Abraham Lincoln and The Clergy

Abraham Lincoln and The Clergy

Library of Congress

Featured Book

(Knopf, 2006)

Abraham Lincoln’s acquaintance with preachers was close and frequent. When he first came to New Salem, Illinois, he boarded with a Presbyterian preacher, John Cameron.12 President Lincoln wrote General Stephen Hurlbut: “I Understand you have, under sentence of death, a tall old man by the name of Henry F. Luckett. I personally knew him, and did not think him a bad man. Please do not let him be executed. Unless upon further order from me, and, in the me time, send me a transcript of the record.”3

Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell quoted the Rev. James Lemen, Jr, a Baptist preacher: “My period of public service in early and later Illinois, and my travels as a gospel minister, which covered a period of more than fifty years, gave me a more or less intimate acquaintance with nearly every public man in the state within that period, and none of them impressed me more favorably than Abraham Lincoln, from the first time I met him in Vandalia, in 1837, when he was a member of the Legislature. Generally, with strangers, Mr. Lincoln was secretive and shy, but, from some cause, we formed very strong attachments at our very first meeting, which steadily increased during his lifetime. My business at Vandalia that winter kept me there several weeks, and both boarding at the same place, Mr. Lincoln and I were thrown together a great deal. Generally, for three nights every week, he was at my rooms until midnight, and certainly no one was more welcome. The members of the Legislature said they could not see why he made a companion of me as I was a preacher, and he cared but little for religion; but they were in error, as his conversations were chiefly on the Scriptures and related subjects, and I believe at every meeting I held on Sundays, in town or adjacent settlements while there, Mr. Lincoln was present.

“At later periods I was frequently at Springfield on business or duty, and there Lincoln spent three or four evenings, generally at my rooms, every week, and he certainly could not have enjoyed our meetings any more than I did. While there I generally preached every Sunday in town or country, and Lincoln was nearly always present, although ordinarily, he was not a regular church attendant. There was a constitutional trait, or characteristic about Mr. Lincoln that colored nearly all of his life, and that was a settled form of melancholy, sometimes very marked, and sometimes very mild, but always sufficient to tinge his countenance with a shade of sadness unless a smile should dispel it, which frequently happened, as he enjoyed humor and often indulged in it. On matters spiritual, like the philosophical old apostle, Thomas, he was sometimes inclined to doubt, though to no greater extent than thousands of church-member Christians. But frequently he seemed to crave a stronger belief in the Bible truths, and on one occasion of that kind at Springfield he spent a while night with me conversing on Scriptural matters, and at times we engaged in prayer, and finally he declared our meetings had restored his feelings to a better state of confidence, and that his doubts were subdued. At that stage he made a most beautiful prayer which so impressed me that after its conclusion I asked him if he could repeat it ,which he did, and I wrote it down and preserved a copy of it. This was in 1856, and was our last meeting.”4

Springfield Baptist preacher Noyes W. Miner was the brother of Hannah Shearer, a close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. Dr. Miner was described by Mrs. Lincoln in 1873 as “Our clergyman for fifteen years[,] our opposite neighbor, and a friend very much beloved by my husband Abraham Lincoln.”5 Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Among the minority of antislavery clergy in Springfield were Albert Hale, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, and Lincoln’s Baptist neighbor and friend, Noyes W. Miner. Both were college-trained Yankees. Hale, like Lincoln, had taken a stand against the Mexican War. Miner accepted a call from Springfield’s Baptist Church in 1854 and, as a determined opponent of slavery, he had an uneasy relationship with the conservatives in his congregation. An old lady with southern connections told him, ‘Mr. Miner,…your prayers almost kill me.'”6

Mr. Lincoln’s clergy friends included Methodist minister John Hogan, an Illinois state representative to helped swing the vote to Springfield as the new state capital. Economic historian Charles Sellers wrote: “Measuring their stewardship by numbers of converts, these Methodist horsemen were proverbial for humble devotion. ‘There is nothing out today,’ country people said in bad weather, ‘but crows and Methodist preachers.'”7 More famous was Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright, a dynamic preacher who served with Mr. Lincoln in the State Legislature and was defeated by him in the 1846 election for Congress. Lincoln scholar H. Donald Winkler wrote: “Of gigantic build and not easily intimidated, Cartwright was both a preacher and a politician. The Hill-McNeil store [in New Salem] was the gathering place for the gossips, gabbers and loafers. Cartwright hoped to convert them, so he would sit on Hill’s porch, wearing his broad-rimmed white hat, and entertain them with his keen wit and spunky conversation.”8

Historian Donald Riddle wrote that in the congressional campaign, “Cartwright found himself in a situation where more than evangelistic preaching was required. The conversion of sinners from their wicked ways, or of Baptists and Campbellites from their theological errors, proved to be child’s play compared to the task of inducing Whigs to vote for a Democrat. Cartwright might be able to win them to the Lord, but it was something else to win them to Democracy. As the election returns were to show, Cartwright’s sermons were more effective than his campaign speeches, for he failed even to maintain his party vote.”9

Candidate Lincoln felt compelled to answer rumors that he was an infidel. He wrote an open letter in reply that concluded: I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.”10

Mr. Lincoln left Congress in 1849 and largely left active politics for the next five years until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act reawakened. That placed him on the side of some anti-slavery preachers like Owen Lovejoy and in opposition to some Illinois preachers with southern backgrounds. Newton Bateman, spent a lot of time with Mr. Lincoln during 1860 when presidential candidate Lincoln held office hours at the State Capitol where Bateman had his office as state superintendent of instruction. One day, Mr. Lincoln engaged Bateman in a discussion of the political tendencies of Springfield’s clergy and church lay leaders – using a canvass book of the city’s voters and their intentions for the 1860 presidential election. Mr. Lincoln complained: “Here are twenty three ministers of different denominations, and all of them are against me but three, and here are a great many prominent members of churches, a very large majority are against me….These men well know’that I am for freedom in the Territories, freedom everywhere, as free as the Constitution and the laws will permit, and that my opponents are for slavery. They know this, and yet, with this book in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me; I do not understand it at all.”11

Mr. Lincoln added: ‘Doesn’t it seem strange that men can ignore the moral aspect of this contest? No revelation could make it plainer to me that slavery or the Government must be destroyed. The future would be something awful, as I look at it, but for this rock on which I stand’ (alluding to the Testament which he still held in his hand), ‘especially with the knowledge of how these ministers are going to vote. It seems as if God had borne with this thing (slavery) until the teachers of religion have come to defend it from the Bible, and to claim for it a divine character and sanction; and now the cup of iniquity is full, and the vials of wrath will be poured out.”12

The Civil War changed the way that most northern clergy viewed the Lincoln administration. Lincoln Aide William O. Stoddard wrote in an anonymous newspaper dispatch in September 1861: “Your correspondent takes great pleasure in calling attention to the manner in which many of the great religious bodies of the North have made their record, and defined their position upon this war question. That great mass of religious, conscientious, God-fearing, thoughtful men and women, whose sterling worth and solid strength have made this country what it is, have arisen as one man to sustain the Government in its hour of peril. They who fear God honor the king, and these are the men, who, believing that they serve their Master in saving the country, will not fear to meet Him, though they go into his presence fresh from the strife of a just battle.”13

Protestant preachers were regular visitors at the Lincoln White House – inspired to share their inspired wisdom with the President. Stoddard profiled one such visitor: “Some of the best men come to call upon the President, and there is a fine example, at this moment, standing near his office door, waiting for the audience he will surely obtain. Beyond a doubt that man is a clergyman of high caste – a doctor of divinity. He is probably a great gun of one of the great sects, sent by his convocation to administer spiritual advice and consolation to the wearied, over-burdened ruler of a sympathizing nation. His outfit is the perfection of clerical uniform. Shining silk hat, with a weed half way up its glossy cylinder. Costly and shining broadcloth, double-breasted, with an open-fronted waistcoat that discloses spotless lien and brightens the effect of his profusely voluminous white neckcloth and his high standing collar. Heavy gold guard-chain across his chest. Boots that are as black mirrors, and he is tapping one of them gently with a gold-headed cane which, perhaps, his loving congregation presented him. His eyes turn upward, now and then, and the corners of his mouth turn down, and not since Mr. Lincoln entered this house has there been so much apparently professional sanctity upon this floor. Thus he has gone in, and he will surely obtain his object, for the President invariably treats with marked respect all clergymen of all denominations, with the exceptional increase on behalf of Quakers, including the fat, unclerical Quaker whom he has placed at the head of a Bureau of the Interior Department [probably Isaac Newton, commissioner of agriculture].” Stoddard concluded: “Nobody knows or needs to know the nature of the interview which the saint in fine apparel has had with Abraham Lincoln. He is coming out now, smiling benevolently, with an upward cast of his eye-corners and a downward jerk upon each side of his mouth. He is satisfied, no doubt, with the way in which he has done his duty…”14

Biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “A religious journal, the Watchman and Reflector, recorded how a deputation of clergymen presented an address to Lincoln in which they styled him ‘a pillar of the church.’ Though the matter at hand was serious, the editor noted, ‘he gently and perhaps truthfully remarked that they ‘would have done much better to call him a steeple.'”15 J. T. Duryea recalled a visit by the Christian Commission to the White House: “At a time of general despondency, when even the best men were disposed to doubt and judge, and Mr. Lincoln was subjected too much ungenerous complaint and criticism, several members and friends of the Ch[ristian] Commission called to give him an expression of sympathy and confidence. He showed by moist eyes and trembling lip, how the carping spirit had hurt him and how refreshing kindly sympathy was to his tender sensibilities. I was desired to say to him in a familiar informal way, what were our views and feelings.”16

William O. Stoddard recalled, “It so happened that a large number of engagements in the early part of the war, many of them with ill fortune to our arms, were fought upon Sunday, and the fact aroused the religious feelings – not to say the superstition – of many excellent people at the North. At last, after many letters and not a few edifying ‘resolutions,’ a committee of reverend gentlemen was sent on to remonstrate with the President, and urge upon him the propriety of carrying on the war solely upon week days. They were not a very powerful body of men – hardly of the rank of Brigadier Generals in the Church Militant – but they obtained an audience, stated their theological position, secured the appointment of some of their number and next friends as army chaplains, and returned home.”17

Mr. Lincoln also understood the importance of religious life in the army. President Lincoln raised the question of hospital chaplains in his Annual Message to Congress in December 1861. He wrote: “By mere omission, I presume, Congress has failed to provide chaplains for hospitals occupied by volunteers.”18 Political scientist Lucas Morel wrote: “Lincoln was careful not to promote a policy, even one that would receive popular approval, in a manner inconsistent with the powers of his office. He, therefore, wrote out a form letter…”19 Father F. M. Magrath was one of two priests which Archbishop John J. Hughes recommended to be hospital chaplain. President Lincoln wrote Father Magrath: “Having been solicited by Christian Ministers, and other pious people to appoint suitable persons to act as Chaplains at the hospitals for our sick and wounded soldiers, and feelings the intrinsic propriety of having such persons to so act, and yet believing there is no law conferring the power upon me to appoint them, I think fit to say that if you will voluntarily enter upon, and perform the appropriate duties of such position, I will recommend that Congress make compensation therefor at the same rate as Chaplains in the army are compensated.”20

Lincoln scholar Lucas Morel wrote: “Late in the war, Lincoln expressed ‘no objection’ to having a woman confirmed as chaplain by a regiment that had unanimously elected her. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had ‘declined to recognize the mustering on account of her sex, not wishing to establish a precedent.’ Veteran captain of the Black Hawk War that he was, Lincoln merely adapted the common practice of troops electing their own captains to the situation of regiment chaplains. Unlike Stanton, Lincoln did not impose any particular biblical proscription against female preachers upon the regiment. Following the acceptance of blacks as Union soldiers, Lincoln arranged for the compensation of a black chaplain who had been denied wages duly commissioned to him. His statements regarding chaplain appointments thus reflect a penchant for including all interested faiths as he encouraged the religious expression of the people, while adhering to the rule of law and constitutional supremacy in civil matters.”21

Anti-slavery religious delegations were particularly active in 1862. In May, a delegation came to the White House from the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In his response, President Lincoln said: “I welcome here the representatives of the Evangelical Lutherans of the United States. I accept with gratitude their assurances of the sympathy and support of that enlightened, influential, and loyal class of my fellow-citizens in an important crisis which involves, in my judgment, not only the civil and religious liberties of our own dear land, but in a large degree the civil and religious liberties of mankind in many countries and through many ages. You well know, gentlemen, and the world knows, how reluctantly I accepted this issue of battle forced upon me, on my advent to this place, by the internal enemies of our country. You all know, the world knows the forces and the resources the public agents have brought into employment to sustain a Government against which there has been brought not one complaint of real injury committed against society, at home or abroad. You all may recollect that in taking up the sword thus forced into our hands this Government appealed to the prayers of the pious and the good, and declared that it placed its whole dependence upon the favor of God. I now humbly and reverently in your presence, reiterate the acknowledgement of that dependence, not doubting that, if it shall please the Divine Being who determine the destinies of nations that this shall remain a united people, they will, humbly seeking the Divine guidance, make their prolonged national existence a source of new benefits to themselves and their successors, and to all classes and conditions of mankind.”22

Mr. Lincoln had a special affinity for Quakers – believing that he descended from Quakers on his mother’s side. William Stoddard wrote: “Either his ancestors or some near relatives of his had been Quakers, and he always manifested great respect for and interest in that highly respectable religious community. I always thought, however, that his strong sense of the humorous and appreciation of the quaint and odd, had more than a little to do with this partiality. It would seem too, that the Quakers, as a rule, have an unusually large amount of quiet humor of their own; and it may be, moreover, that he had not entirely rid himself of the old popular delusion that the Quakers are more inclined to be honest than other men. His early associations with the Methodists, the religious pioneers and missionaries of the West, had impressed him with a high respect for the zeal and energy of that sect.”23

When a group of Pennsylvania Quakers visited the White House in June 1862 to press the case for emancipation, “The President responded very impressively, saying that he was deeply sensible of his need of Divine assistance. He had sometime thought that perhaps he might be an instrument in God’s hand of accomplishing a great work and he certainly was not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end which the memorialists have in view may be different from theirs. It would be his earnest endeavor, with a firm reliance upon the Divine arm, and seeking light from above, to do his duty in the place to which he had been called.”24

When two Quaker women visited President Lincoln that winter, he asked them: “Well, if you have any encouragement for me please give it. I need it. Be free to say whatever is on your minds to say.” Elizabeth Comstock responded: “Abram, we believe we have a message from the Lord for thee. He has laid a great burden upon thee, and thou canst not bear it alone. It is too much for thee. He says, be of good courage and I will be with thee. I will not leave thee nor forsake thee. Thou shalt prevail, only be of good courage. Cast all thy burdens upon Him. He is the great burden-bearer. Nothing is too hard for HIM. The destiny of this great nation is upon HIM. Do not try to carry it thyself. Look to HIM. He will guide thee. He will give thee wisdom and thou shalt prevail. May it not be that GOD has raised thee up, like Moses, to be the great emancipator of HIS people? To establish the nation united and free? As HE said to Joshua, only be strong and of good courage.” As they got up to leave, President Lincoln asked: “Aren’t you going to pray with me?” They responded with alacrity as all three sunk to their knees and joined hands. When the prayer was finished, President Lincoln said “Amen” in a strong voice. Elizabeth Comstock thought “his countenance was so changed he looked as though he had the victory.”25

Mr. Lincoln’s favorite Quaker visitor may have been Eliza P. Gurney, who visited the White House on October 26 1862 – in the company of three Quaker men. It was a time of prayer and silent meditation which apparently charmed President Lincoln. “I am glad of this interview, and glad to know that I have your sympathy and prayers. We are indeed going through a great trial–a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid – but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it.”26

Mrs. Gurney had written President Lincoln on August 8, 1863: “Many times, since I was privileged to have an interview with thee, nearly a year ago, my mind has turned towards thee with feelings of sincere and christian interest, and, as our kind friend Isaac Newton offers to be the bearer of a paper messenger, I feel inclined to give the assurance of my continued hearty sympathy in all thy heavy burtherns and responsibilities and to express, not only my own earnest prayer, but I believe the prayer of many thousands whose hearts thou hast gladdened by thy praiseworthy and successful effort ‘to burst the bands of wickedness, and let the oppressed go free’ that the Almighty…may strengthen thee to accomplish all the blessed purposes, which, in the unerring counsel of his will and wisdom, I do assuredly believe he did design to make thee instrumental in accomplishing, when he appointed thee thy present post of vast responsibility, as the Chief Magistrate…’27

In September 1864, he wrote her: “I have not forgotten – probably never shall forget – the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, ever been forgotten. In all, it has been your purpose to strengthen my reliance on God. I am much indebted to the good christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations; and to no one of the, more than to yourself. 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 god to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make , and no mortal could stay.

“Your people – the Friends – have had, and are having a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn and some the other. For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not; and believing it, I shall still receive, for our country and myself, your earnest prayers to our Father in Heaven.28

But even Quakers could try his patience – as did one woman did later in the summer of 1862. She lectured the President on emancipation and the Bible. “Has the Friend finished,” President Lincoln asked as she seemed to wind down. When she acknowledged that she was, he said: “I have neither time nor disposition to enter into discussion with the Friend, and end this occasion by suggesting for her consideration the question whether, if it be true that he Lord has appointed me to do the work she had indicated, is it not probable He would have communicated knowledge of that fact to me as well as to her?”29

Perhaps the most notable delegation of clergy came to the White House from Chicago, pressing him on emancipation on September 13. Although he had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation by this time and would issue it within ten days, he questioned its efficacy: “Won’t the world sneer at it as being as powerless as the Pope’s bull against the comet?” Nevertheless, the ministers reported: “The President received us courteously, and gave the fullest opportunity to discharge the duty assigned. He listened with fixed attention while the memorial was read by the chairman of the delegation, who added a few words to express the deep interest felt in the President by the religious community, as manifested by the many prayers offered in his behalf from the day of his election to the present hour, and to explain the pressure of feeling that caused those prayers to be followed by a memorial expressive of their solemn conviction of national duty and necessity.” Mr. Lincoln told the ministers:

“What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet! Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel States? Is there a single court, or magistrate, or individual that would be influenced by it there? And what reason is there to think it would have any greater effect upon the slaves than the late law of Congress, which I approved, and which offers protection and freedom to the slaves of rebel masters who come within our lines? Yet I cannot learn that that law has caused a single slave to come over to us. And suppose they could be induced by a proclamation of freedom from me to throw themselves upon us, what should we do with them? How can we feed and care for such a multitude?”30

Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax recalled: “One of these ministers felt it his duty to make a more searching appeal to the President’s conscience. Just as they were retiring, he turned, and said to Mr. Lincoln, ‘What you have said to us, Mr. President, compels me to say to you in reply, that is a message to you from our Divine Master, through me, commanding you, sir, to open the doors of bondage that the slave may go free!’ Mr. Lincoln replied, instantly, ‘That may be sir, for I have studied this question, by night and by day, for weeks and for months, but if it is, as you say, a message from your Divine Master, it is not odd that the only channel he could send it by was that roundabout route by that awfully wicked city of Chicago?'”31

The moral certainty of such clergy made President Lincoln skeptical of preachers with whom he was unfamiliar. When one visitor made an unexpectedly favorable impression with his humor and good sense, Mr. Lincoln inquired: “You are a clergyman, are you not.’ When the reply was negative, President Lincoln said: “You must lunch with us. I am glad to see you. I was afraid you were a preacher.” He added: “I thought you had come here to tell me how to take Richmond.”32

Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Lincoln, as president, acted as a typical New England Whig in his easy acceptance of religion’s role in public affairs. He worked hard to keep open two-way channels with religious leaders, especially evangelicals, and to deal sensitively with them, aware not only of their power but also of the deep reservoir of goodwill on which he could draw. If it is not clear how far Lincoln’s cultivation of their company had to do with his own spiritual quest, there is no doubt that those contacts provided him with a way of reaching potent opinion-formers. In informal conversations at the White House he met the full denominational gamut of religious visitors who arrived confident of a catholic welcome from a president known for his non-sectarian tolerance and religious humility. Some came to lecture, some to deliver homilies, some to seek appointments, others merely to pay respects or renew acquaintance. They included the strategically placed, including editors of mass-circulation papers like Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton, denominational leaders like Matthew Simpson and distinguished abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. There were representatives of the chief philanthropic bodies, particularly Henry Bellows and George H. Stuart of the United States Sanitary Commission, the most formidable and practical of the agencies devoted to the medical care and well-being of soldiers in the field.” Illustrative of President Lincoln’s cultivation of northern churches is a short reply to Members of the Presbyterian General Assembly in early June 1863:

It has been my happiness to receive testimonies of a similar nature, from I believe, all denominations of Christians. They are all loyal, but perhaps not in the same degree, or in the same numbers; but I think they all claim to be loyal. This to me is most gratifying, because from the beginning I saw that the issues of our great struggle depended on the Divine interposition and favor. If we had that, all would be well. The proportions of this rebellion were not for a long time understood. I saw that it involved the greatest difficulties, and would call forth all the powers of the whole country. The end is not yet. The point made in your paper is well taken as to ‘the Government’ and the ‘administration’ in whose hands are those interests. I fully appreciate its correctness and justice. In my administration I might have committed some errors. It would be, indeed, remarkable if I had not. I have acted according to my best judgment in every case. The views expressed by the Committee accord with my own; and on this principle ‘the Government’ is to be supported though the administration may not in every case wisely act. As a pilot, I have used my best exertions to keep afloat our ship of State, and shall be glad to resign my trust at the appointed time to another pilot more skillful and successful than I may prove. In every case, and at all hazards, the Government must be perpetuated. Relying, as I do, upon the Almighty Power, and encouraged as I am by these resolutions which you have just read, with the support which I receive from Christian men, I shall not hesitate to use all the means at my control to secure the termination of this rebellion, and will hope for success.
I sincerely thank you for this interview, this pleasant mode of presentation, and the General Assembly for their patriotic support in these resolutions.”33

Henry B. Stanton recalled going to the White House with his father, a Presbyterian minister and Judge Jesse L. Williams, a Presbyterian elder, shortly before the 1864 Republican National Convention . Judge Williams related how at a Presbyterian meeting in New Jersey, “there [was] a very animated discussion took place about your views on a certain matter concerning the conduct of the war, and the body seemed unable to agree as to where you stood.” The judge explained that he was referring to President Lincoln’s letter to General Curtis regarding the disposition of “disloyal preachers, one of whom as a prominent Presbyterian. President Lincoln had written Curtis that “the government could not afford to run the churches.” Dr. McPheeters was brought up on charges before the Presbyterians’ general assembly. Judge Williams related how “on the trial of Doctor McPheeters by the general assembly, your letter to General Curtis was read. But the curious part of the affair was this: One party read one portion of your letter and claimed that the President was on their side, and the other party read another portion of the same letter and claimed that the President was on their side. So it seems, Mr. President that it is not so easy to tell where you stand.” At this, President Lincoln roared with laughter.34

The problem of military interference in the affairs of churches with “disloyal” ministers became such a problem in 1864 that President Lincoln wrote himself a memorandum on the subject: “I have written before, and now repeat, the United States Government must not undertake to run the churches. When an individual in a church or out of it becomes dangerous to the public interest he must be checked, but the churches as such must take care of themselves. It will not do for the United States to appoint trustees, supervisors, or other agents for the churches. I add if the military have military need of the church building, let them keep it; otherwise let them get out of it, and leave it and its owners alone except for causes that justify the arrest of any one.”35

One minister who accompanied a delegation of clergy report that the President Lincoln reverentially to the delegation’s petitions. Afterward “he came forward with head bowed down and replied – ‘I may not be a great man (straightening up to his full height) I know I am not a great man – and perhaps it is better that is so – for it makes me rely upon One who is great and who has the wisdom and power to lead us safely through this great trial…”36

Clergy petitions were a regular feature of the President’s work. Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “One such other document was brought to Lincoln by the Reverend Thomas C. Teasdale, D.D. He and Lincoln needed no introduction. Lincoln recognized and greeted him as a former Baptist minister in Springfield, Illinois. Now Teasdale was seeking to raise funds for the Orphans’ Home of the State of Mississippi, devoted chiefly to the care of children whose fathers had been killed by Union soldiers. Lincoln smiled. ‘You ask me to give you relief in a case of distress, just such as we have been striving to produce.’ To this Lincoln added, according to Dr. Teasdale, ‘We want to bring you rebels into such straits that you will be willing to give up this wicked rebellion.’ Jefferson Davis had written on the petition of the Orphans’ Home board his endorsement of it as a ‘praiseworthy effort.’ To this Lincoln added his written instruction to the Union military commander in the area where Dr. Teasdale was to operate. Dated March 18, 1865, it read: ‘Gen. Canby is authorized, but not ordered, to give Rev. Mr. Teasdale such facilities in the within matters, as he, in his discretion, may see fit.'”37

Next Dr. Teasdale told the President he was traveling without a pass Lincoln began writing a pass. Mr. Teasdale suggested he should like to take some baggage. Mr. Lincoln, pleasantly: ‘Now you bother me again. How much baggage would you like to take with you?’ ‘Well, Mr. President a good deal, sir. You folks have made some things rather scarce with us down as to suit you, I reckon.’ And it read: ‘Pass the Rev. Thomas Teasdale through our lines going South, with convenient baggage.'”38

Historian William Zornow wrote: “Various churches in the North had been converted to an active support of the war effort since 1861. Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Congregationalists had taken a conservative stand in relation to the slavery controversy in the period before 1860. It was generally true that once the fighting began Lincoln drew much support from Protestantism. Most ministers regarded the conflict as an issue of human freedom. The Congregational church, for example, proclaimed early in the war that it was a struggle in which ‘every Christian may rise from his knew to shoulder his rifle.’ Methodist Bishops Matthew Simpson, Thomas A. Morris, and Edward R. Ames threw their support to the administration.” New Jersey Congressman James M. Scovel went to the White House after a trip through Pennsylvania in mid-1863. “Boy, what news from your pilgrimage beyond the Alleghanies?” asked Mr. Lincoln. Scovel recalled: “Never had I seen that face light up with such a burst of gladness as when I answered: ‘Have no fear of Pennsylvania. The Methodist preachers are all on the stump for Lincoln and Curtin, and the young women are wearing rosettes with the names entwined…'”39

President Lincoln recognized the importance of such clergy – in support of his spiritually and politically. They were welcome for audiences with the President – singlely or collectively. Often in 1861 and 1862, they came to press the case for emancipation. When Dr. Byron Sunderland, chaplain of the Senate, visited President Lincoln shortly before the Proclamation of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he began by saying: “I have come, Mr. President, to anticipate the New Year with my respects, and if I may, to say to you a word about the country.” The President replied: “Go ahead, Doctor, every little bit helps.” But Dr. Sunderland’s self-righteousness could be grating. “The President found it hard to be patient with some clergymen, especially with those who were perfectly certain that they knew exactly how the nation should proceed,”wrote Elton Trueblood in Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish. “Prime examples of such certitude were provided by both the clergy who belonged to the peace party and those who were extreme Abolitionists. ‘I am approached,’ said Lincoln, ‘with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will.'”40

Among the most frequent visitors were Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson, who spoke widely across the north in support of the war effort. He shared his insights with the President and sought favors for his church. Among the Methodists’ concerns was that one of their number be appointed to the Cabinet. They finally achieved their objective in early 1865 when the President nominated Iowa Senator James Harlan to replace John P. Usher as Secretary of the Interior. Carwardine wrote that “in recognition of the [Methodist] Church’s sheer numbers and reputation for full-blooded Unionism, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton showered army contracts on Methodist laymen. He also, in 1863, put at Bishop Edward Ames’s disposal those ‘secessionist’ southern Methodist meeting houses in vanquished areas lacking a loyal ministry.”41

Army Chaplain John Eaton recalled one of Bishop’s Simpson’s more famous speeches: “Bishop Simpson was advertised to deliver an address, widely known at the time, on ‘The Providence of God as seen in Our War.’ He spoke in the Methodist Church at the corner of Four-and-a-half and F Streets. I made it a point to attend, and betook myself early to the church in anticipation of a crowd. I was shown by the usher to a vacant pew near the centre. Presently, as the church filled up, the Secretary of War came in and was shown to a seat immediately in front of me, and a little later Mr. Lincoln entered the pew in front of him. When the sermon was over and I was preparing to find my way out, the Bishop was escorted to the President’s pew, and the soldiers, as was always the case whenever Mr. Lincoln appeared, began to flock about him, completely blocking the pews and making egress impossible. I thus heard the President express to Bishop Simpson his satisfaction with the way in which the Bishop had traced the course of events bearing on the progress of the country. With his customary gleam of humor, the President added, ‘But, Bishop, you did not ‘strike ‘ile.” This was widely reported in the press at the time, for the discovery of the great oil fields was new then. It certainly illustrated Lincoln’s shrewd appreciation of current events.”42

Mr. Lincoln’s relations with the Methodists were not all easy. They had political goals and conflicts with military authorities that they wished adjudicated by the President. Robert D. Clark, author of The Life of Matthew Simpson wrote: “The conflict between the bishops and the President was…far from open warfare. Still playing for Lincoln’s favor, the general conference of 1864 passed a series of resolutions and detailed a committee under the chairmanship of Bishop Ames to present them to Lincoln in person. The resolutions, affirming the duty of Christian ministers and citizens to do all in their power ‘to sustain the Government,’ and asserting the loyalty and devotion of the church ‘to the best interests of the country,’ pledged remembrance of the President and his chief officers in ‘never-ceasing prayer,’ called upon the government to prosecute the war ‘until this wicked rebellion be subdued,’ and demanded the outlawing of slavery by constitutional amendment.” In response to the Methodist memorial presented to him on May 18, President Lincoln said: “In response to your address, allow me to attest the accuracy of it’s historical statements; indorse the sentiments it expresses; and thank you, in the nation’s name, for the sure promise it gives. ” Nobly sustained as the government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might, in the least, appear invidious against any. Yet, without this, it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the best, is, by it’s greater number, the most important of all. It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to Heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church–bless all the churches–and blessed be God, Who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches.”43

Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “It is no overstatement, then, to suppose that the combined religious engines of the Union – and the motor of evangelical Protestantism in particular – did more than any other single force to mobilize support for the war.” Carwardine wrote: “The Kentucky Presbyterian, Robert Breckinridge, who chaired the party’s Baltimore convention in June, was only one of hundreds of ministers who adorned National Union platforms and took to the stump. In Chillicothe, Ohio, Granville Moody opened the party’s campaign with a three-hour speech liberally interspersed with hymn-signing, prayer and Scripture readings on the duty of loyalty. Thomas Eddy drove himself to exhaustion as he engaged in an unending round of war and camp meetings, election speeches, political sermons, addresses to troops and – as a Methodist newspaper editor – of religio-political journalism. The National Union Committee employed Henry Ward Beecher to speak in the final stages of the campaign. Matthew Simpson, at the request of local Republican organizers, delivered his celebrated war speech – a set-piece tour de force – at the New York Academy of Music just a few days before the poll, in the presence of the Tribune and the city’s other newspapers: though avoiding conspicuous partisanship, the bishop left no one in any doubt that his celebration of national greatness amounted to a passionate call to sustain the ‘railsplitter…President.'”44

Jews as well as Christian presented their support to the President. Journalist Noah Brooks reported that in October “a deputation of Hebrews from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore called upon the President to present him with an address, assuring him that their people, as a body, were in favor of his re-election. These men were chiefly priests, and assured the President they had heretofore mingled in politics, and that the address presented had been read and adopted in their good wishes and promises, and reminded them that he was only the exponent of the wishes and opinions of a portion of the loyal States, and while he was President he had no right to seek personal political favors at the hands of any, but he believed that the support of the principles of the so-called Union party of the country, whoever might now be its nominee, was a more effectual way of putting down this rebellion than the contrary course. The delegation departed, hugely pleased at their reception, and wonderfully surprised at the frank, simple way with which the President disposed of their address.”45

Historian William C. Harris wrote that Methodist “Bishop Gilbert Haven of New England in a sermon preached in Boston on 11 September admonished all Methodists to ‘march to the ballot-box, an army of Christ…and deposit a million of votes for [the church’s] true representative, and…the final blow’ will be given ‘t the reeling [rebel] field.’ Haven insisted that ‘the Church must do her duty in this hour, and that duty is, by every righteous means in her power to secure the reelection of Abraham Lincoln.’ Except for Kentucky pastors, few Methodist ministers or army chaplains during the campaign failed to preach the pure Union gospel from their pulpits. On 6 September Lincoln reportedly remarked to Joseph H. Thompson, a New York Congregation minister, that ‘I rely upon the religious sentiment of the country’ in this election, ‘which I am told is very largely for me.'” Harris wrote: “Protestant leaders and editors, who had vigorously supported Lincoln during the campaign, saw the election results as a marvelous victory for God’s purposes in the war.”46

Historian William Zornow wrote: “By the election year most of the Protestant faiths were firmly committed to supporting the administration in the war effort. The united Presbyterian church, which had considerable strength in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, held a general assembly in Philadelphia, on June 2, 1864, and adopted a resolution expressing ‘deep sympathy and earnest co-operation’ with the government. The General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian church met in the same city on May 18 and declared that it was the church’s duty to ‘encourage and sustain the government…in all they do for the…freedom of the enslaved, the mitigation of the inevitable evils of war, and the preservation, at all hazards, of the national life, integrity, and power.”47

Mr. Lincoln’s national political support among the clergy in 1864 was in stark contrast to his Springfield experience in 1860. Historian Carwardine wrote of 1864: “‘There probably never was an election in all history into which the religious element entered so largely, and so nearly all on one side.’ We lack hard statistical proof to sustain this judgment of the Christian Advocate and Journal, the chief Methodist newspaper, on the outcome of the 1864 campaign. But the impressionistic evidence is very powerful that the big evangelical denominations, and the small, radical antislavery churches, together with the Unitarians and other liberal Protestant groups, swung behind the Lincoln in even greater proportions than they had in 1860.'”48

Death played an important role in Mr. Lincoln’s relationships with ministers of the Presbyterian Church. It was only after Edward Baker Lincoln died that Mr. Lincoln developed a friendship with Dr. James Smith of the First Presbyterian Church. Dr. Smith conducted the funeral service. It was after Dr. Phineas Gurley officiated at the death of Willie Lincoln in February 1862 that Rev. Gurley and President Lincoln drew closer. Dr. Gurley was pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington where the Lincoln family often worshiped. Dr. Gurley was also a frequent visitor at the White House and was present at President Lincoln’s bedside to say a prayer after he died. He gave the homily at the White House funeral three days later. Lincoln scholar Lloyd Lewis wrote of President Lincoln’s funeral : “First to arrive were sixty clergymen, ‘among them,’ said the newspapers, ‘the Rev. Robert Pattison of the Methodist Church,’ who though of slaveholding people, ‘yet followed Lincoln to the grave as the apostles did the interred on Calvary.’ They came to the White House through crowds already beginning to stifle. Inside the East Room they took their places at the far south end and waited.”49


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, “James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, p. 396-397.
  2. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Washington: The Capital City and its Part in the History of the Nation, pp. 238-239.
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VII, p. 75 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Stephen A. Hurlbut, December 17, 1863).
  4. Ida Tarbell, Abraham Lincoln and His Ancestors, pp. 226-227.
  5. Thomas F. Schwartz and Kim M. Bauer, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1996 (Letter of INtroduction for Noyes W. Miner, October 22, 1873).
  6. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 53.
  7. Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, p. 160.
  8. H. Donald Winkler, The Women in Lincoln’s Life, p. 47.
  9. Donald W. Riddle, Lincoln Runs for Congress, p. 164.
  10. CWAL, Volume I, p. 382 (Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity, July 31, 1846).
  11. Josiah G. Holland, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 236 (a letter from Newton Bateman to Josiah G. Holland, June 19, 1865). Bateman’s statements about Mr. Lincoln’s religious beliefs have frequently been called into question as wishful thinking on Bateman’s behalf.
  12. Alexander K. McClure, Yarns and Stories, pp. 110-112.
  13. Michael Burlingame, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 31 (September 22, 1861).
  14. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary, pp. 30.
  15. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, pp. 289.
  16. Allen G. Guelzo, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Winter 2002 p. 50 (Letter of J.T. Duryea to Josiah G. Holland, undated).
  17. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary, pp. 30, 176-177.
  18. CWAL, Volume V, p. 40 (Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861).
  19. Lucas E. Morel, Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government, pp. 101-102.
  20. CWAL, Volume V, p. 53 (Form Letter to Chaplains, December 3, 1861).
  21. Lucas E. Morel, Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government, pp. 101-102.
  22. CWAL, Volume V, pp. 212-213 (Response to Evangelical Lutherans , May 13, 1862).
  23. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary, pp. 30, 176-177.
  24. CWAL, Volume V, pp. 278-279 (New York Tribune, June 21, 1862).
  25. Daniel Bassuk, Lincoln and the Quakers, pp. 16-17.
  26. CWAL Volume V, p. 478 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Eliza P. Gurney, September 4, 1864).
  27. CWAL Volume VII, p. 536 (Letter from Eliza Gurney to Abraham Lincoln August 8, 1863).
  28. CWAL Volume VII, p. 535 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Eliza Gurney, September 4, 1864).
  29. Daniel Bassuk, Lincoln and the Quakers, p. 10.
  30. Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, p.197 CWAL, Volume V, p. 420 (Reply to Emancipation Memorial Presented by Chicago Christians of All Denominations, September 13, 1862).
  31. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 334-335 (Schuyler Colfax).
  32. Ray B. Browne, editor, Lincoln-Lore: Lincoln in the Popular Mind, p. 71.
  33. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, pp. 269-270. CWAL, Volume, VI, pp. 244-245 (Reply to Members of the Presbyterian General Assembly, October 24, 1863).
  34. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p.359 (Robert Brewster Stanton, Century Magazine, February 1920).
  35. CWAL, Volume VII, pp. 223 (Memorandum About Churches, March 4, 1864).
  36. Michael Burlingame, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 87.
  37. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, pp. 127-128.
  38. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, pp. 127-128.
  39. William Zornow, Lincoln & the Party Divided. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 521 (James M. Scovel, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, August 1889, February 1893, February 1899).
  40. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, pp. 11-12. Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish, p. 107-108.
  41. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p.270.
  42. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 181.
  43. Robert D. Clark, The Life of Matthew Simpson, pp. 269-271. CWAL, Volume VII, pp. 350-351 (Response to Methodists, May 18, 1864).
  44. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, pp. 273, 288.
  45. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 139 (October 19, 1864).
  46. Charles M. Hubbard, editor, Lincoln Reshapes the Presidency, p. 194 (William C. Harris, “Lincoln’s Role in the Presidential Election of 1864″). William C. Harris, Lincoln’s Last Months, p. 39.
  47. William Frank Zornow, Lincoln & the Party Divided, pp. 213-214. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 35 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, December 7, 1863).
  48. Susan-Mary Grant, Brian Holden-Reid, editors, Themes of the American Civil War: The War Between the States, p. 146 (Richard J. Carwardine).
  49. Lloyd Lewis, Myths After Lincoln, p. 111.