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Thomas Woodrow Wilson
(1854-1924), Covenanter

Saints are not produced like Ph.D.'s. They require exposure to the highest in Christian civilization from childhood and access to pure motives an interior lives on every side. It takes seven generations to make a saint.

Wilson had these seven generations. His mother was descended from six generations of Presbyterian and Congregational ministers and she married the seventh.

Wilson spoke of the joy of being brought up in a minister's home. The manse had an atmosphere of a gentle mother and an intelligent father who spent time with the boy. Theology, ideas, and moral theorems were spoken of with ease in the family circle. Tommy, as he was called, was even treated as an adult intelligence at times, the greatest compliment a child ever feels.

The religion of the manse was deep but dignified, devoid of the emotionalism that so often marred faith. Family prayers were customary. Religion was to become "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh." It was not something put on. God was part of Wilson's life. He accepted Christ at the Columbia Seminary Chapel in South Carolina as a young man. The chapel is now preserved on the campus of Winthrop College in South Carolina.

Wilson could not have been an emotionalist. He was in the best sense a Presbyterian. God was praised and enjoyed on a high intellectual basis. There was little cheap, sentimental or self-indulging in his conception of God.

It was not therefore unusual that Woodrow Wilson wished to give his life to Christian service. His father wanted him to become another minister. He chose instead, influenced by reading the life of Gladstone, political service. He saw himself in his day dreams as Woodrow Wilson, the United States Senator from Virginia.

Wilson was a son of the South. He remarked that the South was the area he fully understood and felt at home in. The South and Presbyterianism were his formative heritage.

Politics usually meant law, but after trying his hand at being a lawyer in Atlanta, Woodrow decided to try teaching. He went to John Hopkins, received his Ph.D. in economics, political science and history, and went to Bryn Mawr College to teach. But before he went to the women's university to teach, he married Ellen Axson, whose father was a minister in Rome, Georgia. The bride's grandfather, a minister naturally, married the couple in the manse of the Independence Presbyterian Church of Savannah where he was serving.

Ellen Wilson was good for Woodrow. She was not as brilliant or driving as he was, but she had common sense. "You don't mean that, Woodrow," she would say if he was so full of confrontation with someone that he became strained and taut and began to take things personally and make dangerous overgeneralizations. He was so sure he was right, and often was, that he was not aware of the plight of ordinary people without a good education, political vision, or that sense of values derived from his background.
Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr, moved later to Wesleyan College in Connecticut, and then received a teaching offer from his alma mater, Princeton. He accepted and his drive, ideals, and speech making soon got him an offer as the college chief executive. It was as a vigorous and outspoken champion of academic reform that he gained national attention.

Soon the reform President of Princeton was run on the Democratic ticket as governor of New Jersey. As a reform governor of New Jersey he campaigned for the American presidency in 1912. He won. On the night it became clear he was to be a president, he wept. To him it was the Lord's doing and marvelous in his eyes.

The presidency of two terms covered establishment of the Federal Reserve System, the first child-labor act, and rural credits. He was off to a good showing, but before his greatest challenges, World War I, the treaty of Versailles, and American acceptance of the League of Nations, Ellen Axson Wilson died of Bright's disease.

Wilson could not believe this tragedy. He was not one for masculine banter, did not have many men friends and was rather of a homebody. He needed to be happy and was probably very unaware with a male smugness how very much he was influenced by home. "When I am blue," Ellen spoke, speaking of a mood, "Woodrow is blue-black." Knowing this Ellen seems to have created the right temperature for his ego at the proper time.

The method she used is now called behavior modification. She and their three affectionate daughters created a warmly sympathetic and understanding atmosphere. Wilson had the habit of thinking aloud. If it were good, she praised it. If it were bad, she remained silent. He was very subtly led by a charming and clever woman interested in social reform. There is little doubt that she had better common sense and was less rigid than he.

It was a technique a minister's wife knows. Ellen was a minister's daughter. Intelligent wives of too earnest ministers have done this for generations as the Woman's League, the deacons, the family, and the sermons have been worked out in manses, near the stove in the kitchen, or before the fire in the parlor.

"When you die, I die," Wilson said to Ellen as she lay dying. It was one of those, "Woodrow, you don't mean that," statements, but in a way it was true. Ellen was buried in Rome, Georgia, near the church her father served. The issues Woodrow desperately needed her common sense on, World War I, the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations came during the time of the second wife who had little vision.

The widower Wilson seems to have been lonely in the White House. He was addicted to feminine admiration from a wife and three daughters, was temporarily without any, and wanted sympathy. He probably would have married any sympathetic and attractive woman. Mrs. Galt came along first. In fact, he met her by accident in the White House. Mrs. Bones, his cousin, present at the meeting, said it took her ten minutes at the first meeting to figure out what was going to happen. She also said it took her ten minutes because she was slow.

The marriage for him was a disaster. He became more rigid, more unable to compromise, more lacking in common sense. The friendly, "Woody, you don't mean that" had been replaced by "That's right, Mr. President." He became less and less of the thing he needed to be to get his programs across, a compromiser and a political animal.

Various theories have been aired as to Wilson's increasing rigidity in his later years. Doctors say he was undergoing small strokes which changed him. Possibly. Freud said the problem lay in his subconscious. Possibly. Common sense says the wife. Ask any clever wife who knows how to program her husband.

Self righteous, unread, hypersensitive, Edith was oil to Wilson's ailing and irritable predisposition to flame. History suggests that Ellen Axson Wilson's death was more than a merely personal tragedy. It was the removal of a calming influence to have national effects.

Mrs. Edith Galt, the second wife, was a Virginian. She was socially conscious, bragged of being descended from (no one can ever be ready for it) Pocahontas. Playing bridge was her favorite past time. She was also lacking in tact, common sense, and ability to compromise. An Episcopalian, she offended the bishop who was to assist in marrying them. Later on she asked a political enemy, Senator Lodge, not to go to Wilson's funeral. He didn't. Her temperament reinforced everything rigid and unfortunate in Wilson's.

Wilson was very considerate of his second wife. She was loyal to him and he to her. She accompanied him everywhere. He went places with her. They even attended each other's church, going one Sunday to St. Margaret's Anglican, where she was a member, and on alternate Sundays to Central Presbyterian where he was an elder.

If Wilson's practical decisions sometimes lacked common sense, as the President he created in the role of leader of the free world the most exalted hope of freedom for mankind in the greatest speeches since Lincoln. It made him a world hero. The difficulties were purely practical. However, he did have common sense enough to veto the Volstead Amendment. Temperance, not prohibition, was the traditional Presbyterian view.

After World War I Wilson seriously went abroad to make a treaty to end all wars and to make a peace for posterity. Instead he found in the form of national leaders, a gang of heads of state who were totally na´ve about man's spiritual and sacrificial capacities. They thought him naive. Unprepared for such cynical perversity, cramped for time, he bargained. He did it to save his prized idea, a Covenant of Nations.

The idea of the Covenant is as old as Geneva. It was perhaps Geneva's supreme political contribution. From Geneva to Knox to the Mayflower Compact to John Witherspoon's American Covenant (the founding father who was a Presbyterian minister) to Wilson's Covenant of the League of Nations is a progression that seemed to Wilson predestined. Wilson believed God was moving, slowly but ultimately, through history. Ideas as well as movements were predestined.

The League was an attempt on his part to bring a Covenant to a chaotic world situation. Wilson was attempting an advance in world government. He was trying to push the old Covenanting concepts. These concepts were evolving and adapting and secularizing and desperately needed.

An eventual world Covenant, Wilson felt, was foreordained by God, if not from God directly, then from God's spirit in man. He felt these values, his values, his world movement would triumph eventually.

Isolationists of every nation opposed him. Many felt in America felt that it could once more be out of world politics. Only a second lesson of World War I and a repeated World War II would prove otherwise to them.

It was distressing to Wilson in 1918 that isolationists in America disapproved of the League. Wilson possibly might have convinced the United States as a whole to enter the League had he been more of a politician. But Wilson was self-righteous, too far ahead of the people in vision, and with far too much faith in the people as justice abstracted. A thing they were certainly not.

To convince the American people he went on a tour of the country, speaking for joining the League from the railroad platforms. He went from state to state. He collapsed. His health was ruined. America never entered the League. He returned to Washington in a semi-invalid state.

It was at the defeat of the League that Wilson's faith was most tested. He lay in the White House, sick in Abraham Lincoln's cathedral-like bed. His private physician, Dr. Grayson, remained near. After the news of the defeat of the League by Congress the President did not sleep. He stared into space. It was sometime in the night that he needed and found a great reserve of spiritual courage. For at sunrise he asked Dr. Grayson to reads to him II Corinthians 4:8-9.

The words of the Apostle filled the room: "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." The sun rose. Wilson slept. The Presbyterian tradition held.

Ideas are predestined. Into the hands of God in history Wilson could commend the spirit. He was, as a Roman Catholic had called him, A Presbyterian priest. For after all, John Calvin had written that predestination was a "doctrine of comfort."

Wilson remained in Washington on F. Street for some years after his term of office expired. There he was a semi-invalid. He died at the house on F. Street on February 3, 1924.

Wilson was buried in the National Cathedral intended to be the pseudo-Westminister Abbey for America. It was part of the "imitate the English upper class" tragicomedy of the 1900 rich ashamed of cultureless America. The burial in a neo-feudal Anglican setting, as if he were trying to be royal, was a final irony for an honest man who was the last and possibly greatest of the Covenanters.

Wilson's role in history was essentially prophetic. It happens that a prophet has to come, often with an alien message, to be stoned and to suffer in order to heighten the consciousness of the people, thereby beginning acceptance later. Wilson did this.

It would have been too much to have had 1918 isolationist America suddenly accept the League of Nations, all join hands and ring down the curtain with a happy finale. Social change does not come that easily. Some have to suffer for social change. Wilson did.


He has been accused of being too much the Presbyterian. If any irony ever existed, it was that Woodrow Wilson was not Presbyterian enough. His was a too shallow 19th century view of man that always got him into impossible circumstances. This naive view of man ruined him in Europe at the Versailles Treaty discussions. He overlooked depravity and original sin.

He was a schoolmaster's mistake. He thought if you taught people the right thing, they would do it. Philosophers call it the Socratic Fallacy. People may know what is right, but they do not do it. "I know what I ought to do, yet I do not do it", wrote the Apostle Paul, illustrating original sin.

Wilson's shallow views on human nature were picked up from the so-called enlightened age around him. It was unfortunate. Had Wilson been deeper in the old Presbyterian doctrine of human depravity, he might have been shrewder.

Wilson's ideals were so high no human personality could have sustained them. His reach for ideals exceeded his grasp; and if we agree with Browning, everyone's reach should exceed his grasp, else what is Heaven for?

 

 

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