Woodrow Wilson, the Bible, and Liberalism in 2022

In his religious biography of Woodrow Wilson, Barry Hankins notes that Wilson’s father—prominent southern Presbyterian minister and professor Joseph Ruggles Wilson—stated after his son’s election as a ruling elder that “I would rather that he held that position than be president of the United States.” Wilson served as a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church. In 1913, he became President of the United States. Wilson offers an important insight in to questions of liberalism, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy precisely because he did not make any claims as an officer that marked him as a heretic or even specifically unorthodox, but neither did Wilson ever seem to take doctrine seriously. Hankins notes that in late nineteenth Century Princeton, theological conservatism, intellectual conservatism, and socio-cultural conservatism went hand in hand. Wilson was “not a systematic theological thinker, and he cared little for the battles over the Bible that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries. For him the Bible was inspiration and instruction for Christian living.” [1]

The indifference to or rejection of historic doctrinal conformity separated Wilson’s own understanding of Christianity from creational or natural theological commitments that defined Protestantism and Christianity more broadly since the Reformation. Nature and creation, Wilson believed, were subordinated to morality. John Mulder argued that “Wilson understood the Bible as basically a rule book in which people could find a clear definition of the moral law for the world.” The older generation of Princetonians like Charles Hodge and Samuel Miller, however, believed that the “centerpiece of the Bible remained Christ’s incarnation, birth, death, and resurrection—in short, the life-transforming work of God in Christ.” Humans could not know truth without God’s assistance, and they remained limited in their abilities to create a perfect temporal moral order. [2]

Wilson poured over his Bible regularly. He claimed, Hankins noted, to have worn out two or three Bibles and admonished his correspondents to “search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life.” None of his scriptural pursuits, however, led him to commit to historic Christian conceptions on natural law or the created order. He observed the social changes of the early Twentieth Century without questioning the nature of progress. Progress was inevitable, and good; humans and human society would have to change to meet it. There was, Wilson argued “one great basic fact which underlies all the questions that are discussed on the political platform at the present moment… nothing is done in this country as it was done twenty years ago.” Social changes from 1890 to 1913 meant that Americans were in the “presence of a new organization of society. Our life has broken away from the past. The life of America is not the life that it was twenty years ago; it is not the life that it was ten years ago.” Progress’s undeniable goodness, according to Wilson, was “synonymous with life itself, and yet men through many thousand years never talked or thought of progress.” [3]

Instead of questioning the fundamental nature of progress, Wilson celebrated it. He and his fellow citizens were living in “nothing short of a new social age, a new era of human relationships, a new state-setting for the drama of life.”  Years of reading the Bible diligently prepared Wilson to become the great moralist of the early Twentieth Century even as it prepared him to dismiss thousands of years of Christian tradition. In 2022, educated Christians with degrees from Evangelical colleges certainly know how to be like Wilson the great moralists of our own era; do they similarly dismiss thousands of years of Christian truth regarding the natural order?

[1] Hankins, Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2] John Mulder, Wilson: The Years of Preparation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 49; Hankins, Wilson.

[3] Ray Stannard Baker, Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters, I (New York: Scribner’s, 1946), 67–8; Hankins, Wilson; Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom (New York: Doubleday, 1913), 4.


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