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The book I recently completed on the religion of Franklin Roosevelt is coming out soon, and the publisher wants some blog posts to promote it. Here’s one, reflecting on “Five Key Turning Points in Roosevelt’s Spiritual Life.”

That theme sort of cuts against the grain because FDR’s faith emphasized continuity, stability, and steadfast persistence rather than the dramatic events and radical reversals familiar from evangelicalism. (See the latest offer of a “Life-Changing Experience for the Kids in Your Congregation THIS SUMMER!!!” from a short-term missions vendor near you.) We might better locate “markers” than “turning points” along FDR’s religious path; yet some of these do stand out as real milestones.

To back up a minute for the big picture. Roosevelt was a loyal birthright Episcopalian, low-church in liturgy, undemanding in theology, but vigorous in the social ethics of the Gospel. Start to finish, he believed that the universe was in the hands of a good God who has instituted a moral order for human flourishing, and who calls us to advance that order and flourishing as we are able. His was a “very simple faith,” his wife Eleanor observed; yet his confidant and speechwriter Robert Sherwood judged that “his religious faith was the strongest and most mysterious force in him.”

So what were some decisive moments in this life, spiritually speaking?

1. The first occurred before Roosevelt’s birth, in his parents’ decision to exchange their native denominations for the Episcopal Church. For father James, this entailed leaving the Roosevelts’ ancestral Dutch Reformed affiliation; for mother Sara Delano, it involved a move from Unitarian circles descended from New England Congregationalism. Both those strands had a pronounced social vision—for grandfather Isaac Roosevelt, that of the Second Great Awakening’s package of revival and social reform; on the Delano side, the Puritan dream of a holy commonwealth. The Episcopal Church of FDR’s youth had its own contribution along this line: to set amidst the raw materialism of the Gilded Age, which had made many of its members rich, a higher calling of beauty and social justice. James Roosevelt translated this mandate into community benevolence, especially long and faithful leadership at St. James’ Church in Hyde Park. Sara focused on instilling into her cherished son the primal faith that went into his unshakeable confidence and sense of destiny under the canopy of divine providence.

2. Having been tutored at home into his teens, Franklin was sent to Groton for high school. There he encountered its inimitable headmaster Endicott Peabody, the leading promoter of the prep school as a distinctive Episcopalian outreach to the rising ruling class. Peabody wanted to instill in them a sense that great privilege entails great responsibility, that the true measure of our lives is not the scope of our wealth but what we do with it. Peabody brought to Groton a steady stream of social-gospel preachers and practitioners. He also embodied the “muscular Christianity” of the age and became something of a surrogate father to the young Franklin, as James Roosevelt was old enough to be his grandfather. Peabody remained a life-long friend and counselor to the president, leading the pre-inaugural prayer service that FDR innovated in 1933 and repeated annually thereafter. The president ever remained on the headmaster’s mind; in fact, Peabody’s last words, in 1944, were: “You know there’s no doubt but that Roosevelt is a very religious man.”

3. Undoubtedly, the key turning point in Roosevelt’s life—also in his spiritual life—came when he was paralyzed by polio (some now say Guillain–Barré syndrome) at age 39. Up to this point everything in life had come so easily for him that he struck many as just a glib son of privilege. His paralysis cast him into deep darkness, and upon his deepest resources. Roosevelt emerged with a more tested faith, with a greater sense of dependence on others, and with a greater sense of gratitude and empathy. He invested much of his personal fortune into making Warm Springs, Georgia the site of a premier facility for the treatment of paralysis, emphasizing the emotional and human-relational as well as physical aspects of the process. He roved the Georgia countryside in a customized automobile and got to know poor dirt farmers as he never would have otherwise. Put simply, his disease turned FDR into a mensch of ready compassion which his political genius could then turn into public policy.

4. Roosevelt did not parade his devotional life but did steadily observe it, particularly bedtime reading from the Book of Common Prayer. This was part of his even-keel, steady-state personality and practice. At key moments he could get confessional, however. On the night he was first elected president, in November 1932, he told his startled son James, who was putting him to bed, that he was afraid. “Afraid of what, Pa?” James asked. “I’m just afraid I may not have the strength to do this job. After you leave me tonight, Jimmy, I am going to pray. I am going to pray that God will help me, that he will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and to do it right. I hope you will pray for me too, Jimmy.”

5. One last episode might represent less a turning point than a ready curiosity even in advanced age. On February 19, 1944, the young assistant pastor of St. John’s Church, across Lafayette Square, was invited to dinner at the White House—and wound up giving the president and first lady a seminar on Søren Kierkegaard. Howard A. Johnson had previously served as research assistant to Walter Lowrie, the Princeton theologian who really introduced Kierkegaard to an American audience. Roosevelt, for his part, was trying to fathom the depths of evil that could make someone like Adolph Hitler possible, and popular. Johnson reminded the theologically sheltered Roosevelt (Eleanor, from childhood experience and adult social activism, didn’t need this lesson) of the Christian doctrines of original sin and collective depravity. The lesson seemed to take, as the theologically astute Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, noted after a subsequent meeting in the Oval Office. She had come ready to talk policy; FDR kept on commending Kierkegaard. Perhaps Perkins—herself, along with Eleanor, a major influence on FDR’s social ethics—took it up with Mother Superior the next time she went on retreat at her Anglo-Catholic convent.

Religion comes in many shapes and sizes. Perhaps we can best judge its quality exactly as Jesus prescribed: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

4 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    How come I’m crying over this?

  • Thanks, I learned a lot about Roosevelt by reading this and will look forward to reading your book.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    FDR had in his keeping the manuscript testimony-of-faith of his great-great grandfather Isaac, an elder in the Reformed Dutch Church of New York City. I have held it in my hands in Hyde Park.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, James, for an interesting article on FDR. Several of our founding fathers were deists, which sounds like a possibility for Roosevelt, as well. I think many Christians will be surprised by whom they will see in heaven.

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