Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, revering the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. It is also an opportunity for us to remember our heritage as we honor those that came before us.
Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many people observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries/memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades.
The date of Decoration Day, originally May 30th, was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any former battle. On the first Decoration Day, former Civil War General, current U.S. Representative, and future President of the United States, James Garfield, was the key-note speaker at Arlington National Cemetery. It is estimated that about 5,000 people decorated the graves of the 20,000 Confederate & Union soldiers buried there.
Unfortunately, Garfield also became the second U.S. President to be assassinated, giving him the second shortest tenure in office (six and a half months). However, he accomplished many presidential firsts.
“(Garfield) was the only one in U.S. history to be a sitting Representative, Senator-elect, and President-elect at the same time. He was the first to use a front porch campaign and, during one of these speeches, he became the first to speak in two different languages. At his inauguration he accomplished three more firsts. He was the first President to view the Inaugural Parade from in front of the White House and the first to have his Mother attend. He was also the first President to die before the age of 50 (He was 49)” – James A Garfield: Man of Many Presidential Firsts
My personal favorite first is that Garfield has the title of being the lone President of the U.S. to have served as a minister prior to becoming a resident in the White House living quarters. Not only that, but his background is very similar to Little Flatrock Christian Church, as his date of birth reflects a connection with the early days of our congregation.
“Garfield has the distinction of being the only President of the United States to have worked as a clergyman prior to becoming President. He was born on November 19, 1831, in a log cabin in Orange Township, Ohio. His parents, Abram/Eliza Garfield, joined a denomination known as the (Christian Churches)/Disciples of Christ in 1833 when James was two years old. For more information, see “President Garfield’s Religious Heritage & What he Did With It” by Howard E. Short
The biographical sketches of Garfield tell us that he made his confession of faith on March 3, 1850, and was baptized the next day. He wrote in his diary, words that were used then and for many decades afterward: “I was buried with Christ and arose to walk in the newness of Life.” In addition, Mr. Short’s document from 1983 provides one more insight.
“Garfield seemed exuberant in his new faith. He wrote many…phrases in his diary. He showed the beginning of a broad concept…when he wrote about his botany studies: ‘It teaches us to look up through nature to nature’s God & to see His wisdom manifested in the flowers of the field.’”
Interestingly enough, one of the four references to God in the Declaration of Independence states: The “laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…” This does not seem to be a coincidence that Garfield used such similar language as our forefathers did 75-80 years earlier. This young American had not fallen far from their God-fearing tree.
As we celebrate Memorial Day this upcoming weekend, let us never forget that this country was founded on godly principles and sustained by godly people. James Garfield was one of these members of our Christian Heritage. The future President concluded his initial Decoration Day speech by saying:
“What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined; here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!”
“From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell…there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them. And here are children, little children, to whom the war left no father but…the FATHER above.”