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Reagan’s challenge to his dying atheist father-in-law

Earlier this year a note was discovered in Nancy Reagan’s personal effects – dated August 7, 1982 – written by Ronald Reagan to his father-in-law. What makes the 36-year-old letter special is the topic – the president of the United States was taking time on a Saturday afternoon to write to Loyal Davis, his ailing father-in-law. Reagan was concerned about his health, but even more so about his eternity – Davis was a self-declared atheist.

Reagan was 71, and just 16 months removed from being shot in the chest by crazed gunman John Hinckley Jr. So maybe he understood what his father-in-law was facing, how he was being confronted with his certain mortality. From the letter it’s clear that Reagan has been doing some reading about God, sharing with his father-in-law arguments that probably came from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

What he began with was one of his own experiences. During his first year as governor of California, Reagan developed an ulcer that gave him sharp pains, and other times only discomfort, but which never went away entirely. Then one morning, as he reached for his Maalox, he discovered he didn’t need it – he was healed. That same morning the first and second letters of the day were from people telling him that they and others were praying for Reagan. Inside of an hour, a member of his legal staff popped in “on some routine matter” and on the way out the young man shared that some of Reagan’s staff would arrive early every day to pray for him.

An appointment two weeks later confirmed that not only did Reagan no longer have an ulcer, but, the doctor added, “there was no indication I’d ever had one.” Reagan understood this as God answering these many prayers. But he knew his skeptical father-in-law might dismiss this as coincidence, so he presented him with more to consider.

Some seven hundred years before the birth of Christ the ancient Jewish prophets predicted the coming of a Messiah…. All in all there were a total of one hundred and twenty-three specific prophesys (sic) about his life all of which came true. 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.

….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.

But for two thousand years he has had more impact on the world than all the teachers, scientists, emperors, generals and admirals who ever lived, all put together.

And with that, Reagan pleaded with his father-in-law to turn to God and place his trust in Jesus Christ. And there is some reason to hope that he did.

Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post discovered the letter while doing research for a biography on Nancy Reagan, and, rather than simply place it back in the box, she brought it to her paper, where they published it this past month.

And so it was that, some 35 years after it was written, God used this private plea to challenge the many hundreds of thousands who have now been able to read it.

* Reagan isn’t quite right on this point. King David does prophecy, in Psalm 22, of Jesus’ hands and feet being pierced (which points to the cross) but nowhere does it prophecy specifically that he would be nailed to a cross of wood. This is important to mention only because Christians don’t want to be accused of overstating things.


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