Honoring His 200th Birthday: What Was Lincoln’s Faith?

Post a Comment » Written on February 16th, 2009     
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By Kurt Peterson

CHICAGO, IL (February 16, 2009) – In the most recent election, questions of the candidates’ faiths often came to the fore of national debate. Candidates talked about their religious beliefs as never before in modern politics, and the electorate tried to gauge their moral compass based on those statements and discussions.

Two hundred years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, scholars still are trying to decipher the faith of the sixteenth president, whose words and life continue to inspire the nation as perhaps no other president. The following article on the nature of Lincoln’s faith was submitted by Kurt Peterson, chair of the history department at North Park University. He also is the author of Lincoln’s Land: The History of Abraham Lincoln’s Coles County Farm.
On Saturday, March 4, 1865, exactly six weeks before his death by an assassin’s bullet, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. In that critical historical moment, he offered some of history’s most lasting words about discerning God’s purposes in the midst of war:

Neither [the North nor the South] anticipated that the cause of the conflict [slavery] might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both 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. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

While pastors both from the North and the South firmly placed God on their side during the war, confidently assuming God’s favor toward their own cause, Lincoln spoke of God’s ultimate sovereignty and the war as judgment upon the entire United States, not just one portion of it, for the national sin of slavery. Such thoughtful and theologically mature reflections clearly convey Lincoln’s firm belief in God.

Or do they? For more than a century now, historians and cultural commentators have been trying to parse Lincoln’s enigmatic and unconventional faith. As a boy, he mocked his parents’ Baptist pastor, yet he had a Presbyterian minister at his bedside when he died. As a young man he rejected the Baptist faith of his parents and admired the famous Enlightenment skeptic Thomas Paine, yet later in life he told his friend Joshua Speed, “take all [the bible] upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.”

Such thoughtful and theologically mature reflections clearly convey Lincoln’s firm belief in God….Or do they?

He was never baptized nor did he profess faith in orthodox Christianity, yet he peppered his public speeches with references to the Bible, Providence, and God. He never joined any church, yet he attended Presbyterian church services in Springfield and during his presidency, even owning a pew at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.

So what do we make of Lincoln’s faith? While his personal beliefs remain hidden from history, we can make some general judgments. First, Lincoln solidly rejected the Calvinist faith of his Separate Baptist parents. He had no use for denominational squabbles among frontier settlers or the superstitious beliefs of uneducated country folk. He rarely if ever spoke of Jesus Christ, instead confining his public comments about faith to God, his “Maker,” or divine “Providence.”

As a young man living in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln was associated with a group of freethinkers, and during those years he even wrote an essay mocking the idea that Jesus was the Son of God. During his 1846 campaign for Illinois Congressman, Lincoln ran against Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright who called Lincoln an “infidel” and warned the people of Illinois not to elect a representative who scoffed at God. Lincoln defended himself and claimed never to have ridiculed religion. He went on to say, “I still do not think any man has the right to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, or the community in which he may live.” These comments, while clearly aimed at assuaging the fears of the electorate, did little to define him as a committed Christian.

However, as he grew older, Lincoln grew more sensitive to the presence of God in the world and in his own life. After the death of his young son Edward in 1850, he began attending services at a local Presbyterian church in Springfield. During the Civil War he increasingly reflected on God’s purposes in history. In September 1862, after the bloody battle of Antietam, he declared that the time was right for Emancipation because he had made a divine covenant with “his Maker” that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation if the rebel army was driven out of Maryland. By the time he delivered his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, Lincoln had developed a chastened Calvinism which recognized God’s inscrutable divine providence over human affairs, and the apparent insignificance of humanity’s ability to right the wrongs they commit.

In the end, as Lincoln scholar Gerald J. Prokopowicz writes, “Lincoln’s God was his Maker, the Old Testament God, the Almighty, a single all-powerful Providence, rather than the triune Christian God who offers salvation specifically through the medium of personal relationship with His only Son.” Other historians argue that the Union was Lincoln’s God, and preserving the nation as the “last best hope for democracy” was his prophetic call. While Lincoln never underwent a conversion to conventional Christianity, he came to see the world as designed and presided over by a just God who works to accomplish divine ends among his creatures.

Kurt Peterson is professor of history at North Park University.

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