Pam Glass, an editor at Christian Book Previews, spoke with Jane Hampton Cook about her latest book, The Faith of America’s First Ladies.
CBP: What prompted you to write this book?
Jane: Well, when I left the White House, I was part of the White House staff for two years, I learned that one of the ground rules is that you are to “do no harm” for the President. When I left to do some writing, I re-read Proverbs 31, and verse 12 says “She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.” And I thought about that idea of doing no harm and realized that the First Lady of the United States really is the one challenged to “do no harm.” And so that gave me the idea to do a book based on Proverbs 31 using stories from the lives of First Ladies.
CBP: Just bouncing off of that, and maybe you don’t want to talk about this, have there been First Ladies who have caused great harm for their husbands?
Jane: Well, I don’t know about great harm. I focused on the positive as much as possible in the book. But certainly, we’re all human and we all make mistakes. And there are many First Ladies who would say, “You know, I wish I had done some things a little differently in that role.”
CBP: So more along the lines of a faux pas rather than really doing harm?
Jane: I think so.
CBP: Do you think the American people are forgiving of those things?
Jane: I think so. But I think people tend to label First Ladies by some of their mistakes.
CBP: What did you learn personally from writing this book?
Jane: Well, I’m a pretty intense, high-charger type of person. And I have really come to appreciate the verse in Proverbs 31 where it says, “She can laugh at the days to come.” I think if I’ve learned anything I’ve learned that with my value coming from God in Christ that I can laugh at the days to come much more easily. And I think that’s what I’ve really gained from the book.
CBP: Some of the anecdotes about the First Ladies and their virtues seem to be unrelated from any true personal biblical basis, rather than just the social climate of the day. There was a certain expectation of women in their position to behave a certain way, and especially in New England, to talk of "Providence" was very much a part of their Puritan heritage and culture, maybe more so than a sign of personal faith. Do you think that’s true?
Jane: I think the term “Providence” was used much more reverently than what we seem to think. I think it was very much a way of fearing the Lord. You read through George Washington’s writings, and when he talks about Providence, it is in a very respectful, fearful way. And I think we do have a much more personal approach to God today, but I don’t think you should confuse Providence and that tone with a lack of true personal faith. Because I think it was their way of expressing their personal faith, I think that was how they expressed it.
I know that historians have found Martha Washington’s prayer book and one of her nephews wrote in there that she used that prayer book every day, and she set aside an hour every morning for personal prayer and devotion time, and she often invited her niece in for that time. So that was very much a private, “you don’t disturb Martha during this time period.” And I think it may have even been between ten and eleven in the morning; it was a set time period.
Another example, too, is during the Continental Convention they took a vote on whether they should bring in a minister to lead prayer. And there was a little debate you know, should it be an Episcopalian, or an Anabaptist, and they finally agreed that they could hear the prayer of a righteous man no matter what denomination he was. But he came in and he prayed, and he used whatever Scripture was in the daily prayer book that day. And it was Psalm 35, which talked about “the great assembly” and “facing the lion.” And the lion was a symbol for England. And John Adams was just amazed at how perfect the timing was to read Psalm 35 that day during the Continental Congress, and he wrote Abigail and he said, “You have to read Psalm 35!”
CBP: Were there any surprises for you writing this book?
Jane: Certainly, many of the stories I came across surprised me at how well they fit Proverbs 31. I would read about a First Lady and kind of zero in on a story that I thought really fit a particular verse. And so I think there were some fun surprises as an author, that when you come across something you just have to get it down.
One of the stories that I really love in the book is about Harriet Lane who was the niece of James Buchanan. She was known for being a very beautiful woman, very gracious. And there’s a story about a reporter who comes to the White House, eager to meet the President. And then all he hears is people talking about Harriet Lane, so then he wants to meet Harriet. And he meets Harriet, and he is so awed by her beauty, and it’s so simple, not as frilly as some of the other women, that he goes back and writes one paragraph about James Buchanan and then a paragraph five times as long about Harriet Lane. And that showed me, in researching Harriet Lane, that her uncle, James Buchanan raised her and he really focused on her heart and talked over and over about her governing her heart and focusing in on that inner beauty. And I think that’s a great illustration of what it means to be “clothed in strength and dignity” from Proverbs 31, and also took care of the outer appearance, which is wearing “fine linen and purple.”
CBP: What or who have been some influences on your writing?
Jane: I would say David McCullough. I read in a magazine recently where he is now being called “the nation’s historian.” I think that his ability to make history interesting for today’s reader is something that has definitely influenced me.
CBP: How do you see this book influencing others?
Jane: Well, I would like to see the main message of the book resonate with readers, which is that we are all First Ladies, and First Gentlemen if you will, to God; that our value is in Christ. I also think, on a secondary note, just for people to see that we do have a strong faith heritage in our history as a nation. And just to be inspired by some fascinating stories of some really great people who paved the way before us in our history.
CBP: What are you working on next?
Jane: I’m working on a book called Devotional Revelations From the Revolution. It is devotional book, but it is going to be based on stories from the Revolutionary War. So I am immersing myself in Revolutionary War history.