelt, Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, had come to New Amsterdam from Europe in 1649).
Cornelius was frugal and diligent in the hardware and plate glass importation business left to him by his father and grandfather, and in the course of time, became the first true millionaire of the Roosevelt family and one of the wealthiest men in the city.
This son, who was born into both a rare and privileged place was named Theodore. His friends called him Thee even as an adult, but later in life he was also given the name “Greatheart” by his sister-in-law, who saw in him the virtues of the Greatheart of “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
When most people hear of Theodore Roosevelt, they immediately think of Teddy Jr., but Theodore Sr. also was a man of enormous energy, as well as deep Christian convictions. As we will see, these convictions were converted into action in some very dramatic and public ways, but they also shaped the Roosevelt household life. He serves as an example of a Christian man of means, who both enjoys the blessings of God, while also using his means to do much good.
When Cornelius retired, he left his business, Roosevelt and Son, in the hands of his sons, and Theodore was named a junior partner. But while he was competent in business, his focus and enthusiasm were drawn elsewhere.
As a young man, Theodore became acquainted with a daughter of southern Presbyterian stock, Martha (Mittie) Bulloch, and they were married in December 1853. (Martha’s grandfather was the Presbyterian Rev. Archibald Strobo of the failed Scottish colony at Darién, Panama.) As a wedding gift, Cornelius gave them a house at 28 East 20th Street, and it was from that house that Theodore quietly and effectively expressed his Christian character in a city that was quickly becoming the center of trade and culture. It was also a city that increasingly reflected the problems and “social ills” of an exploding urbanization.
While not much detail is known about Theodore’s early Christian training, we do know that by the time he was a young man he was greatly impressed by the appeals of his pastor at the Old North Dutch Church, The Rev. Dr. Dewitt.
As he was courting his future wife, he wrote her to say, “I have just returned from hearing Dr. Dewitt preach one of his beautiful sermons. … His subject was the ascension of Christ, and he persuaded us to turn our thoughts above, where he now is.”
It would have been very tempting for someone in Theodore’s position to adopt an outward piety for his own social or business benefit yet devoid of any real substance, but this was not the case with Theodore. By this time he had developed the lifelong habit of private daily Bible reading and prayer. And his convictions were not merely kept to himself. He was not afraid to encourage friends and associates to be more diligent in their private devotions.
To his fiancée he sent some devotional material and wrote, “It is a present that gives me great pleasure to give you, always remembering your promise never to think of it as compared with the Bible.”
What makes this even more remarkable is that the trends of northeastern Protestant Christianity were headed in a very different direction.
Madison Square Presbyterian Church was more convenient for Theodore and his family after moving to East 20th St., and Theodore left the Dutch Reformed Church and became an active member there before joining the new 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1875 under the ministry of the Rev. John Hall.
But not all was well with the Presbyterian Church at this time. Many of the basic tenets of the historic Reformed faith had been under assault since the early years of the 19th century in the U.S., but in the years of the 1860s and ’70s, the effects of the combined forces of Transcendentalism, Unitarianism, Darwinism, Schleiermacher and the German school of philosophy had begun to have their poisonous effect. Pastors began to shy away from declaring the trustworthiness, inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, and consequently the evangelical doctrines began to fade away from many pulpits.
The pastor of Madison Square Presbyterian, Dr. William Adams, was no exception to this trend and, he was even considered a leading light of this “new Presbyterianism.” (This is the same Dr. Adams who would later become the president of Union Theological Seminary.)
The virile expressions of the faith of an earlier age were being replaced by a weak moralism, and this had the effect of weakening not only the witness and relevance of the churches, but membership also began to decline – especially among men.
“Talk of the exclusive nature of salvation – a merciful act of God effective only for those who accepted Christ as savior – was increasingly rare,” writes Joshua David Hawley in “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness.”
The problems of crime, indigence and moral degeneration becoming critical in this urban center, whose population was now around one million, were answered in the churches by implicitly or explicitly preaching that human nature was improvable with the proper education, character development and physical conditioning. Christ was to be merely the prime example of this effort.
Was this the motivation for Theodore’s activities? While it must have had an effect on him, his motivations appear to be much different. After hearing a sermon from Luke 12:47-48 regarding the responsibilities of those to whom much had been given, he wrote that he wanted to devote “all the time and much more than I was now doing to God’s service, and I would still fall far short of any hope of salvation except through His divine mercy.”
So what did Theodore do, and how did he express his convictions? When the Civil War began, Theodore purchased a replacement to fight for him. This was a common practice at the time among the well-to-do, but probably was also influenced by the fact that Theodore’s strong Union sympathies were in conflict with Mittie’s strong Confederate sympathies. (Captain James Bulloch and Irvine Bulloch of Confederate navy fame were both close relatives.)
He couldn’t or wouldn’t fight, but he did see an opportunity to do some good. Union soldiers were paid at the front or where they were posted, and there was no reliable way for fathers and husbands to support their families from afar, and they would often lose their pay in all manner of unsavory ways. At his own expense and on his own initiative, he sought to relieve the suffering of these families by founding the Allotment Commission. Soldiers could devote a portion of their pay to the Commission, which would ensure that their families were paid. Millions of dollars were sent home to the dependent families over the course of the war.
This was just the beginning of what one friend would call his “maniacal benevolence.” He was driven by the sense that there was something higher to live for than taking his ease “loafing.”
He said, “Man was never intended to become an oyster.”
Theodore had a more personal reason to be interested in his next effort. His oldest daughter Anna (Bamie) suffered with a severe physical handicap. She had Pott’s Disease, which caused a deformation of the spine that was nearly incapacitating. The commonly accepted treatment of the day was to immobilize the patient in a horrendous apparatus.
Not content with the common treatment, Theodore found a doctor who based his treatment on movement and exercise. This revolutionary treatment prompted Theodore to found the New York Orthopedic Dispensary and Hospital.
The manner in which he raised funds for this new hospital provides a glimpse into how Theodore used his position for good: He and his wife held a reception for their wealthy friends, and as the time for dinner came, the doors to the dining room were opened and there, among the sumptuous food were many horribly disfigured and crippled children. The guests were then shown how braces would help these children; however the braces were very expensive. Mrs. John Jacob Astor III immediately pledged her support for the hospital.
In the late 1860s, he began to take notice of some disturbing sights in New York. As many as 20,000 children roamed the streets. They were orphans, runaways or had been abandoned and were left to fend for themselves. They would often sell newspapers on the street corners during the day and sleep wherever they could at night. As one could imagine, they were both the victims of crime as well as the perpetrators of crime. They were called by some “street rats.”
But Theodore saw another opportunity. With the help of some friends, he founded the Children’s Aid Society. The centerpiece of the outreach was the Newsboys’ Lodging House. It was a clean and safe place for the “street rats” to find refuge for pennies a day. But the goal was not only to provide shelter; there was a higher purpose. Theodore could be found almost every Sunday, with some of his own children accompanying him, at the Lodging House teaching and evangelizing the newsboys. He took a deep personal interest in them, knew them by name and was to them a father they didn’t have. They were taught to read and trained in what we today would call vocational training. And at great personal expense, Theodore returned them to their families or found foster families for them in the west. Over the course of time, 100,000 boys would be sent out.
Even as we look at these dramatic examples, we must not think that Theodore was engaged in an effort merely to put on a pious show. His family life also reflected his faith. Daily, the children would bring the Scriptures to their father and gather around him on the sofa as he read to them and prayed with them. Sunday’s were always a day of rest and worship in the Presbyterian tradition. Morning and evening service were attended, and the children were otherwise encouraged to be very physically active, were expected to spend the day in prayer, Bible reading and memorization and to join in the hymn singing in the parlor.
It is well known that Theodore Jr. suffered from terrible bouts of asthma as a boy. In an effort to help, the family found that going on trips seemed to help. And so, the family went on two extended trips, once to Europe and another to Egypt and the Near East. What is notable about these extended vacations is that even as they travelled, the family would keep the Lord’s Day and worship at whatever Protestant church was available. If none was available, Theodore would teach “Sunday School” and lead in family worship at the site of an old castle, under the shade of the trees or on the Nile River.
The Lord took Theodore home at the relatively young age of 46. It is said that he was a man of “both good works and good times.” But this does not begin to appreciate what motivated him. It is true that he enjoyed a good cigar and dancing with his daughter late into the night as much as he enjoyed using his position to help street urchins and suffering children. But to truly understand him, we have to see him as he saw himself. He was one to whom much had been given and from whom much was required, and above all, he knew that he “would still fall far short of any hope of salvation except through [God's] divine mercy.”
To read more about Theodore Roosevelt Sr., please visit Leben’s website.