Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography— A Review

Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography

The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman — A Review

by Harold Ivan Smith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

I enjoy pondering on an author’s dedication. Some can open a window on any number of emotions experienced by the author at the conclusion of a completed text. Others can be coded messages to those closest to the writer, they can also be witty, they raise questions for the reader about the context of names and places, and they can often set the tone for the forthcoming read. The dedication written by Harold Ivan Smith author of Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography, The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman, [Eleanor Roosevelt]  sets the tone of this biography for me, at a number of levels. He thanked ‘the Archivist ‘par excellence’ for his ‘sage advice’ to set himself the task of exploring ‘the spirituality of Eleanor’ Roosevelt. Archivists are aware of potential areas of their collections that are under researched. That ‘moment of indecision’, which many writers experience, myself included, meant he was advised to, “Write the Book!” and another wise counsel with a head full of stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped him ‘clear hurdles throughout the entire [writing] process’.

Harold Smith sets the perimeter of his focus from the outset. ‘Eleanor’s faith was personal but never private’, he writes. She never hesitated to share in her conversations, writings, speeches and activities, her ‘reading of scripture, the examples of Jesus, her own prayers and the divine call to work for a more just and peaceful world.’ By opening with ‘What Religion Means to me’, an article Eleanor wrote in 1932, in the magazine Forum, Smith conveys Eleanor’s faith as central to her role as First Lady during her years in the White House and those that followed until her death in 1962. Spirituality, to Eleanor, was ‘that feeling of having something outside of one’s self and greater than one’s self to depend on.’ An Episcopalian, her evolving ecumenical spirit meant for her that ‘all people are one in Christ’. This resulted in a broad and liberal faith in which social justice was an imperative, especially for those most vulnerable. She held a deep love for the Bible and learned off by heart the New Testament, in French. This held her in good steed when challenged and criticised by the conservative Christian community. Framed on her bedroom wall were the words ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace’; words she also carried on her person. These words became her prayer for action evidenced in all her activities.

Growing up in such a diverse and gathered population as found in the United States, it is difficult to escape the biases and prejudices that can evolve and become rooted in a culture. Eleanor was confronted by many of these in her comfortable and elite environment. Anti-Semitism that surrounded her during her growing up, both within her family and American society at large caused her some angst as she reached adulthood; Jews were viewed as too powerful, too financially and politically influential and were ‘a menace to America’. Despite her latent bias Eleanor, guided by her belief in the God-given worth of peoples regardless of creed or race, stepped out to do all she could for the persecuted Jews of WWII. This is one of the most poignant yet chilling chapters in the biography and is a reminder of how continuing prejudices that emerge as a result of the social affects of modern warfare become deeply rooted in society. Her tireless efforts for rehabilitation of the Jews led to an appointment to the United Nation Delegation on Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Concerns Committee where, as Convener, the same determination saw the Declaration on Human Rights be put in place and her commitment to the creation of a Jewish homeland – Israel. Her greatest regret at the end of her life, one she could not be dissuaded from, was that she should have done far more.

Although Eleanor was heavily criticised and judged for her Jewish stance, so she was on her advocacy for Civil Rights and the ending of segregation. Her unyielding opposition and outspokenness to segregation made her extremely unpopular, particularly in the South. She was much maligned by harsh and often brutal criticism. It distressed her that the Bible could be used in two such opposing points of view, but she did not waiver from her firmly held belief that there was one fundamental law –  to love one another and to care for the ‘least of these’.

Eleanor regularly reminded her readers in the post-World War II era of unrest, that America, as a Christian country did not mean exclusion. ‘Differences in religious belief are inherent in the spirit of true democracy’, she wrote. ‘One’s Christianity and one’s democracy should lead to greater tolerance.’ Her support of the ecumenical activities brought to Americans attention the significance of accepting a diversity of religious practices. ‘I think I believe that the Lord looks upon all His children with compassion and allows them to approach Him in many ways’.

Eleanor, a Spiritual Biography is an insightful exploration of the faith journey of an extraordinary woman who lived through a dysfunctional childhood, a challenging marriage, a political role she did not desire, economic and political upheavals, and shifting societal turbulence. Often the religious motivation that supports a person’s activism is glossed over or taken for granted. Harold Smith however, has gone to considerable effort to draw together Eleanor Roosevelt’s beliefs and Biblical understandings in relation to her activism and American culture during her life time as she perceived it. Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography is a well researched and enlightening read.