A Peaceful Conquest

Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order

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Cara Lea Burnidge
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , October
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There seems to be flurry of interest in the impact of religion on America’s World War I President, Woodrow Wilson. This short volume, by a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa, is only adequate. A revised dissertation for his Florida State University Ph.D., A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order focuses on the development of Wilson’s faith and how it influenced his policies as the nation’s chief executive.  As a ruling elder in his Presbyterian church, Wilson consciously tried to act in accordance with its doctrines—a difficult problem for a member of the Presbyterian Church in the United States once he became governor of New Jersey in 1911, and then President of the United States two years later.

A reader of this work, no matter how expertly its author might present its themes, will not learn about this difficulty from this book. Indeed, with the exception of noting that Wilson consciously joined Central Presbyterian Church [CPC] in Washington, D.C.—the only southern Presbyterian Church in the city—we would not know that Wilson was anything but a generic Presbyterian. This church, Burnidge writes, “was a different place” from the other Presbyterian churches there, quoting Wilson, because its people were “indifferent” to Washington’s politics and the president could find a reprieve there from political concerns (44).

Quite so, but the author gives us not a single clue to why the President—or the parishoners—might have felt this way. Wilson was a Presbyterian, as Burnidge reminds us on page after page, but for her that amounts only to Calvinism, and, since her subject was born and raised in the south, racial prejudice.  Except for two references to CPC, a man who was the son and nephew of powerful, influential figures in their denomination, is never influenced by the southern church—its formal name the Presbyterian Church in the United States—whose very origin in secession year of 1861 was expressed in something its members insisted was “the spirituality of the church.” This doctrine held that church and state moved in separate orbits, never to touch. Yet somehow, without explanation from the author, Wilson picked up something she terms “social Christianity”—apparently a more modern and trendy phrase than the historically correct “social gospel.”

But that’s not all. The spirituality doctrine is never mentioned; nor is any history of the denomination cited, even the standard three-volume history by Ernest T. Thompson, published in 1973, where it might be found in great detail.  And of course Thompson’s volumes do not appear in an otherwise fine bibliography, especially full in covering Wilson’s own writings. This neglect reminds me of someone writing about doughnuts and neglecting to mention Krispy Kremes—and giving no reason.

Burnidge quotes Wilson as proclaiming in 1916, before he led the nation into war, “in my conviction, Christianity was just as much intended to save society as to save the individual” (52). That may be true, but it was certainly not the position of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and Burnidge fails to tell us how Wilson came to that conclusion, so far removed from the spirituality position of his own church. At some level she realizes the gap in her tale, because on the very next page she concludes that when it came time to ask Congress for a declaration for war—as he did so brilliantly on April 2, 1917—Wilson did not turn to CPC or scripture for guidance but relied on his own policy agenda, formed apparently in some unstated fashion.

This book, whose title and subtitle promise so much, is, at end, a sad disappointment.  Though it covers the usual and expected topics, and does so in a well-written and concise fashion, it does not illuminate how religion influenced Wilson’s “New World Order.” It thus fails.

About the Reviewer(s): 

H. Larry Ingle is professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cara Lea Burnidge is assistant professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa.


Brett Hendrickson

This is the second less-than-laudatory, even snarky, review I have read by this reviewer today. (The other one is for Surge of Piety, also on this site.) In both cases, he is upset that the book's subject matter was not approached in the way he would have chosen. That Burnidge doesn't turn her analysis into a denominational history of the Presbyterian Church in America and its doctrines is hardly a damning criticism. The reviewer doesn't even bother to point out what Burnidge's main arguments are; he is too busy scolding her for how she didn't write the book he would have. 


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