Nettie Fowler McCormick: Millionaire Missionary

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Nettie Fowler McCormickWhen Nancy Fowler, 7, gathered her meager belongings and headed for her new home, no one could have imagined that years later she would be an internationally famous philanthropist, with multiplied millions of donations. Yet a westward migration and wealthy marriage eventually accomplished just that.

Nancy (later Nettie) Fowler was born near Clayton, New York, in 1835. After the early death of both parents, she lived with her grandparents. Relatives enabled her to obtain an education beyond the usual limit for girls then, including opportunities in music and writing.

In 1856 a providential Chicago visit decisively changed her life. She met Cyrus Hall McCormick, the famous inventor of the reaper (see "Business Builder: Cyrus H. McCormick" April, 1997, Pulpit Helps) and founder of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which became part of the International Harvester Company in 1902. Although he was more than twice her age, friendship flowered into romance and led to marriage in 1858.

Nettie Fowler McCormick found herself on a bigger stage than she had ever dreamed. Fame and fortune in large measure had come almost overnight, but much more lay ahead. The stewardship of time, talent, and treasure occupied her fully for the rest of her life-with significant and enduring world-wide results for many branches of the Lord's work.

When the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the McCormick factory, she persuaded Cyrus to rebuild rather than retire. She became the driving force behind the new plant, so that the inventor (26 years her senior) chided her for urging him on "with whip and spur."

But while important business affairs demanded much time, spiritual interests prevailed. Customarily, Mrs. McCormick would "read the Scriptures shortly after 7 o'clock each morning." Her husband often joined her for devotions before going downstairs for breakfast. At other times he would accompany her on the violin or join her in singing hymns. The Bible always accompanied them on their trips.

Both worshiped in the Presbyterian Church, to which they gave enormous sums. McCormick Seminary, in his day an evangelical bulwark, largely owed its existence to its namesake. He also bought The Interior in 1873; within a decade it was one of the most widely read religious journals in the land. Other beneficiaries were legion.

Finally old age claimed McCormick. On May 7, 1884, he gathered his family around his bedside, then led them in prayer and singing several hymns. Whispering, "It's all rightI want only heaven," he became unconscious and a few days later was with the Lord.

Widowhood, with the children grown, opened a new world. Mrs. McCormick continued her active participation in the company but was able to devote more and more attention to benevolence. Her husband's will provided that his $10 million estate should remain undivided for five years, during which period his wife and eldest son were to make such reasonable donations to charities as he "would have made if living."

She met the terms and in the remainder of her life gave about $8 million to religious and educational institutions, supporting numerous schools and missions in this country, China, and other parts of Asia. According to the Chicago Tribune, she was "said to have given more money to the Presbyterian Church than any other person in the country."

The Chicago Evangelization Society (now Moody Bible Institute) was founded in 1887. Mrs. McCormick, one of the most generous early supporters, for a time served on the advisory board of the Women's Department. Her son, Cyrus Jr., was an original incorporator and trustee.

Only one who has reviewed the vast McCormick Collection, as this writer has, at the State Historical Society, University of Wisconsin in Madison, can fully appreciate Mrs. McCormick's dedicated stewardship. Although she was deluged with appeals, she evidently considered every one seriously. Much of her enormous correspondence with friends all over the world was in her own handwriting, which "remained clear and firm despite her age," the Chicago Tribune noted.

Visitors were impressed by her "royal air," undeniable charm, and quick wit. In spite of deafness in her later years, she managed conversations so tactfully that others quickly forgot her affliction.

Finally, death came in 1923, at 88, after a brief illness. Perhaps the most fitting epitaph would be:

"Many daughters have done virtuously but thou excellest them all" (Prov. 31:29).

Adapted from Sunday Digest, ©1977 David C. Cook Pub. Co.; used by permission.

Bernard R. DeRemer has chronicled the lives of more than five dozen of God's choice leaders,
across recent centuries, in almost a decade of writing for Pulpit Helps.

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