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Religion In The Lives Of The American Presidents

A series of lectures organized and compiled by the Forum Class, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, Washington DC, in 1976. Full text online

See also: • 1938, Presidential IssuePresident Statues


Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

Most of his adult life he was Unitarian; there is little direct testimony about his religious views, but some of the aspects of his political career reflect his attitudes.

Born in the Finger Lakes country in the western part of the State of New York on January 7, 1800, Fillmore as a youth endured the privations of a frontier life. He attended one-room schools, worked on his father’s farm and fell in love with the redheaded school teacher, Abigail Power, who later became his wife. 

He was self-taught in law and was admitted to the bar in 1823. He became a protege and long time associate of one of the Whig political bosses, Thurlow Weed. Along the way he was in the State Legislature, and then for eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

His family had some tenuous Methodist ties - a cousin became a minister - but church going and Bible reading were not the habit in his childhood. It was unlikely that he was ever baptized. His wife, Abigail, was the daughter of a Baptist minister who died in her infancy, and she did not seem to have any strong Baptist ties. Millard and Abigail were married by an Episcopalian minister, but not in the church. Soon after their marriage, they became charter members of the first Unitarian Society of Buffalo, apparently because they looked upon it as the intellectually progressive group than for theological considerations.

There was a conspicuous absence of biblical quotations and allusions in his speeches in an era when they were immensely fashionable, whether a man was religious or not.

Fillmore tried for the Whig Vice-Presidential nomination in 1844, but did not attain it. Instead he ran for Governor of New York, losing the election and blaming his defeat on the "abolitionists and foreign Catholics."

The first of several disagreements that ultimately alienated him from Thurlow Weed, and from the State's most prominent political figure, William H. Seward, involved a Roman Catholic request for a share of public school funds for support of parochial schools. On this issue, still a hot one in New York State politics today, Seward was inclined to yield. Fillmore, in opposing it, was on sound Constitutional grounds but other developments in his career indicate that a personal anti-Catholic feeling was as strong a motive for him to oppose it as was Constitutional grounds.

His nomination for Vice President on the Whig ticket in 1848 was a political compromise. The Clay faction, angry at Zachary Taylor’s nomination for President, refused to accept Abbott Lawrence, Massachusetts cotton-mill owner, for the nomination for Vice President, because they would not "have cotton at both ends of the ticket.”

It is not easy to appraise Fillmore’s partial term of President for the 2 years and 236 days after Taylor’s death. He wanted to preserve the Union. To that end he supported a series of compromise measures on slavery in 1850 in Congress, and signed them into law after they were passed by Congress.

Some of the more militant northern Whigs remained irreconcilable, refused to forgive him and helped to deprive him of receiving the Whig Party nomination for President in 1852.

Fillmore's retirement from the Presidency of the United States was saddened by the death of his wife, Abigail, twenty-six days after they left the White House. Already frail, she had caught pneumonia from exposure to the raw, wet wind and slushy snow at Franklin Pierce's Inauguration.

Fillmore had wanted to preserve the Union and for that reason had supported the Compromise of 1850; but within a few years it was apparent that although the Compromise of 1850 had been intended to settle the slavery controversy, it served rather as an uneasy sectional truce.

As the Whig Party disintegrated in the 1850' s, Fillmore refused to join the Republican Party but, instead, in 1856 accepted the nomination, for President of the Know Nothing or American Party. This party had begun as a network of secret societies whose members if questioned about their activities, always said, "I know nothing." Fillmore only carried the State of Maryland in this election for the Presidency of the United States.

Throughout the Civil War he opposed President Lincoln. To be just to him, Fillmore's aim was always conciliation rather than coercion.

In that spirit, he later supported the Reconstruction Program of President Andrew Johnson against the harsh attitudes of the Radical Republicans toward the conquered South.

Soon after the Civil War, he ended his membership in the Unitarian Church, because of the Abolition fervor of the majority of the members, who were intolerant of his compromises with slavery. He then attended the Baptist Church with his second wife, whom he married in 1858, and occasionally went to Episcopal services. He died on March 8, 1874.

No Unitarian took part in his funeral, in which a Baptist, an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian shared the ceremonies.

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President Millard Fillmore

Posted By: Cameron Ott

Updated: 12-31-2018