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  • 105. Around the Corner: First Presbyterian Church

    On his walks around town, Harry Truman would almost always have passed by this church. On one of the walks, he talked about it. He said, “Here’s the First Presbyterian Church where I went to Sunday School when we moved to Independence in 1890. We were Baptists, but the Presbyterian preacher was so nice my folks let me go to Sunday School with him. Lucky thing they did, too, because that’s where I first met Bess. I was six, and she was five. She had long golden hair, and I thought she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. I still do.” Even though he was smitten by her right off the bat, their courtship didn’t start for another twenty years. It took him that long to get up the nerve to ask her out. They went through school together, though, and even lived only a couple of blocks apart. She’d let him carry her books home from school sometimes and, oh boy, that’d just make his day, but he worshiped her from afar; she had no idea how he felt at the time, so they weren’t close friends by any means. Still, they knew each other almost their entire lives. Even though Harry attended Sunday School here, he never joined the Presbyterian church. This is one of the reasons he and Bess didn’t associated socially more often when they were young. In Independence, even though everybody knew each other, there was a strict social echelon based on religious affiliation, even more so than on wealth. (As a matter of fact, Harry Truman’s father had between 30-40 thousand dollars at the time Harry graduated from high school; some people have the idea Harry Truman grew up poor, but that’s not really true. ) But they were Baptists. The Presbyterians, like Bess’s family, were at the top of the list, whereas the Baptists were more down near the middle. Much later, after everybody got famous, a reporter asked one of Bess’s childhood friends if Harry had hung out with them when they were kids, and the friend said, “No, no. Harry was a Baptist!” Even though Bess was raised a Presbyterian, when the Trumans were married, it was in the Episcopal Church. There’s a variety of stories as to what happened exactly but it seems to have something to do with the Presbyterian minister marrying a woman who was divorced. This is back in 1901, the year Harry and Bess graduated from high school, and apparently, this was kind of scandalous for the times. Whether Bess was upset by this, or whether she was upset with the others who were upset isn’t clear, but for whatever reason, her and her brother Frank started attending Trinity Episcopal Church, which is a few blocks from here. That’s why Harry and Bess were married at the Episcopal church. Bess’s grandparents, the Gates’s, stayed with the Presbyterian church. Their roots in the church were too deep to be pulled up. Bess’s grandfather, George Porterfield Gates was one of the town’s leading citizens and he was not going to change churches. His money came from a flour mill located a few blocks to the south that he was part owner of. He was a very respectable man, and his home was in a very respectable neighborhood. There was more than one successful businessman living on Maple Street. Walk on west to the next stop at 601 West Maple Street.