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Romantic in the White House  

25 November 2016

Bill Countryman on a President’s religion

Woodrow Wilson: Ruling elder, spiritual president
Barry Hankins
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £18



WOODROW WILSON is known, above all, as the President who tried to keep the United States out of the First World War, only to find the country inevitably drawn into it, and who then tried to use the peace process as an opportunity to spread a gospel of democracy and self-determination, and to forge a new and less perilous international order.

This biography, however, has a different focus, being the first volume in a new series, Spiritual Lives. And therein lies a problem. The word “spiritual” can suggest many different things, and, through most of the present work, I wondered whether Barry Hankins would ever reveal what it meant to him.

He tells the story of a man born in the American South, just before the Civil War, to a family distinguished for its staunchly orthodox Presbyterian clergy. As a young man, he was filled with religious seriousness, but found himself attracted to the life of civic leadership rather than the ministry.

After a false start in law, he settled on an academic career as his way of helping to guide and shape his country. In this, he was enormously successful as a scholar of constitutional law, as President of Princeton University and, in rather short order, Governor of New Jersey and finally President of the US.

Spirituality could be seen as entering into all of this — or not, depending on how it is defined. For Hankins, the central issue seems to be a shift from Wilson’s early Calvinism, which emphasised human depravity and thus warned its followers of their own propensity to sin, and a more liberal “romantic spirituality”, which gave too much credit to emotional factors, whether in personal relationships or in devotion to social ideals such as the American (and Social Gospel) enthusiasm for democracy and social progress.

This romanticism allowed Wilson to justify an infatuation with Mary Allen Hulbert Peck, which seems to have stopped just short of physical adultery, and imperilled both his marriage and his re-election. Hankins also seems to see it as a flaw in his devotion to his own “Fourteen Points” for the reorganisation of Europe after the war — a devotion so unswerving that it left him unable to compromise creatively with either his European allies or Republicans in the American Congress.

Hankins seems to be arguing that Wilson’s mistakes were caused by his conversion from Calvinism to this romantic spirituality, by which he lost the power to be genuinely self-questioning. Hankins does not appear to think of Calvinism itself as a form of spirituality, but, rather, as a theology. Perhaps he is saying that this is a case not where one spirituality replaced another, but where spirituality usurped the place of something healthier and wiser.

The book is interesting and well-written. Although the print is small, it is generally well produced.


The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, in the United States.

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