Paul L. Caron

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Was Abraham Lincoln A Christian?

Following up on my previous post, Abraham Lincoln’s Use Of The Bible In His Second Inaugural Address:  Christianity Today Book Review:  America’s ‘First Evangelical President’ Might Not Have Been a Christian at All, by Robert Tracy McKenzie (Wheaton College), (reviewing Gordon Leidner, Abraham Lincoln and the Bible (2023) & Joshua Zeitz, Lincoln's God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation (2023)):

Lincoln BooksTwo new books probe the mysteries of Abraham Lincoln’s public and private relationship to religion.

If Abraham Lincoln still matters to Americans in the 21st century—and he does—a major reason is that there’s much at stake politically in how we remember him. This is as true of Lincoln’s religious beliefs as for any other part of his life. In a nation deeply divided over the proper role of religion in the public square, it makes a difference whether our greatest president was a religious skeptic or an orthodox Christian, a devotee of Thomas Paine or a disciple of Jesus.

The debate began almost immediately upon his death. Although Lincoln had never joined a church, Christians typically insisted on his devout faith. Although the late president had quoted extensively from the Bible, non-Christians protested that he doubted much of what it said.

Professional historians joined the debate in the first half of the last century, but they haven’t resolved it. There are outliers, but most agree that by the time of his presidency, Lincoln was not an atheist, if he ever had been. Most agree, as well, that he was almost certainly not an orthodox Christian, if by that we mean someone able to assent wholly to one of the major Christian confessions. It’s been difficult to determine beyond this, thanks to limitations in the surviving evidence.

After his death, countless acquaintances claimed intimate knowledge of the state of Lincoln’s soul, but these testimonies are hopelessly contradictory and their objectivity is doubtful. In addition, Lincoln’s voluminous personal papers are characterized by a pervasive, seemingly intentional ambiguity. Lincoln scholars all acknowledge that he used biblical language, but the questions of why he alluded to the Bible and how much of it he believed remain unanswered—and are probably unanswerable. 

And yet we persist in asking these questions, as two major new studies of Lincoln’s religion attest.

In Abraham Lincoln and the Bible, author Gordon Leidner explores how Lincoln appealed to Scripture, what he said about it, and how he may have been influenced by it. He wisely passes over the competing claims of Lincoln’s contemporaries and focuses on Lincoln’s own words, meticulously combing through the nine published volumes of Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence for clues.

Hoping that these will “speak for themselves,” Leidner concludes the biography with a 55-page appendix describing in detail 199 instances of Lincoln quoting or alluding to Scripture. From these, Leidner draws two conclusions: first, that Lincoln “fully accepted the moral authority of the Bible”; and second, that he drew effectively from it “to lead his followers to a higher moral plane.” ...

[T]here is no denying that, by the end of his life, Lincoln had become a master at appealing to Christians in the electorate, and his deft use of biblical language was likely one reason for his success.

This, at least, is one of the conclusions of Joshua Zeitz in his book Lincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation. Zeitz, a Politico writer and author of other historical books, confidently describes Lincoln’s religious path as a “spiritual journey from skeptic to believer.” According to Zeitz, Lincoln was radically skeptical as a young adult, then became vaguely “religious” in his middle years, though he remained unpersuaded by Christian dogma and kept his distance from institutional Christianity. ...

When the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, the future author of Democracy in America was deeply impressed by the vitality of American Christianity, and he attributed it, more than any other factor, to the clergy’s determination to “mark their distance from, and avoid contact with, all parties.” They went so far, Tocqueville observed, as to teach “that in God’s eyes no one is damnable for his political views so long as those views are sincere.” That perspective had all but vanished a generation later. It is far too rare today.

In the interim, there has been more than enough evidence to suggest that, when Christians forge too close an alliance with any political leader, movement, or party, they run the risk of politicizing Christianity instead of Christianizing politics. We are tempted to compromise our convictions in order to cement the alliance; those who seek our votes are rewarded for helping us feel righteous as we do so.

If Abraham Lincoln was “the nation’s first evangelical president,” it is to his great credit that he stopped short of telling evangelical voters whatever they wanted to hear. When visitors to the White House were too dogmatic in revealing what God wanted him to do, he freely challenged them, sometimes testily. When reformers lobbied him during the war to support a constitutional amendment acknowledging the authority of “God Almighty” and “the Lord Jesus Christ,” Lincoln listened politely but never lent his support.

And when victory was practically assured, he preemptively undermined northern self-congratulation by insisting in his second inaugural address that God had answered the prayers of neither side fully. “The Almighty has his own purposes,” Lincoln observed—not a quote from the Bible, but a humbling truth that reverberates across its pages.

Mark Noll (Regent), The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln

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