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Feb 12

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February 12: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809)

Abraham Lincoln

It was on this date, February 12, 1809 (the same date as British naturalist Charles Darwin), that Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky. The family moved to Indiana when Lincoln was eight, his mother died when he was ten, but Honest Abe not only earned a living through hard work, he managed to educate himself. While young, Lincoln abandoned Christianity in favor of Deism.

With an eye to his political career, a friend persuaded Lincoln to burn a manuscript he had written, one arguing for Deism against Christianity, and denying the divinity of Jesus. Lincoln served eight years in the Illinois legislature. Although he lost his Senate bid against Stephen A. Douglas, he won a reputation as a debater and orator — and the Republican Party’s backing for President in 1860.

Though he read the Bible and accompanied his wife to the First Presbyterian Church, of which she was a member, Lincoln never joined any church. Religious writers try to make him a Christian based on his actions, since he never made any positive profession, but apologists are left with vague references to God which even Robert Ingersoll might have made. Religious writers admit that he rarely spoke publicly about religion, so their claims that he privately converted, or admitted his deep Christian devotion to clerical strangers, seem rather desperate. That Lincoln may have had an ethical regard for Christian morality and institutions proves less than one would suppose: he was a politician and had to appeal to a Christian majority.

On the other hand, those who knew Lincoln best knew how deeply his skepticism ran. William H. Herndon, Lincolns’s law partner for 22 years, said Lincoln had no religious convictions.[1] Another long-time friend, Colonel Ward H. Lamon, collected documents and interviewed other friends for his Recollections of Abraham Lincoln:

Mr. Lincoln was never a member of any Church, nor did he believe in the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures in the sense understood by evangelical Christians. … When a boy, he showed no sign of that piety which his many biographers ascribe to his manhood. When he went to church at all, he went to mock, and came away to mimic….

When he came to New Salem, he consorted with Freethinkers, joined with them in deriding the gospel story of Jesus, read Volney and Paine, and then wrote a deliberate and labored essay, wherein he reached conclusions similar to theirs. The essay was burned, but he never regretted nor denied its composition. …

But he never told anyone that he accepted Jesus as the Christ, or performed a single one of the acts which necessarily follow upon such a conviction. … He said with characteristic irreverence that he would not undertake to “run the Churches by military authority”; but he was, nevertheless, alive to the importance of letting the Churches “run” themselves in the interest of his party. Indefinite expressions about “Divine Providence,” the “Justice of God,” and “the favor of the Most High,” were easy and not inconsistent with his religious notions.[2]

“Lincoln went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard: he shocked me,” said John T. Stuart, who served with Lincoln in Congress. “I knew Lincoln … was an Infidel. … I never heard that Lincoln changed his views… Sometimes Lincoln bordered on Atheism,” said friend and political manager Colonel James H. Matheny. And Jesse W. Fell, a political supporter, said Lincoln “did not believe in … the innate depravity of man, the character and office of the great head of the Church, the Atonement, the infallibility of the written revelation, the performance of miracles, the nature and design of present and future rewards and punishments….”[3]

J.E. Remsbury[4] and Charles G. Leland[5] reach the same conclusion in their own books: though occasionally superstitious, Lincoln was not a Christian. Indeed, when a delegation of ministers in Chicago, claiming God’s direction, demanded that he issue the Emancipation Proclamation with all haste, Lincoln replied, “[I]f it is, as you say, a message from your Divine Master, is it not odd that the only channel he could send it by was that round-about route by that awfully wicked city of Chicago?”[6]

The sixteenth U.S. President was fatally wounded by an assassin on 14 April 1865 and died the next day. Abraham Lincoln had no opportunity to renounce his Deism.

[1] William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, 3 vols., 1889; ed. by P.M. Angle, 1930, repr. 1965. [2] Ward H. Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865, Dorothy Lamon Teillard, ed., 2d edn., 1911. Others interviewed by Lamon included Judge David Davis, Colonel James H. Matheny, John T. Stuart, Dr. C.H. Ray, William. H. Hannah, James W. Keyes, Jessie W. Fell, Colonel John. G. Nicolay, and Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as Herndon. [3] Stuart and Fell are quoted in Lamon, Recollections. [4] J.E. Remsbury, Abraham Lincoln: Was he a Christian?, 1893. [5] Charles G. Leland, Abraham Lincoln, 1879. [6] Quoted in Lamon, Recollections.

Originally published February 2004 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Correspondence on the Lincoln Essay

I had a lively exchange with one correspondent who read this essay. Here is what my correspondent said and how I replied:

CORRESPONDENT: I tend to agree with what you wrote concerning President Lincoln’s beliefs. The only thing that causes me to pause concerning the eternal state of Lincoln is his Second Inaugural Address. It is not that he quoted Scripture or even mentioned God but it is that within that speech you see the ideas of judgment, forgiveness, mercy and grace. In and of itself that does not make Lincoln a believer but I think it makes me question whether this man understood those themes because maybe he had experienced those same things through Christ.

MY REPLY: Lincoln’s “eternal state”? The only thing we know for certain about his eternal state is that Lincoln is now, and always will be, dead. To say anything else is to assume that which remains to be proved.

We must not read too much about Lincoln’s mind into one speech (Second Inaugural Address; Washington, DC; Saturday, March 4, 1865) of a mere 700 words. As I read it, the speech seems equal parts Deist and secularist. I find this especially in that Lincoln appears to distance himself from a personal belief in God by using the third person plural (“the believers”), rather than the first person plural (“we believers”), in the following passage:

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? (emphasis added)

There is also no denying the skepticism (or, at most, Deism) of the following passage:

Both [the North and the South, who were still at war] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged [Matthew 7:1]. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

… and I still find no reference to Jesus or Christ or Nazarene or Galilean or any other euphemism for the putative founder of Christianity. If he was a secret Christian, Lincoln was remarkably reticent about speaking his Savior’s name!

The “ideas of judgment, forgiveness, mercy and grace” are not specific to, and were certainly not invented by, Christianity. It is possible to have ideas and beliefs coincident with Christianity, without actually being a Christian. To think otherwise is tantamount to believing that Jews, Muslims and those of other faiths (not to mention Agnostics and Atheists), by definition, cannot believe such things. Perhaps the speech is a looking-glass in which your preconceptions are mirrored?

CORRESPONDENT: Maybe my preconceptions are mirrored in this one speech but maybe your preconceptions are also? I am not claiming that President Lincoln is spending eternity in the presence of God because only God truly knows where Lincoln is spending ALL of eternity. Lincoln I believe clearly heard the gospel while he attended New York Avenue Presbyterian in Washington DC but that does not mean that he accepted or had a relationship with Jesus Christ.

MY REPLY: I am not validating my preconceptions but merely following the evidence.

I’ll grant that Lincoln “clearly heard the gospel” while attending church with his wife (as any loving husband would do). If your belief is that this was Lincoln’s first exposure to the ideas of judgment, forgiveness, mercy and grace, at age 37 (as a freshman Congressman), and that these heretofore unknown ideas influenced his life and his presidency (which he attained at age 52, after becoming wealthy as an Illinois lawyer), you have gone beyond the evidence.

What is your point?

CORRESPONDENT: When I wrote about Lincoln attending Church in DC, I was referring to the time that he was President and he heard the preaching of Dr. Phineas Gurley. He may have had a better understanding of these Biblical issues. He no doubt had heard some if not all of these themes earlier in his life and he was skeptical. I do not know if there was a heart change or not. None of us can truly know what was in Lincoln’s heart concerning the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

MY REPLY: On the contrary, absent any positive statement about “the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus” — which doubtless would have won Lincoln the hearts of many Christians — we are fully justified in believing that, at best, Lincoln was indifferent to those (supposed) events. No harm could have come to Lincoln’s career from publicly professing his love for Jesus (he did, after all, declare Thanksgiving as a national holiday). Since he said nothing, we really must assume that he felt nothing.

Rev. Dr. Phineas Densmore Gurley [name corrected] was pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian church in Washington D.C., which Lincoln attended with his wife (when he attended any church), according to my sources. Lincoln was never a member or communicant and, whatever he preached, Gurley made no claims of Lincoln converting.

CORRESPONDENT: Should we truly make that assumption? Or might we be better off to say that God decides whether Lincoln believed or did not.

MY REPLY: Since we can’t cross-examine Lincoln, and all attempts to reach the Supreme Being for his opinion have been inconclusive at best, if we must make any assumption at all, we cannot make “believer” the default conclusion. We are all born Atheists; if we don’t say we’re Christian, no one can honestly conclude that we are Christian.

That is the truly conservative opinion because it does not go beyond the evidence.

Unless, of course, evidence does not matter and Christians are desperate to claim Lincoln as one of their own.

And if “God decides,” then you have eliminated the element of Free Will. Are you sure you want to go there?

CORRESPONDENT: I was not saying that God decided for Lincoln. I was basically saying that God is the judge of the heart of a man. Although, I do not believe that the term “Free Will” appears in Scripture but that of course would be another topic for another discussion.

ATTACHMENT:

LINCOLN A BELIEVER?
[by my correspondent]

Was the sixteenth President of the United States Abraham Lincoln a believer? This question has been spoken about and written about many times. Lincoln’s religious views have been debated over the years by various historians both professional and amateur. Many have pointed to Lincoln’s lack of claiming to be a believer in his public comments or written records as well as his lack of Church membership. Maybe, Christians need to consider his action or deeds since those who abide in the vine (Christ) are to bear fruit. Another way to look at Lincoln maybe in light of Romans 12:2. This verse admonishes believers to not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

In books, articles, interviews and presentations about Lincoln most historians and people would come to the conclusion that he was at least prejudice if not outright racist in his views especially prior to the Civil War. Consider Lincoln’s actions in regards to African Americans from 1861 until his death in 1865. He went into office proclaiming that he could do nothing to end slavery in the states where it already existed but that he wished to stop the extension or spread of slavery within the Union. When Lincoln wrote the following to Horace Greeley in 1862 this view is very clear.

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

Lincoln clearly did not view free blacks or slaves as his or any white man’s equal intellectually, politically or really in any area of life. This was a view that he had held and proclaimed throughout his life prior to becoming the President. He had also had a dislike for the institution of slavery since a very early age. His views concerning the inequality of the black man were most likely very close to the mainstream of American thought at that time. From this man comes the emancipation proclamation in January of 1863 ending slavery in the rebelling states. Lincoln had reached a point in his thinking that there was a moral cause to end slavery and to also allow the former slaves to fight for their own freedom. Eventually, he pushes for the thirteenth amendment to end and forbid slavery in the entire United States. Both of these ideas are rather forward thinking maybe a transforming of the mind? He even goes further in his thinking when in one of his last public speeches he calls for the southern states to consider giving the franchise to some black men. His would be assassin John Wilkes Booth states upon hearing this statement that that means “nigger citizenship” (his words not mine). Lincoln had come to the idea that not only should slaves be free but that they also should be given citizenship and the franchise. In effect his statements that evening led to his assassination. He signed his own death warrant. Lincoln’s own thinking on this subject shows that he was not conforming to the world around him but that his thinking had been transformed on this subject. It has to make an individual wonder why the change?

Two documents that also need to be considered are Lincoln’s private writing concerning the Divine Will as well as his Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln’s view of God changes throughout the course of the war. Early in life he had been a pronounced skeptic and in some cases a mocker of the clergy and the gospel. At the close of the Civil War, he clearly understands that there is a power greater in this universe who wills and works in human history. In Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address he seems to have some understanding in the first three paragraphs of the sovereignty of God, justice of God, prayer and worship of God and the consequences of doing wrong (sin). In the fourth paragraph Lincoln alludes to mercy, grace and even reconciliation. Had Lincoln experienced reconciliation with his maker through Jesus Christ? If he did maybe this is what led him to desire reconciliation between the north and the south. When Lincoln read this address it was out of the ordinary. The people of the day expected to hear a great and rousing speech concerning the great victory and maybe even the fruit of war but Lincoln spoke of charity for all even the rebels. He had already told some of his cabinet that he did not want to see the leaders of the rebels charged and tried. He would just as soon allow them to leave the country. There was not revenge or vindictiveness in the aftermath of the war. Was this a transformed mind? Had Lincoln’s understanding of God changed? Had his relationship with God changed?

The more one thinks of Lincoln and what he said and did you have to conclude that there was a change in this man. Maybe it is not transformation in the Biblical definition or salvation. But think for a moment of Lincoln’s view on God and his treatment of his fellow man. He definitely did not conform to the world’s way of thinking especially towards those who were in the minority. The change in his thinking concerning African Americans is quite drastic. He moves from seeing them as unequal to equal giving them freedom, the opportunity to fight for that freedom, citizenship and even the right to vote. He had come to the point of realizing that the United States could be a bi-racial democracy. Did he believe in the love the Lord your God with all heart…and love your neighbor as yourself? He may not have said it in words but he did seem to live it. Maybe the reason for this transformation is that he had come to understand the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Did Lincoln ever accept Jesus as his personal Savior? It would be difficult to point to a specific statement or date but it is intriguing that Lincoln thought more and more about God in his later years and as a result his attitudes and actions towards others seemed to change.

MY REPLY: If God and an afterlife exist, the content of Lincoln’s heart there is between him and God. What God judges about Lincoln’s heart is really beside the point. What we were talking about was whether or not Lincoln was a Christian in this life.

Your attachment sounds like a desperate attempt to fix a crucifix around a dead Deist’s neck. Nobody who knew Lincoln well knew him as a Christian — and Lincoln never explicitly admitted to being one.

By your attached essay, I can see that you’ve already decided that Lincoln was a secret Christian. But nobody in Western civilization has had to be a secret Christian since the Roman catacombs.

Lincoln can’t be a Christian by definition: there has to be some positive statement. You can’t call somebody a Christian if he didn’t admit it himself, whatever his actions and character.

That’s the point.

BTW: The word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, either, but Christians assume it, anyway. Just like Free Will.

About the author

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Freethought Almanac was created by Ronald Bruce Meyer, in collaboration with freethoughtradio.com, in March 2003. What started with a brief notice on the birthday of Albert Einstein, grew into almost 250,000 words on not only biography but history, philosophy, theology and politics — one day at a time. Freethought Almanac looks at these daily subjects from a godless point of view, that is, a point of view that is based not on fantasies, delusions or wishful thinking, but a view that is evidence-based.

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