Commentary On “Was Abraham Lincoln an Atheist?”
Previously published on Medium.com
Note: This was originally published on my Medium page in June of 2019. I wanted to move all my Lincoln writing to one place. Apologies if you have already read it. It was written in response to “Was Abraham Lincoln an Atheist?” at History.com.
The never-ending debate over Lincoln’s religion has intensified because of a bible that has surfaced — one his widow gave to a Baptist minister who had once been a close neighbor and remained a close friend.
Rev. Dr. N.W. Miner seems to have enjoyed discussing religion with “freethinkers,” of which there were many at that time. Those who identified as freethinkers included those who did not join a specific church, atheists, or agnostics of various stripes. Depending on the community, freethinking was more tolerated than one might think.
From the New York Times:
“In 1864, Abraham Lincoln made a rare wartime trip out of Washington to visit a charity event in Philadelphia raising money to care for wounded soldiers. He donated 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to be sold for fund-raising. But it turns out he received a gift in return: a Bible whose pages were edged with gilt and decorated with the words “Faith,” “Hope” and “Charity” after I Corinthians 13:13 . . . Now, more than 150 years later, historians have discovered the Bible for the first time, a unique artifact of the 16th president’s life that they did not even know existed.”
The gift of the bible was actually widely-reported in 1864, as was Mary’s gifting of it to Miner in 1872. Miner’s descendants gave several interviews about it in the 20th century.
In my series on Mary Lincoln’s final years (a rough version of a research project, which begins here,) I discuss Miner. I did not mention the bible, but I’ve known about it a long time, and I’m pretty sure a lot of professional historians have mentioned it.
The History.com article notes that every president has been a member of a church except for Lincoln. This maybe true, but in the case of James K. Polk, he was only a member for a matter of hours. A summary from one website:
Polk’s father and grandfather were deists, which prevented James from being baptized as a child (the minister refused to baptize James unless his father reaffirmed his faith, which he would not do) . . . Polk was a regular church-goer throughout his life, most often attending Presbyterian services (his wife’s faith), but he did not formally join any church until, on his deathbed, he joined the Methodist church .
Polk apparently did, in mid-life, wish to join the Methodist Church, but did not do so out of respect for his wife’s devout Presbyterianism. Lincoln also semi-regularly attended church with his wife, especially while President. He seems to have enjoyed discussing religion with open-minded ministers or leaders from various faiths. His alleged authorship of a book mocking Christianity when a young man became a rather minor controversy at times, and this may well have been true — that a young man with his logic and writing skills might challenge and amuse himself by such a satirical project is not hard to imagine. He was a master of using biblical analogies and images, as major biblical stories were familiar to most people, and generally tend to be effective illustrations of certain points. He employed this tactic both effectively and amusingly. During their famous debates, Lincoln and his rival Stephen Douglas squared off over the latter’s claim that God had given people free will and therefore, right or wrong, the citizens of each state should decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. One scholar wrote:
Lincoln’s knowledge of the bible was so thorough that his political opponents generally found themselves on dangerous ground when they quoted it against him. When Judge Douglas somewhat fantastically cited Adam and Eve as the first beneficiaries of his doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’ Lincoln corrected him. ‘God did not place good and evil before man, telling him to make his choice. On the contrary, he did tell him there was one tree, of the fruit of which he should not eat, upon pain of certain death.’ Then added Lincoln pointedly, ‘I should scarcely wish so strong a prohibition against slavery in Nebraska.’
Speaking in a debate over issues relating to the national bank and whether or not there was risk in trusting matters to sub-treasurers, he said “The Savior of the world chose twelve disciples, and even one of that small number, selected by super-human wisdom, turned out a traitor and a devil. And, it may not be improper here to add, that Judas carried the bag — was the Sub-Treasurer of the Savior and his disciples.”
In any event, virtually anyone who was close to Lincoln and was honest, when privately discussing his religion, identified him as an agnostic. This was not as controversial then as it would become later, and during the Civil War, people had other things to worry about. He was always respectful towards the religious. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that he was an agnostic until at least March 1865 — and he died in April 1865. Perhaps he had a last minute conversion in those few weeks — if so, no one mentions it. Having been shot in the head, he was not conscious on his deathbed.
His controversial freethinking law partner, William H. Herndon, battled against the idea of Lincoln as a Christian for decades, believing it both an insult to Lincoln and a deprivation of such an amazing man from being an example of what freethought can produce.
“I do not remember ever seeing the words Jesus or Christ, in print, as uttered by Mr. Lincoln. If he has used these words, they can be found. He uses the word God but seldom. I never heard him use the name of Christ or Jesus but to confute the idea that He was the Christ, the only and truly begotten son of God, as the Christian would understand it.”
He usually took his biblical illustrations from the Old Testament. To his credit and that of his friends, Lincoln had chosen friends who really never could bring themselves to represent him otherwise and therefore dishonestly, even if they tried to talk around it to mitigate the controversy. It was an important part of his thought process and character that one could not really negate without distorting everything.
Some did not even try to demur. The eccentric, brilliant, erratic, and hilarious Herndon usually confined his thoughts to letters with his friends, but occasionally broke out in exasperation when Lincoln was elaborately presented as a Christian. He was particularly horrified by the idea of the immaculate conception, which to him seemed an obvious violation of the Virgin Mary (I guess he did not believe the “virgin'“ part), and believed Lincoln shared this view: “What, Mr. Lincoln believe that the Creator had connection through the form or instrumentality of a shadow with [Mary]? Blasphemy!” In fact, according to Herndon, Lincoln “scorned the idea that God seduced, even by a shadow, a lovely daughter of His own.”
“In essence, he did not believe in a special creation, in the Bible as a special revelation from God, in miracles as understood by Christians; he did believe in ‘universal inspiration and miracles under law,’ that ‘all creation was an evolution under law,’ and that ‘all things, both matter and mind were governed by laws, universal, absolute, and eternal.’”
This was the type of agnosticism popular at the time — there were rules, and principles of right and wrong, that governed the universe. There was a design to creation that must be complied with, and God’s will existed. Lincoln was on the fatalist side — he believed God had his own plan and that one was fated to live his life in accordance with this. However, he believed God to be just, even if not in a way people always understood.
Not long after Lincoln’s death, in a private interview, Mary Lincoln told Herndon what he already knew about Lincoln: “he was not a technical Christian.” She indicated he had been undergoing a spiritual journey that had started when they had lost a child many years before, had accelerated when they lost a child while he was in the White House, and had more or less become a conversion around the time of Gettysburg, when dealing with the enormity of the Civil War. Many did and do repeat this line of thought. As the debate over his religion raged on, Mary Lincoln tried to boost the idea that he was definitely a Christian (she had actually started this narrative in the days after he had died, apparently realizing it would be an issue), and giving Miner the bible was part of this. He gave a series of lectures refuting accusations Lincoln was an infidel, especially given his conversation during a White House visit not long after the devastating death of their son Willie. He knew Herndon, and accurately perceived that Herndon, as an “infidel,” wanted to show that infidelity could produce an “elevated character.”
Miner appears to have been incredibly honest. Over the years, Miner’s lectures before ministers’ conferences contained the following comments:
“When Mr. Lincoln was elected, I do not think he was an experimental Christian. But I never heard from him a word looking toward infidel sentiments.” When he visited him in Washington, he came away “confident that, even if he were not a Christian, he was acting like one, was . . . looking up to God for help, reading his Bible, believing in prayer, and praying.” His opinion was that, “Mr. Lincoln was a Christian; perhaps not an experimental Christian, but one who read his Bible, and prayed and acted like a Christian.”
In my opinion, freethought advocate John E. Remsberg settled this question back in 1893. I recommend it in his work “Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?”: One reviewer called Remsberg “another man who has misdirected his talents,” as he had spent ten years examining and analyzing Lincoln’s religious beliefs and written a 300-page book on the matter. Maybe so, but we should at least benefit from his sharp, thorough, and fair analysis. Most reviewers grumbled while conceding Remsberg had substantiated the validity of his answer to the question (“No.”)
Remsberg, noting that he did not believe Lincoln went as far as atheism, gave a rundown of his writings. Speaking of the Emancipation Proclamation:
“In the final Proclamation, an acknowledgment of God was inserted only at the urgent request of Secretary Chase. The Emancipation Proclamation, with the possible exception of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, is the most important political document ever issued in America. He knew that this was the crowning act of his career, that it would place him among the immortals. In the preparation of this work he expended much thought and labor, and it was his desire that it should be free from religious verbiage.”
Probably most significantly:
“In that masterpiece of eloquence, the Gettysburg oration, the name of God occurs but once, while not the remotest reference to Christianity or even immortality appears. When we take into consideration the fact that this address was made at the dedication of a cemetery, the significance of this omission can not be overlooked, This speech was the product of Lincoln's own mind free from the suggestions and emendations of others, and the occasion was too sacred to indulge in pious cant in which he did not believe.”
The reason I believe that through March 1865 he was not a Christian is because of his stunning second inaugural address. There were no lines in it that could be twisted into cheesy platitudes, like the “better angels of our nature” line in his first inaugural. But it was heavy on biblical imagery and morality. I’ve bolded the most interesting points, religious or not, for emphasis.
AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict 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.” With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Lincoln was quite “shut-mouthed” about personal matters, as one contemporary called him, so no one knows his exact beliefs. He was not out to denounce others’ beliefs, but was the sort of person who would misrepresent himself on such a level. He was scrupulously honest in the positive sense — never stating a falsehood. For those who put equal weight on negative honesty, which is essentially strategic omission, things are not quite so clear. He was an incredibly precise, concise, and honest speaker and writer. When he uses a few unnecessary words, that is a red flag. As quoted in the History.com article:
“That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true,” he responded in a handbill; “but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.” Still, Lincoln didn’t actually say whether he believed in the Christian faith. Instead, “he vigorously denies accusations that were not actually leveled at him,” Guelzo says. “He just deflects.”
I hastily wrote up this post because I think the discussion is fascinating and saw an opportunity to jump in. In conclusion, my point is not to get into a debate over Christianity. What I find most interesting about it is the strength and steadiness of purpose that this breed of agnosticism gave some of the incredible leaders of the period — the certainty that a broad concept and principles of justice existed, the conviction to fight for justice, and the acceptance of suffering and fate. As I see it, there seem to be much fewer people, no matter what belief system, who have an assumption that such moorings exist. This makes it difficult to spark that intensity and commitment, that comprehensive moral view, in a time when we need it. I don’t have an answer to whether these moorings do exist, or a solution to the “spiritual malaise,” for lack of a better term. But it is something I have been thinking about.