Lincoln’s Religion

by Richard Carwardine

Abraham Lincoln, by Mathew Brady, February 27, 1860. (GLC05136.01)“Lincoln often, if not wholly, was an atheist,” insisted one of Lincoln’s political associates, James H. Matheny. The young Lincoln had “called Christ a bastard,” “ridiculed the Bible,” and duped pious voters into believing he was “a seeker after Salvation in the Lord.” Matheny lined up with others convinced that Lincoln had been no Christian. Contending with them were those who insisted that Lincoln “believed in the great fundamental principles of Christianity.” The controversy followed a torrent of sermons that, in the shadow of Lincoln’s Good Friday assassination, sanctified the Great Emancipator and Savior of the Union.

Windows into men’s souls are rarely transparent, and Lincoln kept his veiled more than most, giving scope to most faith traditions later to embrace him. Quakers have pointed to his Virginia forbears, Baptists to his parents’ faith, Episcopalians to their officiating at his wedding, Presbyterians to the ministers under whom he sat, and Spiritualists to their séances at the White House. Methodists, Unitarians, Universalists, and Catholics, too, have clasped him to their bosoms.

Yet searching for Lincoln’s soul is not an unprofitable exercise. We misread the political Lincoln if we take his religion too lightly. His evolving ideas about faith tell us about the values that shaped his vision and drove his politics. Equally, his sensitivity to public opinion gave him a keen understanding of the powerful shaping influence of religion, especially mainstream Protestantism.

By the 1850s at least four in every ten Americans were members of, or attended, evangelical churches. Protestant religion fused with republicanism to shape a creed that invigorated American nationalism. Lincoln was no evangelical. But his religious unorthodoxy did not make him any less attentive to mobilizing the progressive elements of contemporary Protestantism, first on behalf of the pre-war Republican Party and then of the wartime Unionist coalition.

Lincoln’s Faith

Lincoln’s immersion in the scriptures—alongside his keen appetite for Shakespearean soliloquies saturated with anxious moral wrestling—points to a man for whom profound private reflection on ethical matters was an essential part of his being. Continuous religious inquiry was a natural ingredient of his broader intellectual quest.

Lincoln’s views evolved in adulthood. As a young man in New Salem, freed from the hard-shell Calvinism of his Baptist parents, he warmed to the rationalism of Tom Paine and other deist writers. After taking on professional and family responsibilities in Springfield, and suffering the devastating loss of his young son Eddie, he ruminated on a more intellectual Protestantism. He discussed the Unitarianism of William E. Channing and Theodore Parker, whose works he admired for their liberalism and rationality. According to Jesse Fell, a Bloomington lawyer, Lincoln’s religious views were “summed up on these two propositions, ‘the Fatherhood of God, and the Brotherhood of Man’.”

On one feature of Lincoln’s thought all were agreed. Lincoln described himself as a life-long fatalist, and none demurred. “What is to be will be,” he told Congressman Isaac Arnold. “I have found all my life as Hamlet says: ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.’” Herndon recalled Lincoln’s asserting that “all things were fixed, doomed in one way or the other, from which there was no appeal” and that “no efforts or prayers of ours can change, alter, modify, or reverse the decree.”

This faith contributed to Lincoln’s approach to slavery as a morally charged political issue. He regarded the Declaration of Independence as a near-sacred statement of universal principles, one consistent with his belief in a God who had created all men equal and pursued His relations with humankind on the principles of justice. God’s words to Adam, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” provided Lincoln with the text for his theology of labor: the burden and duty of work, and the individual’s moral right to enjoy its fruits.

Lincoln’s wartime experience encouraged an increasing profundity of faith and a new religious understanding. Not only did he feel a sense of personal responsibility for a war of unimagined savagery, but the conflict brought him trials closer to home: the death of friends and close colleagues, and above all the loss through typhoid of a favorite son, Willie. He attended public worship more habitually than before and found increasing solace in the scriptures. Previously, Lincoln had regarded superintending providence as a remote power. Now his God became more personal, intrusive, and judgmental. “I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” God chose to let the contest begin. “And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Lincoln’s evolving religious understanding fused with his developing emancipation policy during the spring and summer of 1862. At the landmark Cabinet meeting on September 22, Lincoln explained—in Gideon Welles’s account—how he had vowed before the Battle of Antietam that he would read victory as “an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation”: not he, but “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”

Religion and Political Mobilization

Lincoln’s pre-war experience in Illinois left him in no doubt of the capacity of religion to mobilize political opinion. He learned the need to respect the religious sensibilities of voters, and understood the churches’ role in shaping political discussion and electoral configurations. Thus, when he failed to secure the Whig nomination for Congress in 1843, he reflected: “It was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to go for me, because I belonged to no church, [and] was suspected of being a deist.” These influences, he judged, “were very strong” and “levied a tax of considerable per cent upon my strength throughout the religious community.”

During the Civil War, at key moments, Lincoln similarly respected the power of religious impulses. In his memorable Second Inaugural Address he inquired into the religious meaning of the conflict, concluding that God had delivered “this terrible war” to punish both North and South for their involvement in slavery. Lincoln’s theology here stands in some contrast to that of the mainstream Union pulpits, mostly confident that God was on their side. Yet he and the loyal clergy mostly spoke a common language. Both knew that nations had a place in the Almighty’s moral economy; both conceived of an interventionist God; both understood slavery to compromise the design He intended for the American Union.

This broad theological congruence had rich meaning for the wartime politics of the Union. Mainstream Protestants embraced Lincoln as one of them; Lincoln worked constructively to mobilize the churches behind the war effort. He strove to maintain good relations with church leaders of every major faith: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. He aimed at broad religious representation in the appointment of hospital and Army chaplains. He met a full gamut of religious visitors who came to the White House to lecture him, offer opinions, seek appointments, or merely pay their respects.

For their part, thousands of Union clergy saw in Lincoln a president who warranted respect, even admiration. Preachers placed him within the divine economy. In sermons, tracts, and newspapers they told of the President’s admirable moral qualities: the honesty, determination, integrity, and unflinching patriotism of a resolute leader. Although Lincoln continued to disappoint those hoping he would confess Christ as his personal Savior, many saw in him a “deep religious feeling.” A Chicago lawyer declared: “You may depend upon it, the Lord runs Lincoln.”

This contributed signally to the larger mobilization of nationalist sentiment. Cadres of Protestants recruited soldiers for the Union and Christ, energized the aid agencies that served the armies, ministered as field chaplains, and participated as organizers in the home-front politics of national defense. Protestant spokesmen lined up to defend the administration’s conscription measures, its tolerance of arbitrary arrests, and its strong-arm action against draft resisters and dissenters. Consequently, the 1864 presidential campaign witnessed the most complete fusing of religious crusade and political mobilization in America’s electoral experience. The President’s re-election was due in large part to the energies of those who saw themselves as agents of God and of Lincoln.

Lincoln’s assassination at the moment of his greatest triumph prompted an unprecedented display of loyalist grief. The President as martyr—a latter-day Moses in leading his people out of bondage, Christ-like in falling victim on Good Friday—now played out a unique role in the sanctification of American nationalism. “Black Easter” became part of the providential plan to purify the nation and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. On this reading, an unlikely, “infidel” politician of the 1830s had secured the transfiguration of the nation.

Richard Carwardine is Rhodes Professor of American History at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (2003), which won the Lincoln Prize in 2004.

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