With the February 2009 bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth approaching, much commentary will appear about his accomplishments and character. We may hear about ambition, political skill, humor, compassion, and wisdom. We’ll probably hear little, though, about his religious unbelief.
Lincoln’s cousin, Denny Hanks, said that when Lincoln was an Indiana teenager, “The Bible puzzled him, especially the miracles. He often asked me in the timber, or sittin’ around the fireplace nights, to explain Scripture.” Hanks may have known the basics as well as any frontier preacher, but his answers probably didn’t satisfy young Lincoln, who was already interested enough in astronomy to amaze one neighbor by declaring that the apparent rising and setting of the moon was an illusion created by the rotation of a round Earth. The neighbor responded by ridiculing him. A backwoods resident of later years noted the potential trouble of this view: “I parted company with my friends in the Baptist ministry in my belief that the earth was round.”
Another portent of conflict with fundamentalists came from the simple act of writing Lincoln’s name: “‘Denny,’ he sez to me many a time, ‘look at that, will you? Abraham Lincoln! That stands fur me. Don’t look a blamed bit like me!’ An’ he’d stand an’ study it a spell. ’Peared to mean a heap to Abe.”
That simple comment shows that at an early age Lincoln understood the difference between a word and what it stood for, that words were symbols for something else. We should not infer too much from that realization; nonetheless, his ability to grasp the concept shows that he had the capability to see that stories (groups of words) could stand for something else (perhaps metaphors). Such an understanding easily leads to interpreting religious writings in a way profoundly different from fundamentalist divines.
We don’t know whether Lincoln viewed religious writings as metaphorical, but we do know (and shall see in his political career) that fundamentalists sensed something about his attitude that set him apart, even though he could—when he wished—profess something that sounded almost like orthodoxy.
Still, Cousin Denny mused, “I thought he never believed it.” John Hanks, cousin to Abraham’s birth mother, was more explicit: “Lincoln was as much of an infidel as anyone could be. I wouldn’t like to say how much.” Abraham’s stepmother declared that during the Indiana years, “Abe had no particular religion. . . . He never talked about it.” At least not to her.
Like Cousin Denny, Abraham’s friend Nat Grigsby remembered such conversations: “He talked about religion as other persons did, but I do not know his views.” Lincoln was so skilled at self-expression that leaving listeners ignorant about his views had to be deliberate. By implication, something about his religious beliefs would not have pleased his fundamentalist community.
When Lincoln was elected to the Illinois state legislature in 1834, an undercurrent flowed through the campaign regarding Lincoln’s skepticism about Christianity. James Matheny, a friend and onetime political associate, recalled, “In 1834 and 5, my father being a strong Methodist—a kind of minister and loving Lincoln with all his soul, hated to vote for him because he heard that Lincoln was an infidel.” Russell Godbey, who once retained Lincoln as a surveyor, said that his brother-in-law told him not to vote for Lincoln “because Abe was a deist.” Lincoln’s later law partner Billy Herndon said, “When Mr. Lincoln was a candidate for our legislature he was accused of being an infidel, and of having said that Jesus Christ was an illegitimate child.” Such was Lincoln’s public reputation around New Salem, Illinois, where he lived when first elected to the state legislature.
Neighbor Hardin Bale recalled, “About the year 1834 A. Lincoln wrote a work on infidelity, denying the divinity of the Scriptures and was persuaded by his friends—particularly Samuel [Hill, a prominent New Salem resident]—to burn it.” Bale expressed that memory only a few weeks after Lincoln died, before mythmaking predominated discussion about him. Another neighbor, Isaac Cogdal, stated, “I have talked [about] this often and often with him commencing as early as 1834. . . . Lincoln did write a letter, pamphlet, book, or whatnot on the faith as I understand he held—denying special and miraculous revelation, inspiration, and conception.” James Matheny agreed: “Lincoln did tell me that he did write a little book on infidelity.” During Lincoln’s lifetime, John Hill, son of Samuel Hill, said, “He employed his intellectual faculties in writing a dissertation against the doctrine of the divinity of the scriptures.”
Herndon said, “In 1835, he wrote . . . an attack upon the whole grounds of Christianity, and especially was it an attack upon the idea that Jesus was the Christ, the true and only Son of God. . . . [Lincoln’s] argument was grounded on the internal mistakes of the Old and New Testaments, and on reason, and on the experiences and observations of men. The criticisms from internal defects were sharp, strong, and manly.”
New Salem resident Charles Maltby said, “Lincoln, at this period of his life, was not a religious man.” Ann Rutledge’s brother Robert recalled Lincoln singing a parody of the hymn “Legacy,” changing a phrase about wine to a phrase about horse urine. Samuel Hill’s wife, Parthena, asked Lincoln, “Do you really believe there isn’t any future state?” She reported his reply: “Mrs. Hill, I’m afraid there isn’t. It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die that is the last of us.”
New Salem, according to Billy Herndon, had a fair number of skeptics about religion. Herndon said: “It was here, and among these people, that Mr. Lincoln was thrown. About the year 1834, he chanced to come across Volney’s Ruins, and some of Paine’s theological works. He at once seized hold of them, and assimilated them into his own being.”
Abner Ellis, a business associate of Herndon’s father, noted that Abe said he read The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: And the Law of Nature by Constantine Francis Volney and also read Paine. The context of Ellis’s remarks points to Paine’s The Age of Reason, a volume that must have amazed frontier intellectuals. Paine presented reasons to doubt the reputed authorship of various Bible sections. He examined nonbiblical reports of ancient miracles that were considered false. Paine also used logic, noting Bible passages that contradicted one another in ways meaning that some had to be incorrect. That usage of logic probably impressed Lincoln. He was known for keen reasoning, following premises through to a conclusion no matter how unpleasant the logical conclusion might be.
Volney’s Ruins critically examined Christianity and Islam, tracing their origins and inconsistencies, examining borrowings from one another. Volney noted mythological links among them, foreshadowing Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, James Henry Breasted’s The Dawn of Conscience, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Volney wrote, “The supreme wisdom has imposed on the motion of each being; eternal and unalterable rules, by which it maintains the order and harmony of the universe.” Here was a universe controlled by law, a concept that Lincoln probably liked.
For an isolated thinker whose acquaintance with religion was mainly through frontier preachers, the works by Volney and Paine may have opened new vistas. Billy Herndon said that after Lincoln began his Springfield residence in 1837, “He became acquainted with various men of his own way of thinking. At that time they called themselves free thinkers.
” Matheny, one of Lincoln’s early Springfield friends, recalled Bible discussions among members of a Springfield poetry club. Lincoln “would bring the Bible with him, read a chapter, argue against it. . . . Lincoln was enthusiastic in his infidelity. As he grew older he grew more discreet, didn’t talk much before strangers about religion. But to friends—close and bosom ones—he was always open and avowed.” Matheny said he “heard Lincoln call Christ a bastard.”
Matheny remembered, “Lincoln attacked the Bible and New Testament on two grounds. First from the inherent or apparent contradiction under its lids, and secondly from the grounds of reason. . . . Never heard that Lincoln changed his views though [I was] his personal and political friend from 1834 to 1860. Sometimes Lincoln bordered on absolute atheism: He went far that way.” Billy Herndon said, “Lincoln told me a thousand times that he did not believe that the Bible, etc., were revelations of God, as the Christian world contends.” Lincoln was careful, however, about who heard him say such things.
Lincoln’s first law partner, John T. Stuart, reported, “He was an avowed and open infidel. Sometimes bordered on atheism. . . . Lincoln went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard. He shocked me. Don’t remember the exact line of his argument. Suppose it was against the inherent defects, so-called, of the Bible and on grounds of reason. Lincoln always denied that Jesus was the Christ of God, denied that Jesus was the son of God as understood and maintained by the Christian world.” John Stuart dated those attitudes as “say from 1834 to 1840.”
Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s closest friend, said, “When I knew him, in early life, he was a skeptic. He had tried hard to be a believer, but his reason could not grasp and solve the great problem of redemption.” Speed also recalled, “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 fulfilment could only come when life ended.” That’s an excellent example of Lincoln’s comments about religion. He couldn’t be shown anti-Christian by that remark, but it could be heard as skeptical.
Lincoln’s final law partner, Billy Herndon, summed up: “Mr. Lincoln believed in laws that imperiously ruled both matter and mind. With him there could be no miracles outside of law; he held that the universe was a grand mystery and a miracle. Nothing to him was lawless, everything being governed by law. . . . There could be no special inspiration, no special revelations, no miracles in his mind; he demanded facts, well-authenticated facts.”
That sounds much like Lincoln was a deist. Seemingly, he believed in the God worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims but didn’t believe that God interfered with the world. The Baptists of Little Pigeon Church, which Lincoln’s family attended in Indiana, believed in predestination. God had not only decreed what people would do and experience but had chosen who would go to heaven or hell. Humans could accept their fate but not change it. Whatever Lincoln’s thinking on religion, he did accept the fatalism of predestination.
Events were pre-ordained in the act of creation (setting in motion the first events, which caused subsequent events in an unbroken sequence to the present day), and those inevitable events could not be directed by humans. God started the great clockwork of the universe then stepped aside.
Lincoln was a fatalist; he thought everything that happened was preordained. That could be an argument for inaction, but Lincoln tried to influence society. Apparently, he believed that although the motion picture had already been filmed, we had to play our roles to the best of our ability even if we couldn’t change what was coming in the next scene.
Lincoln’s deist orientation was recognized by early political opponents, who tried to exploit it. In 1837, he wrote that one of his opponents “is prowling about, and . . . goes so far as to take an old acquaintance of mine several steps from a crowd, and . . . gravely and solemnly asks him if ‘he ever heard Lincoln say he was a deist.’”
The same happened in 1846 when Lincoln ran successfully for Congress. His opponent Rev. Peter Cartright declared that Lincoln was an infidel. Lincoln issued a public statement denying that he had ever ridiculed religion—a declaration that was technically correct, but which didn’t say that he had never ridiculed Christianity. In the same statement, Lincoln said that he had never denied the truth of the Scriptures, but that didn’t mean he had never denied what was untrue in the Scriptures.
From Lincoln’s pre-presidential years, I’ve seen only one or two instances in which he referred to Jesus of Nazareth as Christ or Savior. Those instances were incidental and involved Lincoln making a political rather than religious point. For example, he mentioned Judas in commenting on the untrustworthiness of some treasurers.
According to Billy Herndon, Lincoln admired a book called The Vestiges of Creation by Robert Chambers, which Lincoln read in the 1840s. This book argues that geological and biological evolution have occurred, that the earth is the product of a gaseous nebula, that life first occurred through a natural process, and that present creatures evolved from previous ones, all by processes dictated by scientific principles and laws.
That book didn’t deny the existence of God but took a deist approach, saying, “To a reasonable mind the Divine attributes must appear, not diminished or reduced in some way, by supposing a creation by law, but infinitely exalted.” That sort of thinking, that the universe is controlled by law, would have appealed to Lincoln.
Around 1850, Lincoln encountered a very different book written by James Smith, a minister he knew and respected. That volume was The Christian’s Defence. Smith said that it convinced Lincoln of the Bible’s divine authority. Lincoln’s brother-in-law Ninian Edwards said Lincoln told him the book converted him to Christianity. In contrast, other people who knew Lincoln at the time said that he found the book unpersuasive.
Smith tried to use science and logic to support a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. He maintained that the laws of nature had changed since Bible times and that so-called miracles were in keeping with old laws. He said that if witnesses had reported something, it must have happened. I doubt that lawyer Lincoln would have accepted Smith’s contention that eyewitness testimony is infallible.
Rev. Smith’s book said, “If it can be shown there is in the Bible one physical error, that book cannot be the word of God.” Smith also said that when infidels give examples of astronomical and other impossibilities in the Bible, they were reading passages literally instead of as the poetic expressions of appearances intended by the writers. So Smith had it both ways, saying that Bible is both infallible and allegorical.
One example concerns Joshua making the sun stand still. “It is objected that if . . . the movement of the globe was retarded, not only the belligerent armies, but every thing on the face of the earth would have been swept away like chaff before the wind. But . . . if the miracle instead of suddenly arresting in an instant the rotation of the globe, took only the short space of a few seconds to accomplish it, by a gentle and continuous action,” then no catastrophic results would have occurred. Lincoln was interested in astronomy and mechanics and science, and I doubt that he would have been persuaded by Smith’s arguments about Joshua.
Still, Lincoln may have accepted the Bible as literally true in some respects. He gave a lecture on discoveries and inventions that repeatedly cited the Bible for the earliest examples of various forms of technology. Whether Lincoln really believed that, ho
wever, or whether he simply used such references to grab the attention of an audience he sought to entertain, I don’t know.
In the 1850s, Lincoln started attending church, and in his 1861 farewell address to his Springfield neighbors he spoke of a God who might intervene in human affairs. Nonetheless, in the White House years, he still made statements consistent with religious skepticism. For example, when he granted the request of one woman caller, in thanks she said, “Good-by, Mr. Lincoln. I shall probably never see you again till we meet in heaven.” She had the president’s hand in hers, and he was deeply moved. He instantly took her hand in both of his and, following her to the door, said, “I am afraid with all my troubles I shall never get to the resting place you speak of.” That is not the comment of a Christian.
After Lincoln’s son Willie died in 1862, a minister told Lincoln he was too grief-stricken and should snap out of it. One account said,
“To mourn excessively for the departed as lost,” continued Dr. Vinton, “is foreign to our religion. It belongs not to Christianity, but to heathenism. Your son is alive in Paradise.”
When these last words were uttered, Mr. Lincoln, as if suddenly awakened from a dream, exclaimed, “Alive! alive! Surely you mock me!”
That, too, is not the attitude of a devoted Christian.
Still, although he never joined a church, apparently he did eventually become a Christian, at least in his heart. His best friend, Joshua Speed, related an incident from 1864, when Speed encountered Lincoln reading a Bible. “‘Well,’ said I, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’ Looking me earnestly in the face, and placing his hand on my shoulder, he said: ‘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 and better man.’”
What converted Lincoln is difficult to know. His old friend Jo Gillespie said, “After he became President he told me that circumstances had happened during the war to induce him to a belief in ‘special providences.’” There are accounts of him engaging in intense prayer, and he told his cabinet that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in fulfillment of a promise he made to God.
We do know that he wondered if the Civil War was divine retribution on America for its toleration of slavery. And because Lincoln was a reflective man, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sought justification for the war beyond the public reasons he spoke about—that, as losses mounted, he sought reassurance that he was doing the right thing. Perhaps he found such reassurance in religion. If so, however, it was a big change in his life that was unnoticed by the person closest to him. After his death, his widow, Mary, said, “Mr. Lincoln had no hope—and no faith in the usual acceptation of those word[s].”
Lincoln’s life is inspirational to different persons for different reasons. For secularists, his accomplishments are an example of what a wise and skilled political leader can achieve without exhorting fellow citizens to follow a religious path.