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New Horizons

The Christianity of Woodrow Wilson

Danny E. Olinger

Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president of the United States, was also a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). In fact, for a seven-year period, Wilson served on the session at First Presbyterian Church in Princeton where J. Gresham Machen attended.

Sadly, however, Wilson left behind the doctrinal content of the historic Presbyterianism that Machen embraced, as Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University, demonstrates in his short biography, Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President. Hankins examines the impact of Wilson’s progressive ideology, supported by his liberal theological convictions, on American culture and the Presbyterian Church in the early twentieth century.

Making of a Statesman

Wilson’s father, Joseph, was a Presbyterian minister who served from 1861 to 1898 as the permanent clerk of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Wilson himself studied for gospel ministry at Davidson College in 1873 but withdrew and enrolled at Princeton. When he graduated from Princeton in 1879, he no longer sought to be a Presbyterian minister, but a Christian statesman. From that point forward Wilson rarely agonized or even quibbled over doctrine. “Doctrine was only important,” Wilson explained, “to the extent that it could be translated into action” (135).

This did not stop Wilson from claiming that he embraced historic Christianity. “Unorthodox in my reading of the standards of the faith, I am nevertheless orthodox in my faith,” he said (52). The intellectual difficulties of maintaining such a position were not troubling for Wilson because, for him, Christianity was primarily a religion of doing.

Despite his doctrinal indifference, Wilson did not bypass elements of the faith in his personal life. As a father, he helped his three daughters memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He practiced daily Bible readings and prayer with his family. During the Great War, Wilson nightly read a chapter of the Bible aloud to his second wife, Edith.

At the same time, Wilson believed that the Bible was flawed in its presentation of historical fact. This did not bother him because he believed the historical and doctrinal portions of the Bible did not affect its teaching on how to live a moral life. Saving faith was meaningless unless it could be translated into social activism, which is why the pastor’s job was to prepare his flock for community service. Hankins explains, “When [Wilson] said that Christ had come to ‘save the world,’ he meant it in the social and collective sense. And democracy was the means for this social salvation” (105).

President of Princeton

As Hankins details, when Wilson as president of Princeton (1902–1910) implemented this philosophical approach, Princeton ceased being Christian in any meaningful sense. Wilson’s predecessor, Francis Patton, had sought to maintain an evangelical orthodoxy at the school. Wilson recounted his own student days when revivals would break out at Princeton, then known as the “Ivy League Bible School.” Students who were trying to study would be constantly interrupted by those concerned about their spiritual condition. One of Wilson’s peers finally put on his door, “I am a Christian, but studying for exams” (6).

Wilson, however, desired to change Princeton into a modern research university. He believed that Christian presuppositions and supernaturalism needed to be removed from the intellectual work of the school. That is, academic excellence trumped doctrine. Hankins rightly asks how Princeton could retain Christ at its center under such a program. “The answer had to do with how Wilson redefined Christianity in the university setting. Essentially, he meant morality; the role played by this broad, non-sectarian religion in the university was moral, not intellectual” (89).

President of the United States

Having modernized Princeton, Wilson moved to public office to fulfill his life’s credo: to make the United States a mighty Christian nation and to Christianize the world. In his inauguration speech as president on March 4, 1913, Wilson promoted a civic religion that would restore the nation for the purpose of correcting evil and purifying humanity. Borrowing from the rhetoric of Social Gospel preachers, Wilson declared this would not be a cool process of mere science but a shared living-out of justice and brotherhood as if in God’s presence. Hankins explains, “Liberal Protestants sought to reconcile Enlightenment reason with theology, but they also retained a romantic experience with God as the centerpiece of lived religion. Wilson sought here to tap into that intuitive spirit” (123).

The day after the inauguration, a New York Times editorial stated that Wilson’s words implied a belief that during his campaign and since his election Americans had become regenerate. The editorial predicted that by the end of the Wilson administration “the nature of man here and elsewhere will be very much what it is today, and what it has been in the past” (123).

Throughout the book, Hankins pinpoints where Wilson’s exalted view of man was at odds with biblical anthropology. He writes, “One might argue that Wilson’s Reformed sense of calling, combined with the Progressive Era’s heightened sense of confidence in the human ability to remake the world, overwhelmed the Westminster Confession’s sense of the fall of humankind into sin” (202).

A Holy War

As president, Wilson viewed the nation as a vehicle for righteousness, which meant that patriotism was akin to Christianity, particularly when the United States entered World War I in 1917. He declared that the war was a holy war in which one had to choose whether to fight for God (America) or Satan (Germany). Accordingly, Wilson believed that the American soldiers who died fighting against the Germans had shed “sacred blood” (157). In Hankins’s words, “Social Gospel became redeemer nation” (138).

This mentality is what so disturbed Machen who had served in the YMCA on the front lines in France. In his May 6, 1919, address at Princeton, “The Church in the War,” Machen maintained that there was some plausibility to the judgment that the church had failed during the war. Soldiers who went bravely over the top were regarded in a messianic fashion, their sacrifice paying the price of sin. Machen explained, this did not mean that these men were opposed to Jesus. Rather, they were eager to admit Jesus into the noble company of those who had sacrificed themselves in a righteous cause. Such an attitude, which was built upon a profound satisfaction with human goodness, was as far removed as possible from the Christian attitude. Machen declared:

It never seems to dawn upon them that this was no sinful man, but the Lord of glory who died on Calvary. If it did dawn upon them, they could gladly confess, as men used to confess, that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is worth more, as a ground for the hope of the world, than all the rivers of blood which have flowed upon the battlefields of France. (J. Gresham Machen: Select Shorter Writings, P&R, 2004, 378)

Machen’s remarks came a week before the beginning of the 131st (1919) General Assembly of the PCUSA, which considered Wilson’s League of Nations proposal. In promoting the proposal, Wilson said, “I believe that the solid foundation of the League of Nations is to be found in Christian principles and in the sustaining sentiment of Christian peoples everywhere” (198). On May 15, 1919, the PCUSA General Assembly officially endorsed the proposal. Many shared Wilson’s conviction that America had been Christ’s army in the war, and now America needed to be Christ’s instrument of peace after the war.

Wilson campaigned in the summer and early fall of 1919 to gain popular support for the League of Nations proposal, but on October 2 he suffered a devastating stroke. The US Senate voted against it, and Wilson lived out the rest of his life never fully recovering from his physical and political setbacks.

Hankins concludes the book by stating that Wilson was a man of his times, living in an era when Christians believed that their good works could usher in God’s kingdom. When the war came, Wilson spiritualized it, so that optimism about humanity’s progress would not be curtailed. The war became a war “fought for the salvation of all.” But all Wilson’s spiritualizing could not account for the fact that the war changed nothing about the basic nature of mankind.

The author is editor of New Horizons. Woodrow Wilson, by Barry Hankins, is published by Oxford University Press (2016). Hardcover, 256 pages, $38.95. New Horizons, October 2018.

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