Nettie McCormick

May 03, 2010
Nettie McCormick

What would you do if someone gave you ten million dollars? Buy your dream house? Quit your job? Sail around the world? While it may be fun to dream about these possibilities, most of us will never actually be faced with a problem or decision of this nature. Nancy Fowler McCormick was one of the few people who actually had the opportunity to answer such a question.

A Serious Childhood
Nancy, whose childhood nickname was Nettie, was born February 8, 1835, in Brownsville, New York. Her father was a merchant who owned a store in Brownsville. A mere seven months after Nettie's birth, her father was killed in an accident involving a skittish horse. Nettie's mother, Clarissa, ran the store for several years, but she died in 1842 when Nettie was seven years old. Nettie and her brother, Eldridge, were taken to Clayton, New York, and raised by their grandmother Maria Fowler.

Even as a child, Nettie was very serious. Like the Puritans of old, she kept a journal where her introspection, self-examination and soul searching were given free reign. Her childhood was colored by the early death of her parents, and she wondered if she too would die young. These ponderings, however, led her to action. Life was short, and she needed to make hers count for something! Christ's parable of the talents was a daily reminder that "to whom much is given, much will be required." She dedicated herself to the daily service of God. Nettie was not interested in the frivolities of youth. She believed that her youth should be spent preparing for the business of life, not misspent in idleness. In her diary, she wrote, "How my bark [boat] hurries down the dark stream of time!" Even as a child, Nettie never believed happiness was the primary goal of her life. She wanted to live her life in service to God and others.

Nettie was very active in her church. She sang in the choir and played the melodeon. She was thankful to God for the opportunity to regularly attend Sunday school. Though she lived a comfortable life, she felt the suffering of others who were less fortunate than she. While attending the Troy Female Seminary, the seventeen year old Nettie wrote to her brother, "It has been very, very cold here today--Oh my heart bleeds for those who are turned out of house and home this stinging cold night." Because she longed to accomplish something great in service for humanity, Nettie scorned the fashionable pleasures of society. In her own words, "Usefulness is the great thing in life--to do something for others leaves a sweeter odor than a life of pleasure."

When Nettie Met Cyrus In 1856, twenty-one year old Nettie met Cyrus McCormick while visiting relatives in Chicago. Despite their twenty-five year age difference, Cyrus realized that Nettie was the woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Forty-six year old Cyrus had worked hard all his life and made his fortune from his patent of the mechanical reaper. At first, Nettie was hesitant to marry Cyrus, but he didn't give up. He told Nettie, "I do not think there is a man in the world who would strive more to please you than I should do--no one whose disposition and manner would be more under your control and influence than mine as your husband." Cyrus and Nettie were married on January 26, 1858.

Nettie was determined to be a good wife to Cyrus. She promised herself that she would "always sympathize with my dear husband. I will support him. I will be his guardian angel. Do as he wishes." However, Cyrus' business took him away from home and Nettie was often lonely. She consoled herself that duty was more honorable than enjoyment. Confiding in her journal, she wrote, "It sounds very easy, but it is not easy to be really good--and always put forth the best effort--to study wise words, to say the right thing in the right place. This is not easy."

Because she was orphaned at the age of seven, Nettie realized the important role parents played in a child's life. She tried to be the best mother she could to her children. She realized they would be watching their parents and learning from their example. She knew that she and Cyrus needed to live the Christian life for their children to see. Every word and act would shape the lives of their children. "Now the clay is soft and the vessel may be molded for honor or dishonor." Both Nettie and Cyrus required strict obedience from their children. They believed that disobedience was the flower of evil seed "that lies in human nature."

Incredible Trials Nettie was soon busy raising and caring for her children. However, when her third child, Robert, died in 1865, Nettie felt that God was punishing her for her sin of slothfulness and procrastination. She had two more miscarriages, and one of her daughters died as an infant. Then two of her remaining five children were afflicted with mental illness. Whatever her sins, this seemed like excessive punishment, and Nettie struggled with her feelings that God was dealing harshly with her.

The Great Fire
When the great fire swept through Chicago on October 23, 1871, McCormick's machinery factory was destroyed. Cyrus was ready to retire, but Nettie insisted on rebuilding. She soon became the driving force behind the rebuilding of McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, encouraging Cyrus to maintain his supremacy in reaper manufacturing. Nettie consulted architects, selected building materials and oversaw construction of the new plant, which opened on February 3, 1873. As Cyrus aged and his health declined, Nettie assumed greater control over the family's business and philanthropic affairs. When Cyrus died in 1884, Nettie was left with a large fortune. She realized that this was a trust to be used for the Lord.

Philanthropy at Home and Abroad
One of Cyrus' interests was theological education. In 1859, he donated $100,000 to finance the removal of Hanover Seminary to Chicago, where it was renamed McCormick Theological Seminary. Nettie continued to fund buildings, furnishings, repairs and scholarships at the seminary. She felt there was nothing more important than investing in young men who would preach the gospel. In 1905, Nettie and her sons established an endowment to pay the salary of the seminary's president. All told, the McCormick family donated more than four million dollars to the seminary.

Cyrus also funded Tusculum College, a southern mountain school in Tennessee. Because of this, Nettie developed an interest in other southern schools, where she encouraged domestic science and manual training. She also helped establish Christian churches and Sunday schools in the region. Nettie's interest in Christian training for young people led to her support of John Mott and his worldwide travels for the Student Volunteer Movement. John Mott once said that Nettie was "Christianity in action."

Nettie's philanthropy spanned a wide variety of interests and projects, both large and small. She supported the ailing wife of an Italian immigrant pastor and provided funds for dental work for the son of a director of college projects. She also sent money to the director of a Tennessee orphanage to enable him to "lay down" his work "for a little while and go away from home." She also made large gifts to numerous educational institutions in the United States, including Moody Bible Institute and Princeton. Foreign causes interested her as well. Nettie made gifts of at least $25,000 for the first building of Alborz College in Teheran, for a hospital in Siam, and for theological education in Korea. She gave $2,000 to establish the first women's hospital in Persia. From 1890 until her death in 1923, Nettie McCormick donated $8 million (over $160 million today) to hospitals, disaster and relief agencies, educational institutions, youth activities, and churches. She became a leading benefactress of the Presbyterian Church in America.

"The Glory of My Master" Nettie once remarked to a friend, "Yes, money is power, as you have said, but I have always tried not to trust in it, but rather use it for the glory of my Master." Ultimately, it was not her wealth or the money she gave away that made Nettie the great woman she aspired to be as a little girl. Her simple trust in God was her strength. From experience she could write, "We plan--and God steps in with another plan for us, and He is all wise and the most loving friend we have always helping us."

Cyrus McCormick: A Businessman with Christian Principles

"I want everyone who is on Christ's side to stand up." The speaker looked across the little Virginia church as people stood up. Cyrus McCormick did not stand. When church let out, he went home to bed. His dad came into his room. "Son, don't you know that by being quiet you are rejecting Christ?"

Cy had not thought of it that way. He rode to his friend Billy McClung's house. Everyone knew Billy was a Christian. "Billy, how can I know Jesus?" he asked. Billy showed Cy that he must confess his sin, right any wrongs he had done to others and commit himself to following Christ. Next Sunday, Cy stood up in church and told everyone he had given his life to Jesus.

That summer, Cyrus helped with the reaping, just as he always had. It was hard work and he grew tired. Even with everyone in the family helping, the wheat began to go bad. Cyrus knew that what farmers needed was a machine that could reap the wheat quickly, so it wouldn't go to waste. He tackled the problem with new ideas.

After a year of invention and experimentation, Cyrus finished his reaper. The invention soon proved itself, and he took out a patent on it. About all the patent did was give him standing in court. Many people stole his ideas. He had to fight legal battles the rest of his life. The only way to make money off his invention was to make a better, cheaper reaper than anyone else. He learned how to do that and was an important figure in the development of factories and franchises in America. His Christian principles found their way into his business practices, and one biographer said it was impossible to separate Cy's religious life from his business life.

Cyrus McCormick and his mechanical reaper.

He invented a paddle wheel that pressed wheat against the cutting knife, which had teeth like a saw. There was a swinging platform for the cut stalks, which kept its position even in a bumpy field. A flat board separated the stalks that were being cut from the grain left standing and a heavy wheel carried the machine and powered all its moving parts at an even speed.


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