Mr. Lincoln was never a formal member of a church (though in 1860, only 23 percent of Americans were). His early law partner, William H. Herndon, claimed that Mr. Lincoln was an infidel and that he wrote a book defending this position, but no conclusive evidence supports Herndon’s claim. As a young man, he read Voltaire and Thomas Paine, and participated in a debate society in which he often took positions counter to orthodox faith.
At the same time, “In God We Trust” was first used during his presidential administration. The phrase “Under God,” now part of our pledge of allegiance to the American flag, is attributed to him. He uttered these words spontaneously during his Gettysburg Address—they appear in none of the five drafts of his message.
What are the facts concerning the faith of our 16th president? How do they relate to faith today?
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His parents had been Quakers before moving to the farm which became Lincoln’s boyhood home. There they joined the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church.
The congregation met at first in homes, then built its meeting house in Lincoln’s eleventh year (30 feet long and 20 feet wide, of hewed logs). His father affiliated with the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church by letter on June 7, 1823; his sister Sally “by experience of grace” on April 8, 1826. Upon her death, she was buried in the church’s cemetery. Lincoln never joined the church officially. The family next moved to New Salem, Illinois, when Lincoln was 23 years of age. There was no church at New Salem.
On July 31, 1846, candidate Lincoln stated, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scripture; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. . . . 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.”
A severe mental depression in 1841 led him to stronger and more personal faith. He wrote to a friend: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible.” He cancelled his engagement to Mary Todd, and despaired of the future. But through continuous reading of the Scriptures (especially the Old Testament), Lincoln came to believe in the idea of vocation—that God had a purpose for his life. He and Mary Todd were engaged again, and married on November 4, 1842.
The death of Eddie, the second son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, produced a second spiritual crisis. Dr. James Smith, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Illinois, was a well-educated Scotsman and the author of “The Christian’s Defense.” He befriended the Lincolns and preached Eddie’s funeral. Mary joined his church, and Lincoln began attending when he was in town. He told his brother-in-law, Ninian W. Edwards, that he had been reading Smith’s book “and have heard him preach and converse on the subject and am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.” He called Smith’s argument “unanswerable.”
When their father was dying, Lincoln wrote his step-brother: “I sincerely hope father may recover his health, but at all events, tell him to remember to call upon and confide in our great and good merciful Maker, who will not turn away from him in any extremity. He notes the fall of a sparrow and numbers the hairs of our heads, and He will not forget the dying man who puts his trust in Him.”
He still struggled with doubts, though his faith was growing stronger. To a friend he confided, “Probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did. But in my poor maimed, withered way, I bear with me as I go on a seeking spirit of desire for a faith that was with him of olden time, who, in his need, as I in mine, exclaimed, ‘Help thou my unbelief.'”
By the time he campaigned for and achieved the presidency, Lincoln had come to see himself as an instrument of the divine will, for the preservation and advance of the Union. In a letter of July 28, 1859, he admitted, “I must say I do not think myself fit for the Presidency.” On December 20, 1859, he stated, “I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again.” He sought national leadership to prevent the extension of slavery into hitherto free territories.
The death of Willie Lincoln (February 20, 1862), produced yet another spiritual crisis for the president. Dr. Francis Vinton, rector of Trinity Church, New York, visited him and shared the insight that God continues his interest in his creation after the death of the body just as before, citing Luke 20.38: “For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.” He told the president, “Your son is alive.” Lincoln believed him, and came to believe that if God cannot be defeated by death, he cannot be defeated by a Civil War.
As a result, in the words of Nathaniel W. Stephenson, “Out of this strange period of intolerable confusion, a gigantic figure had at last emerged. The outer and the inner Lincoln had fused. He was now a coherent personality, masterful in spite of his gentleness, with his own peculiar fashion of self-reliance, having a policy of his own devising, his colors nailed upon the masthead.”
He came to believe deeply and permanently that God molds history and that he employs us to effect his purpose; and he came to see himself even more as an instrument of that purpose. His Cabinet and army leaders saw a new decisiveness in his leadership and decisions. He relieved General McClellan of his command and changed his approach to the War, prosecuting it more vigorously, decisively, and confidently.
Statements of faith
Lincoln did not believe in the existence of an independent order of moral values. The “good” is anchored always and ever in the divine will.
In September 1862, after the Second Battle of Bull Run, his “Meditation on the Divine Will” states: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance 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 His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By His mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
In his statement to Eliza Gurney, widow of the Quaker minister Joseph John Gurney (October 1862), Lincoln said, “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 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.”
Lincoln knew he was not alone in his efforts, and that he need God’s help to fulfill his calling. When parting the Springfield Railroad Station on February 11, 1861, he told the assembled crowd, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested on Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
In 1850, he presented a lecture on the Bible in the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield. Those present reported that the lawyer offered the “ablest defense of the Bible ever heard from that particular pulpit.” Lincoln’s conclusion: “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 men in all the conditions of life, and inculcates all the duties they owe to their Creator, to themselves, and to their fellow men.”
When working as a young lawyer, he was asked by a dying widow to make her will. She then asked him to read from the Bible, but he recited Psalm 23 and the opening verses of John 14 from memory. He read daily from “The Believer’s Daily Treasure; or, Texts of Scripture Arranged for Every Day of the Year,” a devotional book published in 1852.
He particularly enjoyed the Psalms. In a letter to Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomeroy, nurse at the White House, he wrote regarding the Psalms, “They are the best, for I find in them something for every day in the week.” He told his long-time friend Joshua Speed, a religious skeptic: “You are wrong, Speed; take all of this Book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.” His beliefs centered far more in the Bible than in the Church, as was much more common in his day than in ours.
As president, Lincoln often attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, purchasing a pew on the eighth row for Sunday worship. He often came to the Wednesday prayer meeting as well, but he sat in the pastor’s office with the door ajar and participated in prayer in that way.
On the morning of his first inauguration, he read the conclusion of his remarks to his family. Then they left the room and he prayed audibly for strength and guidance. One of his secretaries, Noah Brooks, reported that he observed daily a time of prayer in the White House. He told Brooks, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
During the 49 months of his presidency, Mr. Lincoln issued nine separate calls to public penitence, fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving. He was preparing a tenth when he was assassinated.
He could easily have joined a church and silenced his political critics on the subject, but refused for integrity’s sake. When a member of Congress asked why he never joined a church, he explained, “Because I have found difficulty, without mental reservation, in giving my assent to their long and complicated confessions of faith. When any church will inscribe over its altar the Savior’s condensed statement of 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 love thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will I join with all my heart.”
When the pastor of First Presbyterian Church announced on a Sunday morning that the church would not be meeting in the foreseeable future, as Secretary of War Stanton had requisitioned the building for the care of wounded soldiers, Lincoln stood and said to the pastor, “Dr. Gurley, we are too much in need of this church these days; we cannot let it be closed. I countermand the order.” There is evidence that he planned to join this church on the Easter after his assassination on Good Friday, April 15, 1865.
Abraham Lincoln’s enduring legacy is that he gave us the Union, and the world proof that a government of, for, and by the people shall not perish from this earth. He gave us emancipation, driven by the theological conviction that each of us is created by God. He had stated, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” And we know the results.