The arguments began in Lincoln’s own lifetime. For instance, during his 1846 campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, his opponent, Peter Cartwright, a minister, charged that Lincoln wasn’t a Christian and that he’d mocked religion.
Modern historian Mark Noll quotes Lincoln’s response: “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’s classic Lincoln. A shrewd politician, he managed to deny Cartwright’s accusations without revealing the particulars of his own beliefs.
Religiously, Lincoln was a paradox. He never was baptized, never joined a church and was skeptical of organized denominations.
Yet he may have been the president who tried hardest to live out Jesus’ teachings. He consistently expressed reverence for God’s mysteries, showed compassion toward his enemies, and publicly surrendered himself to the Almighty’s inscrutable will.
Many of Lincoln’s views were shaped in his boyhood. He came to believe in God’s sovereignty, in the divine predestination of events. He felt connected to God–and simultaneously afraid of Him.
He was born into poverty in a Kentucky log cabin and his youth was marked by tragedies. His mother died when he was nine. His brother died in infancy. His older sister, Sarah, died in childbirth when she was 20.
Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was a Regular Baptist. The two had a troubled relationship. Thomas considered his son lazy because he preferred reading to working in the fields. Abraham rejected his father’s legalistic religious doctrines.
Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, played more positive roles than Thomas in his formation. They encouraged Abraham to read everything he could and offered him a glimpse of a more loving God.
“His two mothers gave him some gentle grounding on this in his early life,” said the Rev. Billy Ray Jennings, 74, a retired United Methodist minister who has studied the spiritual lives of U.S. presidents, especially Lincoln, for more than 50 years.
Lincoln completed barely a year of formal schooling. In the communities where he was raised, in Kentucky and later Indiana, very few books were available. Most of his boyhood reading consisted of the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress and Aesop’s Fables.
“Morality issues just jump out at you in all those things,” Jennings said.
From childhood, Lincoln exhibited an unusually sensitive temperament. He lived among rough farm boys who for sport often pestered–and tortured–animals. He couldn’t stand even to see a tortoise turned upside-down on its shell.
“Where did all that come from?” Jennings said. “That’s the mystery. I still don’t understand how you can develop such a strong conscience (that early), that stays you through the war years.”
Later, in Illinois, as Lincoln embarked on a successful career as a lawyer and politician, his religious practices remained unconventional. He read the Bible faithfully (and loved Shakespeare as well). But he wouldn’t join a church.
“It is probable that Lincoln was turned against organized Christianity by his experiences as a young man in New Salem, Illinois, where excessive emotion and bitter sectarian quarrels marked yearly camp meetings and the ministry of traveling preachers,” Noll, the historian, has written.
In 1850, Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, then living in Springfield, lost their four-year-old son, Eddie. Afterward, Lincoln discussed his religious questions and doubts with the Scottish-born Rev. James Smith, pastor of Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church.
Smith “provided Mr. Lincoln with reading material,” Jennings said. Lincoln, for his part, “studied things through very carefully.” Lincoln and Smith became lasting friends.
Lincoln as president
It’s impossible to imagine the strains Lincoln faced as president. A man so gentle he couldn’t bear to see an animal teased found himself commander-in-chief of the Union army during four horrendous years of Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans died.
Lincoln was harangued daily, not just in the Southern press, but in Northern newspapers, too. Sometimes his own cabinet ridiculed his rawboned appearance and folksy manners.
In the midst of the war, in 1862, the Lincolns lost a second son. When Willie, 11, died in the White House, Lincoln was inconsolable; his wife Mary went mad with grief.
Following Willie’s loss, Lincoln turned again to a Presbyterian minister. This time his adviser was the Rev. Phineas D. Gurley of Washington’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Lincoln often attended church services at New York Presbyterian, but still didn’t join Gurley’s, or any other, congregation.
Clearly, though, he “depended upon God in a very real and personal way,” said Jennings, the retired Methodist minister.
Lincoln became famous, and in military circles, notorious, for pardoning young soldiers sentenced to death for sleeping on guard duty or other offenses.
In his Emancipation Proclamation, he performed one of history’s finest humanitarian acts: he freed many (although not all) of the country’s slaves. The proclamation was partly a strategic ploy, designed to weaken the South. But for Lincoln it also was a moral statement: one race should never enslave another.
However, from a spiritual standpoint, Lincoln’s most notable virtues during the war years may have been his astounding humility and open-mindedness.
Preachers in the North and South alike took an Old Testament approach to the conflict. They claimed God’s authorization for their cause, demonized the other side and called down divine wrath on their enemies.
Not so Lincoln. Even as he commanded an army and tried to hold together a divided nation, he called for charity toward the rebels. And he questioned whether either side was doing God’s will or whether they could even perceive God’s will.
His defining statement came in March, 1865, in his 2nd Inaugural Address. The quote is from an article by Noll, the historian:
“Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
On another occasion, a Northern minister told Lincoln he hoped the Lord was on the Union’s side.
“I am not at all concerned about that,” Lincoln said. “But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”
In the decades following Lincoln’s assassination, his contemporaries seemed to project onto him whatever qualities they wanted to see. Prominent clergy reported he’d undergone a dramatic personal conversion and openly professed his faith in Jesus Christ. There’s scant outside evidence to back up their claims.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner and biographer, claimed Mary Lincoln had told him, “Mr. Lincoln had no hope and no faith in the usual acceptation of those words . . . he was not a technical Christian.”
But Herndon’s claims are suspect, too. In 2008, journalist Andrew Ferguson observed, in the periodical First Things, that Herndon “was a freethinker, and an evangelizing one. He desperately wanted to present a Lincoln who was, like himself, a man too modern and too sophisticated for Christianity, its doctrines and its practices.”
Ferguson cites a remark from another Lincoln friend, David Davis, who may have come closer to the truth: “I don’t know anything about Lincoln’s religion,” Davis said, “and I don’t believe anybody knows anything about it.”
Whatever questions remain, we can say for sure that Lincoln believed in God, and that he steadfastly followed many of Christianity’s core tenets. He believed that those bound in slavery should be freed, that those condemned should whenever possible be pardoned, that one’s enemies, when defeated, should be treated gently.
We can say he was a man of startling, almost Christ-like humility.
And finally, we can say that during the bloodiest years in our country’s history, while his contemporaries were consumed with cries for violence and vengeance, Lincoln always sought to make peace and forgive, to overcome evil with good.