When Ronald Reagan was president, he lost his father-in-law, Dr. Loyal Davis. Reagan wrote a letter recounting a personal miracle he had experienced and urging his father-in-law to believe the gospel before his death.
“What Ronald Reagan’s own words in his own hand, in the most private and intimate communication, show is that faith for him really was a starting point. It was not some sort of political gambit,” Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty explained in a video. Tumulty discovered the letter while conducting research for a biography on former First Lady Nancy Regan.
Reagan began his letter recounting “a personal experience I’ve kept to myself for a long time.” While governor of California, he had struggled with an ulcer “for months,” when suddenly the pain disappeared one morning.
“I had gone to bed with the usual pain the night before but I knew that morning I was healed,” the president recounted. More strange, he received three messages with people telling him they were praying for him.
“The first letter I opened was from a lady — a stranger — in the Southern part of the state. She had written to tell me she was one of a group who met every day to pray for me,” he wrote. “Believe it or not, the second letter was from a man, again a stranger, in the other end of the state telling me he was part of a group that met weekly to pray for me.”
The story got even more remarkable. “Within the hour a young fellow from the legal staff came into my office on some routine matter. On the way out he paused in the door and said, ‘Gov, I think maybe you’d like to know — some of us on the staff come in early every morning and get together to pray for you,'” Reagan recounted.
“Coincidence? I don’t think so,” the president wrote. When he went to his doctor, the doctor confirmed that he no longer had an ulcer, but he added “there was no indication I’d ever had one.”
How did Reagan explain this? “There is a line in the Bible — ‘Where even two or ore are gathered in my name there I will be also,'” he wrote (Matthew 18:20).
The president acknowledged his father-in-law’s doubt, but he pressed on to discuss Jesus Christ.
“Some seven hundred years before the birth of Christ the ancient Jewish prophets predicted the coming of a Messiah,” Reagan wrote. “They said he would be born in a lowly place, would proclaim himself the Son of God and would be put to death for saying that.”
The president noted 123 specific prophecies “all of which came true.” He added that “crucifixion was unknown in those times, yet it was foretold that he would be nailed to a cross of wood. And one of the predictions was that he would be born of a Virgin.”
Reagan noted that the virgin birth might be “the hardest for you as a Dr. to accept. … But Loyal I don’t find that as great a miracle as the actual history of his life. Either he was who he said he was or he was the greatest faker & charlatan who ever lived. But would a liar & faker suffer the death he did when all he had to do to save himself was admit he’d been lying?”
“The miracle is that a young man of 30 yrs. without credentials as a scholar or priest began preaching on street corners. He owned nothing but the clothes on his back & he didn’t travel beyond a circle less than one hundred miles across. He did this for only 3 years and then was executed as a common criminal,” the president wrote. “But for two thousand years he has had more impact on all the world than all the teachers, scientists, emperors, generals, and admirals who ever lived, all put together.”
Then Reagan quoted John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that who so ever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting life.”
“We have been promised that all we have to do is ask God in Jesus name to help when we have done all we can — when we’ve come to the end of our strength and abilities and we’ll have that help. We only have to trust and have faith in his infinite goodness & mercy,” the president wrote.
Reagan presented a very personal vision of heaven and eternal life that might appeal to his father-in-law.
“Loyal, you & Edith have known a great love — more than many have been permitted to know. That love will not end with the end of this life,” the son-in-law wrote. “We’ve been promised this is only a part of life and that a greater life, a greater glory awaits us. It awaits you together one day and all that is required is that you believe and tell God you put yourself in his hands.”
By publishing this letter (which can be read in full here), Tumulty revealed a deeply personal component to Reagan’s faith.
While this president had galvanized evangelical Christians as a political force, his Christianity was far more than political. It is impossible for anyone to know for certain if another human being will make it to heaven, but this letter suggests that Reagan believed that Jesus Christ was indeed “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that his father-in-law needed to believe in Jesus in order to enjoy eternal life (John 14:6).
Close to the end of Reagan’s presidency, his wife Nancy mentioned the letter. “Two days before he [my father] died, he asked to see the hospital chaplain,” Nancy Reagan said in a speech. “I don’t know what the chaplain did or what he said, but whatever it was, it was the right thing and it gave my father comfort. When he died the next day, he was at peace, finally. And I was so happy for him. My prayers were answered.”
It is impossible to know for certain whether Ronald Reagan or Dr. Loyal Davis believed the gospel and received Jesus’ free gift of eternal life. This letter did reveal, however, that Reagan preached the gospel to his father-in-law, and Nancy Reagan’s later remarks suggest the letter may have taken root in Dr. Davis’ heart.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.