Anna "Eleanor" Roosevelt1, reformer, diplomat, humanitarian, was born in New York City in 1884, the first child of Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt, and the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She attended school in England; upon her return home at age seventeen she became involved in settlement work and the National Consumer's League. Biographers have linked her later activism with this early involvement in social reform.
During the early years of her marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt raised five children and supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt's political career. After 1921, on the advice of her husband's physician, she began to take an active interest in national and international affairs in order to renew his interest in politics. During her husband's presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt was an advocate for a wide range of New Deal and reform causes, including child welfare, equal rights, and labor. She was an indefatigable traveler, a popular speaker, and wrote a syndicated newspaper column. During World War II she toured military bases throughout the United States, Great Britain, and the South Pacific.
After her husband's death, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed by President Harry Truman as a delegate to the United Nations, where she was chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She played an integral role in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. She was baptized in Calvary Episcopal Church, Gramercy Park, New York City, near the home of Theodore Roosevelt. After she returned from school in England, she was confirmed at the Church of the Incarnation, also in Manhattan in 1903. Her marriage in 1905 to her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was recorded in the parish register, though the actual event took place at a cousin's home on East Sixty-Seventh Street. During the early years of their marriage, the Roosevelts attended the Church of the Incarnation, as well as St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, New York. Eleanor Roosevelt maintained an association with St. James Episcopal Church for the rest of her life.2
After Franklin Delano Roosevelt was appointed assistant secretary of the navy in 1913, Eleanor Roosevelt moved with her husband to Washington, D.C., where the family attended St. Thomas Church, and where the children attended Sunday School. The Roosevelts maintained their ties with the parish during his presidency, 1933-1945, though the president preferred holding services at the White House. After leaving Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt set up her primary residence in Hyde Park, and continued at the parish there until the final weeks of her life. Eleanor Roosevelt did not like attending church on her own, and often attended with her grandchildren, relatives, or even visiting dignitaries, such as Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.3
Eleanor Roosevelt was not one to dwell on theological abstractions or debate doctrine. Instead, she enacted her faith through relationships and causes. Eleanor Roosevelt's spiritual formation throughout childhood was nurtured through worship, Sunday school, family prayer, and bible reading. Eleanor Roosevelt's early religious faith conformed to conventional patterns. However, her mature faith reflected her belief in the inter-relatedness of all humankind and the importance of service to the global community.4 While remaining a Christian, she developed an interfaith perspective through her work and travels. "The vital thing which must be alive in each human consciousness is the religious teaching that we cannot live for ourselves alone, and that as long as we are here on this earth we are all of us brother, regardless of race, creed, or color," said Eleanor Roosevelt.5
1. There are many biographical sources for Eleanor Roosevelt. For an overview, see Eleanor Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000; rpt. 1961); and Blanche Weisen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt. 2 Vols. (New York: Penguin, 1998, 2000).
2. Maurine Beasely, et al., The Eleanor Roosevelt Encylopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001): 435.
3. Beasely, 436.
4. Beasely, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encylopedia, 437-440.
5. Quoted in Beasley, 436-37.