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Lincoln’s Faith Eludes Definition

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No one knows precisely what Lincoln thought or how he coped with so much tragedy, but many of his associates noted that he frequently had a Bible in hand. He also began to integrate the scriptures into his personal and political vocabulary.

To most Americans, Abraham Lincoln was the great political and religious leader who shouldered the moral burdens of a sinful nation, guided the Union to a victory over slavery, and then attempted to unify a broken nation only to be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

Given the way in which he died and the heroic legends attached to his memory, it has become difficult to separate the real Lincoln from the mythical Lincoln. It is also difficult to gain a clear picture of the faith of this intelligent, compassionate and complex man.

Much of what we know of Lincoln’s faith comes from his public addresses during his presidency. Based on his public words, scholars have presented Lincoln as a profoundly religious man, and a variety of denominations have sought to claim him as one of their own. Yet Lincoln never joined a church and was never baptized. So what do we really know about Lincoln’s religious training and his faith?

We know that as a child Lincoln attended Pigeon Baptist Church, a Separate Baptist church in Indiana, with his father and stepmother. But Lincoln never joined that church.

The emotionalism and unrefined preaching of the church so appalled Lincoln that he often ridiculed the services and the preachers. Yet his upbringing in that church gave him a reverence for the scriptures and an introduction to anti-slavery teachings.

As a young man, Lincoln read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, and he soon developed his own kind of spiritualism. He believed that dreams foretold the future. He often spoke about God, but rarely referred directly to Jesus. He spent much time reading the Bible, hoping to be able to refute its teachings. He most likely held a universalistic understanding of salvation.

Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd in 1842 brought him into closer contact with orthodox Christianity and the institutional church. During the early years of their marriage, he occasionally attended the Episcopal Church with her.

In 1846, Lincoln was elected to the House of Representatives by the people of Illinois. His opponent in the election, Peter Cartwright, was a popular circuit-riding Methodist preacher, and Cartwright and his supporters claimed that Lincoln was an “infidel.”

Although Lincoln won the election, the campaign had been so bitter that he felt compelled to publish a defense of his religious beliefs. On July 31, 1846, he responded to the charge that he was an “open scoffer” of Christianity. He wrote that even though he was not a member of a church, he respected all Christian denominations and held many orthodox beliefs.

Lincoln did attend church more frequently beginning in 1850, after the death of his 4-year-old son, Edward. James Smith, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, conducted the funeral service and consoled the grieving parents. Smith’s intellect impressed Lincoln, and Smith’s presence during this spiritual crisis resulted in Lincoln’s renting a pew at First Presbyterian Church and attending services there regularly.

Lincoln’s religious beliefs, however, were still far from orthodox. Based on lengthy conversations with Lincoln, Smith concluded that Lincoln’s beliefs resembled Unitarianism.

By 1861, when he was elected President of the United States, Lincoln had begun to express publicly his need for divine assistance. On Feb. 11, 1861, as Lincoln left Illinois for Washington, he called on his friends and supporters to pray for him as he undertook the monumental task of leading the nation.

Once in Washington, Lincoln immediately had to deal with a nation in crisis. The war began only three months after his arrival in Washington, and Lincoln was confronted almost daily with casualty lists. Several of his close friends died during those early days of the war. The loss of life as well as the sense of national tragedy weighed heavily on Lincoln’s mind. Then in February 1862, the Lincoln family lost another child. Their 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever.

No one knows precisely what Lincoln thought or how he coped with so much tragedy, but many of his associates noted that he frequently had a Bible in hand. He also began to integrate the scriptures into his personal and political vocabulary.

In September 1862, just days after the Union’s devastating loss at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, found a scrap of paper on which the president had written his thoughts as he faced profoundly difficult moral decisions.

Lincoln wrote: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against, the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”

During those difficult years, Lincoln regularly attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on Sundays, and he often attended the Wednesday evening prayer meetings. Yet he never joined that church.
There can be no final word about the faith of Abraham Lincoln. He left no written record indicating his theological beliefs, nor did he hold many conversations about his faith. Yet the evidence suggests that this thoughtful and complex man held fast to a belief that only God could sustain him and the nation during crisis and pain.

Pam Durso serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.

For more information, read:
“Abraham Lincoln and the Sacralization of American Civil Religion,” in Civil Religion and the Presidency, by Richard V. Pierard and Robert D. Linder
Lincoln, David Herbert Donald