The Ruling Elder and Spiritual President

Sean Michael Lucas | August 10, 2016

Baylor University professor of history Barry Hankins opens his biography of Woodrow Wilson with a famous anecdote. Allegedly, when Wilson was elected a ruling elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, his father remarked that he’d rather Wilson be a ruling elder than president of the United States.

Of course, Wilson would be both, and Hankins’s new book, Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual Presidenttakes its cue from this intersection of Wilson’s religious commitments and his developing political career. As such, this first entry in Oxford University Press’s new series, “Spiritual Lives,” does an admirable job of teasing out Wilson’s religious impulses and demonstrating how they interacted with his leadership roles as president of Princeton University, governor of New Jersey, and finally as president of the United States.

However, Hankins struggles with the specifically Presbyterian aspects of Wilson’s faith (the “ruling elder” part of the title) in part because he tries to make Wilson more Presbyterian than he actually was. By any measure, Wilson was a theological liberal, much more comfortable with liberal evangelicals like the Presbyterian Robert E. Speer or modernists like the Baptist Shailer Matthews than he would have been with J. Gresham Machen. As a result…

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