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The Business of Church and State: Social Christianity in Woodrow Wilson's White House

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2013


Tall tales are often told in times of war. Stories of masculine courage under fire, of the fog of war, and of the grim realities experienced by embattled bodies dominate the genre. During the Great War, however, Americans told a different kind of story about their president. Rather than picture their president entrenched and fighting, Americans shared accounts of President Woodrow Wilson praying. Dr. Admiral Cary T. Grayson recalled a popular wartime tale about an unnamed Congressman who sought President Wilson's counsel. The story begins with a Congressman, distraught with the state of the war-torn world, insisting upon visiting the White House to speak with the President. Travelling through the White House residence, the Congressman searched for his Commander-in-Chief from the East room to the Green room to the Blue room; all to no avail. Finally, he came to the Red Room, where “he discovered the President on his knees wrestling in fervent prayer, like Jacob, with the Most High.” As Wilson's friend and physician, Grayson remembered that this story and variations of it were popular despite its complete lack of credibility. This folk tale, Grayson believed, began as a rumor by Wilson's opponents (one that poked fun of a President who preferred to kneel on the floor rather than prepare the country for war) but, after the United States declared war in April 1917, was taken more seriously (as a testament to a Commander-in-Chief who led a righteous war). What perhaps began as a joke at the president's expense, gained credence as a reflection of President Wilson's approach to the Great War: it was, for him, a part of his religious life.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2013 

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27 Cary T. Grayson, “The Religion of Woodrow Wilson,” [1924], Cary T. Grayson Collection Online, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, Staunton, Virginia [WWPL],

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 The most recent example is Cooper, John Milton Jr.'s biography of Wilson, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)Google Scholar. Cooper acknowledges that religion was an important part of Wilson's life, but he insists that it did not play a part in his politics or policy decisions. There is a recent turn in scholarship about President Wilson in particular and his foreign policy in general that takes the relationship of politics and religion more seriously. See Magee's, MalcolmWhat the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008)Google Scholar, Benbow's, MarkLeading Them to the Promised Land: Woodrow Wilson, Covenant Theology, and the Mexican Revolution, 1913–1915 (Kent, Oh.: Kent State University Press, 2010)Google Scholar, and Preston's, AndrewSword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Anchor Books, 2012)Google Scholar.

31 Wilson, Woodrow, “Address to the Federal Council of Churches,” December 10, 1915, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 35, October 1, 1915–January 27, 1916, ed. Link, Arthur Stanley (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), 35:330Google Scholar.

32 Signing the Tariff Bill,” in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 28, 1913, ed. Link, Arthur Stanley, (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), 28:351352Google Scholar.

33 Gary Scott Smith has an extended discussion of the definition and his subsequent re-definition of social Christianity in The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880–1925 (Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2000)Google Scholar; see also Bowman, M., “Sin, Spirituality, and Primitivism: The Theologies of the American Social Gospel, 1885–1917,” Religion and American Culture 17, no. 1 (2007): 95126CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dorrien, Gary J., Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Marsden, George, “The Gospel of Wealth, the Social Gospel, and the Salvation of Souls in Nineteenth-century America,” Fides Et Historia: Official Publication of the Conference on Faith and History 5, no. 1 (1973): 1021Google Scholar; Phillips, Paul T., A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 1880–1940 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; and, White, Ronald Cedric and Hopkins, Charles Howard, The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

34 Wilson, “Address to the Federal Council of Churches in Columbus, Ohio,” 35:344.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 “Mr. Wilson and The Bible,” New York Times, February 6, 1924, Wallace McClure Collection, Box 4, Folder 29, WWPL. The quote was reprinted from an unnamed article printed in the Evening Times [Trenton, N.J.] in February 1913.

38 Rauschenbusch, Walter, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillan, 1907), 376377Google Scholar.

39 Ibid., 413.

40 Wilson, Woodrow, “Address to the Ellicott Club,” November 1, 1916, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 38, August 7–November 19, 1916, ed. Link, Arthur Stanley (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), 38:576577Google Scholar.

41 Wilson, Woodrow, “Address to the Maryland Annual Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church,” in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 32, January 1–April 16, 1915, ed. Link, Arthur Stanley (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), 32:495Google Scholar.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Wilson told the students of Berea College, for instance, “I find myself envying missionaries, envying engineers, envying pioneers of all sorts—envying those who touch the closest possible contact the genuine stuffs, whether of the animate or inanimate world, because they must have some sense . . . of some way of carrying the great world upon their shoulders and making it serviceable for mankind” (Address to Berea College,” February 24, 1915, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 32, January 1–April 16, 1915, ed. Link, Arthur Stanley [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980], 32:284Google Scholar).

45 DiNunzio, Mario, ed., Woodrow Wilson: Essential Writings and Speeches of the Scholar-President (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 403Google Scholar.

46 Cooper, 389.