Abraham Lincoln’s Faith
William Wolf, William E. Barton, The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln
(Doubleday, 1959 and George H. Doran, 1920)
In December 1864, President Abraham Lincoln wrote out a story for his friend, journalist Noah Brooks. It was entitled: The President’s Last, Shortest and Best Speech. It read: “On Thursday of last week two ladies from Tennessee came before the President asking the release of their husbands held as prisoners of war at Johnson’s Island. They were put off till Friday, when they came again; and were again put off to Saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On Saturday the President ordered the release of the prisoners, and then said to this lady ‘You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other mens faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven!”1
Abraham Lincoln was then and still is a religious enigma. Lincoln aide John G. Nicolay wrote: “Benevolence and forgiveness were the very basis of his character. His nature was deeply religious, but he belonged to no denomination; he had faith in the eternal justice and boundless mercy of Providence, and made the Golden Rule of Christ his practical creed.”2 Another aide, John Hay, wrote of Mr. Lincoln: “He belonged to no Church. Yet he was the uncanonized saint of all the Churches. He never uttered a prayer in public. Yet prayers for him fastened our cause daily with golden chains around the feet of God.”3 A third aide, Baptist William O. Stoddard, wrote: “President Lincoln was deeply and genuinely religious, without being in any way what may be called a religionist. His religion was in his faith and his life rather than in any profession. So far as I know, his religious belief or opinions never, at any period of his life, took the shape of a formal profession. His nature was not at all enthusiastic, and his mind was subject to none of the fevers which pass with the weak and shallow for religious fervor, and in this, as in all other things, he was too thoroughly honest to assume that which he did not feel.”4
Connecticut Congressman H. C. Deming recalled that once when “the conversation turned upon religious subjects, and Mr. Lincoln made this impressive remark: ‘I have never united myself to any church, because I have found difficulty in giving my assent, without mental reservation, to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their Articles of Belief and Confessions of Faith. When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership,’ he continued, ‘the Saviour’s condensed statement of the substance of both Law and Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will I join will all my heart and all my soul.”5
“His criticism of the churches of his day was that they neglected this fundamental love of God and of neighbor by too much introverted attention upon correctness in theological opinion. Prophetically Lincoln saw that concern for orthodoxy substituted for practical obedience,” wrote religious historian William Wolf. “This perspective in Lincoln must not be confused, however, with another view that the churches themselves should not mix in politics. He took a dim view of preachers who used the pulpit for politics and said he preferred those who preached’ the gospel.’ By this, however, he meant that the layman’s task was to put this gospel to work not merely in individual piety, although certainly there, but also in responsible political activity. As a biblical believer Lincoln saw God dealing with men not merely as isolated individuals with capacities for piety but as men in social orders that answerable to the Almighty.”6
Mr. Lincoln’s religious statements and supposed beliefs continue to confound. Historian Nicholas Parrillo wrote: “While Lincoln’s statements on religion were at times profound, they were never lengthy or great in number. Some historians have tried to fill in the picture by using the reminiscences of people who knew Lincoln, but these sources entail problems of their own. Authors of reminiscences suffered from the tricks of memory. Further, they were especially tempted to bias their accounts when talking about religion, for after Lincoln was murdered and consequently canonized as a national saint, a heated controversy ensued over what religious group might claim him.”7 Nevertheless, noted church historian Mark A. Noll, “Lincoln’s speeches and conversation revealed a spiritual perception far above the ordinary. It is one of the great ironies of the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation’s deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity.”8
In truth, Lincoln’s religion was never conventional. He was as impious as a child as his parents were pious. While he accepted the antislavery dogma of the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church in which he grew up, he never adopted the fatalism of Calvinist predestination. He worshiped at the altar of reason and law. Reason for Mr. Lincoln was a refuge in an unreasonable world. Man’s power was limited, but God was omnipotent. As a young man, he thought reason would solve everything. As a mature man, he grew to believe that only Providence could or would. Mr. Lincoln was open to revelation but skeptical of revelations delivered by self-appointed messengers. When a group of northern ministers pressed him on emancipation in September 1862, President Lincoln said: “I hope it will be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect for a direct revelation.”9
Like his close friend Joshua Speed, Mr. Lincoln was a skeptic – he looked for proof for everything. Over the years, Herndon’s allegation of Lincoln’s heresy, although questioned and amended, has been largely adopted as historical gospel. It is generally admitted that Abraham Lincoln was a religious man, although an unorthodox one. About that there is little controversy. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, interviewed the President prior to writing a profile for a Boston religious magazine. Mrs. Stowe, herself the sister of a famous New York abolitionist preacher, wrote: “In our times of our trouble Abraham Lincoln has had his turn of being the best abused man of our nation. Like Moses leading his Israel through the wilderness, he has seen the day when every man seemed ready to stone him, and yet, with simple, wiry, steady perseverance, he has held on, conscious of honest intentions, and looking to God for help. All the nation have felt, in the increasing solemnity of his proclamations and papers, how deep an education was being wrought in his mind by this simple faith in God, the rule of nations, and this humble willingness to learn the awful lessons of his providence.” Mrs. Stowe recognized that Lincoln was not a conventional Christian, but “we see evidence in passing through this dreadful national crisis he has been forced by the very anguish of the struggle to look upward, where any rational creature must look for support.”10
Lincoln’s attitudes towards religion originally were formed by attendance at the Little Pigeon Creek Church near his boyhood home in Indiana. Lincoln scholar M. L. Houser wrote: “The members of the Little Pigeon Creek congregation were opposed to a paid ministry, and were also strongly anti-missionary.”11 Young Lincoln himself had a strong disposition that he could imitate the church’s preachers. “I will tell you a circumstance about him. He would come home from church, put a box in the middle of the cabin floor, and repeat the sermon from text to doxology. I’ve heard him do it often,” recalled one contemporary.12 Young Lincoln did it well as a child. He did it better as an adult when his works like the Second Inaugural had a strong religious themes.
“When father and Mother would go to church, Abe would take down the Bible, read a verse – give out a hymn – we would sing,” recalled stepsister Matilda Johnson. Young Abe “preached & we would do the Crying – sometimes he would join in the Chorus of Tears. One day my brother John Johnston caught a land terrapin – brought it to the place where Abe was preaching – threw it against the tree – crushed the shell and it Suffered much quivered all over Abe preached against Cruelty to animals, Contending that an ant’s life was to it, as sweet as ours to us.”13
Religious scholar Ronald C. White, Jr., noted that “If Lincoln enjoyed spoofing the sermons of frontier preachers as a young boy, the mature man employed a form of speech resembling sermons as old as the New England Puritans and as contemporary as the discourses of he evangelical abolitionists.”14 As Mr. Lincoln grew older, he developed a reputation as a religious skeptic, but he also shared a profound respect for those with a deeper faith than he possessed. One Illinois contemporary, Gilbert Greene, recalled a side to young Lincoln that was seldom seen: “One day Mr. Lincoln said to me, ‘Gilbert, there is a woman dangerously sick fifteen miles in the country who has sent for me to write her will. I should like to have you accompany me.’ I cheerfully accepted the invitation. When we arrived the woman had but a few hours to live. After the will had been written, signed and witnessed, the dying woman said to Mr. Lincoln, – ‘Now, I have my affairs in this world arranged satisfactorily. I have also made preparation for the life to come. I do not fear death. I am glad that I am soon to meet those who have gone before.’ Mr. Lincoln replied, – ‘Your faith in God is wise and strong. Your hope of a future life is blessed.’ She asked him then if he would not read a few verses from the Bible. They offered him the Book; he did not take it, but began reciting from memory the 23rdrd Psalm. Then he quoted the first part of the 14thth chapter of John, – ‘In my father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.’ After he had given these and other quotations from the Scriptures he recited several hymns, closing with ‘Rock of Ages, Cleft for me.'” Gilbert recalled: “A little while after the woman passed to her reward. As we rode home in the buggy I expressed surprise that he should have acted as pastor as well as attorney so perfectly, and he replied, ‘God and eternity were very near me today.'”15
Much of young Lincoln’s time in New Salem was split between the small community’s believers and its skeptics. Historian Michael Nelson wrote: “Working a variety of jobs and spending much of his free time at the general store, Lincoln was drawn to a crowd of cracker-barrel freethinkers who passed around well-worn copies of two popular works of the Enlightenment; Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Constantin-Francois de Volney’s Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolution of Empires.”16
Many contemporaries testified to his early skepticism. “When I knew him in early life, he was a skeptic,” said friend Joshua F. Speed with whom Mr. Lincoln roomed in Springfield. “He had tried hard to be a believer, but his reason could not grasp and solve the great problem of redemption as taught. He was very cautious never to give expression to any thought or sentiment that would grate harshly upon a Christian’s ear. For a sincere Christian he had great respect. He often said that the most ambitious man might live to see every hope fail; but, no Christian could live to see his fail, because fulfillment could only come when life ended.”17 Noted friend William Jayne, “I believe that Mr. Lincoln was by nature a deeply religious man. But have I seen no evidence that he ever accepted the formulated creed of any sect or denomination. I should say that all churches had his respect and good wishes.”18 President Lincoln told friend Joshua F. Speed: “Speed, you had better be without money than without religion.” 19
Mr. Lincoln’s skepticism followed him to Springfield. James Matheny knew Mr. Lincoln in the mid-1830s and later charged that he “used to talk Infidelity in the Clerks office in the city about the years 1837-40. Lincoln attacked the Bible and new Testament on two grounds 1stst From the inherent or apparent contradiction under its lids & 2dly From the grounds of Reason. Sometimes Lincoln bordered on absolute Atheism: he went far that way & often shocked me.”20 But like Mr. Lincoln, Matheny’s views also changed with time, noted Lincoln biographer William E. Barton.
Based on Matheny’s testimony, William Herndon popularized the notion that Mr. Lincoln had written a shockingly irreverent tract as a young man in New Salem. Herndon wrote: “James H. Matheny tells me that from about 1854 to 1860 Lincoln played a sharp game here on the religious world, that Lincoln knew that he was to be a great man, was a rising man, was looking to the Presidency, etc., and well knowing that the old infidel, if not atheistic, charge would be made and proved against him, and to avoid the disgrace, odium, and unpopularity of it, trampled on the Christian toes, saying: ‘Come and convert me.’ The elders, lower and higher members of the churches, including ministers, etc., flocked around him and that he appeared openly to the world as a seeker after salvation, etc., in the Lord; that letters were written more or less all over the land that Lincoln was soon to be a changed man, etc., and thus was he used the Reverend James Smith of Scotland, old man Bergen, and others.”21
Mr. Lincoln’s early religious thinking is clouded by faulty and contradictory memories of his contemporaries. William Wolf wrote: “No one ever offered direct evidence that he had himself read or heard read this supposed essay on ‘infidelity.’ There is another theory about the lost book reputedly burned by Hill. This version holds that youngsters in the village found a sizable letter written by Hill but somehow dropped by him. They returned it to Lincoln, the village postmaster, and as he was reading it aloud, possibly for purposes of identification, Hill, wanting to keep its contents a private matter, snatched the letter away and threw it into the flames. This version, however, has obvious difficulties.”
“Still another piece of testimony claims that Lincoln wrote an essay in defense of his own interpretation of christianity. It would be easy in that contentious atmosphere to see how the later story of an infidel book might have grown up. In the light of Lincoln’s own denial of infidelity in the handbill of 1846 this explanation has more to commend it than Herndon’s dramatic tale or the ‘Hill letter’ theory. It is further strengthened in coming directly from Mentor Graham, Lincoln’s New Salem tutor and reputed helper in early speech writing.”22
New Salem resident Mentor Graham had a very different story of Mr. Lincoln’s tract-writing: “Abraham Lincoln was living at my house in New Salem, going to school, studying English grammar and survey, in the year 1833. One morning he said to me, ‘Graham, what do you think about the anger of the Lord? I replied, ‘I believe the Lord never was angry or mad and never would be; that His loving kindness endures forever; that He never changes.’ Said Lincoln, ‘I have a little manuscript written, which I will show you’; and stated he thought of having it published. Offering it to me, he said he had never showed it to anyone, and still thought of having it published. The size of the manuscript was about one-half quire of foolscap, written in a very plain hand, on the subject of Christianity and a defense of universal salvation. The commencement of it was something respecting the God of the universe never being excited, mad or angry. I had the manuscript in my possession some week or ten days. I have read many books on the subject of theology and I don’t think in point of perspicuity and plainness of reasoning, I ever read one to surpass it. I remember well his argument. He took the passage, ‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,’ and followed up with the proposition that whatever the breach or injury of Adam’s transgressions to the human race was, which no doubt was very great, was made just and right by the atonement of Christ.'”23
Nevertheless, the evidence for skepticism on Mr. Lincoln’s part during this period of his life is strong. Fellow attorney Milton Hay wrote: “Candor compels me to say that at this period, Mr. Lincoln could hardly be termed a devout believer in the authenticity of the Bible (but this is for your ear only).”24 Law partner William H. Herndon forcefully argued that Mr. Lincoln was a religious skeptic. He wrote: “As already expressed, Mr. Lincoln had no faith. In order to believe, he must see and feel, and thrust his hand into the place. He must taste, smell, and handle before he had faith or even belief. Such a mind manifestly must have its time. His forte and power lay in digging out for himself and securing for his mind its own food, to be assimilated unto itself. Thus, in time he would form opinions and conclusions that no human power could overthrow. They were as irresistible as the rush of a flood; as convincing as logic embodied in mathematics. And yet the question arises: ‘Had Mr. Lincoln great, good common-sense?’ A variety of opinions suggest themselves in answer to this. If the true test is that a man shall judge the rush and whirl of human actions and transactions as wisely and accurately as though indefinite time and proper conditions were at his disposal, then I am compelled to follow the logic of things and admit that he had no great stock of common sense; but if, on the other hand, the time and conditions were ripe, his common-sense was in every case equal to the emergency. He knew himself, and never trusted his dollar or his fame in causal opinions never acted hastily or prematurely on great matters.25
Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Though James Matheny suggested that the only change to occur was in Lincoln’s greater discretion, not his views, which Matheny thought remained skeptical (at least up to 1861), there are reasonable grounds for believing that the mature Lincoln of the 1850s was more receptive to Protestant orthodoxy than he had been twenty years earlier. Then the essential elements of Lincoln’s religious outlook surely contributed to the new tone and substance of his speeches following his return to politics in 1854. For the first time he devoted whole speeches to the question of slavery, including its corrosive effect on individual enterprise and aspiration, and found a moral edge for which political opportunism provides only the shallowest of explanations.”26 Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote; “Lincoln’s own failure to establish a recognizable religious profile had long been, as he well knew, a major political liability; as early as 1837, he was aware that his political enemies were asking ‘an old acquaintance of mine’ whether ‘he ever heard Lincoln say he was a deist,’ and in 1843 he acknowledged that ‘because I belonged to no church,’ he had suffered ‘a tax of considerable per cent, upon my strength throughout the religious community.”27 The problem was aggravated in his 1846 congressional campaign against Democrat Peter Cartwright, who was a well-known Methodist circuit-rider.
Historian Donald W. Riddle noted that Mr. Lincoln’s religious orthodoxy was. “Peter Cartwright allowed his professional zeal to mislead him into making use of a campaign argument of questionable propriety, when he alleged that Lincoln was an ‘infidel,’ and no fit representative of Christian people. Report of Cartwright’s campaign tactic was made to Lincoln, who took it seriously enough to cause a small handbill to be printed in which he refuted the charge. This was circulated in the northern part of the district, where Cartwright’s charge appeared to be having some effect. Lincoln’s friend, Dr. Robert Boal, some years later wrote to Richard Yates, recalling that ‘Cartwright sneaked through this part of the district after Lincoln, and grossly misrepresented him.’ Lincoln concluded, on the basis of the election returns, that because of Cartwright’s raising of the religious issue he had lost some votes in the localities where he was less well known. He was the more exasperated because Cartwright had made his charges in a ‘whispering campaign’ almost on the eve of the election, so that Lincoln could not effectively counter them.”28
In response to the rumors and criticism Lincoln wrote an unusual public statement: “A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity. 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; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing this, however, I have entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.”29 During the congressional campaign Lincoln supposedly attended a revival meeting conducted by Cartright. When Cartright asked everyone in attendance who did not want to go to hell to stand, Lincoln stayed seated, so Cartright asked where Lincoln was going. “Brother Cartwright asked me directly where I am going. I desire to reply with equal directness,” said Lincoln before walking out. “I am going to Congress.”30
Historian Roy D. Packard wrote: “Lincoln resisted creeds and forms because he could not reconcile them with his own thinking of what religion should consist. His inquiring mind was never receptive to that which he could not reduce to essential elements. It has been said that he made no pretense to knowledge concerning those questions which ‘theologians deal with so flippantly.’ And he could not join the church, thereby subscribing to a belief in doctrines which he privately admitted were beyond his full understanding. A solitary reasoner, he would accept only his own decisions. ‘If there were any traits of character that stood out in bold relief in the person of Mr. Lincoln,’ wrote one of his associates, ‘they were those of truth and candor. He was utterly incapable of insincerity or professing views on any subject that he did not entertain.”31
Mr. Lincoln clearly had trouble with some religious doctrines. President Lincoln himself once told a visiting clergyman: “Elder Benjamn H. Smith, I understand your explanation of foreordination, election, and predestination; I understand your plea for a return to the apostolic order of things religious; but the way preachers have generally explained these things, the more they explained, the less I understood them, and my mind got more and more muddled. And I must confess that the latter story sometimes expresses a state of my mind that to me is dangerous. The preachers have preached and talked this ‘miraculous conversion’ and such other (to me) very absurd theories of religion and given such contradictory explanations of the Bible, that I have honestly at times doubted the whole thing.”32
Mr. Lincoln’s religious interest was intensified by the death of the Lincoln’s second son, Eddie, a month short of his fourth birthday in 1850. Controversy surrounds a claim by Dr. James Smith that Mr. Lincoln subsequently had made a religious profession. Dr. Smith testified: “The Episcopalian rector, an excellent clergyman, being temporarily absent, could not be present to conduct the burial service, and I was called to officiate at the funeral. This led me to an intimate acquaintance with the family, and grew into an enduring and confidential friendship between Mr. Lincoln and myself. One result was that the wife and mother returned to her ancestral church, and the husband and father very willingly came with her, and ever since has been a constant attendant upon my ministry.33 Brother-in-law Ninian Edwards testified: “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 am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.'” 34 Scholar William Wolf wrote: “Thomas Lewis, a Springfield lawyer and deacon of the church Lincoln attended, and John T. Stuart, his early law partner, both spoke of the impact of Dr. Smith’s book on Lincoln. Ninian Edwards, his brother-in-law, reported Lincoln told him, ‘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 am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.'”35
John Todd Stuart later wrote: “Dr. Smith, then pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, at the suggestion of a lady friend of theirs, called upon Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln and that first visit resulted in great intimacy and friendship between them, lasting until the death of Mr. Lincoln and continuing with Mrs. Lincoln until the death of Dr. Smith…I stated however that it was certainly true that up to that time Mr. Lincoln had never regularly attended any place of religious worship, but that after he rented a pew in the First Presbyterian Church, and that his family constantly attended the worship in that church until he went to Washington as president. This much I said at that time and can now add that the Hon Ninian Edwards, the brother-in-law of Mr. Lincoln, had within a few days informed me that when Mr. Lincoln commenced attending the Presbyterian Church, he admitted to him that his views had undergone the change claimed by Dr. Smith. I would further say that Dr. Smith was a man of very great ability and that on theological and metaphysical subjects, had few superiors and not many equals. Truthfulness was a prominent trait in Mr. Lincoln’s character and it would be impossible for any intimate friend of his to believe that he ever aimed to deceive either by his words or conduct.”36
Dr. Smith wrote to William Herndon in January 1867: “Your letter of the 20thth of December was duly received, in which you ask me to answer several questions in relation to the illustrious President, Abraham Lincoln. With regard to your second question, I beg leave to say 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 Scriptures. And I hold that it is a matter of greatest importance, not only to the present but to all future generations of the great Republic and to all advocates of civil and religious liberty throughout the world, that this avowal on his part and the circumstances attending it, together with very interesting incidents illustrative of the excellence of his character in my possession should be made known to the public. My intercourse with Abraham Lincoln convinced me that he was not only an honest man, but preeminently an upright man, ever seeking, so far as was in his power, to render unto all their due. It was my honour to place before Mr. Lincoln arguments designed to prove the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, accompanied by arguments of infidel objectors in their own language. To the arguments on both sides, Mr. Lincoln gave a most patient 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. I could say much more on the subject, but as you are the person addressed, for the present I decline. The assassin Booth, by his diabolical act, unwittingly sent the illustrious martyr to glory, honour, and immortality, but his false friend has attempted to send him down to posterity with infamy branded on his forehead, as a man who, notwithstanding all he suffered for his country’s good, was destitute to those feelings and affections without which there can be no excellency of character.”37 Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Robert Todd Lincoln told Herndon years later that he never remembered ‘Dr. Smith’s having ‘converted’ my father…nor do I know that he held any decided views on the subject as I never heard him speak of it.’ John Todd Stuart knew that Smith ‘tried to Convert Lincoln from Infidelity so late as 1858 and Couldn’t do it.'”38
Mary Todd Lincoln joined Dr. Smith’s church in 1852 while her husband was away on the circuit. She had been baptized and brought up an Episcopalian. Her husband had been brought a Baptist but had never been baptized a requirement for joining the Presbyterian Church. “Since Abraham Lincoln would have to follow the full process in order to join, he may have been reluctant or did not have the time for it. In any event, Abraham Lincoln donated and regularly paid his $50.00 per year rent for Pew No. 20 which was located on the East side of the center aisle, in the fifth row from the front. He attended when could,” wrote historian Robert J. Havlik. Rev. Smith reported that Mr. Lincoln himself spoke to the Springfield Bible Society: “It seems to me that 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 me in all conditions of life and includes all the duties they owe to their Creator, to themselves, and to their fellow men.”39
Lincoln historian Wayne Temple wrote: “Mary Lincoln divulged to John Todd Stuart on December 15, 1873, that her husband’s heart ‘was naturally religious.’ However, she carefully pointed out to William H. Herndon in the St. Nicholas Hotel at Springfield, Illinois, on September 5, 1866, that her husband had never joined any church. Gleefully, Billy Herndon announced in his lecture on Lincoln’s Religion, published in the Illinois State Register as a supplement on December 13, 1873, that the sorrowing widow had admitted that Abraham Lincoln had not technically been a Christian. True enough; Lincoln had never joined any denomination, and that should have put the matter to rest, but it did not.”
Perhaps an old Springfield friend and neighbor, Dr. William Jayne, gave one of the best answers when he declared that “Mr. Lincoln was by nature a deeply religious man. But I have no evidence that he ever accepted the formulated creed of any sect or denomination. I know that all churches had his profound respect and support.” Lincoln, said Dr. Jayne, had an “enduring and abundant religious faith in the relations between God and his immortal soul.” “It is now beyond the realm of controversy,” explained Dr. Jayne, “that Lincoln loved, honored, and revered Almighty God.”40
Mr. Lincoln’s deepening religiosity corresponded with his fervent anti-slavery sermons during the 1850s – which were delivered as political speeches. Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote that Lincoln friend “Joseph Gillespie recorded the animation and almost Puritan earnestness with which Lincoln discussed the need to challenge slavery’s moral and social evils: ostentatious wealth, enervating leisure and a view of injustice and an enormous national crime’: the country, he told Gillespie, ‘could not expect to escape punishment for it’. Surfacing here in Lincoln’s thought was the Calvinist view of the political nation as a moral being. God punished wicked nations for their sins, just as he punished delinquent individuals.” 41 Richard Yates, the wartime governor of Illinois, later wrote that “whatever may have been his religious views or convictions, yet nothing can be clearer than that from the day he left Springfield, until the day of his death, as all his proclamations, messages, and the testimony of many good men will show, he manifested an implicit reliance upon Divine Providence, and his faith was made sure and his arm strengthened by an unshaken conviction that the ever-living God was on our side and would preserve, unimpaired, our free institutions, a priceless heritage for ourselves and our children.”42
Most observers agree that President Lincoln strongly believed in the rule of Providence in the world. “I know that Mr. Lincoln was a firm believer in a superintending and overruling Providence, and in supernatural agencies and events,” noted Orville H. Browning. “I know that he believed the destinies of men were, or at least, that his own destiny was shaped and controlled by an intelligence and power higher and greater than his own, and which he could neither control nor thwart.”43 Jesse Fell wrote that Mr. Lincoln “fully believed in a superintending and overruling Providence that guides and control the operations of the world, but maintained that law and order, and not their violation or suspension, are the appointed means by which this Providence is exercised.”44 President Lincoln supposedly told Treasury Department official Lucius E. Chittenden:
“That the Almighty does make use of human agencies, and directly intervenes in human affairs, is one of the plainest statements of the Bible. I have had so many evidences of his directions, so many instances when I have been controlled by some other power than my own will, that I cannot doubt that this power comes from above. I frequently see my way clear to a decision when I am conscious that I have no sufficient facts upon which to found it. But I cannot recall one instance in which I have followed my own judgment founded upon such a decision, where the results were unsatisfactory; whereas, in almost every instance where I have yielded to the views of others, I have had occasion to regret it. I am satisfied that when the Almighty wants me to do or not to do a particular thing, he finds a way of letting me know it. I am confident that it is his design to restore the Union. He will do it in his own good time. We should obey and not oppose his will.”45
Historian Nicholas Parrillo wrote that “though Lincoln always subscribed to the same technical definition of providence, the role that this concept played in his rhetoric under a gradual but dramatic change during his presidency.”46 Parrillo contended that “once Lincoln became president and began to prosecute war against the Confederacy, his statements on religion took on a different cast. The notion of God that appeared in his language gravitated ever closer to that of Calvinism: an activist, independent, and judgmental God whose designed informed every single earthly event but whose purposes often seemed inscrutable to human eyes. Linked to this notion was a Calvinist-like view of humanity as utterly sinful, deserving of retribution, and entirely dependent on God in all aspects of life.”47 Scholar Jacques Barzun connected Mr. Lincoln’s belief in Providence to his consciousness of his own inadequacies: “What is clear is that Lincoln lived with the feeling of transcendence, that is, the awareness of something larger than his own consciousness and stronger than the visible acts of men. Such a feeling is not usual among those subject to depression, since depression feels like an outside power taking possession of one’s own mind and will.” 48 Historian Allen C. Guelzo observed that “Providence, in time, became a term of convenience for Lincoln: without committing him to any specific form of theism, it allowed him the psychological comfort of referring all events to an unseen control, a control that might also enjoy at least some form of recognizability as the God of his parents.”49
Lincoln’s religion was reflected in more than words. According to Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation stemmed from a promise the President made that “if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” Mr. Lincoln said: “If it were not for my firm belief in an overruling providence it would be difficult for me in the midst of such complications of affairs to keep my reason on its seat. But I am confident that the Almighty has his plans and will work them out, and whether we see it or not, they will be the wisest and best for us.”50 Even William H. Herndon acknowledged that “Mr. Lincoln was a thoroughly religious man who was a strong believer in an overruling Providence, no man more so.”51
In his unpublished, unspoken “Meditation on the Divine Will, President Lincoln wrote: “The will of God prevails – In great contests each party claims to act in accordence [sic] with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not 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 and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect this.” 52 President Lincoln believed in Providence but he never abandoned his presidential responsibilities. Lincoln’s God was not Newtonian. He intervened in history. In a letter to Kentucky editor Albert E. Hodges in April 1864, Mr. Lincoln foreshadowed his own Second Inaugural 11 months later: “If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South shall pay sorely for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the judgment and goodness of God.”53
Mr. Lincoln rarely talked about his religious beliefs to his friends. Mr. Lincoln seldom “communicated to any one his views on this Subject,” wrote Jesse Fell. “Whilst he was practically, as I certainly think, one of the best of Christians, his views on these & Kindred topics were such as to place him, in the estimation of most believers, entirely without the pale of the Christian Church; tho’ to my mind Such was not his true position, tho’ he never attached himself to any religious Society whatever.”54 Senator Orville H. Browning stayed with the Lincolns at the White House during Willie’s fatal illness in February 1862, but he later said: “What his religious views and feelings were I do not know. I heard no expression of them.” Browning wrote: “To what extent he believed in the revelations and miracles of the Bible and Testament, or whether he believed in them at all, I am not prepared to say, but I do know that he was not a scoffer at religion. During our long and intimate acquaintance and intercourse I have no recollection of ever having heard an irreverent word fall from his lips.”55 Browning’s statement came after a controversy erupted over a biography supposedly written by Lincoln friend Ward Hill Lamon but actually ghost-written by a young man who had never met Mr. Lincoln but who based his work on material collected by Lincoln law partner William H. Herndon. Sometimes, Chauncy F. Black used the truth. Often, he stretched it.
Biographer Joseph Holland also stretched testimony — in this case of State Superintendent of Instruction Newton Bateman. Bateman claimed that Mr. Lincoln discussed his faith in some depth during a lull in the presidential campaign in October 1860. In a conversation in the State Capitol, where Bateman had an office, they talked for “a long time” about religious matters. “In the course of the conversation he dwelt much upon the necessity of faith, faith in God, the christian’s God, as an element of successful statesmanship, especially in times like these; said it gave that calmness and tranquility of mind, that assurance of ultimate success, which made one firm & immoveable amid the wildest excitements. He said he believed in divine providence and recognized God in History. He also stated his belief in the duty, privilege, and efficacy of prayer, and intimated in unmistakable terms that he had sought, in that way, the divine guidance and favor.” As if anticipating the controversy that this conversation would raise in subsequent years, Bateman said he told Mr. Lincoln “that I had not supposed that he was accustomed to think so much upon that class of subjects, and that his friends generally were ignorant of the sentiments which he had expressed to me. He replied quietly: ‘I know they are. I am obliged to appear different to them, but I think more on these subjects than all others, and have done so for years, and I am willing that you should know it.'”56
As Mr. Lincoln matured, so to did is religious thinking particularly during the Civil War in the 1860s. Religious historian Mark A. Noll wrote that “Lincoln, a layman with no standing in a church and no formal training as a theologian, nonetheless offered a complex picture of God’s rule over the world and a morally nuanced picture of America’s destiny.” Noll noted that in “1858, the future president meditated on God’s will with respect to slavery. This fragment included a sharp critique of Frederick A. Ross, whose Slavery Ordained of God (1857) had made the conventional biblical defense of slavery. Lincoln’s response pointed to the power of personal interest in determining biblical conclusions: ‘If he Ross decides that God wills Sambo to continue a slave, he thereby retains his own comfortable position; but if he decides that God will’s Sambo to be free, he thereby has to walk out of shade, throw off his gloves, and delve for his own bread. Will Dr. Ross be actuated by that perfect impartiality, which has ever been considered most favorable to correct decisions?’ But before he delivered himself of this judgment, Lincoln paused to confess a difficulty that few of his pious contemporaries could recognize: ‘Certainly there is no contending against the Will of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases.'”57 The Bible as well as the writings of America’s founders were Lincoln’s scripture which he reformulated with his own particularly genius. Psychohistorian Dwight Anderson wrote: “By reformulating this common fund of inherited meanings, Lincoln transformed American political history from an Old Testament story into a New Testament one, and thereby released the American Revolution from its Hebraic separatism so as to imbue it with a Christian universalism.”58
His faith was evident. Political scientist Joseph Fornieri wrote: “The early, private letters to Joshua Speed show that a core of biblical faith coexisted with Lincoln’s reservations about the frontier religion of his youthful days. In each case, Lincoln interpreted the events of his own life in reference to the unfolding of God’s providential design. Manifesting an openness towards to the promptings of grace, he conveyed his personal experience of the divine at work in his life. His articulation of biblical faith reveals a trust (fiducia) in the graciousness of a personal God whose mercy and benevolence guides individuals and nations toward some ultimate good. As a faithful servant (fidelitas), Lincoln bore witness to God’s providential design. God had made him an ‘instrument’ in bringing about good in someone else’s life.”59
Lincoln scholar David C. Mearns contended: “Dr. Smith Pyne, Rector of St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House, held him in ‘deep and affectionate regard and respect.’ He would not have used such phrases in addressing a notorious unbeliever. Once when interceding for an admiral, under a sentence of court-martial, Dr. Pyne wrote to Lincoln: ‘Let me hope that one more item will be added to the amount of obligation and attachment by which I have long felt myself bound to you both in your official and personal character.’ There were scores of gentlemen of the cloth who felt just as did Dr. Pyne about the strange tenant of the White House.”60
Mr. Lincoln’s religious beliefs were a complex mixture that defied easy categorization, but that didn’t stop contemporaries from trying. Even during his lifetime, people tended to view Abraham Lincoln through the lens of their own beliefs. Unitarian friend Jesse W. Fell recalled that “No religious view with him seemed to find any favor except of the practical and rationalistic order; and if, from my recollections on this subject, I was called upon to designate an author whose views most nearly represented Mr. Lincoln’s on this subject, I would say that author was Theodore Parker.” Naturally, Theodore Parker was a Unitarian like Fell. “If Lincoln’s concept of God looked like anything else on offer, it was not the orthodox trinitarian God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit described by the Old School theologians, but a truncated one with God the Father — remote, austere, all-powerful, uncommunicative — and neither Son nor Spirit,” wrote Lincoln historian Allen C. Guelzo. “This seemed to some of his friends to place Lincoln as close to unitarianism as one could get, and Jesse Fell (himself a unitarian) believed that unitarians ‘were generally much admired and approved by him.’ Both Fell and Herndon, in fact, thought that Lincoln’s nearest intellectual resemblance was to the radical Boston unitarian Theodore Parker. But unitarianism was, fully as much as it was a rejection of orthodox trinitarianism, a New England rebellion against the idea of predestination; and Lincoln could never reconcile his pervasive belief in ‘necessity’ with unitarianism’s defiant assertions of human free will. ‘In religious matters, Mr. Lincoln was theoretically a predestinarian,’ wrote Joseph Gillespie. ‘Mr. Lincoln once told me that he could not avoid believing in predestination.'”61
President Lincoln attended regularly on Sunday, but he did not allow church attendance to interfere with his official duties on the Sabbath. Baptist Stoddard wrote: “For all this, however, he was not what I think the controversialists call a ‘Sabbatarian,’ and while he preferred greatly to rest his body and mind, if he could, he never scrupled to give his attention to any necessary work on Sunday. This fact was generally well known, and some prominent men, of sufficient official or representative position to warrant them in disregarding the rules about ‘receiving visitors,’ were constantly in the habit of availing themselves of the chance offered by Sunday for finding the President disengaged, and this often to his extreme discomfort and dissatisfaction.”62
Lincoln pyschobiographer Dwight Anderson wrote: “The references Lincoln characteristically made to divinity prior to assuming his presidential role were general and abstract. The God which found its way into his speeches was the God of the Declaration of Independence: Creator of the Universe, Almighty Architect, Ruler of the Universe, or, more simply, the Almighty. The manner in which he usually interpreted divine presence in secular affairs was equally abstract, as, for example, in the following: ‘Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms.’ Occasionally Lincoln came close to identifying God with his cause without actually doing so. Of Republican party principles he once said: ‘But I do hope that as there is a just and righteous God in Heaven, our principles will and shall prevail sooner or later.’ He sometimes referred to the eventual disappearance of slavery as happening in ‘God’s own good time and way.’ There was, then, nothing in Lincoln’s typical usage to suggest the kind of theology he began to articulate immediately upon adopting the persona of impartial instrument of the nation’s destiny.”63
Mr. Lincoln made an interesting argument regarding sin shortly before the Civil War. “Isaac Cogdal, who had known Lincoln from the time of the New Salem period, recalled a discussion on religion in Lincoln’s office in 1859. ‘Herndon was in the office at the time. Lincoln expressed himself in about these words: ‘He did not nor could not believe in the endless punishment of any one of the human race. He understood punishment for sin to be a Bible doctrine; that the punishment was parental in its object, aim and design, and intended for the good of the offender; hence it must cease when justice is satisfied. He added that all that was lost by the transgression of Adam was made good by the atonement; all that was lost by the fall was made good by the sacrifice, and he added this remark, that punishment being a ‘provision of the gospel system, he was not sure but the world would be better off if a little more punishment was preached by our ministers, and not so much pardon of sin.'”64
Mr. Lincoln worked out his theology in the crucible of civil war. Few friends had real theological discussions with Mr. Lincoln, however brief. Because Mr. Lincoln didn’t express his beliefs publicly, however, did not mean he didn’t think deeply about religious questions. But it did mean his friends didn’t know what he thought. Journalist B. F. Irwin wrote: “Though personally acquainted with Mr. Lincoln for twenty-eight years and often in his office, I never heard him say a word on the subject of his religious belief.”65 Biographer William E. Barton wrote: “His utterances on religious subjects were not made as dogmatic affirmations. He merely uttered as occasion seemed to him to demand such sentiments and principles as expressed those aspects of truth which he felt and believed to need expression at those times.”66 Jesse Fell wrote: “No religious views with him seemed to find any favor, except of the practical and rationalist order; and if, from my recollections on this subject, I was called upon to designate an author whose views most nearly represented Mr. Lincoln’s on this subject, I would say that author was Theodore Parker.”67
Historian Nicholas Parrillo wrote: “In April 1864, Lincoln completed the synthesis of religious ideas that had developed over the past two years. The synthesis appeared in a letter to newspaper editor Albert Hodges. Three major themes converged: 1) the war as a positive and purposeful instrument, 2) national sin, and 3) God’s design to end slavery immediately.”68 The nation was sick, suffering and in need of redemption, as Mr. Lincoln suggested in his Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day in March 1863, which concluded: “It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”69
Historian Richard N. Current wrote: “As a boy, Lincoln doubtless came under the influence of the predestinarian Baptist doctrines of his parents and neighbors. As a young man, perhaps in response to the rationalistic literature he read, he favored a rather abstract and mechanistic conception – the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ – which he argued with Herndon and which he mentioned in his campaign handbill of 1846. As he grew older, and especially after his elevation to the Presidency, Lincoln increasingly personified this moving force as God.”70 Whatever his religious beliefs, Mr. Lincoln was constitutionally unable to profess what he didn’t believe. Honesty was too firmly engrained in his character. Attorney Henry C. Whitney wrote that “before he was run for the Presidency, he made frequent references to God in the same spirit of devoutness and trust; and, therefore, he was honest; honest with his Father on his dying bed, honest in what he feared was (and which proved to be) his last affectionate farewell to his neighbors, honest to the many eminent bands of clergymen and Christian people who visited him, and honest with his Father on his dying bed; honest in what he feared was (and which proved to be) his last affectionate farewell to his neighbors, honest to the many eminent bands of clergymen and Christian people who visited him, and honest with his cabinet in the most important consultation it ever held; then Lincoln, whether as man or as President, believed in God as the Ruler of the Universe, in a blessed hereafter, and in the efficacy of prayer. Mr. Lincoln believed himself to be the instrument of God; and that, as God willed, so would the contest be. He also believed in prayer and its efficacy, and that God willed the destruction of slavery through his instrumentality, and he believed in the Church of God as an important auxiliary.”71
Mr. Lincoln’s faith deepened in the White House under the burden of the deaths of thousands of Americans and a few relatives and close friends. Biographer William E. Barton wrote: “Mr. Lincoln was not conscious of any radical change; but Mrs. Lincoln noticed a change in him after Willie’s death, which grew more pronounced after his visit to Gettysburg, and his own faith, while undergoing no sudden and radical transformation, manifests a consistent evolution.”72 William Wolf wrote: “The acceleration in Lincoln’s religious development that came with his assuming the burdens of the presidency in a time of civil conflict may be traced to two sources. The first was the personal anguish of the death of friends and the tragic loss of his beloved Willie. The second was the suffering and pain that tore at the nation’s life in crisis after crisis and cried aloud for some interpretation. The erosion of these forces may be traced in the deepening facial lines of almost every subsequent photograph of Lincoln. The first pressure turned Lincoln toward a deeper piety than he had known before. The second inspired him to probe beneath the seeming irrationality of events for a prophetic understanding of the nation’s history. The first was clearly reflected in the Farewell Address at Springfield and the second began to find expression in the First Inaugural.”73
President Lincoln seemed particularly comforted by Quakers. Lincoln aide 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.”74
As President, Mr. Lincoln clearly valued the faith and prayers of others. Mr. Lincoln wrote two Iowa Quakers at the beginning of 1863: “It is most cheering and encouraging for me to know that in the efforts which I have made and am making for the restoration of a righteous peace to our country, I am upheld and sustained by the good wishes and prayers of God’s people. No one is more deeply than myself aware that without His favor our highest wisdom is but foolishness and that our most strenuous efforts would avail nothing in the shadow of His displeasure. I am conscious of no desire for my country’s welfare, that is not in consonance with His will, and of no plan upon which we may not ask His blessing. It seems to me that if there be one subject upon which all good men may unitedly agree, it is imploring the gracious favor of the God of Nations upon the struggles our people are making for the preservation of their precious birthright of civil and religious liberty.”75 The letter was probably composed by John Hay, but it was approved and signed by the President. President Lincoln told Union army nurse Rebecca R. Pomroy, ‘If there were more praying and less swearing, it would be better for our country; and we all need to be prayed for, officers as well as privates; and if I were near death, I think I should like to hear prayer.”76
Journalist Noah Brooks recalled: “The honesty of Mr. Lincoln appeared to spring from religious convictions; and it was his habit, when conversing of things which most intimately concerned himself, to say that, however he might be misapprehended by men who did not appear to know him, he was glad to know that no thought or intent of his escaped the observation of that Judge by whose final decree he expected to stand or fall in this world and the next. It seemed as though this was his surest refuge at time when he was most misunderstood or misrepresented. There was something touching in his childlike and simple reliance upon Divine aid, especially when in such extremities as he sometimes fell into; then, though prayer and reading of the Scriptures was his constant habit, he more earnestly than ever sought that strength which is promised when mortal help faileth. His address upon the occasion of his re-inauguration has been said to be as truly a religious document as a state-paper; and his acknowledgment of God and His providence and rule are interwoven through all of his later speeches, letters, and messages. Once he said: ‘I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.'”
Just after the last presidential election he said: ‘being only mortal, after all, I should have been a little mortified if I had been beaten in this canvas before the people; but that sting would have been more than compensated by the thought that the people had notified me that all my official responsibilities were soon to be lifted off my back.’ In reply to the remark that he might remember that in all these cares he was daily remembered by those who prayed, not to be heard of men, as no man had ever before been remembered, he caught at the homely phrase and said: ‘Yes, I like that phrase, ‘not to be heard of men,’ and guess it’s generally true, as you say; at least I have been told so, and I have been a good deal helped by just that thought.’ Then he solemnly and slowly added: ‘I should be the most presumptuous block-head upon this footstool if I for one day thought that I could discharge the duties which have come upon me since I came into this place without the aid and enlightenment of One who is wiser and stronger than all others.'”77
Although President Lincoln was not certain of the will of Providence in the Civil War, he was certain that Providence was at work in the war and emancipation. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote that in the Second Inaugural, President Lincoln “subordinated the struggle for the Union to the approaching end of slavery abandoned his secular view of history and resigned himself to serving as an instrument in the hands of his God.”78 William Wolf wrote: “One of the elements of perennial newness in Lincoln’s statements about God is the abundant wealth of his titles and attributes in describing the Creator. They can all be summarized under a phrase in his Second Inaugural, ‘believers in a Living God.’ For Lincoln the ‘givenness’ of God and God’s nearness to him in immediate relationship called forth a tribute of poetic praises. Mrs. Lincoln spoke of his religion as poetry. The devout St. Francis, who sang ‘The canticle to the Sun’ and imaginatively invested all creation with the breath of personal life, was paralleled by the President, who praised God in a wealth of concrete images. The following list has been selected from the Rutgers edition of his works:
“Almighty, Almighty Architect, Almighty Arm, Almighty Being, Almighty Father, Almighty God, Almighty Hand, Almighty Power, Almighty and Merciful Ruler of the universe, Beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe, Great Disposer of Events, Divine Being, Divine Guidance, Divine Power, Divine Providence, Divine Will, Father, Beneficent Father Who Dwelleth in the Heavens, Common God and father of All Men, Father in Heaven, Father of Mercies, Great Father of Us All, God of Hosts, God of Right, God of Nations, Most High God, Holy Spirit, Living God, Great and Merciful maker, Maker of the Universe, Most High, Supreme Being, Supreme Ruler of the Universe.”79
God was more than a collection of proper names. The voice of God and the voice of the people were closely linked in Mr. Lincoln’s mind. William Wolf wrote: “In the Puritan interpretation the people became aware that they were instruments of Providence. This was slowly transmuted into a reliance upon the people as the corporate bearer of God’s wisdom. The people’s wisdom would be expressed in the long run by means of majority rule. Here is the original root for the adage that the will of the people is the will of God. We have had numerous examples of Lincoln’s confidence in the essential rightness and wisdom of the people. This explains his belief, expressed at Buffalo, that God’s will is ultimately to be known through the people. ‘I must trust in that Supreme being who has never forsaken this favored land, through the instrumentality of this great and intelligent people.'”80
Providence for Mr. Lincoln was also linked to patience. Mr. Lincoln developed a patience for circumstances. He didn’t attempt to play God – rushing into situations and crises with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. He understood the limits of his own power – and the necessity to cede power to others in order to increase their effectiveness. As a military leader, he exercised power reluctantly – when he saw that military commanders were not acting with sufficient dispatch and foresight. Mr. Lincoln clearly thought God was at work during the Civil War. A just God could not abide slavery in Mr. Lincoln’s view. Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Faced with a situation that turned right and wrong on their heads, Lincoln responded by turning his private meditations into a closer scrutiny of who God is. In the fall of 1862, he sketched the changing shape of his thinking on paper, beginning with this simple axiom: ‘The will of God prevails.'”81 When a Senator said “I believe that, if we could only do right as a people, the Lord would help us, and we should have a decided success in this terrible struggle,” President Lincoln replied: “My faith is greater than yours. I am confident that God will make us do sufficiently right to give us the victory.”82
Providence also required trust. President Lincoln’s own pastor, Phineas D. Gurley of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., eulogized Lincoln’s “abiding confidence in God, and in the final triumph of truth and righteousness, through him, and for his sake.” Some preachers went further in the post-assassination period and attempted to posthumously recruit the dead President for formal church membership. Such mistaken assertions were compounded in Joseph Holland’s 1865 biography of Lincoln which cited and probably exaggerated the testimony of Lincoln friend Newton Bateman. All these religious proclamations proved too much for Lincoln’s erstwhile legal partner, William Herndon, who proceeded to prepare a lecture to prove that Lincoln never abandoned the religious skepticism of his youth.
Shortly after Lincoln’s death, friend Noah Brooks wrote that President Lincoln “was pervaded with a solemn sense of his obligations as a Christian Magistrate, which never forsook him. He was a praying man, and daily sought from God that aid which he had long since learned man could not give him. With great natural shrewdness and sagacity, he had a transparent simplicity which endeared him to all whom met him; and it is notable that those who knew him best loved him best, and those who had a distance been hostile to him were disarmed when they came to know the man.”83 Fellow attorney Leonard Swett wrote: “As he became involved in matters of the gravest importance, full of great responsibility and great doubt, a feeling of religious reverence, and belief in God, his justice and overruling power increased upon him. He was full of natural religion; he believed in God as much as the most approved Church member; Yet he judged of Providence by the same system of great generalization as of everything else.”84
Providence was at work in America, President Lincoln believed. Oliver S. Munsell recalled a meeting a tired and depressed President, who told him: “I do not trust in the bravery and devotion of the boys in blue; God bless them though! God never gave a prince of conqueror such an army as He has given to me. Nor yet do I rely on the loyalty and skill of our Generals; though I believe we have the best Generals in the world, at the head of our armies. But the God of our fathers, who raised up this country to be the refuge and the asylum of the oppressed and downtrodden of all nations, will not let it perish now. I may not live to see it, and (he added after a moment’s pause) I do not expect to live to see it, but God will bring us through safe.”85 President Lincoln was no doubt sure. “Lincoln identified himself at an early date with the purpose of God,” wrote Lincoln scholar Roy G. Basler. “This fact is inescapable. The evidence is voluminous in his authentic public utterances as well as in the fervid accounts of those who later recorded conversations on the point with Lincoln. The Abolitionists had for years claimed divine assistance in their crusade. The slave oligarchy had claimed divine approval of slavery. It is not necessary to make theatrical or journalistic capital of Lincoln as a Jehovah Man or the Abolitionists as Hebraic-Puritan zealots in order to present an interesting picture of affairs as they stood at the time of Lincoln’s election.”86
Historian Nicholas Parrillo wrote: “Lincoln’s religious transformation was closely interwoven with his policies regarding emancipation and war. He first departed from his old religious views because of the challenges of waging war, and he latched onto a Calvinist conception of providence when confronting his uncertainty over emancipation policy. He then discerned that freedom for the slaves and the redemptive bloodshed of war seemed to be features of providential design, and these realizations made it justifiable for him to stick by his emancipation policy and his relentless prosecution of the war, despite pressure to the contrary.”87
Friend Leonard Swett wrote that “if his religion were to be judged by the line and rule of Church Creeds and unexceptionable language, he would fall far short of the standard; but if by the higher rule of purity of conduct, of honesty of motive, of unyielding fidelity to the right and acknowledging God as the Supreme Ruler, then he filled all the requirements of true devotion and love of his neighbor as himself.”88 Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: “Whatever was Lincoln’s religion, the fact remains that he became recognized upon his death as an authentic prophet. Some of the popular epithets of the poets writing his eulogy within a few days of his death illustrate the immediate recognition of his ordination, once he was dead. He was the ‘Prophet of the West,’ ‘the Savior,’ ‘saint,’ ‘Freedom’s martyr,’ ‘Philosopher, Saint, and Seer,’ ‘priest and savior,’ ‘hero, martyr, saint,’ ‘A Second Christ,’ etc. Similar epithets abound in the sermons and funeral orations preached throughout the land on the prophet’s death.”89
In April 1862 President Lincoln told the Rev. Noyes W. Miner: ” You know I am not of a very hopeful temperament. I can take hold of a thing and hold on a good while. But trusting in God for help, and believing that our cause is just and right, I firmly believe we shall conquer in the end. But the struggle will be protracted and severe, involving a fearful loss of property and life. What strange scenes are these through which we are passing. I am sometimes astonished at the part I am acting in this terrible drama. I can hardly believe that I am the same man I was a few years ago when I was living in my humble way with you in Springfield. I often ask myself the question, ‘When shall I awake and find it all a dream?'”90
More on the Author
Rev. William J. Wolf was an Episcopal theologian.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, December 6, 1864, Volume VIII. pp. 154-155.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 280 (John G. Nicolay, Encyclopedia Britannica), ninth edition, Volume XIV, p. 662).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 117.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 176 (White House Sketches #8).
- Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House,p. 190 (From Eulogy upon Abraham Lincoln, before the General Assembly of Connecticut, 1864, p. 42).
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 92.
- Nicholas Parrillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War,” Civil War History, Fall 2000, p. 227.
- Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, p. 326.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,(Reply to Emancipation Memorial Presented by Chicago Christians of All Denominations), September 13, 1862, Volume V, p. 420.
- Herbert Mitgang, editor, Abraham Lincoln: A Press Portrait, p. 378 (Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Abraham Lincoln,” The Watchman and Reflector).
- M. L. Houser, Lincoln’s Education and Other Essays, p. 155.
- Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter’s Lincoln,(Dennis Hanks), p. 169.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants,(Matilda Johnston Moore interview with William H. Herndon), p. 109.
- Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 151.
- Ervin S. Chapman, Latest Light on Lincoln, Volume II, p. 524.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxiii.
- Joshua F. Speed, Abraham Lincoln, p.32.
- Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 81 (William Jayne, Springfield Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, February 12, 1907.
- Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 414.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 577 (James H. Matheny interview with William H. Herndon, March 2, 1870).
- Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p.577 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Ward Hill Lamon, March 6, 1870).
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, pp. 45-46.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, pp. 46-47.
- “Recollections of Lincoln: Three Letters of Intimate Friends,” Bulletin of the Abraham Lincoln Association, December 1931 (Letter from Milton Hay to John Hay, February 8, 1887).
- William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, pp. 479-480.
- Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 30.
- Allen C. Guelzo, “Abraham Lincoln and the Doctrine of Necessity,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 1997, p. 65.
- Donald W. Riddle, Lincoln Runs for Congress, p. 173.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,Volume I, p. 382 (Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity, July 31, 1846).
- Stephen Mansfield, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and what it Meant for America, p. 70.
- Roy D. Packard, The Riddle of Lincoln’s Religion, p. 8.
- Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 408.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 162.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 164.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 86.
- Katherine Helm, Mary Wife of Lincoln,(Letter from John Todd Stuart to the Reverend J.A. Reed), pp. 117-118.
- John Wesley Hill, Abraham Lincoln – Man of God, pp.291-292 (Letter from Dr. James Smith to William Herndon, January 24, 1867).
- Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 156.
- Robert J. Havlik, “Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr. James Smith: Lincoln’s Presbyterian Experience in Springfield,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, August 1999. William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 324
- Wayne Temple: Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 358.
- Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 38.
- John H. Krenkel, Richard Yates: Civil War Governor, p. 225.
- “Recollections of Lincoln: Three Letters of Intimate Friends,” Bulletin of the Abraham Lincoln Association, December 1931 (Letter from Orville H. Browning to Isaac N. Arnold, November 25, 1872).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 168 (Letter from Jesse W. Fell to Ward HillLamon, September 22, 1870).
- Lucius E. Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, p. 448.
- Nicholas Parrillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War,” Civil War History, Fall 2000, p. 228.
- Nicholas Parrillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War,” Civil War History, Fall 2000, pp. 229.
- Jacques Barzun, Lincoln’s Philosophic Vision, p. 19.
- Allen C. Guelzo, “Abraham Lincoln and the Doctrine of Necessity,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 1997, p. 69.
- Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 143 (September 22, 1862). Allen G. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln,'” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 51 (Letter of John V. Farwell to Josiah G. Holland, July 6, 1865).
- Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 409 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Truman H. Barlett), 1887).
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, September 1862, Volume V, pp. 503-504 (Meditation on the Divine Will).
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Albert E. Hodges), April 4, 1864, Volume VII, pp. 281-282.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, September 22, 1870, p. 579 (Letter from Jesse W. Fell to Ward Hill Lamon).
- “Recollections of Lincoln: Three Letters of Intimate Friends,” Bulletin of the Abraham Lincoln Association, December 1931, p. 9 (Letter from Orville H. Browning to Isaac N. Arnold, November 25, 1872).
- Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln,'” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,(Letter from Newton Bateman to Josiah G. Holland, June 19, 1865)., Winter 2002, p. 28. It appears in Josiah G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 236-239.
- Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 88.
- Dwight Anderson, Lincoln’s Quest for Immortality, p. 138.
- Joseph R. Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith, p. 40.
- Henry B. Kranz, editor, Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait, p. 106 (David C. Mearns, Lincoln, “Man of God”).
- Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 154.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, No. 8., p. 177 (White House Sketches #8).
- Dwight Anderson, AL Quest for Immortality, pp. 128-129.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 104.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 187.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 291.
- Ward Hill Lamon, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 492.
- Nicholas Parrillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War,” Civil War History, Fall 2000, p. 249.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, March 30, 1863, Volume VI, p. 156 (Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day).
- Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 71.
- Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 268.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincolnp. 280.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 115.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, from William Stoddard,(White House Sketches,No. 8), p. 176.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, pp. 39-40 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Caleb Russell and Sallie A. Fenton, January 5, 1863).
- Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 362.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 209-210 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine), May 1865).
- James M. McPherson, editor, We Cannot Escape History: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth, p. 18 (Kenneth M. Stammp, “Lincoln’s History”).
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, pp. 179-180.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 151.
- Guelzo, Allen C., “Lincoln’s Sign,” Illinois Issues, February 2005. http://illinoisissues.uis.edu/features/2005feb/purpose.html.
- Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 261.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 194 (April 16, 1865).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 167 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
- Charles Henry Collis, Religion of Abraham Lincoln, p. 23 (Letter from Oliver S. Munsell to Charles H. T. Collis, April 15, 1893).
- Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions, p. 169.
- Nicholas Parrillo, Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War, Civil War History, Fall 2000, p. 230.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 168 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
- Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions, pp. 168-169.
- Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 330.