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Why the Doctrine of Total Depravity

volume 21, number 45, November 10, 2022

“Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921) was reared in a Presbyterian home. Wilson was five years old when the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America met at First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia in December, 1861 where his father served as pastor. Wilson grew up with the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and no doubt as a child had memorized Question and Answer 18 of the Shorter Catechism:

Q. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

He would also have known very well from Larger Catechism Q and A 25 that the corruption of man’s nature makes man utterly indisposed, disabled, and made the very opposite of all that is spiritually good, and that man is wholly inclined to all evil continually every moment of his life and that all of man’s sin flows from Original Sin.

There was, however, a major disconnect between President Wilson’s spiritual and political life. I will have more to say next week concerning the philosophical and theological reasons for this disconnect, but for now we should realize his horrific error of practically denying the doctrine of man’s total depravity. By total depravity we mean the Bible, as noted in Genesis 6:5, teaches that everything man does in his unregenerate state is always evil continually. Scripture teaches that man is born a wretched sinner with a corrupt, cobra heart that loves sin and hates God (Ps.58). He is dead in his sins, is under the control of the devil, lives according to the world, devises his own brand of sinning, is under the wrath of God, hates God, cannot do any good whatsoever, and has a mind utterly corrupted and marred by original sin which makes it impossible for him to understand the truth of God’s revelation in the Bible (Eph.2:1-3, Rom.8:5-8, 1 Cor.2:14). Therefore, the only remedy for man is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit who takes out the heart of stone which loves sin and hates God, exterminating it on the cross of Jesus, and through Christ’s resurrection gives man a new heart which loves God and hates sin. The effects of original sin still plague the regenerate, justified sinner but he does make progress in holiness and the dominion of sin has been broken and lessened as the “wretched saint” avails himself the public (preaching and public worship) and private (personal Bible reading and prayer) means of grace which the Holy Spirit uses to make us more and more like Jesus. 

So, how did Wilson’s rejection of the doctrine of total depravity affect his political career? Consider, first of all, his affair with Mary Hulbert Peck from 1907 to 1915. Wilson met Hulbert Peck as he vacationed alone in Bermuda in 1907 while he left his wife at home in New Jersey. Apparently the affair never resulted in actual sexual intercourse but at the very least it was emotional adultery. He wrote Hulbert Peck passionate love letters while writing similar letters to his wife, who died, by the way in 1915. 
Secondly, consider his racist policies. At the time of his Presidency ten percent of Federal workers in Washington D.C. were black. The early 1900’s was the height of Jim Crow and lynchings and there was a great deal of tension between whites and blacks, both in the south and the north. So to appease white voters, President Wilson gave permission for his cabinet to segregate their departments. The policy, however went further than merely segregating black and white government workers. It also prevented the advancement of black people to higher positions in the federal government. Furthermore, President Wilson showed in the White House the movie Birth of a Nation which was a decidedly pro Ku Klux Klan movie. When word surfaced of his speaking highly of the film he refused to back down from his glowing words for it. 

And thirdly, consider his naiveté concerning his involvement in World War I. His progressive world view as a political liberal caused him to secularize religion and baptize his foreign policy with Christian terms while changing the meaning of those words. The church, in his view, dealt with private, spiritual matters while government public policy became the savior of the world. His conservative, Biblical, and Protestant upbringing told him that the mission of the church is to preach the gospel, to see people saved, and build the kingdom of God through discipling the nations. The Presbyterian Church of the United States (the southern church) had an illustrious history of world missions, being the catalyst in the late 19th century for the planting of Presbyterian churches in Brazil and Korea in particular. Wilson’s theological liberalism, however, a form of “messianism”, caused him to believe that “Christian” nations are to export the righteousness of democracy, that American democracy could actually fulfill God’s purposes on earth. As Russ Douthat has noted, “Instead of trying to make all nations Christian” (through the preaching of the gospel) “it hopes to make them all American—and looks for the day when, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, ‘the nations of the world recognize that our Stars and Stripes are the flag, not only of America, but of humanity.’”[1] Wilson often spoke of the sacred blood our soldiers shed so that the world could be safe for democracy. He believed America was to Christianize the world, meaning we are to engage in public policy which brings democracy to the world. This is precisely what George W. Bush was trying to do in “exporting democracy” to Iraq.

At the beginning of World War I, President Wilson took a neutral view of the conflict in Europe. He could see both sides. As the war progressed, however, especially as the Germans stepped up their policy of sinking American ships bringing war materiel to the Allied forces in Europe, Wilson changed his mind and began exclusively to blame Germany for the war, referring to them as the evil nation, that they had to be utterly defeated and humiliated so that justice could be done. This led, of course, to the Treaty of Versailles which stripped Germany of her dignity and wealth, serving as the catalyst for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power less than twenty years later. 

Wilson’s liberal, messianic view of America caused him to believe that World War I was the war to end all wars and that the League of Nations would be the tool by which peace would come to the world. His was a secular, eschatological, messianic vision built on the goodness of man rather than the power of Christ to overcome man’s total depravity by the preaching of His glorious gospel. Wilson died a broken, disillusioned, and angry man. If only he had applied what he knew from childhood, “the wickedness of man is great on the earth, and every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually.”___________________________________

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Russ Douthat, page 255.


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