Academic journal article Church History

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

Academic journal article Church History

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

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An earlier version of this essay was presented at the American Society for Church History's 2013 Winter Meeting. I would like to thank those who attended the panel for their thought-provoking questions and comments as well as Sara Georgini for organizing the panel. I am especially grateful for Amanda Porterfield's responses as the chair and her reflections on this project as a whole. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the White House Historical Association for providing a grant that supported the research necessary for this essay and the larger project of which it is a part.

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."27 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).28 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.

Following President Wilson's death in 1924, Grayson wrote several chapters for what would later become a memoir of his time serving the twenty-eighth President of the United States. Even though wartime folklore seemed to warm the hearts of many Americans, Grayson pointed out in an unpublished chapter that this story could be no more than a fabrication for two reasons: first, no Congressman would have been allowed to roam the White House (an usher would have informed the president of a visitor and then escorted the vistor to the president); second, the story did not accurately depict Wilson's religious life. According to Grayson, this story misunderstood the way in which Wilson conceived of proper religious piety. Moreover, it misconstrued the way Wilson performed his calling as president. Grayson explained,

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 injunction: "Enter into thy closet and when thou hast closed thy door pray to thy Father which is in secret." But in all probability Woodrow Wilson in business hours would have not been on his knees at all, but at his desk or in conference.29

Grayson corrected the propaganda about Wilson's religious life not because Wilson separated his religion and politics during the war, as conventional wisdom about the Scholar President suggests,30 but rather because Wilson's religious life manifested itself through his civil service work. The popularity of urban legends like this one, if told either as a punch line or in seriousness, demonstrates the assumption that Wilson was a reverent Commander-in-Chief. …

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