ELEANOR: A Spiritual Biography. By Harold Ivan Smith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xi + 239 pages.
Eleanor Roosevelt not only was the longest serving First Lady, but perhaps except for Hillary Clinton, she is surely the most influential First Lady in American History. That she was influential in the political/social realm is not surprising, but that she was a deeply spiritual person, who was committed to the Christian faith as a life-long Episcopalian, and that this faith influenced her social vision, might be surprising. I know that, while I had some sense of her importance as a political figure, not only during her tenure in the White House, but as a delegate to the United Nations, I did not know the extent of her faith. Her faith, her religion, was broad, liberal, and committed to justice. She was a friend of H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. She understands James’ declaration that faith without works is dead, as well as Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with one's God stood at the heart of the Christian faith.
I must confess that I’ve not ready any of the many biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, but when I received the review copy of this biography, written by Harold Ivan Smith, I had to read it. After all, I had read the spiritual biography of Jackie Robinson, in the same series, and loved it. As with the Robinson biography, the author focuses on the connection faith to life. There are likely other more detailed and comprehensive biographies of Roosevelt, but Harold Smith, who is not a historian or a biographer by trade, gives us a readable, thoughtful introduction to her life that puts faith front and center. His specialty is spirituality, and that shows up regularly in the book. He’s attentive to the intricacies of the spiritual life that others might not pick up. In the end, we encounter a person of deep faith who is committed to justice and peace in the world. Though she hailed from a wealthy and politically connected family (Teddy Roosevelt was her paternal uncle), her life experiences led her to places most people of her stature would not venture into. Thus, she developed a keen sense of compassion for those on the margins. As Smith suggests: "Eleanor's spirituality was not an abstract notion but a reality explored, lived, and celebrated. To her, all human beings, all, are the beloved children of God" (p. 5). That contributed to political instincts, that were much more progressive than even her husbands.
Smith begins the biography with a chapter that paraphrases the title of an article that she wrote in 1932 for the magazine "Forum." It was titled "What Religion Means to Me." Her definition is revealing: "It means that belief and that faith in the heart of a man which makes him try to live his life according to the highest standard which he is able to visualize. To those of us who were brought up as Christians that standard is the life of Christ" (p. 8). In other words, she embraced orthopraxis over orthodoxy. During her lifetime, she was very open her open about her faith, even though her understanding of the Christian faith led to criticism from more conservative Christians who often questioned whether she was a Christian. On the other hand, she was not shy about challenging people who claimed to be Christians, but who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments or were racist. Thus, unlike FDR, who built a coalition of northern liberals and southern segregationists, she could not overlook the racism of his coalition partners. While she emphasized orthopraxis, she could without problem affirm the creeds she learned as a child, growing up in the Episcopal Church of her family. She not only knew the creeds, but the Bible as well, having memorized the New Testament in French as a child.
The chapter detailing her horrific childhood will be difficult to read. Not only was her childhood marred by the early death of her parents, she suffered under the cruelty of a critical mother and narrow-minded and controlling maternal grandmother, who go custody of her after her mother’s death. What is amazing is that despite the narrowness of her grandmother’s fundamentalist version of the Episcopal faith, she developed a deep love for the Bible and for prayer. I was amazed to learn that she kept a Book of Common Prayer close by, throughout her life, but also memorized the New Testament in French. So, she knew her Bible, probably better than most of her critics. Things got better during adolescence, but that was due to spending time at the Allenswood School in England, which was led by Mlle. Marie Souvestre, a progressive educator, who recognized both the scars inflicted on her by family, and her potential to be more than had been instilled in her. There, she got to travel and grow into a thoughtful young woman. While Souvestre was an atheist she didn't douse her faith, but instead challenged her to examine her faith. That faith blossomed as she examined it.
There is a chronological progression in the book, but the chapters also focus on specific topics, beginning with the development of her own progressive form of Episcopal theology. Her faith was ecumenical. She read scripture, and sought to interpret it contextually, recognizing the value of science as a conversation partner. She understood that one could find great comfort guidance in Scripture, but also defend racism and discrimination with its words. She looked to prayer to strengthen her in life, especially as she faced innumerable challenges, including an unfaithful husband.
Yes, we learn about FDR's affairs, and the effect they had on their marriage. They remained married, in part because of a recognition that in that day divorce had devastating implications. Then, there was his polio. In the end, they made a truce of sorts, that gave her permission to follow her heart where it led, and that often led to advocacy on behalf of those on the margins. She got pulled into politics, not because she pursued it, but because she became FDR's stand-in. She also was very effective as a political spokesperson, working not only for her husband but others, including Al Smith. We also learn that she was not excited at all about FDR’s political ascendency, including becoming First Lady, which she feared would imprison her. Prior to Eleanor, most First Ladies stayed in the background, hosting teas and such. But that wasn't Eleanor. Though a reluctant First Lady, she discovered a way of using that position to benefit others. She traveled widely, engaging those who were struggling with the realities of life. She got to see first-hand what FDR could only learn about through the stories of others. As First Lady she began two columns, one was a syndicated newspaper column called "My Day," which she used to speak to the issues of the day, and did so almost to the time of her death in 1962. share her progressive faith. The other column was published in the Ladies Home Journal and was titled "If You Ask Me." For that column, she invited her readers, mostly women, to write to her, to ask questions and offer advice. In both of these she shared her faith, while drawing from their responses to push FDR and other administration members to act justly. We learn in the book that many of FDR’s staff and allies were annoyed (to put it mildly), wish that she would become a typical First Lady.
Two of the most powerful chapters speak to her involvement in advocating for Jewish Refugees, both before and during World War II. Though she struggled with her own antisemitism, ingrained in her by her cultural context, she became a strong advocate for refugees, often causing great discomfort on the part of administration leaders, many of whom were virulently anti-Semitic. She confronted this antisemitism, serving as voice to those who could not give voice to their concerns. This is a heartbreaking story, but we see in it a powerful sense of justice emerging in her. Both guilt at feeling she didn't do enough, and due to relationships, she became a strong advocate for a Jewish State, and after appointment by Harry Truman, as a delegate to the UN, she committed herself to human rights. She was horrified by what she found in refugee camps, which essentially continued the Nazi practice of concentration camps—placing Jewish survivors in prison-like conditions. This influenced her strong commitment to the creation of the state of Israel.
She was also a strong advocate for Civil Rights, as seen in her support for the Tuskegee Airmen, that included going up with an African American pilot, to send the message of support to detractors. She was an early and outspoken advocate of ending segregation (and the use of the Bible to defend it). She gave her support to the NAACP and other Civil Rights leaders, eventually becoming a friend of Martin Luther King. So, while FDR was willing to overlook the segregationist views of some of his partners, she wasn't. As with the chapter on Jewish refugees and anti-Semitism, we discover her passion for justice. She was well ahead of most of her peers in this.
There is a chapter on her views of religious diversity, which again was rooted in a sense of justice. While, she wasn't opposed to Bible reading and prayer in school (remember she was active before the Supreme Court ruling on school prayer), she also demanded respect for all faith traditions. It was her sense that the United States was a Christian country that she spoke out so vigorously against people like Joseph McCarthy, pointing out that Jesus wasn't a capitalist. She wrote in her "My Day" column in 1953, "I seem to remember in a book that many of us revere . . . a story about the young man who asked the Master how he could be saved and that the answer was 'Give all your worldly goods to the poor.' Is that story looked on as Communist today?" (p. 167).
Eleanor Roosevelt was just as active after her White House tenure as she was during that period. She remained active in politics and social justice efforts to the end, even when illness sapped her strength. She could not slow down, despite efforts to convince her otherwise. Life after FDR carried with it a sense of freedom she didn’t have before. Rarely before his death had she the opportunity to be fully her own person. No longer in the President's shadow, she became a powerful force, for good. Again, standing at the center of this life of service, was a strong faith.
Smith does a very good job telling an important story. Again, there are other biographies, and I don’t know how this one compares, but the fact that it centers on faith is important. In the closing chapter, which focuses on her legacy, he asks the question of whether she was a saint. He notes that she wouldn't have wanted that designation for herself, but none other than H. Richard Niebuhr, applied that title to her. I don't know whether it fits completely, but in reading this I have discovered a person to admire, a person to emulate. She was not afraid to speak her mind. Although she had the blessings of wealth, she put herself in a position to truly know the concerns of those who often were ignored by people of her station. We can thank the author for telling her story, and to WJK Press for bringing it to print.