John M. Mulder, Assistant Professor of American Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary and Assistant Editor of Theology Today, explores the complex intertwining of religious ideas, attitudes, values, goals, self-perception, and political ideas in this intellectual biography of Woodrow Wilson. Overall, the book is a lucid and insightful treatment of Wilson’s intellectual development. Wilson was nurtured in Presbyterianism and lived close to it all his life. The core of his character can best be understood by knowing the meaning of religion to him, and it is likewise true that the understanding of him as a religious person helps in understanding his political life.
However, the effort to make the covenant theology the unifying theme in Wilson’s intellectual life seems strained and unnecessary. Mulder recognizes there are a number of problems in interpreting the influence of personal religious faith upon the intellectual development of an individual. For example, it may be difficult to distinguish religious faith as a motivating force as distinct from a rationalization of ideas or positions taken on controversial issues. Perhaps the greatest difficulty in relying upon the covenant theology was that by the early nineteenth century Presbyterians had secularized aspects of God’s covenant with man and admitted the nation was not bound by God’s law. This also implied that man had obligations to the nation as well as to God.
Mulder never specifically defines the covenant theology and states that Wilson was scarcely aware of the intricacies of this theological tradition. A further complication was that Wilson did not use theological terminology in his writings or speeches. The ambiguities of the relationship of God, the individual, and society make the covenant theology a flexible tool in Mulder’s hands. He relates Wilson’s desire for order and wholeness to the covenant theology. Wilson’s attempt, while president of Princeton to end the eating clubs and bring the social life of the students back under the university’s control is explained as an example of the desire, derived from the covenant theology, to establish an organic whole. Wilson’s focus on the importance of the individual, particularly of the leader, is also related to the covenant by stressing the freedom the individual exercises in entering into the covenant. Mulder presents some dramatic instances of Wilson’s use of a covenant, such as his entering into one with his friend Charles A. Talcott pledging himself to a career in politics. But this decision and the source of the ambition are more important than the form which his pledging took.
In addition to these examples, Mulder relates to the covenant theology the number of times both in his graduate and undergraduate days when Wilson wrote constitutions for various organizations, especially oratorical societies. But by Wilson’s time, constitutionalism was so strong in American theory and practice that constitution-writing is not strong evidence of direct religious influence.
The more convincing evidence of the impact of religion upon Woodrow Wilson can best be described as his devout life. The church service was as necessary to him as breathing; it nourished his spirit. Mulder stresses Wilson’s desire for an organic whole in most of his endeavors, but remarks upon some instances when he seemed to categorize aspects of his thought and life. One way of looking at man and religion is to see an organic whole between the man and his spirit or soul. Yet there are quotations from Wilson indicating that religion is faith which is separate from other thought processes. Considerable evidence is presented that students and colleagues in close contact with him felt that Wilson possessed a unique serenity and had a “sweet spirit.” This picture of Wilson is one of the more remarkable aspects of the book. Woodrow Wilson comes to us across the ages as a stern, dutiful, joyless person, and, indeed, many who came in contact with him casually found him somewhat aloof. The more genuine person is revealed in this book as a sincerely religious man.
It was not just because Woodrow Wilson’s father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother’s family had been Presbyterian ministers for generations that religion played a prominent role in his life. It was the quality of the relationship of Wilson and his parents that was extraordinary and gives insight into his development. Even as a mature man with a family of his own, he felt a deep loss when his mother died; a great deal of love, support, and respect for one another had existed among members of his family. Some measure of the communion which existed between father and son is revealed by Woodrow reading to his father when he came to live with Woodrow and his family shortly before he died. This seemed a most appropriate ending, since the father had read and commented upon his son’s various manuscripts during his school years.
From his earliest years, Joseph Wilson had worked to develop the art of written and oral communication in his son. He was an apt teacher, a...
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