The Spirituality of Abraham Lincoln

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these things were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

One hundred and forty-two years ago today, Abraham Lincoln wrote these words. So often, President Lincoln is referred to as our most “Christian president.” Although few today would equate Lincoln with Christ so explicitly, our casual ways of talking about the martyred president embody something of an old idea.

Consider – if you would – these images of Lincoln:
v the common man of uncommon wisdom,
v the man who saved a country and freed the slaves,
v the man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief,
v the man who could forgive a hostile, warring nation,
v the man who showed great compassion and love for all humanity
v the teller of simple stories dense with meaning.

The day after Abraham Lincoln’s death was Easter Sunday and it took almost no time at all for the pious and patriotic people to transform Lincoln into the American Christ. American preachers forgot their prepared Easter sermons and rhapsodized about the martyred president. Some compared him with Moses leading his oppressed people to freedom. But most likened him to Christ – the savior of the nation.

A couple of years ago I was driving through the square in Hodgenville, Kentucky, a little community near the site of Lincoln’s birthplace, and I noticed that this town had draped his statue with holly, ivy and Christmas greenery. Without thinking a thing of it, the good people of Hodgenville had merged one humble but redeeming birth into another.

For over a century now, there have been tons of comparisons between Lincoln and Christ:
· Both were born in humble origins
· Both of their fathers were carpenters
· Both worked as laborers before beginning their careers
· Both loved all walks of life – especially children
· Both had many enemies who wished them harm
· Both were great story tellers
· Both were considered radical
· Both men were capable of great love for mankind
· Christ entered Jerusalem a few days before his death to shouts of “Hosanna” and “Savior” and “Messiah.”
· Lincoln entered Richmond, Virginia a few days before his death, also to shouts of “Hosanna” and “Savior” and “Messiah.”
· Both men looked after their mothers until the day of their assassinations
· Christ and Lincoln were both executed on Good Friday
· Christ, moments away from death, asked that his enemies be forgiven with the words, “Father forgive them.”
· Lincoln, in his second inaugural address the month before his death, pleaded with Northern states to forgive the Southern Confederacy – “With malice toward none.”

Modern religious scoffers have been reluctant to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s deep spirituality, in spite of the fact that he was often known as “Father Abraham” and has been described as one of the most deeply religious presidents the country has ever seen. The key to Lincoln’s belief system was a rough-hewn version of predestination that he absorbed from the evangelical Baptist preachers who scoured the frontiers of Kentucky and Indiana.

Yet for all of his familiarity with the Bible, and his invocation of Providence and of the Almighty, he did not actively participate in a church or lend his name and authority to a denomination. Lincoln was not, as his wife, Mary Todd, later described, “a technical Christian.”

The religious aspect Lincoln’s spirituality was this: Lincoln believed some form of providence was at work in the universe, but was unable to believe in Jesus Christ as his savior. He was once quoted to say that he would join the church that had engraved above its altar: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength.” Although he was unable to believe fully in Christian doctrine, he was never comfort-able in his unbelief. But what is so difficult to comprehend is how, during the devastation of the Civil War, Lincoln’s self-made theology reshaped American history. And the question that is of-ten asked among my fellow Lincoln scholars:

Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?

Sadness and suffering appear to be at the core of Lincoln’s spirituality. At the age of nine, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the woman Lincoln claimed as his be-loved angel mother, died in the woods of the family’s Indiana farm. A few years later he lost his sister Sarah who was his closest companion in the world.

In 1850, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln lost their three year-old-son, Eddie. With Eddie’s death, Mary turned to religion by joining the Presbyterian Church, and Abraham turned to the Bible. His thorough investigation of the scriptures launched him on a steady course that permeated his soul and his future political writings.

In 1862, one year into the Civil War, the Lincoln’s lost their cherished eleven-year-old son, Willie. This particular family tragedy tilted the emotional balance for Mary who sought comfort from an era popularized with spiritualists and séances.
But for Lincoln, this personal tragedy, coupled with the grievous casualties of the war, ignited an even greater faith in God and his own belief of a purpose driven life.

Religion became a hot issue in 1846 when Lincoln ran for congress against a famous Illinois Methodist minister, Peter Cartright. The Cartwright camp spread talk of Lincoln as infidel. Lincoln attended one of Rev. Cartright’s campaign speeches and took a seat not too far from the speaker’s stand. The portly and boisterous Rev. Cartright spied his tall, lean opponent and took advantage of this surprise visit. Rev. Cartright worked his audience into an emotional, revival frenzy.

Finally he said, “If you love the Lord, stand up!”

The crowd rose with arms stretched towards the open sky, cheering for several min-utes. Lincoln remained seated.

“If you are a Christian, stand up!”

The crowd rose again with cheers and outstretched arms. Still, Lincoln remained seated.

“If you know you are going to heaven, stand up!”

This time, the response was thunderous. Spying Lincoln still seated, Rev. Cartright looked over at his congressional opponent and pointed a finger. “You, Mr. Lincoln! Where do you intend on going?”

Lincoln rose to his full height of six feet, four inches, looked around at the thousands gathered, turned to Rev. Cartright and said, “Well, I intend on going to congress.”

The crowd roared.

The next day Lincoln responded to Rev. Cartright’s claims of Lincoln’s disrespect for religion with what is probably his most revealing theological statement. Lincoln wrote: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true, but I have never uttered any disrespect toward religion in general or of any Christian group.”

Lincoln was elected to the United States Congress. It would be his last political vic-tory until the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln would have gained politically by joining a church, maintaining a religious-front and keeping doubts to himself. But that would have been out of character.

Was Lincoln a Christian?

Although Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of stan-dard Christian beliefs, it is obvious that Christianity exerted a profound influence on his life for Lincoln’s speeches and conversation revealed a spiritual perception far above the ordi-nary.

It is one of the great ironies of the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation’s deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity.

The source of Lincoln’s Christian perception will probably always remain a mystery, but of the unusual depth of that perception there is no doubt. Nowhere was that depth more visible than in his Second Inaugural Address of March 1865. This address has often been called the greatest state paper of the nineteenth century, but it is more than a state paper. It is a theological classic.

This occasion on March 4, 1865, gave Lincoln his best opportunity to state the Bibli-cal faith that formed the center of his conviction. He included:
v fourteen references to God
v many scriptural allusions and
v four direct quotations from the Bible.

It is difficult to think of another state paper so steeped in Scripture and so devoted to theological reflection.

Once during the Civil War, a Northern minister told the president, “I hope the Lord is on our side.”

Lincoln, with what I personally believe to be his most prolific statement said, “I don’t think it matters that God is on our side, but it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

During the war, God became even more instrumental to Lincoln because he believed God had a magnificent work for America to perform, a work significant for the whole world. It seemed as though Lincoln began speaking not to his country alone but to aspirants for freedom in all countries around the world, and not to his own moment in history but to the centuries.

The proposition that all men are created equal was a truth for the ages, and if Amer-ica, under God, achieved a new birth of freedom, it would stand as an object lesson to all nations.

Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?

Yesterday afternoon I called up my dear friend of mine in Muncie, Indiana, who is a music professor at Ball State University and an ordained minister. My friend redirected in my thinking by relating a question proposed by one of his religion professors.

The teacher said to his students, “Many ask, ‘do I have faith?’ But what is important to ask is, ‘Am I faithing?’”

The professor turned FAITH into a verb.

As we discussing the mystery of Lincoln’s spirituality I began forming a much more pointed question:

“We can ask ‘Was Lincoln a Christian?’

But we’ll never know the answer. What we should ask is, ‘Was Lincoln Christian?’”

Now this I believe we can justify -Lincoln was, without a doubt, very Christian. But then my friend stated something that seemed to sum up Lincoln’s spirituality. He said: “If anything, Lincoln’s faith was consistent.”

That began unraveling even more ideas and questions – not about Lincoln, but about myself, and my life.

Am I consistent enough?
Do I love others enough?
Do I serve enough?
Do I forgive enough?
Do I love God enough?

The tapestry of Lincoln’s life is masterful. From his suffering he drew compassion. From his weakness he drew strength. Although today we see President Lincoln in stone and on the pages of American his-tory, he was our most human president, and perhaps our most Christ-like who modeled a consistent practice of his faith.

Lincoln’s summary of faith, which I read at the start, is still vital today.

v Have we forgotten God?
v Do we imagine that all the blessings of our own lives are produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own?
v Have we become so intoxicated with unbroken success that we are too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace?
v Are we too proud to pray to the God that made us?

And I ask myself: Am I consistent in my own faith?