Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President

Barry Hankins. Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 235 pages. $35.00, cloth.

“Spiritual Lives,” a promising new series from Oxford University Press, offers brief biographies of public figures with a focus on the bearing of their religious convictions on their life and thought. In this inaugural volume, Barry Hankins, Professor of History at Baylor University and author of a prize-winning biography of Francis Schaeffer, examines the encounter of Calvinistic orthodoxy with public policy in a scholar who served as President of Princeton University, Governor of New Jersey, and the 28th President of the United States. While the biography is brief, the research of the author was extensive, including working through the massive 64-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson by Princeton University Press.

Hankins’s life of Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) invites comparison with the story of another prominent son of the Presbyterian south who does not appear in the narrative, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1936). Though Machen was 24 years younger, he and Wilson were acquaintances: Wilson was a prominent guest of the Machen family in their Baltimore home, and he returned the favor by entertaining Machen from time to time at Princeton.

The many Presbyterian pastors in Wilson’s family included his uncle, James Woodrow, a professor at Columbia Seminary whose views on theistic evolution became controversial in the southern Presbyterian Church. Dr. Woodrow was supported by the Machen family during the Baltimore General Assembly when he was disciplined by the church in 1881 (also the year of John Gresham Machen’s birth). While the evolution controversy cost Woodrow his post at Columbia, it was instrumental in the ways in which his nephew came “quickly and easily” to embrace the views of biblical higher criticism (20).

Both Wilson and Machen were brilliant scholars, each trained at Johns Hopkins in that innovative university’s early history. As a Princeton Seminary student, Machen sat in on university lectures by Professor Wilson on American constitutional history. There Wilson described John Calvin as “the great reforming Christian statesman” (45), his teaching on church polity serving as the foundation for modern democracy. Hankins makes clear that Wilson’s Whig view of history allowed him to see the Reformation and the Enlightenment, far from opposed, as working together as progressive forces in history.

Finally, both southern Christian gentlemen found their vocations in the north and declined tempting opportunities to return home. Wilson was offered the Presidency of the University of Virginia, and Union Seminary in Virginia had sought to recruit Machen in New Testament.

Despite all these similarities, the two would set out on different paths. Wilson rejected covenant theology as unscientific and eschewed Calvinistic orthodoxy for progressive views of Scripture. “Unorthodox in my reading of the standards of the faith,” he wrote in his journal as a 32 year old, “I am nevertheless orthodox in my faith” (52). Specifically, a Calvinistic anthropology based on total depravity would yield to an Enlightenment-informed optimism about human nature. Under his presidential administration Hankins notes how quickly Princeton University secularized: “Presbyterian orthodoxy disappeared altogether, becoming something of an embarrassment” (98) and the school “ceased to be Christian in any meaningful sense” (86).

Wilson embraced the modernist impulse whereby “darkness was associated with what was old” (213). Pedagogically, the options before the University were progress or sectarianism. Princeton Seminary, however, did not keep pace (that would wait its reorganization in 1929). Thus there was little interaction with the Seminary during his Presidency. Wilson himself did not attend Seminary centennial events in 1912.

After leaving the University in 1910, Wilson successfully ran for governor of New Jersey. Two years later, he won the Presidency a three-way contest with Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent William Taft, securing an electoral landslide with only 43% of the popular vote. As President, Wilson’s progressivism blossomed into civil religion, expressed with a zeal that left the New York Times to wonder whether Wilson’s rhetoric implied that Americans “had become regenerate” (123). In Hankins’s words, “Social Gospel became redeemer nation” (138), though as he goes on to explain, Wilson’s progressivism would not extend to race relations.

When Wilson altered his attitude toward World War I, it became America’s righteous cause, Wilson growing ever more confident in America’s providential role in history. Indeed, Hankins notes that his rhetoric resembled holy war more than just war: American entered the conflict, Wilson insisted, “for the salvation of all” (157). For his part, though Machen supported Wilson’s election as Governor of New Jersey and President, his enthusiasm for Wilson waned especially as he grew to lament what he called the “patriotic enthusiasm and military ardor” that characterized Princeton during the Great War.

One disappointing feature of Hankins’s book is that, despite its subtitle, the book offers no reference to Wilson’s service as a Presbyterian ruling elder (the dustjacket notes his election to the office in 1897, at the age of 40). However his Presbyterian convictions evolved, Wilson maintained the regular practice of the Reformed piety of his youth. He was a faithful church-goer throughout his life, occupying the third pew at Central Presbyterian Church during his White House years. His daughters memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism and he faithfully maintained family devotions.

In Hankins’s narrative Wilson emerges as the prototype of the modernist that Machen describes in his manifesto, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), clinging to a Christian faith that was “gutted of its content.” Hankins elaborates: “Wilson’s optimism concerning the power of humankind to do good hailed not from his Reformed heritage but from liberal theology, the Social Gospel, progressivism, and, ultimately, the romantic spiritualization of religion to the point that it existed everywhere and therefore nowhere” (213). This left the Presbyterian ruling elder flummoxed about the mission of the church. “Wilson loved the church, and he wanted to make it central to all of life, but he always fumbled around when trying to figure out what the church actually was” (137). The social gospel, in effect, rendered the church redundant. “Once everything is God’s work … Wilson … struggled to find something unique for the church to do” (138). What ultimately counted for Wilson, “whether in politics or religion, was doing good” (105). This is precisely the moralistic counterfeit of Christianity that Machen would go on to portray in his book. Wilson’s life is the odyssey of a southern old school Presbyterian into a northern Presbyterian modernist.

This brief biography is especially rewarding as a reminder for confessional Presbyterians of recurring temptation to place one’s hope in electoral politics. If columnist H. L. Mencken went too far in dismissing Wilson as a “self-bamboozled Presbyterian,” we would do well to guard ourselves against the naiveté of his moralism. This raises one more commonality between Wilson and Machen – both lives ended tragically. After the war, Wilson’s idealism took a new cause, the League of Nations, which he promoted with the zeal of a revivalist. In the end his “secularized eschatology” would not sell any more in Congress than among European allies. Wilson left the White House a broken and bitter man; “Defeated Prophet” is the apt title of the final chapter.

Machen experienced a humiliating defeat at the end of his life as well, when he failed to drive modernism out of the northern Presbyterian church. But unlike Wilson, his hope was firmly fixed on the life to come.

John R. Muether
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando