Abraham Lincoln: Example of Religious Freedom
[Editor’s note: today, February 12, is the 208th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth]
“The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”
— Frederick Douglass, on Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.
The Lincoln Memorial is the most-visited monument in the nation’s capital. And etched on its wall? A five-story high, 703-word Christian sermon, delivered by a U.S. President as an official speech to the nation.
The speech is the Second Inaugural Address, in which President Lincoln expounded a theological interpretation of the American Civil War, citing God or the Bible 21 times in a relatively brief but important message to his country.
Secularists who claim that religion and government should be kept strictly separate are confounded by Abraham Lincoln. No wonder many of them have propagated the myth that President Lincoln was either an atheist or deist. But such claims do not stand up to historical scrutiny.
Lincoln the Temporary Skeptic
Abraham Lincoln was the son of a devout Baptist church member and a mother who would sing hymns and recite long passages of the Bible from memory.
Yet Lincoln the young man was not particularly fond of traditional religious beliefs. Among the books he favored were anti-Christian Enlightenment skeptics. There exists strong evidence that Lincoln, a compulsive polemicist, even wrote a manuscript attacking biblical Christianity which was burned by his New Salem friend Samuel Hill, who feared it would ruin Lincoln’s budding political prospects.
Lincoln participated in no church and wrote morbid poems fixating on life’s ultimate purposelessness. He came close to driving himself mad. In his early career in government, Lincoln could not escape his opponents’ nagging charge that he was an “infidel” and a “scoffer.”
A Lawyer Confronted With Evidence
In 1849, Lincoln read the two-volume book The Christian’s Defense by Reverend James D. Smith. The book was the product of Smith’s 18-day debate in 1841 with well-known skeptic C.G. Olmstead. Smith himself was a former skeptic who was ironically converted to Christianity while attending revival meetings with the intention of mocking the preachers.
Rev. Smith was also currently the minister at First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln’s home of Springfield, Illinois. After Lincoln read Smith’s books, the tall, rationally inclined lawyer wasted no time seeking out the tall, rationally inclined preacher.
The Lincolns quickly bonded with Rev. Smith. The clergyman often ate at the Lincoln home; preached at the funeral of their son, Eddie; and welcomed them as regulars at First Presbyterian. A copy of both volumes of A Christian’s Defense was in the Lincoln home. Smith also provided Lincoln with spiritual support for opposition to slavery on biblical grounds.
A decade after meeting James Smith, Abraham Lincoln found himself more dependent upon his faith than ever as president-elect of the United States. Leaving Springfield for the nation’s capital, he addressed the hometown friends he was leaving:
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. (Capitalizations of pronouns for God in Lincoln’s handwritten transcript.)
Lincoln’s theology was now expressed in some detail. It was theistic, with divine attributes described. Lincoln’s God hears, acts, is omnipresent, and all wise. No deist or agnostic could honestly make such a claim.
“This Nation, Under God”
Upon arriving in Washington, the new President searched for a church and minister to replace what he had left behind in Springfield, and found it at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and the pastoral care of Rev. Phineas Gurley, who like Smith was theologically conservative and highly intellectual.
He became a regular attender at New York Avenue Presbyterian (Pew B-14, which can be observed today, as I have), made sure his children attended Sunday School and became involved in missionary society activities, and attended Thursday night prayer meetings. In fact, when his prayer meeting attendance became a nuisance to the church due to office-seekers loitering near the door, Gurley arranged for Lincoln to slip in a side door and attend prayer sitting secretly in the pastor’s study with the door propped open.
Crises battered him like ocean waves.
His response? Historians know that he kept and read at least two Bibles and a pocket New Testament, and commonly consulted Cruden’s Bible Concordance. He confided to a Treasury official, “I decided [a] long time ago it was less difficult to believe that the Bible was what it claimed to be than to disbelieve it.”
And as Lincoln plunged deeper into his personal spiritual journey, he externalized it as President. Historian Stephen Mansfield writes:
During the war years … [Lincoln] called for and funded military chaplains, supported the work of the Young Men’s Christian Association among the troops, and approved a bill that placed, for the first time, ‘In God We Trust’ on a coin of the United States.
He proclaimed a day of “Public humiliation, prayer and fasting” and wrote it himself.
In the Gettysburg Address, after finishing the first written draft, he inserted his growing theology into the final phrase: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
The Divine Will
All of which brings us back to the 703 words on the most famous government monument in the country.
As the war was coming to a close, President Abraham Lincoln gave an inaugural address historian and Lincoln expert Ronald C. White calls “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech” in White’s book by that name.
Why his greatest? It distilled Lincoln’s interpretation of the war into words designed to explain to a wounded, grieving nation what had just happened, why, and how to move forward.
And it centered on God. After quickly reviewing pertinent facts, the President became a Pastor. His points included:
- Both sides prayed to the same God and read the same Bible.
- Though slavery was a sin, the North had no business indulging in self-righteous judgment.
- God is sovereign and just, yet humans are free and accountable. God’s purposes for the war involved this mysterious interplay between His predestined will for the nation and man’s accountability for his actions. Yet as always, God is righteous in His judgments.
- The duty of the nation was now to move forward in Christ-like love: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
After Lincoln’s assassination, it was discovered among his papers that the themes in the Second Inaugural Address were present as early as 1862 in a private paper later entitled “Meditation on the Divine Will.” Not surprisingly, the themes had found their way into correspondence written by Lincoln, and eventually into his speech and on to the wall of the Lincoln Memorial where millions of Americans read them today.
What if Lincoln’s America had been saddled with the extreme secular resistance to traditional religion in government that exists in our America? Consider how diminished our nation would be.
An America without a religious Abraham Lincoln would be unthinkable — and indeed, without freedom to acknowledge God as Lincoln did in his capacity as a public official, our nation might have ceased to exist at all.
Christopher Corbett is Vice President for Strategic Communications at First Liberty Institute.