The late John F. Woolverton, an Episcopal priest, taught church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Texas. After his passing in 2014, his A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt was ushered to publication by James D. Bratt, an emeritus professor of history at Calvin College. The book documents the faith and politics of one of America’s great Presidents.
ECM: Your work on this book was somewhat atypical. How did you end up finishing it? What was your process?
JDB: The editing process was actually kind of fun. Professor Woolverton had done such an excellent job of research in the archives and secondary literature that I didn’t have to worry about correcting or supplementing things. Only one addition was required—the brief chapter on FDR’s death, funeral and burial rites. The folks at Eerdmans said that readers expect biographies to end with this sort of wrap, and so I supplied it.
For the rest, the job involved trimming and reorganizing the manuscript so as to bring out the main theme of each chapter in clear focus and efficient development. It’s probably easier to do this with someone else’s writing than with your own because you’re looking down at a landscape from some height rather than having hacked out a path thru the thicket in the first place. So I just plowed along, chapter by chapter.
My copy editors were sharp and kind and saved a number of errors. The most difficult part here was tracking down quotations that had come untethered from footnotes in my editing process. (A couple different word-processing programs had been involved along the way, and weren’t always compatible with the new system into which I integrated everything.) This did set me off sleuthing through FDR’s published speeches and personal correspondence, which is a very revealing road into the nuts and bolts of a person’s life and mind. I managed to track down every reference but one, which felt like quite an achievement, and I got in better touch with FDR as a person along the way.
ECM: Readers are likely familiar with Roosevelt the Democrat. What kind of a Christian was he?
JDB: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. He was taken to St. James’ Church in Hyde Park, [New York], as a lad, even though he didn’t much care for it at the time. His father was on the vestry, and Franklin himself became a member of the vestry in adulthood. He was loyal to his church, he knew the liturgy and revered the music, and he cared much more about the ceremonial aspects than about the theology. He loved the social ethics most of all.
His attachment to the liberal branch of Episcopalianism was solidified during the years that he spent studying at the Groton School in Massachusetts, under the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody. Groton at that time was one of the heartlands of the Social Gospel movement. So I think you could say that he was a liturgical Episcopalian and a Social Gospel Christian.
ECM: Did the Social Gospel influence his politics?
JB: Very much so. To understand its influence, you have to go back to his time at Groton. FDR was raised in splendid isolation at the family home in Hyde Park. He only left the house to attend boarding school when he was 14, and at that time his father was a pretty old man. Sara Delano was James Roosevelt’s second wife, and he was old enough to be her father—old enough to be Franklin’s grandfather. He was frail, and sickly, and far removed from his son. So when FDR arrived at Groton, Peabody assumed a paternal role and became a new father figure.
Peabody was also very devoted to Social Gospel thinking. He brought a steady stream of Social Gospel figures to the school to deliver lectures, and the boys were sent out to do social mission work—often in the rough neighborhoods of Boston. I think FDR very clearly absorbed the principles of the Social Gospel and quickly became acclimated to the lifestyle associated with it. The movement sort of burned out following World War I in the prosperity decade of the 1920s, but I think Roosevelt revived and incorporated it into political and social policy during his presidency. Much of the New Deal legislation is very clearly indebted to Social Gospel ideas.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.