To probe the nature of Woodrow Wilson's intellectual development, this book focuses on the relationship between his religious thought and other areas of his life, from his years as a student and professor through those of his presidency of Princeton University. Professor Mulder draws fully on The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, describing a complex individual and advancing our knowledge of the role of religion in American politics.
Originally published in 1978.
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The Years of Preparation
By John M. Mulder
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Joseph Ruggles Wilson
"My incomparable father," Woodrow Wilson called him and confessed, "If I had my father's face and figure, it wouldn't make any difference what I said." History has issued a different verdict, for Joseph Ruggles Wilson has been known only as Woodrow Wilson's father, his early teacher, and the most formative single influence on his though and personality. And yet Woodrow Wilson's estimation of his father was not unjustified, for Joseph Ruggles Wilson stands as an important figure in his own right within the history of the southern Presbyterian Church. Indeed, he was one of its founders, and the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America was held in his church in Augusta, Georgia, in 1861. At that meeting he was elected Permanent Clerk of the General Assembly and was soon promoted to Stated Clerk in 1865, a post he held until 1898. In addition to being one of the most important and highest church officials during the crucial early decades of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Rev. Dr. Wilson was renowned as a powerful and eloquent preacher and held important pulpits throughout the church. As a professor, he influenced generations of students and shaped this future leadership of the church.
Joseph Wilson's roots were not, however, in the South. He was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on February 28, 1822, the son of James and Anne (or Ann) Adams Wilson. Both were Scotch-Irish immigrants who came over together and were married in the United States. James Wilson settled first in Philadelphia, plying his trade as a printer with the virulently Jeffersonian paper, the Aurora. Within five years he was virtually the head of the paper, though it was nominally edited by William Duane. In 1815 he moved to Steubenville, Ohio, to become editor and proprietor of the Western Herald and Steubenville Gazette, the motto of which was "Principles, Not Men." Quickly becoming embroiled in Ohio politics and bitter partisan fights, he attacked Andrew Jackson and enlisted his paper in the antislavery cause. He served as a Whig member of the Ohio legislature and as an associate judge of the Court of Common Pleas, despite the fact that he was not a lawyer.
Joseph Ruggles was the youngest of seven boys in a family of ten children. Ray Stannard Baker suggests that he was the favored son of the family because he was given an education to become a minister. However, other evidence indicates that this youngest son failed to share equally in his father's efforts to secure a prominent and established career for his many sons. He began his educational training at the Steubenville Academy and attended Jefferson (now Washington and Jefferson) College, being graduated as valedictorian in 1844. He taught briefly at Mercer, Pennsylvania, and then attended Western Theological Seminary (1845-1846). He studied under Charles Hodge for one year at Princeton Theological Seminary (1846-1847) and returned home to teach at the Steubenville Male Academy until 1849. During this time (1848), he was licensed by the Steubenville Presbytery and ordained and installed in the Presbyterian Church of Chartiers, Pennsylvania, by the Presbytery of Ohio in 1849.
Within weeks after his ordination, he married eighteen-year-old Janet, or Jessie as she was usually called, Woodrow on June 7, 1849. The Woodrows, as Baker has said, were "a more distinguished stock" than the Wilsons, tracing their ancestry to prominent Scottish divines across six generations. The family emigrated from Carlisle, England, where Jessie's father, the Rev. Thomas Woodrow, was pastor of an independent church and a member of the Congregational Union. They settled first in Poughkeepsie, New York, and then Brockville, Ontario, during 1836-1837. The long journey proved too much for Thomas Woodrow's wife, Marion, who died in 1836. Her sister Isabella helped to raise the family of eight children, of whom Jessie was the fifth and which included James Woodrow, prominent theologian of the Southern Presbyterian Church.
In 1837, Thomas Woodrow settled in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church until 1848. He resigned because of supposed ill health but lived almost thirty years thereafter. He moved to Worthington, Ohio, serving as minister there until 1857, and then transferred to Nicholasville, Kentucky, where he labored until the onset of the Civil War. In 1861, he returned to Ohio where he served as stated supply (temporary pastor) in various churches until ill health compelled his retirement in 1865. During these convulsive years in American Presbyterianism, Woodrow sided with the Old School Presbyterians in 1837 and the northern church in 1861, but he is known to have voted against antislavery resolutions in the Chillicothe Presbytery.
The Woodrow children remained close, perhaps because of the travail of immigrating to the United States and the loss of their mother while they were all quite young. In addition, their father seems to have lost some interest in them, for he remarried and at the time of his death in 1877 did not remember any of the children of his first marriage in his will. Moreover, Jessie made only one brief and curiously restrained mention of her father's death in letters to her son Woodrow.
With his wife, Joseph Ruggles Wilson began his long ministry in the church. Initially it was an uncertain and itinerant life. He served the Chartiers church for only two years, 1849-1851, and supplemented his small salary as Professor Extraordinary of Rhetoric at Jefferson College, which involved tutoring students at their own expense. In 1851, he moved to the South, settling at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where he became Professor of Chemistry and Natural Science and served as stated supply at nearby Walker's Church. Wilson remained at Hampden-Sydney for four years until he received a call from the First Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Virginia. Accepting the invitation in December 1854, he was eventually installed on June 24, 1855. This church had a prominent pulpit, its 168 members making it one of the largest churches in the Presbytery of Lexington.
The Staunton church provided a new, capacious manse, badly needed for Wilson's growing family. Marion Williamson was born in 1851 in Chartiers; Annie Josephine arrived in 1853 in Hampden-Sydney; and Thomas Woodrow was born on December 28 (or 29), 1856, in the Staunton manse. Wilson's tenure of two years in Staunton was brief but productive. He served for one year as principal of the Augusta Female Seminary (later Mary Baldwin College), located next to the church, and presided over the expansion of the seminary's buildings. During his pastorate, the church vestibule was added and other improvements were made. He also took an active role in the affairs of the Presbytery of Lexington, serving as moderator, clerk, and treasurer, and preaching occasionally at its regular meetings. As chairman of the special presbytery committee, he aided in the establishment of the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church.
Wilson remained restless, eager to establish himself in this new area of the country, ambitious for recognition within the church. Just as his father had battled his way to political and financial success in a new and foreign land, so too his son proposed to achieve prominence within the church and in another area of the country. Wilson's ambition is revealed in his first published sermon or address, The True Idea of Success in Life, delivered on June 10, 1857, before the Union and Philanthropic Societies of Hampden-Sydney College. Wilson indicated his growing accommodation with the southern point of view on slavery, declaring that he would "love to swing a flail of rebuke over the heads of fanatical men, who, among the ices of the North, can talk deliberately of quenching here those bright domestic fires which are kept a-burning, as they were kindled, in the mutual good will of white and black!"
But instead of pursuing that theme, Wilson chose to examine the problem of individual success. He denied that it was due to mere good fortune; that it was based on the acquisition of property; or that it had to be recognized. Rather, he linked success to happiness and described "the pursuit of real happiness to be nothing else than the pursuit of real success." Happiness, in turn, depended on the individual's sense of "a personal worth," but was not achieved by staying aloof and pure from the world. Life was a gift from God and involved moral exertion and ethical achievement. Drawing on the familiar strains of the Protestant ethic, Wilson declared that life is not something "we are to endure, but to use, to improve, to make the most of." "Life," he continued, "is not a season through which the soul is to dream. It is a day in which the soul must act." The source of strength for such action was God alone. "There must be a God presiding over and through all truly successful enterprise," he concluded.
Eager to improve his own life, Wilson's opportunity came quickly. In the summer of 1857 he traveled to Augusta, Georgia, to perform the wedding ceremony for his brother-in-law, James Woodrow. There he preached at the First Presbyterian Church, and the congregation, impressed by the eloquence and power of his sermon, issued a call to him on December 18, 1857. He preached his first sermon on January 10, 1858, and was installed on May 2, 1858. Like his father who was adept in the ways of political patronage, Wilson knew how to extend his contacts throughout the church, and he asked Samuel K. Talmage, president of Oglethorpe University, to participate in the installation service. Through the good offices of Talmage, and possibly through the influence of James Woodrow, then a member of the Oglethorpe faculty, Wilson was honored with the Doctor of Divinity degree from Oglethorpe at the commencement exercises in 1858.
Duly tagged as one of the leaders in southern Presbyterianism and occupying one of the most important pulpits in the southern church, Wilson had achieved a substantial degree of prominence in the South within the short space of seven years. In Augusta he ministered to a congregation of 224 souls and resided in a large, comfortable manse with slaves to serve him and his family. His fame as a preacher of arresting rhetoric and cogent thought spread throughout the church, and he demonstrated a clear acceptance of southern ideals and thinking.
Wilson shared with his southern Presbyterian colleagues an adherence to the Scottish covenant, or "federal," theology, particularly as it was developed in the South by James H. Thornwell and others. According to this theological point of view, God had established a covenant of grace with people, offering them forgiveness from their sins in exchange for obedience to the divine will. A further covenant, one of nature, had also been established by God, in which the affairs of this world — its laws and its government — were conducted according to God's moral law. The essential thrust of the covenant theology was to provide a comprehensive theological view of the individual, the church, and society, each with its own function and place within the divine scheme of government of the world. It was, as many scholars have observed, a "theology of politics," which gave rational and predictable "government" to every aspect of human life.
Wilson's adherence to this covenant theology, with its conception of a stratified society, coalesced easily with a southern society based on slavery and the clear definition of the roles of men and women. In a sermon, Female Training, delivered before the students and friends of Greensboro Female College in Greensboro, Georgia, on May 23, 1858, Wilson outlined the respective positions of the two sexes: "the one ruling at the head, and the other subject to that head." Man was meant for the struggle of life in the world at large, carving out his own measure of success; woman's place was in the home, "away from the rush and storm of life." But her role was not necessarily one of inferiority; rather, she was intended to be man's partner in the world, exercising through her "physically weak" nature her ordained endowment of love, endurance, and devotion within the home. Wilson did, however, emphatically reject the prevalent conception that woman's role necessitated no formal education. "It cannot be doubted," he proclaimed,
... that the community which has not made adequate provision for the right education of its daughters, is in a sadly self-ruinous condition — and that those parents who will not sacrifice much to place their female children within the reach of a first-rate education, are failing in one of their highest duties; and that even that Church membership, which fails, by properly directed effort, to secure a religious training for girls connected with their families, appropriate to their received standards of Bible truth, must be considered false to their own belief, disregardful of the future of their children, and greatly deficient in intelligent zeal for the welfare of their fellow men.
Only through such education could a woman realize the power of religion — her "peculiar ornament, as it is the right foundation of her peculiar influence." Nearly thirty years later, Woodrow Wilson's fiancée, Ellen Louise Axson, said that she had read the sermon "with real pleasure — for it is as 'timely' now as then, and not at all too 'old fashioned' to suit us." Her only objection was that "he calls women Our females'!"
If God had established and circumscribed a role for women in Wilson's theology, the place of black slaves was even more clearly defined by divine decree. On January 8, 1861, Wilson delivered to his Augusta congregation the last of a series of sermons on "Family Government," dealing with masters and slaves. The sermon was immediately published, and in a prefatory letter Wilson explained that he did not prepare it "with exclusive reference to the present unhappy agitations of the popular mind." Nevertheless, he declared, "it is surely high time that the Bible view of slavery should be examined, and that we should begin to meet the infidel fanaticism of our infatuated enemies upon the elevated ground of a divine warrant for the institution we are resolved to cherish."
Wilson argued that there was a divine sanction for slavery on the basis of the silence of scripture (it "is never once condemned, never once even discountenanced") as well as the explicit provisions for it. Drawing on the covenant theology, he declared that slavery is
found imbedded in the very heart of the moral law itself — that law which determines the principles of divine administration over men — a law which constitutes, if I may so speak, the very constitution of that royal kingdom whose regulations begin and end in the infinite holiness of Jehovah, and whose spread through the universal heart of the race is the aim of all Scripture.
Indeed, Wilson maintained that God had "included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State." The fundamental problem was that neither slaves nor masters were living in obedience to that law contained in the scriptures. He heralded the time when through proper obedience by masters and slaves, slavery would be recognized as "that scheme of politics and morals, which, by saving a lower race from the destruction of heathenism, has under divine management, contributed to refine, exalt, and enrich its superior race!"
Wilson's vision was never to be realized, and the slavery issue tore apart the nation, Old School Presbyterians, and Wilson's own family. In May 1861, soon after the attack on Fort Sumter, the Old School Presbyterians gathered in Philadelphia. The passage of the Spring Resolutions left the Old School Southerners embittered, and presbyteries throughout the South responded by withdrawing from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. A convention was set for August 15, 1861, in Atlanta, Georgia, for delegates from the southern presbyteries, and a General Assembly meeting was scheduled for December 4 in Augusta, at the invitation of Wilson. At this first meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, held in Wilson's church from December 4-16, 1861, Wilson was elected Permanent Clerk, John N. Waddell became Stated Clerk, and Benjamin M. Palmer was unanimously chosen Moderator.
This was the beginning of Wilson's long service in the hierarchy of the southern church, and in 1865 he was elected Stated Clerk. Because of the decentralized organization of the southern Presbyterian Church, the office of Stated Clerk carried with it relatively little power. However, it did bring several significant responsibilities. It involved serving as ex-officio Treasurer of the General Assembly, ruling on points of procedure at General Assembly meetings, carefully preparing the minutes of the Assembly's meetings (a task often made easier by the assistance of his son Woodrow), and facilitating the smooth functioning of the church polity on the synodical and presbytery levels.
Excerpted from Woodrow Wilson by John M. Mulder. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- List of Illustrations, pg. ix
- Preface, pg. xi
- Abbreviations in the Notes, pg. xvi
- I. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, pg. 1
- II. Boyhood and Student Days, 1856–1879, pg. 29
- III. Graduate Student, 1879–1885, pg. 59
- IV. Marriage and Early Professional Career, pg. 86
- V. Professor at Princeton – THE PHILOSOPHER OF LAW, pg. 111
- VI. Professor at Princeton – THE LITERARY HISTORIAN, pg. 131
- VII. Educational Statesman, 1902–1906, pg. 158
- VIII. Conflict and Turmoil, 1906–1910, pg. 187
- IX. The Moralizer of American Life, pg. 229
- X. The Covenanter, pg. 269
- Bibliographical Essay, pg. 278
- Index, pg. 291