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Abraham Lincoln and the Christian Faith

Abraham Lincoln was never a member of any church, but he was raised in the Baptist religion, was married by an Episcopal minister, and attended worship services at two Presbyterian churches - none of which proves that he either was or was not a Christian. Just as church membership is no guarantee that a person is a Christian, the lack thereof is no proof that he is not.

 

There survive today the testimonies of those who knew Lincoln as a fellow skeptic and those who knew him as a man of faith.  The skeptics knew him in early life, but evidence abounds which raises more than reasonable doubt that he went to his grave either a skeptic, an atheist, or an infidel.  In the end, hopefully the reader will be convinced that he in fact surrendered his skepticism to the Christian faith, but a skeptic he undoubtedly once was.  If that prospect is distasteful, hopefully the reader will still exercise the same fair-mindedness as the subject of this article would do and at least give it a hearing.

 

 

All language in this article which appears in italics is the verbatim language, either written or spoken,
used by Lincoln.  Many if not all of these quotations can be found at "The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln" compiled by the Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission and available at www.thelincolnlog.org/view.

  

This article is comprised of the following sections:

 

Lincoln Speaks - The Illinois Years

Lincoln Speaks - The Presidential Years

Herndon Speaks

A Wife's Perspective - Mary Todd Lincoln

Other Witnesses

Conclusion

 

 

Lincoln Speaks

 

The Illinois Years

 

The boy some say mocked a preacher became a man.  He moved to Illinois in 1830 and lived first in New Salem.  There, he came under the influence of new friends who were either agnostics or religious skeptics.  They introduced him to the writings of C. F. Volney and Thomas Paine.  Always eager to learn, he considered and was perhaps persuaded by them, at least for a time.

 

There is even a report of Lincoln acting the infidel, writing an argument that the Bible could not possibly be the inspired Word of God.  This report alleges that he wrote but did not publish an article expounding that very position.  On the other hand, there is also a report of him giving a public lecture in defense of the Bible.  Neither manuscript exists except in allegation.

 

The manuscript of the first, if it ever existed, allegedly was thrown into a fire by a political mentor who allegedly feared for Lincolnís career.  The manuscript of the second, if it existed, was lost.  Both stories were widely reported after Lincolnís death.  Of the two, the one that portrays Lincoln as an infidel occurred entirely in private, and the one that portrays him as a defender of faith, in public.

 

Who can either prove or disprove the subject or content of a completely private conversation with a person who has since died when no material evidence of it exists?  The teller of such a story is free to say what he pleases without fear of contradiction since there is no one else living who was present at the alleged incident.  By contrast, what pastor would be foolish enough to claim something as significant as a Lincoln lecture happened in a place as public as his own church if it did not?  Such a pastor would be thoroughly discredited in the eyes of his own people.

 

In the face of these and other disputed events stand the words of Lincoln himself.    At one point, Lincoln responded to the charge of being an infidel by saying, I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures.

 

1838

 

One of the earliest of Lincoln's many public statements relating to religion was made on 27 January 1838.  Significantly, it was not made to any church or religious organization, but to the Young Menís Lyceum, a political discourse club in Springfield.  On this occasion, Lincoln quoted Christ and called the Christian Church the only institution greater than freedom. Having laid the foundations for freedom, he compared it to the Church, declaring: Ö as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."  [Quoting Matthew 16:18; emphasis added]1/

 

Would Lincoln declare any institution he believed to be built on myth, lies, or error to be greater than the institution of freedom?  He was described by his contemporaries as "a stranger to deceit, incapable of dissembling ..." (Alexander McClure in "Lincoln and Men of War-Times"), and as "a frank, sincere, well meaning man ..." (Ralph Waldo Emerson's Journal) with "a complete absence of pretension ..." (Edward Dicey in "Spectator of America").

 

It is crucial, however, to correctly understand what is meant by "the Church," as opposed to "a church."  In the passage referenced above, Christ said that He would build his Church and the gates of  hell would not prevail against it.  The Biblical definition of "church" is the "body of Christ," meaning all people everywhere who have come to believe in Christ as the Saviour and thus are part of his "body."  The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, saying, "We, being many, are one body in Christ ..." [Romans:12:5]; and to the believers in Corinth, saying, "Now you are the body of Christ ..." [I Corinthians 12:27].  Comparing these texts with the words of Christ which  Lincoln quoted, one must conclude that the Church to which Lincoln referred was not a particular denomination or local congregation but the entire body of Christ.

 

Less than a year before the Lyceum address, Lincoln had moved to Springfield from New Salem.  Apparently, his New Salem brush with skepticism had laid but shallow roots in his thinking.

 

1842

 

Four years later, Lincoln's close skeptic friend, Joshua Speed, was reconsidering marriage to a woman of faith.  Lincoln wrote to him on 3 February 1842:

 

... I hope and believe, that your present anxiety and distress about her health and her life, must and will forever banish those horid [sic] doubts, which I know you sometimes felt, as to the truth of your affection for her. If they can be once and forever removed, (and I almost feel a presentiment that the Almighty has sent your present affliction expressly for that object) surely, nothing can come in their stead ... Should she, as you fear, be destined to an early grave, it is indeed, a great consolation to know that she is so well prepared to meet it.  Her religion, which you once disliked so much, I will venture you now prize most highly.2/

 

This letter was one of several Lincoln wrote encouraging his skeptic friend about the proposed marriage.  In this letter, he clearly states his view that God governs the affairs of men and his belief that religion prepares one for death.

 

On 13 February, Lincoln wrote again to Speed to encourage him in his upcoming marriage. Remarking that he hoped his letter would find Speed already confident, he added: God grant it may be so.3/  Here, Lincoln repeats his belief in God's governance.  The marriage took place two days after the letter was written.

 

On 4 July, Lincoln wrote to Speed, acknowledging in one place Speed's expression of gratitude for Lincoln having been instrumental in bringing about his happiness as a married man.  Here Lincoln wrote:

 

I believe God made me one of the instruments of bringing your Fanny and you together, which union, I have no doubt He had fore-ordained.  Whatever he designs, he will do for me yet. "Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord" [Exodus 14:13] is my text just now.4/

 

How can one read this letter in particular and continue to doubt Lincoln's faith?  Here, Lincoln goes one step farther than declaring God's governance, by expressing a fundamental doctrine of both the Presbyterian religion and the primitive Baptist church.  That doctrine is predestination, by which is meant and stated that God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass.  Lincoln expresses his confidence in this doctrine in the context of his own hopes for the future, and also claims a particular verse of scripture for his own.

 

During this time, Lincoln's correspondence with Speed was quite extensive.  On 27 March of the same year, he wrote on a variety of subjects, one of which was a woman (possibly his own future wife, Mary Todd) whom he'd made unhappy.  After lamenting the pain he'd caused the woman, he wrote that she had recently spoken of great enjoyment of a trip to Jacksonville, and then expressed his gladness for her new pleasure in life by saying, God be praised for that.5/  Lincoln and Mary Todd were married seven months later, on 4 November 1842.

 

By this time, Lincoln clearly had imbedded in his thinking the view that God exists, is the governor of all things including his own future, and built His Church to be mankind's greatest institution.  Four years later, he would answer the charge that he had once argued against the Bible being true.

 

1846

 

That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.  It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the "Doctrine of Necessity'' -- that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control ... I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations.6/ 

 

Lincoln was correct in saying that several Christian denominations held (and still hold) to this doctrine, more commonly called the "sovereignty of God" or "predestination," and he himself relied on it, at least twice, in terms of God fore-ordaining what comes to pass.

 

1849-50

 

Three years after Lincoln answered the charge of infidelity, Mary's father passed away in Lexington, Kentucky.  In October 1849, Lincoln took her and their sons to Lexington to settle the estate.  Grieved in childhood by the early deaths of his own mother and siblings, and now by the death of his father-in-law, Lincoln was made to think often about mortality, God, and eternity.  In the Todd home library, he picked up a volume which presented an intellectual argument for the Christian faith.  Entitled "The Christianís Defense," its author was Rev. James A. Smith, who six months earlier had  become pastor of Springfieldís First Presbyterian Church.  With a lawyerís mind, Lincoln began to read what he discovered was a legalistic approach to the  defense of Christianity.  The book included addresses and written arguments which Smith had presented in an 1841 debate with infidel C. G. Olmsted.  While affairs prevented Lincoln from finishing the book before returning home, he later expressed an interest in it.  Those who say so admittedly were also relating private conversations, and one may choose to believe them or not.  If not, one need only return to the writings of Lincoln himself, picking up again in 1851.

 

However, Thomas Lewis, an acquaintance of Lincoln and elder at First Presbyterian, wrote: "Not long after Dr. Smith came to Springfield [April 1849], and I think very near the time of his [Lincolnís] sonís death [February 1850], Mr. Lincoln said to me, that when on a visit somewhere, he had seen and partially read a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of  Christianity which had led him to change his views about the Christian religion; that he would like to get that work to finish the reading of it, and also to make the  acquaintance of Dr. Smith.  I was an elder in Dr. Smithís church, and took Dr. Smith to Mr. Lincolnís office and introduced him; and Dr. Smith gave Mr. Lincoln a copy of his book, as I know, at his own request."7 As will later be seen, even Herndon, who claimed that Lincoln had no regard for religion, stated that Lincoln did own Dr. Smith's book.

 

The Honorable Ninian W. Edwards, an Illinois legislator and husband of Mary Todd Lincoln's sister Elizabeth, wrote of Lincoln's interest in Dr. Smith's book:  "A short time after the Rev. Dr. Smith became pastor of the First Presbyterian church in this city, Mr. Lincoln said to me, 'I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of Christianity, and have heard him preach and converse on the subject, and I am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.'"8/

 

Smith himself wrote:  "It is a very easy matter to prove that while I was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Mr. Lincoln did avow his belief in the divine authority and inspiration of the scripture. ... It was my honor to place before Mr. Lincoln arguments designed to prove [them] accompanied by the arguments of Infidel objectors in their own language. To the arguments on both sides Mr. Lincoln gave a most patient, impartial, and searching investigation. To use his own language, he examined the arguments as a lawyer who is anxious to reach the truth investigates testimony.  The result was the announcement by himself that the argument in favor of the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures was unanswerable."9/

 

One question arises here, assuming the testimony of these men is true; that is, exactly what did Lincoln mean by saying Smith's book led him to "change his views about the Christian religion" and that he was "now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion" [emphasis added]?  Did Lincoln mean that he had previously disbelieved the Christian religion entirely and now believed, or that he had come to grips with certain doctrines which had previously troubled him?  Lincoln's letters to Speed, written nearly ten years before his encounter with Smith and Smith's book, argue for the latter.  Indeed, some Lincoln scholars have concluded that: (1) Lincoln at first had only a faith that God exists, is the author of the moral law by which men ought to live, and ordains all that comes to pass, all as described in the Old Testament; and (2) he later came to understand and rely personally on the salvation provided by Christ, as described in the New Testament.  That conclusion may be as close as anyone might come in this life to understanding Lincoln's faith.  Indeed, such a scenario is not far removed from the Christian experience of this author.

 

However, it was not Smithís book alone that moved Lincoln.  Grief visited him again on 1 February 1850, when his young son Eddie died of an illness now considered to have been tuberculosis.  Since the Episcopal priest who had married the Lincolns was traveling, Rev. Smith was asked to conduct a funeral service at the Lincoln home.  Soon, the preacher and the lawyer began a series of lengthy discussions, some of which related directly to matters of faith and some to a number of common experiences.  Both men had lost their mothers at an early age, both had lived in Kentucky and Indiana, both in youth had attended Southern campground meetings, both had become religious skeptics as young men, and both now supported temperance as well as colonization (purchasing slaves and resettling them elsewhere, with Central America being the location preferred by one group of freed slaves).

 

The Lincolns soon began to attend First Presbyterian, even though Mrs. Lincoln's Episcopal background was somewhat at odds with Presbyterian doctrine.  Lincoln, however, having discovered so much in common with the preacher and being always a fair-minded man with a thirst for knowledge, must have given an objective ear to his friendís sermons.  In view of her own doctrinal differences, why would Mrs. Lincoln leave the Episcopal church unless her husband had responded to Rev. Smith and the faith expressed in Presbyterian doctrine?

 

As soon to be evidenced from Lincoln's writings, he about this time had come not only to believe in God and His governance, and to regard His Church, but also to believe in the Christian view of life after death.

 

1851

 

The year was still new when, on 12 January, Lincoln wrote to his stepbrother concerning his fatherís illness and impending death:

 

Dear Brother ... I sincerely hope Father may yet recover his health; but at all events tell him to remember to call upon, and confide in, our great, and good, and merciful Maker; who will not turn away from him in any extremity ... He will not forget the dying man, who puts his trust in Him. ... if it be his lot to go now, he will soon have a joyous [meeting? reunion?] with many loved ones gone before; and where [the rest?] of us, through the help of God, hope ere-long [to join?] them [emphasis added; some words unclear].10/

 

Ten years later, Lincoln again expressed his hope in eternal life, not to a family member but to a Civil War correspondent, Noah Brooks, who was assigned to the White House.

 

1853

 

In the meantime, as long as Lincoln remained in Springfield, his association with First Presbyterian continued. He attended Sunday worship often when he was not on the circuit, and he rendered service or support to the church in several ways.  On 23 January, he attended Smithís temperance lecture; the following day he and thirty-eight others signed a letter to Smith endorsing the lecture and requesting a copy for publication.11/  On 30 August, he spoke at First Presbyterian on the subject of colonization.12/

 

1858-59

 

The next significant event of record pertaining to Lincoln and the Christian religion occurred on 6 April 1858, when Lincoln addressed the Young Menís Association of Bloomington, Illinois on the subject of "Discoveries and Inventions."  Repeatedly in nearly the first half of his lecture, until his subject matter advanced into the post-Biblical era, Lincoln spoke of Biblical events as historical events.  The number of references to Biblical texts total thirty-four.  The progression of thought and repeated use of Biblical dates or events for context make amply clear that he was, in that first section, presenting a serious discourse on the biblical history of discovery and invention.  Note that in the lecture he referred to Christ as "the Saviour" while the particular Biblical passage he was quoting does not use that title:

 

The language of the Saviour "Two women shall be grinding at the mill &c" [Matthew 24:41] indicates that, even in the populous city of Jerusalem, at that day, mills were operated by hand ...13/

 

The Bloomington lecture was well received and was repeated on several occasions.  On 11 February 1859, it was sponsored by the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College.  Perhaps hearing the lecture, or hearing of its content and its success, prompted Rev. Smith to invite Lincoln to speak in defense of the Bible.  Smith later attributed these words to Lincoln's lecture at his church:

 

It seems to me nothing short of infinite wisdom could by any possibility have devised and given to man this excellent and perfect moral code.  It is suited to all men in all the conditions of life, and inculcates all the duties they owe to their Creator, to themselves, and to their fellow men.14/

 

While one may still doubt Lincoln actually gave such a lecture, it is clear that he did in fact revere the Christian Bible, and not only from his many uses of its texts.  Near the end of the Civil War, he was presented a large, handsome Bible by a group of free blacks loyal to the Union; in response, he told his benefactors:

 

In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man.  All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book.  But for it we could not know right from wrong.  All things most desirable for manís welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it [emphasis added].15/

 

And here again is proof that Lincoln not only revered the Bible but believed its teachings on life beyond the grave.

 

The Presidential Years

 

1861

 

In 1861, the Lincoln family took up residence in the White House and began to attend services at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.  While it was long the custom of American Presidents to attend Sunday church services, Lincoln began to go not only on Sunday mornings but also on Wednesday evenings.

 

This small but notable fact is dismissed by some because he did not actually join the Wednesday "circle" but instead sat and listened from the pastorís study.  What those who donít participate in Christian worship do not know is that, across many denominations, Wednesday evening gatherings are typically very small and very intimate with much discussion and prayer.  Perhaps Lincoln, thinking rightly that the presence of the President of the United States might interfere with the intimacy of the circle, chose instead to participate from afar.  Such humility and sensitivity would be very typical of Abraham Lincoln.

 

The pastor of the church, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, became, like Smith before him, a friend of Lincoln.  He and Mrs. Gurley were dinner guests of the Lincolns, and he counseled the President at the White House with some regularity.  He would later testify to the matter of Lincolnís faith.

 

But we have not only the testimony of the pastor for Lincoln's faith during the Presidential years.  We have also the words and deeds of Lincoln himself, in both public and private documents.

 

Four months after the Civil War began, Lincoln put his hand to a proclamation which called the nation to repentance, fasting, and prayer:

 

... it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition for the pardon of their past offenses, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action ...16/

 

1862

 

In 1862, he issued the following Executive Order for the military to keep the Sabbath:

 

The President, Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, desires and enjoins the orderly observance of the Sabbath by the officers and men in the military and naval service.  The importance for man and beast of the prescribed weekly rest, the sacred rights of Christian soldiers and sailors, a becoming deference to the best sentiment of a Christian people, and a due regard for the Divine will, demand that Sunday labor in the Army and Navy be reduced to the measure of strict necessity.  The discipline and character of the national forces should not suffer, nor the cause they defend be imperiled, by the profanation of the day or name of the Most High.  "At this time of public distress" -- adopting the words of Washington in 1776 -- "men may find enough to do in the service of God and their country without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality."  The first General Order issued by the Father of his Country after the Declaration of Independence, indicates the spirit in which our institutions were founded and should ever be defended: "The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country."  ABRAHAM LINCOLN.17/

 

1863

 

On 22 February 1863, responding to an invitation to preside over a meeting of the U.S. Christian Commission, Lincoln expressed his belief in the Supreme Being and described the Christian Sabbath as representing "the highest interests of this life, and of that to come," saying in part:

 

... Whatever shall be  sincerely, and in Godís name, devised for the good of the soldier and seaman, in their  hard spheres of duty, can scarcely fail to be blest.  And, whatever shall tend to turn  our thoughts from the unreasoning, and uncharitable passions, prejudices, and jealousies incident to a great national trouble, such as ours, and to fix them upon the vast  and long-enduring consequences, for weal, or for woe, which are to result from the struggle; and especially, to strengthen our reliance on the Supreme Being, for the final  triumph of the right, can not but be well for us all.  The birth-day of Washington, and the Christian Sabbath, coinciding this year, and suggesting together, the highest interests of this life, and of that to come, is most propitious for the meeting proposed.18/

 

On 15 July, twelve days after the greatest and most critical battle of the Civil War brought victory to the Union, Lincoln called the nation to thanksgiving:

 

... I do set apart Thursday the 6th day of August next, to be observed as a day for National Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer, and I invite the People of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship, and in the forms approved by their own consciences, render the homage due to the Divine Majesty, for the wonderful things he has done in the Nationís behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger, which has produced, and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion, to change the hearts of the insurgents, to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles and sieges, have been brought to suffer in mind, body or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation, through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine Will, back to the perfect enjoyment of Union and fraternal peace.19/

 

The 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, while it calls the people to their customary places of worship ... in the forms approved by their own consciences, in fact uses language peculiar to Christian faiths; that is, invoke the influence of His [God's] Holy Spirit.

 

1864

 

In February 1864, Lincoln sent the following note to the Secretary of War concerning a Congressional Act requiring oaths of allegiance for those who would hold office:

 

On principle I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong.  It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance.  I think it is enough if the man does no wrong hereafter.20/

 

In May, he wrote to Rev. George B. Ide and others to thank them for the support of the Christian community:

 

Ö When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said "As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them" appealed to the christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth.  The devils attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical.  But let me forbear, remembering it is also written "Judge not, lest ye be judged."21/

 

In September, he wrote to Eliza P. Gurney:

 

The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom and our own error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.22/

 

1865

 

If Lincoln ever were to say or do anything for political expediency, or out of mere ambition, pride, or desire for glory, it certainly would have been on the occasion of his second inauguration in March 1865.  For the first time in thirty-two years, an American president had been elected to a second term.  For the first time in the history of the world, a republic had held a free election to choose its government while engaged in a civil war.  And, finally, that republic was now on the verge of victory.

 

What was it the people wanted to hear on this momentous occasion, this cause for elation and exuberance?  If they came to hear Lincolnís thanks to all his supporters, or congratulations to his party, they were disappointed.  If to hear great plans for  regaining national prosperity, they were disappointed.  If boasting, gloating, or some  call to deal the final blow to the wounded rebels, they were mightily disappointed.   What they heard instead was a call to mercy and righteousness.  A portion of that address, including Lincolnís quotes from scripture, are carved into the wall of the Lincoln Memorial:

 

The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray -that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondmanís two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nationís wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.23/

 

Now, consider again one of  Lincolnís skeptic friends, a man who did not make the same assertion as their skeptic comrades.  The man argued neither for nor against Lincoln being a skeptic, but simply related an incident which does argue against.  The same Joshua Speed whom Lincoln had counseled in marriage in 1842 later wrote of an 1864 meeting with Lincoln:  "... I was invited out to the Soldiersí Home to spend the night.  As I entered the room, near night, he was sitting near a window intensely reading his Bible.  Approaching him, I said: 'I am glad to see you profitably engaged.'  'Yes,' said he, 'I am profitably engaged.'  'Well,' said I, 'if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not!'  Looking me in the face, and placing his hand on my shoulder, he said: 'You are wrong, Speed; take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.'"24/

 

Were Speed less honest, he would have been more inclined to keep even this small evidence of Lincoln's faith a secret than to give the public cause to believe his dear friend the President, unlike he, had become a Christian.  Unfortunately, however, he either had forgotten or chose not to recount the several expressions of faith in God that Lincoln had written to him over twenty years before.

 

Herndon Speaks

 

On the other hand, Lincolnís law partner, William Herndon, argued long and vehemently that Lincoln never had any genuine, personal interest at all in matters of religion, and instead lived and died an infidel.  Disbelievers point to Herndon as proof that Lincoln was neither a Christian nor a deist.  However, the fact that Herndonís collection of reminiscences and testimonies contains some truth does not confer upon the whole of it, nor upon his proposition concerning Lincolnís character and view of religion, the words "infallible" or "impeccable."  Herndon apparently was not aware of Lincoln's expressions of faith in letters to Joshua Speed and John Johnston, and he could not know that these letters had been saved and would eventually be made public.  He also apparently did not know of Lincoln's book of Christian devotions.  More to the point, perhaps, two of Herndon's sources on the matter of Lincolnís faith, James H. Matheny and John T. Stuart, later charged that Herndon in fact had misrepresented their testimonies to him.

 

It behooves us then, in order to better judge Herndonís veracity and reliability concerning Lincoln, to also consider Herndon's attitudes about their relationship during their twenty years of working together, and exactly what that relationship was.  As discussed elsewhere, it was entirely professional and less than congenial.  Herndon wrote that he was offended by the behavior of Lincoln's sons in their office,25/ and that both Lincoln himself and his mother before him were bastards.26/  Herndon in fact was directly at odds with Lincoln on more than one account.  One exchange in particular must have offended him greatly.

 

Early in their partnership, Herndon wrote to Lincoln and argued that President Polk, as commander-in-chief, had the right to wage war against Mexico without the authorization of Congress.  On 15 February 1848, Lincoln responded:

 

Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object.  This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.  But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.27/

 

How must Herndon have felt when he read his senior partner's suggestion that he, Herndon, might be in favor of reverting the nation to the tyranny of monarchy from which it had been freed less than a century before?

 

While Lincoln lived, Herndon was never invited to the Lincoln home, either in Springfield or in Washington.  Nor did Herndon visit Lincoln elsewhere, as Lincoln also invited his friends to do.  Their law practice itself, while successful, was of such a nature as to provide additional fertile ground for resentment on Herndon's part.

 

Herndon described their office as "a dull, dry place so far as pleasurable or interesting incidents are concerned."28/  Did he ever resent being responsible for the day-to-day routine and maintenance of that "dull, dry place" when Lincoln rode the circuit, met with clients and witnesses, and experienced life beyond the desk and the dust? or when as a Congressman Lincoln spent many months in the nationís capitol?  When Lincoln was at home and working in the office, the flow of people there was much increased and often created an atmosphere of great comradery.  All of that, however, focused on Lincoln the Indian-fighter, Lincoln the lawyer, Lincoln the politician ... Lincoln the story-teller.  When he was gone again, how quickly did the scene return to one of cheerless drudgery?  Then, when he departed finally for the highest office of the land, and told Herndon to keep the practice going until he returned from the White House, how did Herndon truly feel?  Once Lincoln left Springfield, he related, Herndon never saw him again.29/  He was not even among old friends from Kentucky and Illinois whom the Lincolns invited to the first Christmas dinner they celebrated in the White House.  Lincoln's law partner of twenty years was never afforded the prestige of a visit to the Presidential mansion.

 

The question must be asked, then: Was Herndon's biography of his former partner compiled out of nothing more or less than a genuine concern for the truth Ö or was it, at least in part, out of a degree of masked resentment or jealousy?  Perhaps the nationís overreaction to Lincolnís death, bestowing upon him a kind of sainthood, was for Herndon one reminder too many of how great a man Lincoln was and how much Lincoln had achieved or enjoyed, while he, Herndon, kept the business going and sat in relative obscurity.

 

It is wrong, then, to assume that Herndon's characterizations of Lincoln are reliable.  On one occasion concerning Rev. Smithís book, Herndon in fact revealed a perfect willingness to color the truth.  He wrote that Lincoln "threw [Smithís book] down upon our table - spit upon it as it were - and never opened it to my knowledge."30/  The characterization "spit upon it as it were" [emphasis added] is clearly Smithís interpretation of Lincolnís attitude, and not a statement of fact.  If a statement of fact, where are the words or gestures by which Lincoln demonstrated his disdain for the book?  Did he truly throw the book down, or did he merely drop it on the table?  Was it out of disrespect, or simple carelessness, or exasperation with something else entirely?  Is there any human being who has not, at one time or another, tossed or slapped down whatever object was in hand because of exasperation with the words or deeds of another person?  Does such an action mean that one hates the object one was holding?  In relating the incident in question, unfortunately, Herndon intentionally created the impression that it was the book itself which caused Lincoln's exasperation or weariness or carelessness.  Notice, too, that Herndon did not say Lincoln never took the book home, only that he "never opened it to my knowledge."

 

On another occasion, Herndon wrote: "Smith gave Lincoln a book of his. Lincoln never condescended to write his name in it."31/  Touted by skeptics and atheists as the man who knew Lincoln best, Herndon either chose to ignore the fact that Lincoln rarely wrote his name in books of any kind or did not know Lincoln as well as his reputation suggests.

 

In fact, however, Lincoln did sign his name to an 1852 book of Christian devotions.  "The Believerís Daily Treasure," published in 1852 and bearing the autograph "A. Lincoln" on the front end page, eventually made its way into the hands of a private collector.  In December 1956, a photograph of the signed page was sent to Ralph G. Newman, then owner of The Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago and a recognized expert on Lincoln autographs.  In January 1957, he examined the book itself.  Newman provided his professional opinion as to the authenticity of the signature in two separate letters to the Library of Congress.32/  In the second, dated 22 January 1957, he stated, "Since last writing to you, I have seen the original of Carl Haverlin's Lincoln's devotional book, and I want to supplement my letter in which I had expressed an opinion based merely on an examination of a photograph.  On careful examination of the original, I believe it to contain the signature of Abraham Lincoln, and consider this a most interesting discovery in the field of Lincolniana.  Here, at last, we have some tangible evidence of the development of Lincoln's faith, and a possible clue to the source of some of his references to religion."

 

A Wife's Perspective - Mary Todd Lincoln

 

One person lived with Lincoln for 24 years - from 1841 until his death in 1865.  After his assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote: "From the time of the death of our little Edward, I believe my husbandís heart was directed towards religion & as time passed on - when Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office - with the care of a great Nation, upon his shoulders - when devastating war was upon us then indeed to my knowledge - did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God - for his sustaining power. When too - the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with Godís chastising hand upon us - he turned his heart to Christ."33/

 

In Maryís account, perhaps at last we see a clear progression of Lincolnís spiritual development, with the deaths of Eddie and Willie each marking a separate step on the path. Herndon, however, attempts to contradict her.

 

In December 1873, an article published in the Illinois State Register alleged to convey Herndonís interview of Mary Todd Lincoln.  In the article, he attributed these words to her: "Mr. Lincoln had no hope and no faith in the usual acceptation of these words [emphasis added], and Lincolnís maxim and philosophy were: 'What is to be will be, and no cares (prayers) of ours can arrest the decree.'  Mr. Lincoln never joined any church.  He was a religious man always, as I think.  He first thought - to say think - about this subject was when Willie died - never before; he read the Bible a good deal about 1864.  He felt religious, more than ever before, about the time he went to Gettysburg.  Mr. Lincoln was not a technical Christian."34/  In Herndonís account of the interview, four questions present themselves.

 

1.

"No hope and no faith."  What exactly did Mary have in mind (if Herndon's account is reasonably accurate) when she qualified the phrase "no hope and no faith" with the language "in the usual acceptation of these words"?  Lincolnís lifelong struggle with a foreboding of doom and a general depression often robbed him of hope.  It should be no surprise, then, that whatever faith he had might be clouded by the resulting gloom. Indeed, as seen in the life of King David the Psalmist, believers are not immune to depression; and Christ addressed his own disciples as men "of little faith."  More to the point, perhaps, Mary leaned to a more popular view that man determines his own destiny, while Lincoln believed God's will would be done in spite of man.  In that context, Mary may have considered Lincoln's hope and faith not to be the kind of hope and faith to which believers ordinarily held.

2.

"What is to be will be, and no cares (prayers) of ours can arrest the decree."  The question here is twofold.  Whose language is represented by the parenthetical "prayers," and was it an interpretive note Herndon made to himself and then kept in his written account?  Perhaps Herndon intended to create the impression that Mary confessed her husband never prayed, when she never said that at all.  In fact, she said in her letter to Smith that Lincoln prayed daily.

As to the saying itself, Lincoln well may have uttered it.  It is in fact a Presbyterian doctrine that no amount of care - "a disquieted state of mixed uncertainty, apprehension, and responsibility" - can change what God has ordained.  Mary, having first been an Episcopalian, did not have the same view as her husband of Godís sovereignty in the affairs of men.  Lincoln, however, in spite of the melancholy and foreboding that plagued him, often expressed a reliance on the providence of God, thus proving rather than disproving his faith.

3.

"He first thought Ö about this subject was when Willie died - never before."  Exactly what was the "subject" to which Mary referred, and what do the words "never before" mean?  In the account, Mary said first that her husband never joined any church, second that he still was always a religious man, and third that he first thought about this subject when Willie died. Clearly, again from his own early writings, Lincoln did have inclinations toward religion for many years.  Clearly, joining a church, and not religion itself, is the subject Lincoln had never considered until Willieís death. 

Church membership, then, leads us to the fourth question.

4.

"Mr. Lincoln was not a technical Christian."  What did Mary mean by "technical Christian," and what are the things which in fact make one a Christian at all?  Not only did Lincoln not join a church, but he also was never baptized and never took communion.  In the Presbyterian churches he attended, the sacrament of communion in fact would never be offered to a person who had not been baptized and joined a church.  There is increasing evidence that Lincoln did intend to join a church, but these are not the things that truly make one a Christian.  No, Lincoln was not a "technical Christian," but it does not necessarily follow that he wasnít a Christian in its pure sense - that of having received Christ by faith.

 

Other Witnesses

 

Regardless of Herndonís account, confirmation of Lincolnís faith came not only from family and church members but also from journalists, legislators, cabinet members, and military officers.  While Congressman Deming spoke of it as it related to church membership, others spoke or wrote of it in the context of the day-to-day affairs of Lincolnís presidency.

 

A Journalist - Civil War correspondent Noah Brooks wrote of Lincolnís faith, including on the subject of church membership, and did so in the context of his experiences accompanying Lincoln in the White House.  On assignment for the Sacramento Daily Union, Brooks spent four years with Lincoln, meeting with him almost daily.  He later said:

"I have had many conversations with Mr. Lincoln, which were more or less of a religious character, and while I never tried to draw anything like a statement of his views from him, yet he freely expressed himself to me as having 'a hope of blessed immortality through Jesus Christ.' ... Once or twice, speaking to me of the change which had come upon him, he said, while he could not fix any definite time, yet it was after he came here, and I am very positive that in his own mind he identified it with about the time of Willieís death.  He said, too, that after he went to the White House he kept up the habit of daily prayer.  Sometimes he said it was only ten words, but those ten words he had. ... In many conversations with him, I absorbed the firm conviction that Mr. Lincoln was at heart a  Christian man, believed in the Savior, and was seriously considering the step which would formally connect him with the visible church on earth."  [Emphasis added]35/

 

Another Congressman - Lincolnís familiarity with the Bible, hope of immortality, and Christian character were noted also by Congressman Isaac Newton Arnold, his close friend and fellow legislator, both in Illinois and in Washington.  Other than Mary, Arnold rather than Herndon probably understood Lincoln better than anyone, having known him from early manhood until his death - on the stump, in private, and in public life.  In two separate books, Arnold wrote:

"Lincoln was more familiar with the bible than any other book in the language, and this was apparent, both from his style of his illustrations, so often taken from that book.  He verified the maxim that it is better to know thoroughly a few good books than to read many."36/

"No more reverent Christian than he [Lincoln] ever sat in the Executive chair, not excepting Washington.  He was by nature religious; full of religious sentiment.  The veil between him and the supernatural was very thin.  It is not claimed that he was orthodox.  For creeds and dogmas he cared little.  But in the great fundamental principles of religion, of the Christian religion, he was a firm believer.  Belief in the existence of God, in the immortality of the soul, in the Bible as the revelation of God to man, in the efficacy and duty of prayer, in reverence toward the Almighty, and in love and charity to man, was the basis of his religion."37/

 

Cabinet Members - Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase both kept diaries, and both wrote about Lincolnís faith as evidenced in a cabinet meeting on 22 September 1862.  Welles stated that Lincoln said in the meeting that he had made a vow on the eve of the Battle of Antietam to the effect that, "if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of the divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation."  In his record of the same cabinet meeting, Chase noted particularly that Lincoln said he had made the promise "to himself and his Maker."38/

 

A Military Officer - Union General Dan Sickles also recounted an incident of Lincoln expressing his Christian faith.  While Sickles was recuperating at home from a leg amputation following the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, he was visited by the President and his son Tad. Sickles asked Lincoln whether he had feared the outcome of the campaign and later reported Lincoln as replying:

"Well, I will tell you how it was. ... when everybody seemed panic stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to Him mightily for victory at Gettysburg.  I told Him that this war was His war, and our cause His cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. ... And after that, I donít know how it was, and I cannot explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul.  The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into His own hands and that things would go right at Gettysburg and that is why I had no fears about you."39/

 

A Pastor and Friend - Lincoln's reliance on God was described also at his funeral, when his pastor-friend Gurley said of him:  "... I speak what I know, and testify what I have often heard him say, when I affirm that that [Godís] guidance and mercy were the props on which he humbly and habitually leaned; they were the best hope he had for himself and for his country. ... Never shall I forget the emphasis and the deep emotion with which he said in this very room, to a company of clergymen and others, who called to pay him their respects in the darkest days of our civil conflict: 'Gentlemen, my hope of success in this great and terrible struggle rests on that immutable foundation, the justice and goodness of God ...'  Such was his sublime and holy faith, and it was an anchor to his soul, both sure and steadfast."40/

 

Later, Gurley wrote:  "I had frequent and intimate conversations with [Lincoln] on the subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teachings.  And more than that, in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battlefield of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believed his heart was changed, and that he loved the Savior, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion."41/  Those who argue that Gurley never claimed Lincoln intended to join the church are unfamiliar with church language.  Among Presbyterians in particular, to "make a profession" is to join the church, and the public ceremony by which union with the church is formalized includes a statement professing one's faith before the congregation.

 

Thus, at least three persons - Mrs. Lincoln, journalist Noah Brooks, and Rev. Gurley - declared that Lincoln either considered or in fact planned on joining the church.  Many more witnessed to his Christian faith.  In the end, though, we turn again to the man's own words, and to his deeds, to see the evidence of that faith.  Whether opposing slavery, governing the military, discussing oaths of allegiance, acknowledging the bounty and good fortune of the nation, or addressing the nation upon reelection, he relied on and often appealed to the Bible and biblical principles.

 

Conclusion

 

Did Lincoln die a Christian?  Those who dismiss Lincoln's faith as mere deism cannot dispute the fact that he not only believed in "the Almighty" and His overriding power and authority, but that he also believed in the Christian concept of "the hereafter" and in Christ himself as the Saviour.

 

Four months after the Civil War began, five since his first inauguration, Lincoln called the nation to repentance, fasting, and prayer.  Two years later, when the greatest and perhaps most critical battle of the war brought victory, he called the nation to thanksgiving.  In less than two years more, when he was inaugurated to a second term and the warís end was in sight, he called the nation to righteousness.  Just so, God calls the individual to repentance, thanksgiving, and righteousness in the same succession: having first repented, a Christian immediately thanks God for his mercy and forgiveness, and then strives to live a life of righteousness pleasing to Him.

 

Some still will insist that Lincolnís boyhood comic portrayal of the Baptist preacher, and his later alleged attempts to persuade other men away from the Christian faith, prove that he rejected Christianity.  They will say he was at best a skeptic and at worst an infidel.  Let them say so.

 

John Newton, author of that beloved hymn "Amazing Grace," was once an infidel.  He later confessed it, admitting he had willfully led other men astray.  But, as would also be true of Lincoln, that Spirit called "the hound of heaven" relentlessly pursued Newton until he surrendered.  Had Newtonís life ended at any point between his conversion in 1748 and his leaving the sea and the slave trade in 1754, the world would have known him only as an infidel.  It would never have heard his lovely hymn, nor seen the slow but steady maturing of his faith, which led him eventually to become a preacher of the gospel.  Like Newton, however, Lincoln also survived his early flirtation with unbelief.

 

On 14 April 1865, six weeks after his second inaugural address, justifiably called  "the most spiritual speech ever given by any statesman in the world Ö a far better  sermon than most," Lincoln held his last cabinet meeting.  He addressed the  feelings of some members of Congress toward the Southern leadership.  He  declared, There are many in Congress who possess feelings of hate and vindictiveness in which I do not sympathize and cannot participate. He went on to say that enough blood had been shed and he would do what he could to prevent vengeful actions.42/

Elsewhere, one Southern sympathizer entertained no such sentiment toward the North or toward the President.  That evening, on a Good Friday, Lincolnís plan for the healing of the nation was thwarted by a bullet from the gun of John Wilkes Booth.  The nation mourned, and a family grieved.

 

 

SOURCES

 

1/

"Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln," Abraham Lincoln, Ed. Roy P. Basler (1953), Vol. 1, pp. 108-15: 27 Jan 1838 Address before the Young Men's Lyceum

2/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 267-68: 3 Feb 1842 Letter to Joshua Speed

3/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 269-70: 13 Feb 1842 Letter to Speed

4/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 288-90: 4 Jul 1842 Letter to Speed

5/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 282-83: 27 Mar 1842 Letter to Speed

6/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 382: 31 Jul 1846 Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity

7/

6 Jan 1873 Letter, Thomas Lewis to Rev. James R. Reed

8/

24 Dec 1872 Letter, Hon. Ninian W. Edwards to Reed

9/

24 Jan 1867 Letter, Rev. James A. Smith to William H. Herndon, Esq.

10/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 2, pp. 96-97: 12 Jan 1851 Letter to John D. Johnston

11/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 188: 24 Jan 1853 Request for Copy of Smith Temperance Discourse

12/

Register and Illinois Journal, 30 Aug 1853

13/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 2, pp. 437-42: 6 Apr 1858 Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions

14/

24 December 1872 Letter, Smith to Herndon

15/ 

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 7, pp. 542-43: 7 Sep 1864 Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore

16/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 4, pp. 482-83: 12 Aug 1861, Proclamation of a Day of Public Humiliation, Prayer, and Fasting

17/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 5, pp. 497-98: 15 Nov 1862 Executive Order for Sabbath Observance, President Lincoln

18/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 6, pp. 114-15: 22 Feb 1863 Reply to Rev. Alexander Reed

19/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 6, pp. 332-33: 15 Jul 1863, Proclamation of Thanksgiving

20/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 7, pp. 169-70: 5 Feb 1864 Note to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton

21/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 7, pp. 368: 30 May 1864 Letter to George B. Ide and Others

22/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 7, pp. 535: 4 Sep 1864 Letter to Eliza P. Gurney

23/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 8, pp. 332-33: 4 Mar 1865, Second Inaugural Address

24/

"Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln," Joshua Fry Speed (1884)

25/

"Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life," William H. Herndon and Jesse William Weik (1888), p. 426

26/

"The Abraham Lincoln Genesis Cover-up: The Censored Origins of an Illustrious Ancestor," R. Vincent Enlow, http://genealogytoday.com/us/lincoln/genesis.html (2001)

27/

"Collected Works ...," Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 451-52: 15 Feb 1848 Letter to Herndon

28/

"Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life," William H. Herndon and Jesse William Weik (1888), p. 332

29/

"Herndon's Lincoln ...," Ibid., p. 483

30/

Chicago Tribune, 6 Mar 1867: Letter from Herndon

31/

"The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents," Franklin Steiner, quoting Herndon (1936), p. 124

32/

28 Dec 1956 and 22 Jan 1957 Letters, Ralph G. Newman to Frederick R. Goff, Rare Books Division, The Library of Congress; University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware, Manuscript Collection No. 144, Box 2, Folder 9

33/

8 Jun 1870 Letter, Mary (Todd) Lincoln to Smith

34/

"Lincolnís Religion," William H. Herndon, Esq., Ed. Douglas C. McMurtrie (1936)

35/

31 Dec 1872 Letter, Noah Brooks to Reed

36/

"Reminiscences of the Illinois Bar Forty Years Ago: Lincoln and Douglas as Orators and Lawyers," Hon. Isaac N. Arnold (1881)

37/

"The Life of Abraham Lincoln," Isaac N. Arnold (1885)

38/

"Diary of Gideon Welles," Pub. Houghton Mifflin (1911); "Diary and Correspondence of Salmon P. Chase" (1903)

39/

"Lincoln's Religion: The Almost Chosen People," William J. Wolf (1959)

40/

Lincoln Funeral Sermon, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley

41/

Scribnerís Monthly, Jul 1873: Letter from Gurley

42/

"Diary of Gideon Welles," Ibid.

 

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