As he walked out of his apartment on Connecticut Avenue on the morning of April 3, 1945, Harry S. Truman encountered a mob of reporters. The previous day, Truman and the nation had been informed of the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and, a few hours after the news arrived in Washington, Truman was sworn as the nation’s 33rd president. Now he was heading to the White House for his first full day in office.

As he turned to the reporters, Truman said, “Well boys, if you ever pray, pray for me.”

This simple, humble comment indicates that Truman knew he would be president at an extraordinarily difficult time in American history. Also, his request to the reporters demonstrated his belief in God and need for prayer. While Truman was a Christian and a religious man, the exact nature of his beliefs remain obscure. A very private person, Truman had a checkered record of church attendance; and, for his time, his views on religion tended to be extraordinarily open-minded and ecumenical.

Truman’s parents were both Baptists who probably first met at the Blue Ridge Baptist Church when it was located in the front yard of the  farmhouse in Grandview belonging to Solomon You, Truman’s grandfather.  However, Truman’s strong-willed mother, Martha Ellen Young Truman, left the congregation when she was a young woman because, as her son Harry later wrote, “She felt that there were too many liars and hypocrites in it.”  

At the age of 18, Harry was baptized at the Benton Boulevard Baptist Church in Kansas City, where he was living and working following his graduation from high school in Independence. From the historical record, it appears the he later became a member of the First Baptist Church of Grandview, Mo., (then called the Grandview Baptist Church) in 1916.

As a young man, Truman described himself in a letter to his sweetheart, Bess Wallace, as a “Lightfoot Baptist.” He told her that the Baptists “do not want a person to go to shows or dance or do anything for a good time. Well I like to do all those things and play cards besides. So you see I’m not very strong as a Baptist. Anyhow I don’t think any church on earth will take you to heaven if you’re not real anyway. I believe in people living what they believe and talking afterwards.”

When Harry Truman and Bess Wallace were married in Independence in 1919, the wedding took place at Bess’s church, Trinity Episcopal on Liberty Street. Their daughter Margaret was christened there in 1924, and many years later funeral services for both Harry and Bess Truman were held there. From time to time, apparently under some coaxing from his wife, Truman attended services at Trinity Episcopal Church.  

After his election to the United States Senate in 1934, Truman seldom attended any services, stating that “… I have found that I cannot appear regularly in the church, either in Grandview or Independence, without feeling like a showpiece or someone on exhibit. So I don’t go as often as I would want to.”  

During his military service in World War I, Truman became acquainted with many Catholics. Of particular importance was Jim Pendergast, a fellow officer and nephew of the notorious Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. Truman also developed a lifetime friendship with Father L. Curtis Tiernan, who served as a chaplain to his unit. At the same time, Truman established a lasting friendship with his future business partner Eddie Jacobson. Many more Jewish friends would follow.

Perhaps nothing sums up Truman’s approach to religion better than a statement he included in a 1945 hand-written autobiographical manuscript. In it, Truman wrote, “I am a Baptist because I think that sect gives the common man the shortest and most direct approach to God.”