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Woodrow Wilson, the Bible, and the end of the Great War

Woodrow Wilson, the Bible, and the end of the Great War
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Today, at the eleventh hour, humanity commemorates the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Nineteen million people had perished in the conflict; another 23 million had been wounded. The empires of central and eastern Europe lay in ruins. Affected peoples around the globe looked primarily to one man — U.S. President Woodrow Wilson — to build a just and durable peace. Poorly understood in our day is the degree to which Wilson, both in making war and seeking peace, operated on biblical principles.

He faced fundamental questions: Should this war, if successful, merely represent the triumph of the empires of Britain, France, Italy, and the United States over those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Turks? Or should it look to a more profound goal?

Wilson’s famed peace plan, the “Fourteen Points,” stands as a model of Christian optimism and charity. He declared that “the day of conquest and aggrandizement is gone by”; so also the day of secret treaties. “We have no jealousy of German greatness,” he continued. “We do not wish to injure her or block in any way her legitimate influence or power.”

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Wilson urged that captive peoples in Europe and the Middle East be set free, that borders be redrawn to conform to the peoples living there, and [in a very American blow to every form of European imperialism] that “all colonial claims” now weigh the interests of the native peoples, as well.

With its armies in retreat, Germany finally agreed to an Armistice ending the war on November 11, with peace to rest on the Fourteen Points.

When the crown jewel of Wilson’s peace plan, “a general association of nations” to secure mutual peace and security, finally appeared in 1919, it bore a distinctive biblical title: “The Covenant of the League of Nations.”

“Covenant” is a motif central to both Jewish and Christian Scriptures. At its most basic level, a covenant is an oath-bound relationship between two or more parties. The operative biblical idea is relationship – a community of mutual obligation and benevolence, of common well-being. It’s the same word the Bible uses to describe the marriage relationship. Wilson’s vision for the Covenant of the League of Nations was informed by this scriptural idea. How did the idea of covenant come to shape Wilson’s foreign policy?

Wilson’s father was a prominent Presbyterian minister while his mother descended from several generations of pastors. Christianity, in one biographer’s words, was “a way of life” for this family. Wilson’s childhood was filled with lessons from scripture, including close attention to Moses, the Old Testament prophets, and the “ultimate messenger,” Jesus of Nazareth. He developed a vivid sense of God’s “plan” for humankind and the conflicts it entailed.

At age 20, Wilson wrote an essay on “Christ’s Army,” describing an apocalyptic spiritual war, followed by an age of peace. God’s people, he held, faced off against followers of “the Prince of Lies.” These foes “meet upon the great battlefield of everyday” living. Importantly, in this struggle over life and salvation, “there is no middle course, no neutrality.” It would be “providential leaders” imbued with biblical truth and understanding God’s plan who would then claim victory and help usher in the reign of righteousness.

Wilson gained a deep attachment to the concept of Covenant as emphasized by his Calvinist and Presbyterian faith. As historian Malcolm Magee summarizes, this was not simply a synonym for “treaty.” Rather, for Wilson it meant the “full Old and New Testament meaning of nations… accepting divine order in return for divine blessings.” The Christian politician, drawing on biblical faith, then acted in “anticipation of the coming of a covenantal international world order.”

These biblical understandings carried into the Great War. In his address to Congress on April 2, 1917, asking for a Declaration of War against Germany, Wilson cast the conflict as bearing cosmic meaning. It was not just about German violations of neutral shipping rights. Rather, in an echo of his youthful essay, it was now a fight for “the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples.” In a subsequent address, he described this conflict as “the culminating and final war for human liberty,” where chaos would give way to divine order.

Alas, the making of peace in Versailles, France, one-hundred years ago proved to be a tragic failure.

Great Britain, France, and Italy refused to accede to Wilson’s call for a “peace without victors,” demanding that the Germans be punished. He was forced into many compromises. Sorting out nationalities also proved to be vastly more difficult than he had assumed.

Wilson proved unable to win support from the U.S. Senate for either the subsequent Versailles treaty or the League. Within 15 years, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party would come to power in Germany, soon plunging Europe into a second and bloodier World War.

Some historians place blame for this failure in large part on Wilson, himself. His grandiose ideals, they say, prevented a more realistic peace from being constructed.  

It is true that Wilson overestimated his ability to serve as a divine, providential messenger to a war-torn continent. However, in retrospect, his peace plan would have treated an emerging democratic Germany as a partner, rather than as a defeated enemy and events would have followed a much better course.

The only other option with a prospect for success would have been a much more punitive “Versailles” treaty, crippling Germany economically and technologically as well as militarily.

Wilson's vision was sound: a world freed from imperialist adventures (implicitly including American ones); self-determination and democratic rule as could best be achieved, with respect for minority rights; and the building of a true covenantal world order, resting on common morality and pursuing justice and peace.

Is it possible that Wilson's ideals, once free of illusions, have a place in foreign affairs today?

Allan Carlson is a scholar advisor with the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia. He is also president emeritus of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and editor of “The Natural Family: An International Journal of Research and Policy.” He has written 15 books and hundreds of articles on the history of family life and social policy.