Library Life at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster PA
News flash: US President lashes out at newspaper editor!
The description of our windows in our own church literature characterizes Wilson as the “favorite” of our founder Mr Garvin, and certainly no other window in the church generated as much newspaper publicity when it was dedicated. Some in the congregation, and even an occasional visitor, however, have expressed distaste for having President Wilson honored in this way. Whatever other issues arise, certainly Wilson’s immediate proximity to Lincoln is jarring, because his presidency (1913-1921) saw the reimposition of segregation in departments of the federal government that had previously desegregated. The situation was unlikely to have been unknown to Mr Garvin, since the Unitarians of the “Middle States and Canada” issued a joint resolution condemning it (The Guardian, Boston, November 15, 1913). Moreover, Wilson’s campaign for the presidency had appealed to the African American community for its vote on the basis of Wilson’s “Christian” commitment to a “new freedom for all people” (Barry Hankins, Woodrow Wilson. Ruling Elder, Spiritual President. Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 124-29), and Mr Garvin, active in Democratic party politics in Lancaster, was unlikely not to have been aware of the candidate’s campaign promise. He will also have been fully aware of what sort of Christianity President Wilson espoused, namely Presbyterian, a denomination that had been split in the lead-up to the Civil War and remained so long afterward. Wilson, a southerner by birth and the son of a Presbyterian minister, experienced some of the stresses within Presbyterian Christianity first-hand, and he had become president of Princeton University partly because his immediate predecessor had embarrassed himself, Wilson, and much of the rest of the faculty when, after Wilson had invited a prominent historian to join the faculty, the president refused to appoint him because the invitee was a Unitarian. Wilson’s own view of Christianity seems to have been that it was a personal matter, an opinion reinforced when universities controlled by churches were threatened with loss of funds; he apparently also had no intention of allowing his own Christian commitments to have much to do with his decisions about the segregation of federal agencies. He also seems not to have been able to grasp the idea that segregation was discriminatory, an issue that was argued at length in discussions Wilson had with William Monroe Trotter, the prominent black civil rights activist, political leader, and editor of the Boston Guardian, who came to the White House with a delegation to support desegregation. As the controversy continued to rage throughout 1913-1914, however, Wilson’s interest in the issue became subordinated to his overriding concern for keeping the United States out of the impending European war, and Wilson cut off even the possibility of further discussion with Trotter after Trotter expressed the disappointment of the African American community, who had up to then seen in Wilson a “second Abraham Lincoln”. Wilson’s furious response on that occasion was, in Wilson’s own words, a response to Trotter’s “tone”, absence of “Christian spirit”, and his alleged political “blackmail” (Hankins, 131). Wilson declared himself ready to discuss the issues Trotter presented with the other members of Trotter’s delegation, because they, unlike Trotter, comported themselves more in the way that this white southern Christian gentleman then President of the United States deemed appropriate.
So: Wilson was no “second Abraham Lincoln” and even said, in response to that idea: “Leave me out!” Why was he not left out, then, of the Presidents’ Window of our church? We cannot see into Mr Garvin’s mind, of course, especially since the records he retained about church business were carefully curated to remove anything too personal. Yet we may look to the program of the church decorations to see a possible explanation. To be continued …