Abraham Lincoln - A Portrait in Grief

Chapter Three

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Examination



MANY SERIOUS QUESTIONS


 


Lincoln’s personal faith and spiritually was never fully exposed or defined during his lifetime. His contemporaries and a host of later historians have poured through Lincoln’s personal writings and the documents of his closest friends and co-workers trying to resolve who Lincoln really was from a philosophical and spiritual perspective. He obviously mastered the ability to keep his personal beliefs shrouded in a vague mystery that many still invest much effort into trying to decode and expose.  


He never belonged to an organized church. Lincoln read the Bible daily, but he never joined an organized church in his lifetime.[1] It is well recorded that Mr. Lincoln regularly attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC with Mrs. Lincoln during his presidency. Lincoln’s use of the Bible was extraordinary because he absorbs it and releases it. But he never said, “as the Bible says”. He just put it into his own syntax and words and it becomes part of his majestic rhetoric. (quoted by Harold Holzer) [2]


There have been many serious questions arise about Lincoln’s religious posture because of a book that he apparently authored as a young attorney. This document was brought to the forefront by Lincoln’s law firm partner William Herndon after Lincoln was assassinated.


That literary work has often referred to as an essay based on the works of one of the founding fathers named Thomas Paine titled “The Age of Reason”. Lincoln was an avid student of both Thomas Jefferson and his friends, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin. All three of these founding fathers were known deists.


All of these colonial leaders were also considered to be acknowledged enlightenment thinkers in their day, not “Christians” in any traditional or doctrinal sense of the word. As a young man Lincoln’s thoughts were clearly in line with these founding fathers. The discernment issues about Lincoln’s personal postures of religious faith develop as He grows older.


Through the writings of His contemporaries, we can be fairly certain that Lincoln was and probably remained a “universalist” who could not fathom the orthodox Christian doctrine of endless and eternal punishment. It can also be easily understood that Mr. Lincoln struggled with accepting the concept of substitutionary atonement, as popularly interpreted and taught regarding the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament via fundamental Christian denominations and even Roman Catholicism.


Abraham Lincoln believed in a Supreme Being, but he did not believe in the God of Christians. The God of Christians was to him the most hideous monster that the imagination of man had ever conceived. There were two doctrines taught in connection with this deity which he especially abhorred -- the doctrine of endless punishment, and the doctrine of vicarious atonement. That the innocent should suffer for the guilty -- that God should permit his sinless son to be put to a cruel death to atone for the sins of wicked men -- was to him an act of the most infamous injustice. His whole nature rebelled against the idea”. (Frederick Douglas)[3]


 


There is a substantial group on either side of this debate regarding Lincoln’s genuine religious convictions. However, they will all somewhat agree that if Lincoln ever did become a “Christian”, in the classical sense of the doctrine, it happened very near the end of his life while they lived in the Nation’s capital.


Mary Todd. Lincoln is quoted and endorsed on both sides of Lincoln’s potential “Christian” testimony, or lack thereof. However, Mrs. Lincoln was often known to hold sťances at the White House after their son Willie died. She was regularly identified with spiritualists and mediums in Washington DC.


All of these varying testimonies and reflections on the faith and spiritual perspectives of both Abraham and Mary Lincoln leave a very cloudy image of who Lincoln was and how he genuinely formed his world view that affected his cultural and sociological perspectives.

It is both very easy to make him out to be a traditional enlightenment thinking deist. And it is also very easy to interpret him to be a moderately believing traditional “Christian” that simply struggled with a various doctrines presented and adhered to by the Christian Churches that influenced Lincoln’s daily living.  



[1] www.constitutioncenter.org

[2] Jayanti, Vikram Lincoln (A&E Television Networks 2009) DVD AAAE172190LT5

 

[3] Remsburg, John B. Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian? (New York, Truth seeker Company,  1906) p. 156



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