The Religion of Woodrow Wilson


The Religion of Woodrow Wilson


Grayson, Cary T. (Cary Travers), 1878-1938




1924 February 3


Cary T. Grayson writes about Woodrow Wilson’s religious beliefs and practices.


Cary T. Grayson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Staunton, Virginia





Woodrow Wilson
Mr. Wilson was one of the most devout of our Presidents. His religion was marked by constant and regular prayer, not a formality but a sincere outpouring of his spirit and supplication for divine guidance. He read his Bible consistently every day, meditated on what he read, and sought to put into action the teachings of the Scripture. He was an habitual church attendant and an Elder in the Presbyterian Church. Even in Paris he often attended church though the pressure was so great upon him that he was forced to violate his usual rule and work upon Sundays either in his office or in conference. His power of criticism, so keen in literature, political science and practical politics, was, to use one of his favorite words, “adjourned” during a religious service. He would listen attentively to the preacher as one seeking guidance. His Washington pastor, the Reverend Doctor James H. Taylor, in a memorial sermon on President Wilson, said: “He gave the most careful attention to the reading of the Scripture and to the preaching of the sermon. In fact, it was often quite disconcerting to a visiting minister to discover suddenly that the sermon was being listened to with such concentrated attention.”
He went to church to worship, not to exercise his mental ingenuities. He did not muddy the waters of his faith with intellectual analysis. As a young man he espoused the Presbyterian creed of his forefathers, in which he never faltered, from which he never wavered. That firm faith was the foundation of his life and conduct, of his refusal ever to confuse right and wrong. His Scottish ancestors stressed the Old Testament with its uncompromising attitude toward sin and belief in a just God who avenges himself upon those who disobey his Commandments even unto the third and fourth generation.Mr. Wilson was impatient with people who argued that an All Merciful God could not consign his children to eternal punishment. He did not believe in infant damnation, but he did believe that those who had grown to maturity and who had had the opportunity to accept the plan of salvation as laid down by the Bible and had neglected to accept it, and had failed to keep faith with it, would receive no more than justice from the Almighty if they were shut out forever from his presence and his glory. In short, Mr. Wilson was no sentimentalist in religion or anywhere else.One of his ancestors was a leader of the Auld Lichts, the strictly orthodox, as opposed to the New Lichts, the more liberal party within the Scottish free church, and was satirized by Robert Burns, whose loving humanitarianism revolted against the merciless logic of the Older School.Mr. Wilson himself was fond of the Old Testament, and loved to listen to sermons which expounded the characters and traits of Old Testament leaders. In a powerful address which he made in Denver, Colorado, in 1911, while he was Governor of New Jersey, on the subject of “The Bible and Progress”, he said: “What does this Bible do for David? Does it utter eulogies upon him? Does it conceal his faults and magnify his virtues? Does it set him up as a great statesman would be set up in a modern biography? No, the book in which his annals are written strips the mask from David, strips every shred of counterfeit and concealment from him and shows him as indeed, an instrument of God, but a sinful and selfish man, and the verdict of the Bible is that David, like other men, was one day to stand naked before the judgment seat of God and be judged not as a king, but as a man.”
The New Testament also had its stern passages, in the Epistles and in the sayings of our Savior himself, and Mr. Wilson, who accepted the whole Bible, had the strict Presbyterian’s view of the uncompromising way in which both Testaments hold the individual to exacting accountability.But with all this Mr. Wilson thought and felt very tenderly about the mercy of God and the principles of forgiveness as laid down in the Scripture. During the supreme trial of his life, when he was ill and broken in the White House, and all his plans for a League of Nations, which he believed were plans for putting Christianity into practice, were being frustrated in the United States Senate, he once remarked grimly: “The devil is a very busy man.” However, when the Senate reached its final decision and rejected the Treaty, he summoned me to his bed-room one night and said: “Doctor, please get the Bible there and read from Second Corinthians, chapter 4, verses 8 and 9.” Finding the passage I read: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
At another time 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 in some way working out his own plans through human perversities and mistakes.”He was averse to abstruse theory both in religion and politics. Near the end of his life he referred impatiently to the “modernists”, who, he said, were “trying to take the mystery out of religion.” Dr. Alderman, in his noble memorial address before Congress on President Wilson, said that Mr. Wilson “was sturdily and mystically Christian”, which sums up a good deal of the spirit of Mr. Wilson’s religion. His mind was too sturdy for the raptures of the cloistered mystic and at the same time too mystic for a purely rationalized and merely ethical Christianity. He believed that what is in the Bible was revealed to the writers, not in verbal form, but through some mysterious illumination, some indwelling of the Holy Spirit. He liked the way Browning worked out the idea of divine inspiration in his poem SAUL -- self-sacrificing love leading David to see a light which reason could not have shown him.From things Mr. Wilson said to me about religion I am sure he would have subscribed to the simple, literal faith expressed by his uncle, the Reverend Doctor James Woodrow in one of his sermons: “What I am insisting on is that we may never subordinate the meaning of the Scriptures to outside knowledge of any kind. To do so is to deny the supreme authority of God’s word. We do not hesitate to say that it is -- though often unconsciously -- infidelity, unbelief in God’s word. For example, it has been said that water could not be made wine, because all the elements of wine are not to be found in water; therefore we must give some new interpretation to the narrative of what our Savior did at Cana. To me this seems rationalism or infidelity. So there are those who deny the power of God, and who are similarly guilty of infidelity, by asserting that the materials used in the formation of Adam’s body could not have been clay, sand, or the like; for these substances do not contain the elements of human flesh and blood and bones; that is, that God could not have transformed the elements as to him it seemed good. The only true, right way is to believe exactly what God’s word says, as interpreted by that word itself.”
For Dr. Woodrow, Mr. Wilson had a deep affection and admiration. While visiting Mr. Wilson in the S Street residence, a granddaughter of Dr. Woodrow’s remarked on the resemblance which she thought she saw between Mr. Wilsonand Dr. Woodrow: “I wish, my dear, that I were as great a man as your grandfather.” So spoke one of the greatest of the Presidents and a man whose world-wide influence has had no parallel.He had a similar feeling about his father. To one who ventured to say that eminent as his father had been, the son’s deference to the superiority of the father was surely exaggerated, Mr. Wilson said in a tone of rebuke: “You don’t know what you are talking about. You never knew my father. I have had a larger stage of action, but intrinsically he was the greater man.” He believed that his father and his uncle were the two greatest men he had ever known.

Dr. Joseph R. Wilson’s posthumous fame has been made known spread abroad by the President’s repeated references to him in private and public, and every biography of Woodrow Wilson will contain much about Joseph Wilson.But there was a time, back in the 1880’s, when Dr. James Woodrow’s name was one of the most familiar in the South, certainly in the Southern Presbyterian Church. He was a man of deep piety, vigorous intelligence, and unusual scholarship -- one of the early Americans, possibly the earliest Southerner, to study science abroad, in Heidelberg, where he took the Ph.D. degree, summa cum laude, in 1856, and was offered a professorship which he declined and returned to America, where he became distinguished, particularly in the South, as both preacher and teacher. One of his teaching posts was at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, where he occupied the Perkins chair of “Natural Science in Connexion with Revelation”, the object of which was to harmonize science and religion. Dr. Woodrow did not teach Evolution in the Seminary, merely expounded the hypothesis and dismissed any of its tenets which, in his belief, were contrary to the Bible. But in 1884 he delivered an address on evolution, and its relation to the Bible, and as a result of this address he was for several years the centre of a storm in the courts of the Southern Presbyterian Church, culminating in the General Assembly of 1888, which disapproved of his evolutionary ideas, but did not reflect upon his standing as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Dr. Woodrow’s fundamental thesis was that the Bible and the general idea of evolution are not in disagreement, that both make God the supreme creator and controller of the universe, that science, rightly understood, reveals a process of creation concerning which the Bible is silent, that wherever science seems directly to contradict the Bible, the Bible and not science must be accepted by the sincere Christian, but that God has revealed himself both in his word and in his works.

Mr. Woodrow Wilson sympathized all his life with his uncle’s views, and saw no conflict between them and the spiritual interpretation of the Bible as the authoritative word of God. Late in life, August 29, 1922, he wrote to Professor W. C. Curtis of the University of Missouri, in reply to a question: “May it not suffice for me to say, in reply to your letter of August 25th, that, of course, like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution.

“It surprises me that at this date such questions should be raised.”
As an undergraduate in college he was not deeply interested in natural science. His mind was more occupied with political science and with literature. At no time in his life did he read deeply in natural science. In this respect he was in contrast to his father, who, as a young man, taught science, and all his life was interested in scientific phenomena. Dr. Joseph Wilson esteemed it one of the great privileges of his experience that he had had personal contact with Dr. Joseph Henry, the distinguished professor of natural science at Princeton and afterwards the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. As an old man, Dr. Joseph Wilson found pleasure in discussing physics and chemistry, though he had not for a long time done any systematic scientific reading or any laboratory work.Between the father and the son, so much alike in so many ways, there was this difference -- that the father had a scientific cast of mind and the son did not. Hence in general conversation the son even afer he had attained distinction in the world of education and literature usually remained silent while his father discussed scientific problems, for the son knew that his father had gone much further than he himself ever expected to do into scientific investigation.When he was professor in Princeton and lecturing periodically at the Johns Hopkins University, he was not very sympathetic with the general method of teaching science in our universities. He had profound respect for such members of the Princeton faculty as Dr. Brackett, professor of physics; Dr. Young, professor of astronomy; Dr. Scott, professor of geology, -- men whose minds he knew intimately,-- but he believed that much of the scientific education in our colleges lacks philosophical depth, and he once remarked: “We may as well accept the situation. It is going to be a struggle between us and the men of science as to who will control the future of education in America.” In his later years he was out of sympathy with vocational and manual education saying that however useful it may be to the individual it is not education.

Mr. Wilson was humanistic in his theory and practice of education. He disliked philology -- not in itself but in the way it was taught. It is said that the origin of his famous essay entitled “Mere Literature” was a sneering remark made by a distinguished philologist, who contended for the purely sicentific study of literature, and asserted that all else was “mere literature”, that is to say, something easy, more fitted to the old-fashioned young ladies’ seminary than to the modern university of research and learning.However, Mr. Wilson being a great man, and a man who accepted his responsibility seriously, when he became President of Princeton University esteemed it his duty to do as much for the promotion of science as for the promotion of other branches of learning, and drew to the University a number of scientific teachers who added distinction to Princeton as a place of learning.So much for his general attitude toward science. His lack of sympathy for it was uninfluenced by fear that the teaching and study of it might be deleterious to religion. He accepted the evolutionary hypothesis, and when he was a young man, about the time of his entrance into Johns Hopkins University and earlier, he was actively interested in it. This was due at least in part to the influence of his uncle. In those far off days there was nothing about which Mr. Woodrow Wilson was so sarcastic as the methods of the prosecutors of Dr. Woodrow, methods which were not scientific, or logical, or legal, or common-sense. He repeatedly mimiced an excited anti-evolutionist, who sprang to his feet during the debate, and, in a high-pitched voice, exclaimed: “You tell me I am descended form a monekey. I aint, I aint, I aint.”All the talk about man’s ascent from the monkey and kindred confusions were beneath Mr. Woodrow Wilson’s highminded way of viewing a subject. Equally abhorrent to him would have been any application of science to the destruction of the authority of the Bible as man’s sole spiritual guide.The James Woodrow controversy died out, as did most of the nineteenth century heated debates over evolution and religion, and during the quiet 1890’s Mr. Wilson probably gave little thought to evolution except in so far as he found in it a key to the development of civilization and man’s governmental institutions. He regarded it as a settled question in the affirmative, which practically all men of education and understanding accepted. In those days he was continually referring to the evolutionary idea in the progress of human society. He was not a follower of Herbert Spencer, but the working hypothesis of his studies and speculations concerning the growth of civilization had distinctly at its basis the idea of evolution as it was understood by men of science in that day.As late as 1911 when he was Governor of New Jersey, speaking to a group of Princeton students, impersonally and not as a candidate for the Presidency, he stated that man’s political philosophy was usually a reflection of his natural philosophy; that the Constitution of the United States had been formed during the mechanistic conception of the universe when the idea of checks and balances was an overruling thought in men’s minds, but that meanwhile the United States had developed simultaneously with the science of biology, and that a static theory was endeavoring to hold in check a theory of growth, concluding one of his quiet, eloquent passages of oratory with the statement: “Do you not see, gentlemen, what is the matter with us today, that we have a growing, organic thing, trying to break the bonds of a purely static and mechanistic idea?”It is safe to say that Governor Wilson still held to the developmental idea which in the meaning of his address was equivalent to the evolutionary idea of man’s progress politically and organically. Nobody thought to question the religious implication of such an idea at that time. But the excitations over the alleged conflict between evolution and religion, which was thought to have been settled in the nineteenth century, have sprung up again in recent years only with a wilder fury. One must not dogmatize but he can at least guess what Mr. Wilson’s comments would have been upon the present agitation. He probably would have regarded it as unfortunate for both science and religion. He certainly would have condemned the tendency to throw such a controversy into politics. He was an avowed evolutionist, as he was a consecrated Christian.

Mr. Wilson did not parade his religion. He lived it. When he saw fit in conversation to r of religion one observed a change in the tones of his voice, an accent of reverence without cant.He and old Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota differed in their political party affiliations, but between the two there was mutual respect and confidence. Once during the dark days of the war Senator Nelson was visiting the White House and the conversation naturally reverted to the seriousness of the war situation. Mr. Wilson’s emotions as well as his thoughts were so involved in the war that he occasionally sought relief from tension by talking in a semi-humorous fashion, or relating a war anecdote. It was the spirit which made soldiers joke as they went over the top. So he said, “Senator, this business has driven me to solitaire.” “It has driven me to re-read the Bible”, replied the Senator. Instantly the President’s face and tone changed as he said, “It has also driven me to that, Senator.” He did not noise abroad the fact, but those very intimate with him knew that he concluded each day, no matter how long or arduous, by reading, usually with Mrs. Wilson, a chapter from the Bible, after which he kneeled in earnest prayer. He seldom spoke of these things. They were secrets between him and his God.There was current during the war a foolish story, likely as not first related humorously, but taken seriously by many people, of a Member of Congress so overwrought by the war conditions that he hastened to the White House to see the President, looked for him in the East Room, then the Green Room, then the Blue Room, finally the Red Room, where he discovered the President on his knees wrestling in fervent prayer, like Jacob, with the Most High. Such a thing could never have happened, first because, by the rules of the White House, an usher would have sought the President and ascertained whether or not he would admit a visitor; secondly, because the whole yarn is contrary to the nature of Woodrow Wilson. Had he been on his knees during office hours it would not have been in a semi-public room on the first floor, it would have been upstairs in his private room, in accordance with the Master’s injuction: “Enter into thy closet and when thou hast closed thy door pray to they Father which is in secret.” But in all probability Woodrow Wilson in business hours would not have been ion his knees at all, but at his desk or in conference. He loved Cromwell’s phrase, “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”Among his oft-repeated anecdotes was that of a group of ministers relating with tolthsome satisfaction their personal religious experiences. But one young preacher sat silent. At length they turned upon him: “Have you had no personal religious experience?” “None to boast of”, was the quiet answer.When Mr. Wilson was President of Princeton University some zealous undergraduates took it upon themselves to invite a certain evangelist to address the student body on a Sunday afternoon in Alexander Hall. Mr. Wilson did not like what he had heard of the methods of this evangelist and he was determined that no sensational exercises should be held on the University campus. He was at first inclined to order a cancellation of the invitation but he compromised with the leaders of the movement by saying that he himself would attend the service, would sit upon the platform, and at the first intimation of any emotional indecorum, or any call for personal “testimonies”, he would himself adjourn the meeting. It was characteristic of him that he said in conversation with friends after the meeting that he had been pleased with the evangelist; that he appeared to be a sincere man. Because Mr. Wilson conceived the Christian life as a process and a development of character in accordance with the teachings of Christ, he disliked the methods of preachers who play upon the emotions of their congregations and produce effects which are too often followed by strong reactions. He understood personal religion as a matter of the heart but tempered by reflection and judgment and fixed purpose.Mr. Wilson’s religious faith was too firm and confident for him to be narrow, sectarian and exclusive. Presumably he regarded the visible church as a holy institution, but conversations reported by men who knew him in the days of his professorship make it quite evident that he did not believe in the church superstitiously. He considered it socially necessary -- a union of individuals seeking not only their own salvation but seeking to follow God through service to mankind.When it was a fashion among smart people to sneer at foreign missionaries -- he was himself both a believer in and a supporter of missionary movements -- he deprecated the sending of inexperienced men and women as missionaries to countries like China and India, where traditions of culture had bred great and thoughtful minds, learned and subtle, and with the ability to confuse the over-zealous but under-learned minds of many American missionaries. He used to say: “What folly it is to send some young fellow fresh from the seminary or bible institute to oriental lands where he will inevitably encoutner philosophers and sages, who, with their learning and their logic, will confute and hopelessly confuse the young Christian tyro.”He was sufficiently broadminded to admire and enjoy a variety of preachers, ranging from the most strictly orthodox, like Dr. Francis L. Patten (whom he esteemed as one of the most brilliant men in America), to the extreme liberal like Dr. Lyman Abbott (whose visits to the Princeton Chapel, Mr. Wilson said, were among the greatest spiritualizing influences in the University). Excepting his father, and perhaps his uncle, Dr. James Woodrow, he admired no preacher more than Dr. Maltbie Babcock, whose church he attended when he was a student at Johns Hopkins University, and with whom he maintained a close, personal friendship until Dr. Babcock’s untimely death. He loved the freshness, the unconventionality, the vitality, the humanity of Dr. Babcock, and he relished Dr. Babcock’s rich and ready humor. He liked to tell how on a very hot Sunday Dr. Babcock strode up the aisle of his church to the pulpit wearing a short alpaca coat, instead of the more conventional clerical garb, and a little boy in his shirt-waist exclaimed in a loud whisper to his mother: “Look at his coat”. Whereupon Dr. Babcock turned in his quick manner, and said: “Huh, you needn’t talk, you haven’t any.” Mr. Wilson loved the decorum of divine service, but he also loved human wit. He never lost an opportunity to hear Dr. Babcock in Baltimore, or in his later pastorate in New York, or in the Princeton Chapel.To that Princeton Chapel he, when President of the University, invited what he considered the best preaching talent in the land, including young Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, at that time a Baptist minister in Montclair, New Jersey. One of his favorite preachers was Dr. Campbell Morgan, who as an evangelist never resorted to sensational methods. He did not like the Reverend “Billy” Sunday. But as a young man he highly esteemed both as man and preacher the Evangelist Dwight L. Moody.There was a preacher in the Princeton Theological Seminary, the Reverend Doctor George T. Purves, whom he considered almost the equal of Dr. Babcock. He Mr. Wilson invited Protestant preachers to the Princeton Chapel irrespective of their denominations, and he said repeatedly that he hoped the time would come soon when he could invite a Roman Catholic priest to preach to the Princeton students. His admiration and respect for Rabbi Wise were enormous.For his own pastors, Dr. Hazen of Middletown, Connecticut, Dr. Beach of Princeton, and Dr. Taylor of Washington, he had an especial affection. His admiration and respect for Rabbi Wise was enormous.

Mr. Wilson himself had the preacher’s temperament and made many religious addresses, most of which were probably never reported, some of which are incorporated in his complete works. He spoke before Sunday Schools, Young Men’s Christian Associations, from the floor of the church on special occasions both in Princeton and in Washington, and occasionally from the pulpit itself -- this, however, generally against his personal preference. One Sunday morning in Princeton he occupied the pulpit, because the invited guest failed to keep his appointment, and began his discourse by saying that as he was not a preacher he was not going to deliver a sermon but simply an informal talk to the young men about things that lay close to their spiritual interests. Many declared it the most enlightening religious address which they had ever listened to even in that place of great ministers and wished that they might hear fewer “sermons” and more “talks.”It was a regret of his father’s that Mr. Woodrow Wilson did not choose the ministry as his profession -- a regret expressed with deep emotion after his son had read to him from one of his early writings: “Oh, my boy, I wish you were a minister of the gospel”, said the older man.

The bulk of Mr. Wilson’s Christianity was in practice - not talk. He who was called cold and indifferent by multitudes who did not really konw him was so generous and out-giving in his Christian charity that he himself could never have told at the end of the year what proportion of his income had been spent for others. Certainly it was far more than the tithe prescribed by Scripture.In an address before the Pennsylvania Sabbath School Assocation, delivered in 1904, he said: “There is no school so hard in its lessons as the school of life. * * * You are not excused for mistakes in any one of its lessons. * * * If you wish your children to be Christians, you must really take the trouble to be Christians yourselves. Those are the only terms upon which the home will work the gracious miracle. And you cannot shift this thing by sending your children to Sunday-school. * * *”
He believed in churches, he believed in Sunday Schools, but, above all, he believed in the Christian family as the strongest influence in making Christians out of children. That thought he emphasized again and again in public and in private. And he made his own life an example of Christianity to his own children. He would talk to them simply and naturally abut Christian things. At times he would read to them from the Bible. At one period of their development he resorted to the old habit of daily family prayers. And he never failed to say grace at table - not a mumbled, perfunctory phrase but a deliberate expression of thanks to the Almighty for his bounty. He was fond of singing hymns with the family on Sunday evenings, his clear tenor voice mingled with the soprano of his daughter Margaret.He had the reverence of a child. He was a lover of humor and did not object to a joke which might depend for its fun upon some bit of primitive profanity, but if in any way it suggested irreverence he was shocked and displeased. There is a story to the effect that President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia once referred to Princeton as a sleepy place, and that President Wilson of Princeton retorted that President Butler had to be busy because he that watcheth over keepeth Israel shall neither slumbers nor sleeps. When the report of this repartee reached Mr. Wilson he was indignant and remarked: “I never did say that; I never could have been so irreverent.” During the war when daylight saving time was first adopted he heard and smiled at the story of an old Virginia cook who asked whether dinner was to be served by Wilson time or Christ time. But the jest lost its savor for him when he reflected on the implied irreverence.He was not a fanatic in religion. He had no pleasure in the noise and familiarities of some types of camp-meeting services. Dignity and decorum were part of his Presbyterianism -- the influence not merely of a creed but of the family life within the Presbyterian manse. Within the manse there was neither poverty nor riches. All things were comely. The parsonages in which his father lived with his family were true to a type well-known within the cities of the South. There was no novelty in furnishing, but there was comfort and simplicity. The furniture was of the Victorian period. The pictures on the walls were usually stelel engravings -- sometimes of sacred subjects, sometimes secular. The table was bountiful, for food cost very little and negro service was very cheap. A good cook could be had for from six to eight dollars a month. There were likely to be many house guests, called “visitors” in those times -- friends who came and stayed for days or weeks together. The manse had an atmosphere of its own - intellectual as well as spiritual.One of Mr. Wilson’s biographers has overdrawn the picture, has made the household of Dr. Joseph Wilson more like that of a sixteenth century Puritan than the character of Dr. Wilson would have made possible. He was too human, too full of fun, to be a Puritan.There were the observances of religion in the true spirit of religion -- family prayers, grace before meat, the family-singing of hymns to the accompaniment of an old-fashioned instrument, probably a melodeon. There was regular attendance on Sunday and mid-week church services. There was the theological private library of the head of the household, but there were also the family secular library with the standard novels, of which Walter Scott was most read by both father and son in the Wilson household. There were essays and some poetry and some science. There was a spirit of fun and playfulness within the home, Dr. Wilson and his son Woodrow vying with each other in anecdotes and puns -- the best puns as is always the case being the worst.Under the rule of love, human and divine, the son grew up into strict allegiance to the moral observances enjoined by church and parental admonition. The Ten Commandments were a code from which Woodrow Wilson did not swerve. One cannot imagine him uttering a falsehood any more than one can imagine him committing a theft. He maintained the old time honor for parents -- not only during their lives but after they were long dead and he himself a grandfather. He was strict in Sunday observance and never took the Lord’s name in vain. He once remarked that his home rearing based upon religion had always made the violation of the law of chastity not only impossible for him but unthinkable. He envied no man. Once the conversation turned upon a minister who had acquired both fame and fortune and whose rather luxurious life seemed in contrast to the Masters’ but Mr. Wilson quickly checked the conversation, saying we envy no man his happiness here or hereafter.He was an humble and reverent follower of the two “new” commandments upon which, Jesus said, “hang all the law and the prophets”. To love God and one’s neighbor as oneself was at the basis of some of his religious addresses. In the 1904 address of which I have spoken he said: “* * * If I understand the Scriptures in the least, they speak a gospel of love. Except God draw you, you are not drawn. You are not brought in by whips, you are not drawn by a frowning face, you are not drawn by a threatening gesture. You are drawn by love, you are drawn by the knowledge that if you come you will be received as a son. Nothing but yearning draws you. Fear never drew you anywhere. * * * Love is the only thing that I know that ever led to self-abnegation. * * * What we are working for in the young people, as in the old, is to show them the perfect image of a Man who will draw all the best powers of their nature to Himself, and make them love him so that they will love him more than they love themselves, and loving him so, will love their fellow-men more than they love themselves. Everything heroic, everything that looks toward salvation, is due to this power of elevation.”
There is an easy-going love of one’s neighbor, fruit of the general spirit, of the comradeship of fraternal societies, and haphazard street contacts. Mr. Wilson was a reserved man. He can scarcely have been called promiscuous in his friendships, but when he loved a friend it was with his whole heart; and the broad sense of “thy neighbor”, as set forth in the New Testament, was at the base of his conception of the League of Nations, for he loved all mankind.He was probably the first man in high estate who perceived that the war which broke out in 1914 was primarily neither political nor economic, but moral. For centuries the so-called Christian nations had been acting in violation of the foundational laws of Christianity, had been practicing deceits in their treaties, breaking solemn pledges in the name of patriotism, preying upon smaller nations such as the Balkan States for self-advantage, seeking by artificial balances of power to maintain peace instead of looking to ihim who said that it was his mission in the world to bring peace. Then came the reckoning in 1914, and within a few weeks Woodrow Wilson saw that the axe must be laid at the root of the tree. He saw what a very different sort of man, Napoleon Bonaparte, had seen a century before, that force settles nothing, that the real settlements are in the treaties following the wars. Yet those settlements had also been temporary because, like the house of which Christ spoke, they were built upon the sands and not upon rock foundations. Mr. Wilson saw that the time had come for permanent settlements. He, the most patriotic, the most “American” of individuals, saw that patriotism must no longer be a cloak for depredations on smaller nations, that smaller nations must be put on a moral footing with great nations, that force must be gradually reduced to police force, that the delimited armies and navies of the nations must act in cooperation for the maintenance of the peace of the world, that between the nations there must be a solemn league and covenant pledging all to the protection of the just rights of each and every one. He conceived of such things and many more -- all in the League of Nations’ Covenant -- as an application of Christ’s law to national affairs.This was the public climax of Woodrow Wilson’s Christianity. Other Christians had dreamed before of a government of the world in accordance with the precepts of the Lord Jesus, but here was a man in great power, consecrated to the service of his country and of Christ, and perceiving that the time had come when nothing but the law of Christ could preserve nations from repetitions of the madness and bloodshed of the Great War. He was not governed by mere emotion in the successive steps which he took for the establishment of the League of Nations. His brain had to review what his heart suggested. And each step was taken calmly and resolutely, in full recognition of the difficult and complicated facts as he believed them to be, on the authority of his own investigations and the reports of those whom he had delegated to inquire into the political and economic situations preceding, during, and after the war. He did not believe that the world could be rescued from a continuance of wars by mere altruistic motives. Reason must temper emotion, as it usually does with good Presbyterians. All the long years of Mr. Wilson’s life, religious and secular, all his faith in God and Christ’s rules of conduct, as well as all his study of government and experience in political leadership came to fruitage in his conception and fight for the League of Nations. He was a militant Christian.He gave his life for the League. The long strain in France, then in Washington in contest with the Senate, then on the tour of the continent to present directly to the people the League, the necessity of it bringing peace to the world, the obligation and the privilege which the United States had of becoming a member of it -- these were the final burdens which he laid upon himself and under which he broke. As his physician I did all I could to persuade him to spare himself, but he who had been formerly the most docile of patients would not follow my advice. He knew that as a physician I was right -- he told me so -- but the sense of duty was stronger in him than the sense of self-preservation. And in a memorable interview before we started upon the disastrous journey across the continent he told me that he realized that what he was about to do might cost his life but that the object in view was more imperative than his obedience to the laws of personal health.During the struggle over the League of Nations and while he was a bed-ridden invalid, his fighting instinct remained as strong as ever, and he struggled to have his way, which he was convinced was the right way. He was still the fighting Christian. He believed that God would over-rule all things for good. In his invalidism he had longer hours for religious meditation than he had been able to command in the long many years of his work as a busy administrator, as President of Princeton University, as Governor of New Jersey, and as President of the United States. Though to the end he presented to the world a fighting front, as did his Covenantor ancestors, yet in many conversations with him in his home in S Street I caught flashes of his devout resignation to the will of God and of his acquiescence to the principle of forgiveness. He knew his Bible almost by heart and he could designate chapter and verse more accurately than many a minister. He had an odd habit of abruptly asking me to read to him some particular passage from the Bible. One day it was from Hosea, Chapter 14, Verse 4: “I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him.”
I could gather from some of the texts which he asked for that he believed in the forgiveness of sins, and that with all his implacability he understood in its full meaning the petition of the Lord’s prayer which says: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”I often saw examples of his gentleness during those days in S Street. Once, for instance, when I was quoting something derogatory to President Harding, Mr. Wilson said: “No, we mustn’t criticise President Harding, because we don’t know the facts as he knows them, and we don’t know whether or not a revelation of the facts might be harmful to the public interests. I myself have had enough experience of that kind of injustice based on the ignorance of my critics to feel a sympathy for President Harding though I am not of his political faith and he would in no circumstance have been my choice for the Presidency.” Surely there is a revelation of a large, just and Christian mind.But other people sometimes reported other kinds of things he said in S Street -- harsh things. He was a very ill man and he would sometimes lose some of his control and become emotional and speak in sudden anger, symptoms thoroughly characteristic of his illness, - thrombosis and arterio sclerosis. Some of his visitors were very unfair, either intentionally or unintentionally. They would put to him questions which would excite him and then they would report him as using condemnatory language concerning his enemies. More often, however, during those same days he was considerate and guarded in what he would say.During many of the latter months in S Street Mr. Wilson certainly had a premonition that his end was drawing on. He did not talk much about it but he would occasionally drop a sentence which showed how he felt. Of course, from a medical point of view I could see that he was failing, but I tried to cheer him by making the best of his symptoms.It was in the latter days of January, 1924, when disintegration began. It was not necessary to tell him that there was little or no hope of his recovery, for he clearly recognized that and said: “The machinery is worn out.” and concluded with the memorable phrase, “I am ready”. From that time he lay quietly in his bed for days, his devoted wife, whose wisdom had assisted in prolonging his life, whose love and courage had brought sunshine into the home during the long illness, sitting on one side of the bed holding his hand, his eldest daughter Margaret sitting on the other side, I continually in the room and at regular intervals each day holding consultation with Dr. Ruffin and Dr. Fowler, Dr. We knew we were fighting a losing battle, but I knew that what he had taught and what he had wrought would last on earth as long as civilization.It was on Sunday, February 3, 1924, while the church-goers of Washington were attending divine service that his great spirit passed quietly to its eternal peace.His second daugher, Mrs. Sayre, was in Siam with her husband; his youngest daughter, Mrs. McAdoo, had started with her husband for Washington from California at the first summons but did not arrive until her father had died. From all over the world there came expressions of honor and grief -- from Kings, Presidents of other Republics, down to the humblest of the plain people.

Mr. Wilson had not been a “mixer”, like Colonel Roosevelt and Mr. Taft. There was something in his sensitive nature that caused him to withdraw from continual contacts with others than those of his family and his immediate circle of friends. It was in part a self-protective instinct. He was not as robust as his two predecessors in office. He was in poor condition when he entered the Presidency, grew steadily stronger by obedience to the fundamental prescriptions for health laid down by his physician, -- rest, diet, play, -- but he had to protect his nerves which were those of a race horse. Yet all through his career as educator and statesman there had been multitudes who had recognized the sincerity of his purposes and the matchless courage with which he pursued his duties. His fight for the League of Nations, combined with the grossness of the attacks upon him by his public enemies, had done much to win sympathy for him in his later years, and his hold upon the people was growing daily when he died. In his death people everywhere saw that testimony to a great faith which is called martyrdom. As he lay dying a large crowd kneeled in the cold street in front of the house, evidence that he had touched the religious faith of the multitude, who knew saw that a great Christian as well as a great statesman was waging the last mortal fight in an upper chamber of the house.He was buried on the sixth of February in the crypt of the unfinished cathedral on Mount Saint Albans, and, today, as the cathedral grows more beautiful in its approach to completion, it is one of the many points of interest in Washington, and that which draws nine-tenths of the tourists to it is the simple but beautiful tomb of Woodrow Wilson, devised by the distinguished architect, Ralph Adams Cram, in accordance with the suggestions and ideas of Mrs. Wilson, and which His tomb on Mt. St. Albans bears upon it the sword of a crusader, the emblem of Mr. Wilson’s life and work.From the time of our entrance into the Great War he believed, and repeatedly said, that our soldiers were crusaders against the evils of autocracy. He, more consciously than any man who wore the uniform, was a crusader in that cause and in all causes which he believed right and just and pure. He was not a reformer in the usual sense of the word, but he was the champion of humanity. He was not an extreme enthusiast about any legislation designed to make the individual better. He conceived that this was the work of the Holy Spirit. He was not an advocate of righteousness by law. He believed that where power and privilege had grown stiff-necked they should and could be curbed by law. He believed that where the plain people were the victims of unrighteous legislation or careless legislation, they could be protected by general legislation founded upon the moral law. Much of the legislative programs which he as Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States got enacted into law was based upon fundamental principles of the moral law. Prior to the Great War there was nothing in which he took so much satisfaction as the reenaction of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty with regard to the Panama Canal tolls. He said that this would be remembered when all the rest of his administration had been forgotten, because this put the promise of a nation on a parity with the promise of an honest, God-fearing man. Blessed is he “who sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not.”It is a safe guess that the final pronouncements of history upon Mr. Wilson will be that he was the courageous advocate of pure morality in public affairs. Most of his speeches on the League of Nations show that his master purpose was to introduce into international relations the principles of simple morality. The elder statesmen of Europe did not understand him. Some thought he was a hypocrite, others that he had the Messianic delusion. What Mr. Wilson was saying was so simple that children could understand him, thought it might be hid from the wise and prudent.In reflecting upon the moral aspect of Mr. Wilson’s political mission in life, we must now forget that, after all, his religion was personal, a belief that the Holy Spirit and the revelation of God in the Bible are the instruments whereby the individual is purified, uplifted and brought into harmony with God.And so the tomb at Saint Albans contains the body not merely the body of a statesman or even of a Christian statesman, but of one who, in private and public life, was an humble, obedient, sincere follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.His own words in a public address form the fitting conclusion for an article on the Religion of Woodrow Wilson: “Our whole object, it seems to me, in church work is simply this: to enable all to see him (our Lord and Savior), to realize him, and if we devote ourselves to that purpose with singleness of heart and without thought of ourselves, we shall suddenly find the seats filling, because where there is fire thither men will carry their lamps to be lighted. Where there is power, men will go to partake of it. Every human soul instinctively feels that the only power he desires, the only power that can relieve him from the tedium of the day’s work, the only thing which can put a glow upon the routine of the day’s task, the only think that can take him back to the golden age when everything had a touch of magic about it, when everything was greater than the fact, when everything had lurking behind it some mysterious power, when there was in everything a vision and a perfect image, -- is this thing which he sees enthroned upon the shining countenances of those who really believe in the life and saving grace of their Lord and Master.”



Grayson, Cary T. (Cary Travers), 1878-1938, “The Religion of Woodrow Wilson,” 1924 February 3, WWP16530, Cary T. Grayson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.