Woodrow Wilson stands pre-eminent among all the inheritors of the Calvinist tradition who have made significant contributions to American political history. Indeed, he was the prime embodiment, the apogee, of the Calvinist tradition among statesmen of the modern epoch. Every biographer of Wilson has said that it is impossible to know and understand the man apart from his religious faith. His every action and policy was ultimately informed and molded by the Christian insight that it was given him to have.

One word of explanation is necessary at the outset of this essay. Woodrow Wilson was first a Christian and secondarily a Presbyterian; that is, his faith was that faith which God gives to the one holy catholic Church. He was, moreover, a very ecumenically minded Christian. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, and later as professor and president, he took active part in the interdenominational Philadelphian Society, the YMCA, and the World Student Christian Movement. As Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States, when his influence and interests had wider scope, he played as active a role as possible in the work of such groups as the Sunday School Union and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. In death he sleeps in a crypt in an Episcopal cathedral. Insofar as the voluminous evidence of his life can show, he had no sectarian pride or consciousness; nor, for that matter, did he ever show any trace of antipathy toward other Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Jews. This was true, one would like to believe, because Wilson was a faithful Presbyterian. But saying this does not get the present writer off a very sharp methodological hook—the difficulty, almost impossibility, of discriminating between those influences in Wilson’s life and thought that are God’s gift to his one Church and those that might be considered an inheritance of the Calvinist tradition.

Woodrow Wilson was born in the Presbyterian manse in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856, and grew up in manses in Augusta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina. Thus he had, as he once put it, “the unspeakable joy of having been born and bred in a minister’s family.” It was a secure, tightly knit family dominated by a strong-willed father who valued education along with faith. Young Woodrow grew up on family worship, Bible reading, study of the Shorter Catechism, and stories of Scottish Covenanters. As he later said in a speech in London on his sixty-second birthday, “The stern Covenanter tradition that is behind me sends many an echo down the years.” Admitted to the membership of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia on July 5, 1873, he also grew up in the bosom of the church, imbibing unconsciously its traditions and faith. He shared in its work as his father’s right-hand man in pastoral calling, in carrying out the business of the North Carolina Presbyterian, which his father edited for a time, and in preparing the minutes of the General Assembly.

Article continues below

Such an inheritance laid strong foundations for faith in mature life. “My life,” he told a friend when he was President of the United States, “would not be worth living if it were not for the driving power of religion, for faith, pure and simple. I have seen all my life the arguments against it without ever having been moved by them.… There are people who believe only so far as they understand—that seems to me presumptuous and sets their understanding as the standard of the universe.… I am sorry for such people.” It was true, and Wilson apparently was never buffeted by strong winds, much less storms, of doubt. His faith found expression, among other ways, in family worship, daily prayer and Bible reading, and, above all, active church membership. He and his family were members, successively, of the Byrn Mawr Presbyterian Church, the Congregational Church of Middletown, Connecticut, the Second Presbyterian Church of Princeton, and the First Presbyterian Church of the same town. He was ordained a ruling elder in 1897 and served on the sessions of both Princeton churches.

Wilson and his wife moved their membership to the Central Presbyterian Church when they went to Washington in 1913, thus resuming intimate relationship with the denomination in which they both had been reared. It was a small congregation, and Wilson loved its simple service—it took him back, he said, to “the days when I was a boy in the South”—and the courtesy of the members in permitting him to worship quietly. “I have been to church,” he wrote one Sunday in 1913, “in a dear old-fashioned church such as I used to go to when I was a boy, amidst a congregation of simple and genuine people to whom it is a matter of utter indifference whether there is a [social] season or not.” He attended as regularly as possible until 1919, when illness confined him to his home, and he showed his concern in ways large and small.

Article continues below

An Eloquent Christian Speaks

Wilson was one of the most thoughtful and articulate Christians of his day. He spoke with increasing perception and power on subjects ranging from problems of the ministry and Christian education to problems of the rural church in a changing society. He was also a pulpit preacher of moving eloquence and great evangelical fervor. He preached only in the Princeton Chapel, and all but one of his sermons have remained unpublished and consequently unknown. They were among the greatest speeches he ever delivered.

It is fairly common knowledge that Woodrow Wilson was an honorable man. His integrity was as considerable as his personal ethics were lofty. Before he entered politics he had already given abundant evidence of integrity as president of Princeton in risking serious decline in enrollment by greatly elevating academic standards and in refusing to change policies in order to curry favor with alumni or potential donors. He was the same kind of man in politics. He was incapable, not only of outright corruption, but also of more subtle and dangerous forms of corruption, like acceptance of political support when he knew that strings were attached. There is no need to labor the obvious. Let it suffice to say that Wilson set an example of morality in politics excelled by few other American statesmen.

It is more important to talk about the wellspring of Wilson’s morality—his belief, undoubtedly sharpened and defined by the Calvinist emphasis, that God governs the universe through moral law, and that men and nations are moral agents accountable to God and transgress that law at the peril of divine judgment. This theme runs through virtually all his political speeches. But to stop at this point would be to repeat the common mistake of saying, at least implying, that Wilson was simply a moralist who lived rigidly by rules, with all the inevitable consequences of this way of life. Wilson had, in fact, a very sophisticated understanding of Christian ethics. He believed firmly, deeply, in moral law and judgment, but he understood them also in the light of God’s love and reconciling work in Jesus Christ. Moreover, he believed that morality and character were by-products of obedience, like Christ’s own obedience, and that Christ alone gives persons power to live righteously by enabling them truly to love one another. He said these things often, but never more movingly than in his baccalaureate sermon at Princeton in 1905:

Article continues below
And so the type and symbol is magnified,—Christ, the embodiment of great motive, of divine sympathy, of that perfect justice which seeks into the hearts of men, and that sweet grace of love which takes the sting out of every judgment.… He is the embodiment of those things which, not seen, are eternal,—the eternal force and grace and majesty, not of character, but of that which lies back of character, obedience to the informing will of the Father of our spirits.… [In Christ] we are made known to ourselves,—in him because he is God, and God is the end of our philosophy; the revelation of the thought which, if we will but obey it, shall make us free, lifting us to the planes where duty shall seem happiness, obedience liberty, life the fulfillment of the law.

Wilson, like all other mortals, suffered the plagues of sin and death. He had a powerful ego and drive toward dominance. He had a tendency to identify his own solutions with the moral law. He often sounded like a moralizer. But to form an accurate judgment one must look at Wilson’s entire career in politics, not merely at particular episodes. The record shows a man committed very deeply to fundamental Christian affirmations about moral law but also enormously flexible about details and methods, so long as they did not violate what he thought was right.

The Awesome Presence

Wilson was most obviously a Calvinist in his emphasis upon the majesty and sovereignty of God. He literally stood in awe of the Almighty One. He was not a prig, and he occasionally used words of which some Presbyterians would not approve. But using the Name lightly was to him blasphemy against divine majesty. His daughter, Mrs. Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, has told the present writer about his fearsome reaction when she once repeated a ditty that took liberties with God’s name. This is said merely as illustration of Wilson’s consciousness, manifested in numerous other ways, that he stood constantly in the presence of a jealous God.

This same God was, in Wilson’s view, not only the Lord of individuals but also the Lord of history, ruler of men and nations, who turned all things to his own purpose. “The idea of an all merciful God,” Wilson’s brother-in-law once said, “was, I believe, to him, a piece of soft sentimentality.” This did perhaps characterize Wilson’s earlier understanding of God’s sovereignty as it had been influenced by his father’s stern Calvinism. But it was not Wilson’s mature understanding of the sovereign Lord of history. At least by the early 1900s he had come to a new understanding—that men truly know God only through Jesus Christ. God’s saving work in history is most clearly revealed in his work of reconciliation through Christ, who is also the Lord of the ages. God’s providence did not end with the once-for-all revelation. In his triune nature he has constantly been at work in the affairs of men, shaping, directing, and controlling history in order to achieve his purpose of advancing justice, righteousness, and human welfare. Men might, often do, try to thwart God’s saving work. It does not matter. They are contemptible, futile, and impotent. It is man’s duty to apprehend God’s purposes and then to cooperate cheerfully.

Article continues below

‘Reform Cannot Be Stayed’

About the irresistibility of God’s providential work Wilson had the following to say in his address on the Bible in 1911:

The man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation’s downfall or the people’s deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment; and that whether one generation witnesses it or not the glad day of revelation and of freedom will come in which men will sing by the host of the coming of the Lord in his glory, and all of those will be forgotten—those little, scheming, contemptible creatures that forget the image of God and tried to frame men according to the image of the evil one.

There was power in faith such as this. For Wilson it meant, when plans were succeeding, the strength and joy that come from the conviction that one is doing God’s work in political affairs. It also brought courage and hope in the time of his great adversity, when the Senate wrecked his work at Versailles and, as he thought, the best hope for peace in the world. “I feel like going to bed and staying there,” he told his physician, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, after he had received word that the Senate had rejected the treaty for a second time. But later in the night he had Dr. Grayson read Second Corinthians 4:8, 9, and then he said, “If I were not a Christian, I think I should go mad, but my faith in God holds me to the belief that he is some way working out his own plans through human perversities and mistakes.” Later in the last public speech that he ever made he reiterated his unshaken faith: “I am not one of those who have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before, and I have seen their destruction, as will come upon these again, utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns.”

Article continues below

To be sure, faith like this carried obvious dangers, the principal one being the temptation to believe that what the self wants to do is what God commands, and that one’s opponents are not only mistaken but of evil heart and mind. But all Christian statesmen have to run such dangers. And if Wilson succumbed at times, he never forgot for long that he was a servant of Jesus Christ and that the final judgment belongs to God. As he once said in an address before the Pittsburgh YMCA about men with whom he disagreed, “While we are going to judge with the absolute standard of righteousness, we are going to judge with Christian feeling, being men of a like sort ourselves, suffering the same temptations, having the same weaknesses, knowing the same passions; and while we do not condemn, we are going to seek to say and to live the truth.” Wilson even came to accept defeat of American membership in the League of Nations as God’s decision, saying humorously, “Perhaps God knew better than I did after all.”

It is a great temptation to an admirer of the Presbyterian form of government to say that Woodrow Wilson was profoundly influenced by the constitutional structure of the Presbyterian Church. He believed very ardently in representative government. He was forever writing constitutions for college debating societies, and he crowned this activity by writing one for the government of the world. He knew the Presbyterian system as well as any statesman this country has ever produced. But there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that his study and practice of the Presbyterian system influenced his thinking about a secular political order, while there is a great deal of evidence that English and American political theorists and practitioners influenced him strongly in this field.

The Role Of Government

The most remarkable thing about Wilson as a political leader was the change that occurred in his thinking about the functions of government. His views on government paralleled his thinking about the Christian’s duty toward his fellowman. This was more than mere coincidence. Wilson’s views about the role of government stemmed directly from his growing understanding of Christian social and political duty.

Article continues below

Wilson grew up during the high tide of individualism in the Western world. His political heroes were the English devotees of laissez faire—Cobden, Bright, and Gladstone, and the earlier but equally conservative Burke. He studied with some admiration British and American classical economists, including Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and Amasa Walker. We can say that Wilson, like most Eastern academic people during his day, did not seriously question prevailing assumptions. He admired rich men and captains of industry and their political allies like Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. He had ill-disguised contempt for the Populists, William Jennings Bryan, and other tribunes of the discontented. He seems to have been oblivious of the great movement to reawaken Christian social conscience that began in an organized way in the 1870s and was beginning to leaven American religious thought and life by the 1890s. This was true even as late as the first decade of the twentieth century, when Wilson was president of Princeton University. He gained what little political fame he then enjoyed as a critic of Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt and an advocate of very cautious solution of economic and political problems.

Wilson’s political thought first began to show signs of changing about 1907. By 1910, even before he entered politics, he was a moderate progressive who affirmed that reform of many aspects of American life was overdue. The first sign of this metamorphosis was a significant shift in his thinking about the role that Christians and the Church should play in the world at large. He delivered three major addresses on this subject between 1906 and 1909—“The Minister and the Community,” in 1906, and “The Present Task of the Ministry” and “The Ministry and the Individual,” both in 1909. They revealed that Wilson had not yet altogether shed his earlier pietism and intense individualism. The Church’s duty, he said, was to save individual souls. Christ was not a social reformer. “Christianity, come what may, must be fundamentally and forever individualistic.” The minister should “preach Christianity to men, not to society. He must preach salvation to the individual.” Yet a momentous intellectual ferment was also evidenced in the last two lectures. We find Wilson also saying—not in 1906, but in 1909—that “if men cannot lift their fellow-men in the process of saving themselves, I do not see that it is very important that they should save themselves.… Christianity came into the world to save the world as well as to save individual men, and individual men can afford in conscience to be saved only as part of the process by which the world itself is regenerated.”

Article continues below

Wilson crossed his political Rubicon dramatically in 1916 by espousing and winning adoption of a series of measures, including the first federal child labor law, that for the first time put the government squarely into the business of social reform and amelioration. Moreover, he went on during the campaign of 1916 to describe his vision of the new good society in which government would be ceaselessly at work to restrain exploiters, uplift the downtrodden, protect children, and defend the helpless and weak. It was nothing less than a vision of the modern welfare state. Again, the significant fact about his vision was its origin, at least in part, in Wilson’s Christian social conscience. Over and over he said that Americans had no choice but to carry their compassion into all the byways of life.

These convictions grew as the years passed. The last words that Wilson published—an article, “The Road away from Revolution,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1923—were a warning to Americans then reveling in materialism that their society could not survive the onslaught of the disinherited unless it became “permeated with the spirit of Christ and … [was] made free and happy by the practices which spring out of that spirit.” This meant, he made clear, a social and economic order based on “sympathy and helpfulness and a willingness to forego self-interest in order to promote the welfare, happiness, and contentment of others and of the community as a whole. This is what our age is blindly feeling after in its reaction against what it deems the too great selfishness of the capitalistic system.”

America’s World Mission

Woodrow Wilson’s whole thinking about foreign policy for the United States was shaped by his concept of ministry and his belief in divine Providence. Ministry, as he said many times, is Christ’s ministry of unselfish service to individuals, societies, and nations. He believed that God had created the United States out of divers people for a specific, almost eschatological, role in history—as one scholar has written, “to realize an ideal of liberty, provide a model of democracy, vindicate moral principles, give examples of action and ideals of government and righteousness to an interdependent world, uphold the rights of man, work for humanity and the happiness of men everywhere, lead the thinking of the world, promote peace,—in sum, to serve mankind and progress.” Foreign policy should not be used for material aggrandizement, nor even defined in terms of material interest. America’s mission in the world was not to attain wealth and power but to fulfill God’s plan by unselfish service to mankind.

Article continues below

It is no coincidence that this sounded like the language of the American missionary movement of that day. Wilson believed intensely in an evangelical, missionary church. At Princeton he participated in the World Student Christian movement of the YMCA and knew and greatly admired its leader, John R. Mott. It was, he said to the Pittsburgh YMCA, “an association meant to put its shoulders under the world and lift it, … that other men may know that there are those who care for them, who would go into places of difficulty and danger to rescue them, who regard themselves as their brother’s keeper.” Speaking to the Presbytery of Potomac in 1915 about Christian missions in China, Wilson said:

Why, this is the most amazing and inspiring vision that could be offered to you, this vision of that great sleeping nation suddenly cried awake by the voice of Christ. Could there be anything more tremendous than that?… China is at present inchoate; as a nation it is a congeries of parts, in each of which there is energy but as yet unbound in any essential and active unity. Just as soon as its unity comes, its power will come in the world. Should we not see that the parts are fructified by the teachings of Christ?

Wilson came to the presidency, as has often been observed, with no training and little interest in foreign affairs and diplomacy. As President he of course had to deal with international problems, and to deal with them immediately in Mexico, the Caribbean area, and the Far East. He simply adopted all his assumptions about the nature of the Church’s worldwide ministry as the basic assumptions of his foreign policy. And during the first two years of his presidency, he and his secretary of state, William J. Bryan, another Presbyterian elder who shared Wilson’s motivation, put into force what has elsewhere been called “missionary diplomacy” aimed at helping underdeveloped countries work toward domestic peace and democracy.

Article continues below

Wilson struggled to avoid involvement in the First World War in part because he ardently desired to use American power for a noble mission—mediation of the conflict. He accepted belligerency in 1917 in large part because he then believed that American participation was at that time the surest if not the only way to peace. He created the League of Nations in part because he thought that it would be the instrumentality of America’s redemptive work in the world. And he spent his health and strength to convince Americans that God had laid the burdens of leadership for peace on them.

Another salient aspect of Wilson’s fundamental thinking about international relations was also an obvious product of his life and faith as a Christian. It was his abhorrence of war as an instrument of national policy. I do not believe that Wilson subscribed to the classical Christian doctrine of the just war, although we have scanty evidence of his views on this matter. He certainly thought that aggressive war was organized murder, and he burned with shame at the thought that his own country had engaged in aggressive war against Mexico in 1846–48. Wilson was not, however, a Christian pacifist. He thought that there were times and places when Christians had to accept war as the less evil option. But when he was forced to lead his country into battle in 1917, he tried to turn evil into good by giving moral purpose to American participation.

Woodrow Wilson’s Christian faith was the source and motivation of all his thinking about ethics, political and social action, and America’s role in the world at large. He was primarily not a moralist but a Christian realist who lived from day to day by the light that he believed God had given him. It would now surely be rhetorical to ask whether being a Christian, one profoundly influenced by the Calvinist tradition, made any difference in this great man’s life. The peculiar character of his contributions to American political traditions gives eloquent answer to this question.

How To Be Born Anew

Nicodemus recognized Christ’s power when he said, “We know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” He didn’t really get to his point before Christ cut in with something that took the direction of the conversation. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That was not administration, or code, or institutionalism: that was experience. And that was where Nicodemus was weak. It was where all his lineal descendants—the cultivated, well-intentioned, inarticulate, diffident, institution-minded laymen and clergymen—are weak today.…

Article continues below

They are always uneasy when anybody comes to the question of experience. They don’t quite think it is nice to talk about it. People like themselves have their religious code. Isn’t that enough? And Christ simply says, not to the prodigals and sinners who already know that they need to be changed, but to the religious, the respectable, the church people, clergymen and pious laymen, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It is difficult for a person like this to see where he needs anything more. He believes in the Commandments, he says his prayers, he is a good, religious citizen—what more can Jesus Christ want of him? For, mind you, Nicodemus was already just about everything that the present-day Christian Church requires of a layman. But still Christ says there is more to come. “Ye must be born again.” All the poor bewildered man can say to him is, “How …?” Nicodemus knew the “what” of religion, but he didn’t know its “how.”

If the Christian Church is to be effective again in the affairs of men, it must begin by once more illuminating this great truth of rebirth. We must see it, not in the light of somebody’s extravagant religious enthusiasm, but in the light of a world trying to live without God at all, reduced to its own power and wisdom. We tend to relegate such a truth to a few emotional people, in special needs, and rather susceptible; but Nicodemus was not from a slum. He was educated, he was privileged—and Christ told him he needed a new birth.

A man is born again when the control of his life, its center and its direction, pass from himself to God. We can go to church for years without having that happen. You can easily be vaccinated with just enough dead germs of Christianity to make you immune to the real thing, so immune that you won’t even know it when you see it. But then life and facts turn on us and make us face the truth. We look out on a world like ours; we helped make it, but we have no power to help remake it. We bleat plaintively or criticize censoriously; but in our hearts we know that something is desperately wrong, and we are part of the wrong. We may then be given grace to develop a conviction of sin.…

Article continues below

And the thing to do with sin is to do what Nicodemus did: go and search out someone with whom we can talk privately and frankly. Tell them of these things and, with them, to God. You say that you can do this alone with God; and I ask you, Have you succeeded in doing so? I said I was going to do that for years, but it never happened until I let a human witness come in on my decision. That is the “how” of getting rid of sin if you are in earnest about doing it at all: face it, share it, surrender it, hate it, forsake it, confess it, and restore for it.—SAMUEL M. SHOEMAKER. (From 88 Evangelistic Sermons, edited by Charles L. Wallis, Harper and Row, 1964. Used by permission.)

Arthur S. Link is professor of history at Princeton University. He holds the Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and the M.A. from Oxford University. Dr. Link is the editor of The Woodrow Wilson Papers and the author of five books on President Wilson. This essay condenses a lecture he gave in Washington as part of the Woodrow Wilson Lecture Series sponsored by the Council of the National Presbyterian Church and Center. The address will appear in its entirety in “Calvinism and the Political Order,” edited by George L. Hunt.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.