Ruling Elder, Spiritual President
Barry Hankins’s Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President is an excellent addition to Oxford University Press’s Spiritual Lives series. This series, edited by Timothy Larsen, explores historical figures who are typically not regarded as primarily religious men and women but whose lives were influenced by religious thought and trends, and who themselves made significant contributions to matters of religion and the spirit. Hankins’s biography of the twenty-eighth president of the United States—whose immediate and extended family included numerous ordained Presbyterian ministers—does a fine job tracing the development of Wilson’s private and public theologies, from his teenage years and college days, and through to his failure to bring his country into the League of Nations following World War I. Wilson, known for his moralizing as president of both Princeton University and the US, and for his religiously inspired missionary diplomacy, plays the surprising role of a religious leader, once deeply inspired by a broad Christian ethic and moral sensibility yet simultaneously uninterested in the finer points of theology and doctrine.
Most of the principal events in Hankins’s biography will be familiar to scholars of Wilson, the Progressive Era, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century trends in higher education, the First World War, and the roots of the fundamentalism-modernism debate within Protestantism. However, Hankins’s chief successes in this book are twofold. First, the author brings together these chronologically overlapping—though thematically diverse—subjects in an effective and lucidly explained manner. Second, Hankins advances a new and convincing answer to the query, “What was Wilson’s creed?” (viii). The author argues that Wilson’s creed was, in fact, one of no specific dogmas. Rather, Hankins argues that “Wilson’s faith” at the end of his life migrates from the “Reformed Presbyterian heritage” of his youth to one which “spiritualized into an amorphous doing of good” (212, 213). The author explains that Wilson partially traded in Old School Presbyterianism for “a religion of action, not doctrine” (12), embracing “liberal theology, the Social Gospel, progressivism, and, ultimately, the romantic spiritualization of religion to the point that it existed everywhere and therefore nowhere” (213). Hankins’s interprets Wilson’s system of religious beliefs by the end of his presidency was effectively a fusion of modernism—which was strongly tinged with Christian moralism—with a progressive, optimistic view of the course of history, and righteous Americanism.
Apart from Hankins’s rewarding analysis of Wilson’s spiritual and intellectual development, the author’s examination of Wilson’s private life also deserves praise. Hankins does a fine job of humanizing and complicating Wilson, transforming a figure who can too easily be caricatured as a staid, humorless, and distant intellectual into a lively, cultured, and frequently fun-loving public servant. In Hankins’s portrayal, Wilson was a man obsessed with moral perfection, scholarly production, and professional advancement, yet one who made ample time to pursue a year-long romantic—though likely non-sexual—extramarital affair; to stage playful, dramatic performances for his children; and to play and coach sports. Hankins describes a devoted student of the Bible, but a man that also embraced evolution, Biblical higher criticism, and the secularization of the university. While Wilson believed deeply in the power of a virtuous nation to fix social ills, his civic faith had its limits—as evidenced by his non-support of federally backed equal rights for African Americans. Wilson was, in short, emblematic of the internal contradictions of the Progressive Era and a symbol of the everyday, human struggle between tradition and modernism, the public and private spheres, and individual desires and the common good.
Hankins packs a tremendous amount of material into just over two hundred pages of text, inclusive of endnotes. It is impressive, then, how readable this book is, especially in light of its wide-ranging subject matter. Given its relatively brief length, its strong and vivid prose, its concise notes, and the unobtrusiveness of historiographical discussions, this book is certainly suitable for a popular audience with interests in presidential history or in the intersectionality of politics and religion. Hankins’s Woodrow Wilson provides a compelling narrative of a figure whose biography should be interesting to twenty-first-century readers who take for granted the high degree of visibility of the public and private lives of modern presidents. There is also much of value in Hankins’s book for scholars of political and religious history. The author relies on major works on Wilson and the history of the postbellum United States, while still engaging in significant research in published and archival collections of Wilson’s writings, and other primary sources both by and about the president. Hankins makes an original argument about Wilson’s spiritual life and his contributions to the development of American civil religion for which historians should give careful attention. Hankins’s work serves as a model for scholars striving to match a rigorous methodology with an engaging and concise prose style in order to produce a monograph that is rich in its argumentation, historical insights, and a joy to read. It is exciting to see renewed attention on the role of religion in Wilson’s career, a trend also evidenced by Cara Burnidge’s recent monograph A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order [University of Chicago Press, 2016]. This renewed focus on Wilson and religion joins a broader, growing body of scholarly literature on religious influences in the lives of other US presidents, including Abraham Lincoln [Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], Herbert Hoover [Glen Jeansonne, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012], and Jimmy Carter [Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, Basic Books, 2014]. The spiritual lives of recent presidents such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama and their statements on the role of religion in public life make it likely that the scholarly attention to religion in the presidency will continue in coming years.
William S. Cossen is an instructor of United States history and comparative government and politics at The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology.
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