Divine visitations are the most powerful of all dreams. For thousands of years, leaders have claimed to be following orders from God. It is a potent claim. Human beings, after all, are fallible and may be contradicted. When God speaks, believers must obey.
Among those believers was one of the most devout American presidents, William McKinley. By McKinley’s own account, God appeared to him at the White House on an October night in 1898. When he awoke, he did what God had told him to do. That decisively shaped the future course of American and world history.
All sorts of people have received messages from God. He sends these messages, according to the Book of Job, “in a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed.” It was through one such dream, the Bible says, that Joseph learned his wife was pregnant with the son of God.
The history of divine visitations suggests that God appears most often in times of conflict. In the 13th century He commanded a peasant boy, Stephen of Cloyes, to raise an army of children to capture the Holy Land. Tens of thousands of children flocked to join him. Most either drowned at sea or were sold into slavery in North Africa. None are known to have made it to the Holy Land.
Two centuries later another teenager, Joan of Arc, assembled an army by persuading her countrymen that God had appeared to her in dreams and ordered her to lead French troops against the invading English. “Whatever I have done that was good, I have done at the bidding of my voices,” Joan said before being burned at the stake.
As those and many other examples show, God most often urges leaders to fight, not seek peace or reconciliation. That was his message to McKinley. By obeying, McKinley set the United States onto the path of empire. This was certainly the most consequential divine visitation in American history.
Soon after the United States declared war against Spain in 1898, an American squadron destroyed the Spanish naval fleet, anchored in the Philippines. That left McKinley with a dilemma. He suddenly found himself able to decide the fate of a faraway land about which he knew nothing. One night — most likely October 24, 1898 — God appeared in a dream and illuminated him. Later he told a group of Methodist clergymen how it happened.
“The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them,” McKinley said. “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight. And I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain — that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France or Germany — our commercial rivals in the Orient — that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”
After awakening from this dream, McKinley instructed American diplomats to impose on Spain a treaty by which the Philippines became an American territory. Filipinos rebelled. That set set off a guerrilla war that cost more than 200,000 lives. One American general famously ordered his troops to turn the land around them into “a howling wilderness,” and to kill every civilian over the age of ten because they were “capable of bearing arms.”
It may have been coincidence, but what God told President McKinley to do was also politically expedient. That conforms to a pattern. When God speaks, he often directs people onto the path they already wanted to take.
Although most Americans have no idea that our war in the Philippines ever happened, it had a profound effect on Asians. Outrage over the conduct of US troops fueled nationalist movements that set off anti-Western uprisings in China, Korea and Vietnam. The Philippine War was also a harsh lesson to Americans. We learned that if we wanted to project our power overseas, we would have to do it with fire and fury. God failed to warn President McKinley about that. The divine visitation of 1898 has turned out to be as much a nightmare as a dream.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer