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What did Abraham Lincoln believe?

A brief look at one pilgrim’s progress

A Currier & Ives lithograph of Abraham Lincoln reading the Bible to (from left) his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and his sons Robert and Thaddeus Library of Congress/Public Domain

What did Abraham Lincoln believe?

Three Februarys ago we published the chapter on George Washington from Marvin Olasky’s The American Leadership Tradition, originally released in 1999 and now out of print. Here, in honor of the upcoming Presidents Day, is a shortened, updated version of Marvin’s chapter on Abraham Lincoln. —Mickey McLean

Some political leaders speak about God loudly but thoughtlessly. Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday comes on Feb. 12. Disciplined by deep reading and free of the temptation to tweet, he spoke softly about God but meditated often about His mysterious ways. Here’s a brief look at one pilgrim’s progress, cut short by an assassination but not so short that Lincoln didn’t have time to step heavenward.

I’ll start by noting that Lincoln, born in 1809, grew up with Christian teaching but rebelled against it. When his parents and his sister Sarah joined the Little Pigeon Baptist Church in 1823, teenaged Abraham did not. He often listened to sermons, however, and mimicked them afterward before a crowd of children until (as one child remembered) Lincoln’s father “would come and make him quit.”

In his 20s Lincoln publicly questioned the accuracy of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, and that hurt his electoral ambitions. One local politician, James Adams, called Lincoln a “deist,” and therefore untrustworthy. Religious accusations plagued Lincoln again in 1843 when an opponent in the race for a congressional seat noted that Lincoln “belonged to no church.” Lincoln’s law partnership with William Herndon, a frontier evangelist for transcendentalism, did not help his reputation among Christians.

Then came hypocrisy. Lincoln, as Whig nominee for Congress in 1846, ran against Peter Cartwright, that well-known Methodist circuit rider and friend of Andrew Jackson. In response to Cartwright’s charge that he was an infidel, Lincoln issued a statement published in the Illinois Gazette: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; 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.”

Lincoln chose his words carefully. He did not say that he affirmed Scriptural truth or never questioned it, only that he had never denied it. He did not state his respect, only that he had not been caught in disrespect. He concluded his public statement with a notice that he did not favor those with poorer etiquette: “I do not think I could, myself, be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at religion.”

Lincoln chose his words carefully. He did not say that he affirmed Scriptural truth or never questioned it, only that he had never denied it.

Lincoln won his legislative race and went to Washington in 1847. He would have liked a second term, but the Whigs stuck with their informal term limitations plan and returned him to Springfield, Ill. There Lincoln settled, becoming a successful and affluent corporate lawyer—but during the 1850s, for both the country and Lincoln, what had seemed like solid ground shifted.

The 1850s brought increased crime, prostitution, and abortion (the last two were closely linked). Intellectual criticism of market systems propelled the creation of communes like Brook Farm outside Boston. Other panacea-proclaiming movements—vegetarianism, “free love,” no furs, graham crackers—gained adherents, with each proponent of an “ism” claiming that if Americans did not turn his way, disaster would follow.

The most sensational religious development during the decade was the rapid spread of spiritism. Those who joined what we would today call a New Age movement believed that each person/spirit had his own godstuff and should be free to pursue his own bliss. Adherents released themselves from Biblical ideas of adhering to marriage. Spiritists believed that there was no god as Biblically understood, and thus no binding vows of faithfulness to Him or to others.

“Everyone his own god” theology surged. Newspapers reported the popularity of the new faith throughout the cities of the North, much to the consternation of the Presbyterian-edited New York Times, which complained of a “social Antichrist overrunning the world.” One New York businessman, George Templeton Strong, recorded in his diary the amazing developments: “ex-judges of the Supreme Court, Senators, clergymen, professors of physical sciences [favoring] a new Revelation, hostile to that of the Church and the Bible.”

Many Americans in the 1850s anticipated an apocalypse. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 best-seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, concluded, “Both North and South have been guilty before God,” and only “repentance, justice, and mercy” could save the nation from God’s wrath. Some Northerners argued that the “wicked and nefarious designs of the slave oligarchy” had “filled to overflowing … the cup of iniquity.” Some Southerners, however, spoke of spiritualism, prostitution, “mendacity, perfidy, and shameless brutality” in the North’s growing cities. In both North and South, many observers commented generally about pride, greed, and forgetting God.

Lincoln watched the growing crisis and decided to revive his political career—but he needed support from Free-Soilers suspicious of railroad lawyers. Lincoln’s language—most notably in the 1858 “house divided” speech—took on Scriptural tones. Lincoln masterfully used one particular passage, from Chapter 12 of Matthew, that tells how, when Jesus heals a demon-possessed man, the Pharisees say he did it by using Satanic power. Jesus responds, in the King James translation that had given Lincoln his early understanding of English-language style: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand. And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand? … But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.”

Lincoln grabbed that passage to imply that the South was evil and to refute the Southern rejoinder that the North was worse—for if the North were also evil, it would not be opposing the evil of slavery. Furthermore, the North was capable of healing the South, not by Satanic means but by using its goodness to bring the kingdom of God southward. Lincoln was preaching a Northern crusade, and preaching it so well that Illinois Congressman John Wentworth could go around proclaiming in 1860 that John Brown had been like John the Baptist, clearing the way for Lincoln who “will break every yoke and let the oppressed go free.”

The “house divided” speech, and fervent politicking afterward, won Lincoln the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. To overcome the old accusations of deism he included in his stump speech a line about how he could not succeed without “divine help,” but it did not much matter. Some Northern ministers, turning rapidly toward abolitionism, looked the other way at Lincoln’s beliefs because the Republican Party was now the instrument to end slavery, perhaps through “a noble war of humanity,” as abolitionist writer and preacher Moncure Conway put it.

Apocalypse now: War was a punishment for the sin of slavery, which God wanted to end, and He would continue the punishment until slavery was gone. Some said the only way to gain God’s blessing was to enter into a holy war to free the slaves, for if the nation did not abolish the “peculiar institution,” there would be peculiar punishments. Erastus Wright, a Springfield friend of Lincoln’s, warned him that if he refused to free slaves he would painfully learn that “it is a fearful thing to contend against God.”

Lincoln was not yet at that realization. His god in 1861 and 1862 was Union. William Seward had spoken about the irrepressible conflict, but once appointed secretary of state he desperately wanted to repress it. For three months after the election he offered conciliation to the South. Lincoln, however, precipitated the first shot by overruling Seward and moving to resupply Fort Sumter. The Union had to be preserved.

His god in 1861 and 1862 was Union.

Apocalypse when? Early in the war Lincoln still hoped, as he told Congress in his first annual message, that the war would “not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in 1861, however, called for freeing the slaves and remorselessly punishing rebels. He thought Lincoln slow: “How vain to have the power of a god and not use it godlike.” Abolitionist Wendell Phillips chimed in, “the bloodiest war ever waged is infinitely better than the happiest slavery which ever fattened men into obedience.” In 1862, according to fiery abolitionist lecturers in the hall of the House of Representatives and at the Smithsonian, it was time to “recognize the trumpet of Judgment Day.”

Which trumpets would Lincoln hear? Something began resounding in his brain on the night of Feb. 5, 1862, when he hosted a White House ball for 500 “distinguished, beautiful and brilliant” men and women of “intellect, attainment, position and elegance,” according to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Lincoln had wanted to cancel because his son Willie had a cold and fever following a pony ride in cold rain. But the guests were coming and the band played on. Then came mourning: Willie died two weeks later, probably from typhoid fever resulting from polluted water in the White House system.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s way of dealing with grief was to search out New Age mediums, including one who took the name Colchester and pretended to be the illegitimate son of an English duke. When Mrs. Lincoln heard drum-tapping noises and other sounds at a Colchester séance in a darkened room, with everyone in the room supposedly holding each others’ hands, she concluded that her Willie was generating the sounds to communicate with her.

Noah Brooks, a friend of Lincoln’s, took it upon himself to investigate at a subsequent séance. When the lights went out and a drumbeat sounded, he broke free from his neighbors and, “grasping in the direction of the drum-beat, grabbed a very solid and fleshy hand in which was held a bell that was being thumped on a drum-head.” Someone hit him on the forehead, causing a gash, but when the lights went on spectators saw Brooks, covered with blood, holding on to Colchester, who “was glowering at the drum and bells which he still held in his hands.”

Lincoln once went to a séance with Mary, but afterward made a characteristic joke, saying he had heard several spirits presenting contradictory messages, just as his Cabinet members did. Lincoln’s search for meaning took a different direction. Several long talks with Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, helped him go through “a process of crystallization,” which Gurley described as a conversion to Christ. “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go,” Lincoln explained to Brooks. “My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for that day.”

Beginning in 1862, Lincoln attended Pastor Gurley’s church on Sundays and sometimes on Wednesdays, at midweek prayer meetings. He also began to muse on God’s nature. Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will,” written just after the North’s second morale-sapping defeat at Bull Run, was not a politically pious missive for public consumption, but a private attempt to think through what was beyond human understanding. “The will of God prevails,” Lincoln wrote. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong, [for] God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”

Who was right? Lincoln wrote, “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party. … I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills the contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Was it God’s will for all slaves to be freed? Lincoln noted to himself, “The Almighty gives no audible answer to that question, and his revelation—the Bible—gives none—or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning.” When responding to clergymen from Chicago who asked him to carry out God’s will concerning American slavery, he said, “these are not … the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.”

While Lincoln was meditating, he still had to make specific policy decisions about slavery that embroiled in deep controversy. When Gen. David Hunter, in May 1862, ordered the emancipation and arming of all the slaves in his South Carolina military department, church bells in the North rang out. After Lincoln revoked that order a week later, he received warnings from governors like John Andrew of Massachusetts and groups like the Christian citizens of Chicago. They all argued that soldiers would not have “the blessings of God” unless emancipation was their goal.

A Brooklyn Methodist minister late in 1862 called the war the “first great conflict to precede the millennium.” Still, the goal often seemed to be one of keeping the millennium at arm’s length if eradication of slavery meant having blacks next door. During the war, Northern magazines like the Western Christian Advocate and popular ministers like Lyman Abbott assured readers and congregations that emancipation would make life better for blacks in the South and would therefore keep them from fleeing to the North.

Whatever his private uneasiness concerning God’s will, Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet five days after Confederate forces were stopped at Antietam, stating that (according to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles), “God has declared this question in favor of the slaves.” Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase recorded Lincoln’s further explanation: “I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker,” that the proclamation would follow a Union victory. Newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Christian Advocate rejoiced as Lincoln broke down the separation of church and army: God “will now fight for the nation as He has not yet fought for it.”

If so, it seemed just in time. As Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, Washington was a city of hospitals, more than 50 temporary ones. Almost 20 more stood in and near Alexandria, across the river. Gaping wounds assaulted the eye, groaning resounded in ears, chloroform tickled the nose. Thousands of broken bodies arrived in the aftermath of battles like Second Bull Run or Antietam. Whenever Congress was not in session the Capitol itself became a hospital, with 2,000 cots set up in the rotunda, legislative chambers, and hallways.

Most deaths occurred on the battlefield, but those who died in the hospitals, typically 50 per day, cost the army $4.99 per soldier (pine coffin, transport to the cemetery, and burial all included). Patients who survived, discharged long before they were fit enough to return to military duty, assembled on grounds across the Potomac in Alexandria that became known as Camp Convalescent. More than 10,000 men crowded that base at one point. During the winter, many still ill slept in tents on cold ground.

The Year of our Lord 1862 was a year in which Lincoln, first moved by the death of his son and then by the deaths of thousands of sons, began earnestly to seek Him. He could still laugh about evangelists who pushed very hard. Once, Lincoln visited a ward just after a lady had come by to distribute tracts. He was surprised to find one recipient of a leaflet grimly laughing. “Mr. President,” the soldier said, “she has given me a tract on the ‘Sin of Dancing,’ and both of my legs are shot off.” But Lincoln found that the war had shot off his scoffer’s legs.

The Year of our Lord 1862 was a year in which Lincoln, first moved by the death of his son and then by the deaths of thousands of sons, began earnestly to seek Him.

In October 1862, he told four visiting Quakers that God was permitting the war “for some wise purpose of His own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it.” Calling the war “a fiery trial” and himself “a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father,” Lincoln said, “I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to His will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid.”

Lincoln’s “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day” in 1863 asserted, “we know that, by Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world.” He called the war “a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people.” Lincoln still spoke of sins of the whole people, rather than focusing on one particular sin in one particular part of the nation.

Furthermore, Lincoln’s proclamation emphasized how Americans had taken for granted God’s kindness: “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 blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.” That proclamation applied the Old Testament pattern—God’s faithfulness, man’s forgetfulness, God’s discipline—to a new people who had become “too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

Lincoln, who had questioned prayer previously and not even affirmed it under earlier political pressure, was becoming a praying man. He told one general that as reports came in from Gettysburg during the first two days of fighting, “when everyone seemed panic-stricken,” he “got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed. … Soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into His own hands.”

Increasingly as the war went on, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church became a Lincoln refuge. Once, Pastor Gurley announced at Sunday morning service that “religious services would be suspended until further notice as the church was needed as a hospital.” Plans already were made, and lumber to be used as flooring on top of pews was stacked outside. But Lincoln stood up (he did that often, believing that all prayers should be made standing up) and announced, “Dr. Gurley, this action was taken without my consent, and I hereby countermand the order. The churches are needed as never before for divine services.”

Lincoln needed the church and the Bible. By 1864, Lincoln was even recommending Scripture reading to Joshua Speed, his fellow skeptic from Springfield days. When Speed said he was surprised to see Lincoln reading a Bible, Lincoln earnestly told him, “Take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.” When the Committee of Colored People in 1864 gave Lincoln a Bible, he responded, “But for this book we could not know right from wrong.”

Lincoln found it hard to know right from wrong in military strategy, but he eventually decided he had to go all the way, even as blood rose over his knees. After all, the real question for the Union at the beginning of the war was not whether it could win. Given overwhelming advantages in men and material, and barring intervention from foreign powers, victory would come—unless God ordained otherwise—if the North was ready to use any means to attain that end.

That last clause is crucial. Early in the war, American generals, like their European counterparts, had two beliefs concerning battle ethics. First, except in extraordinary circumstances, it was not proper to plan to win a battle by losing more men than your opponent did. Second, it was not right to wage war on civilians. Not until Lincoln was ready to approve the adoption of means previously considered unethical did the South’s unconditional surrender come within sight.

The first change came only after long struggle. Gen. George B. McClellan, taking the military code to its extreme, had refused battle unless he was certain that his forces would inflict more casualties than they would receive. Since such certainty was rarely present, he had a bad case of what Lincoln called “the slows.” Lincoln ended up firing McClellan, bringing him back briefly under desperate circumstances, and then firing him again.

President Lincoln and General George B. McClellan in the general’s tent near the Antietam battlefield on Oct. 3, 1862

President Lincoln and General George B. McClellan in the general’s tent near the Antietam battlefield on Oct. 3, 1862 Library of Congress/Photo by Alexander Gardner/Public Domain

By December 1862, Lincoln had discovered a new strategy that he called “doing the arithmetic.” The Union suffered a bloody defeat at Fredericksburg, in December 1862, but one of Lincoln’s secretaries noted his reaction: “We lost 50 percent more men than did the enemy [the actual differential was 140 percent], and yet there is a sense in the awful arithmetic propounded by Mr. Lincoln. He says that if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under [Gen. Robert E.] Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone.”

Lincoln looked for, and eventually found, generals like Ulysses Grant who would do the arithmetic. In May 1864, Grant ordered Union assaults at the Wilderness that cost 18,000 Union casualties to 10,800 for the Confederates, and at Spotsylvania Court House, with a cost of 18,000 Northern soldiers in comparison to 9,000 Southerners. Cold Harbor in June 1864 was even worse: The Confederates had 1,500 casualties that day, the Union 7,000. Northerners prior to the assault wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper and pinned them on the backs of their coats, so their bodies could be recognized. One of the dead Northerners left a bloodstained diary with a final entry: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”

Doing the arithmetic also meant waging war on civilians who supported the soldiers. That became common with saturation bombing in World War II, but at the beginning of the Civil War, the code found Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field (General Orders No. 100) was different: “The unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor. … [A]ll robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death.”

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman pioneered in applying that penalty to the South. During 1863 his forces in Mississippi sacked, pillaged, and burned down towns and plantation homes. Afterward, Sherman bragged to Grant, “The inhabitants are subjugated. They cry aloud for mercy. … They have sowed the wind and must reap the whirlwind.” He bombarded Atlanta, and its conquest in September 1864 allowed Lincoln to win reelection and led many Northern Baptists and Methodists to praise “the hand of God in the success of our arms.” Journalist James Gilmore, interviewing Lincoln after the Atlanta victory, came away thinking that the president saw himself as God’s agent “led infallibly in the right direction.”

Sherman’s forces marched from Atlanta to the Atlantic, then turned north and ravaged South Carolina. Sherman explained, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” The Philadelphia Inquirer observed that the destruction of South Carolina “is but justice, and Heaven will surely mete it out … the world will approve her punishment, and to the sentence of righteous retribution will say, Amen!” Lincoln read military dispatches and accounts in the New York Herald that described devastation and noted that soldiers “throw in an occasional murder ‘just to bring an old hard-fisted cuss to his senses.’”

Lincoln’s understanding of God had changed his public policy emphases.

The ends justified the means to many in the North. Professor Roswell Hitchcock of Presbyterian Union Theological Seminary wrote, “The hand of God is so conspicuous to me in this struggle, that I should almost as soon expect the Almighty to turn slaveholder, as to see this war end without the extinction of its guilty cause.” But was there only one guilty cause? Lincoln had been troubled about this earlier, but two weeks after the destruction of Columbia, S.C., Lincoln in his second inaugural address showed that his mind was made up.

Curiously, that speech, with its call to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” is often cited as evidence of Lincoln’s emphasis on reconciliation. But the address also showed Lincoln’s theological changes during the war. “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away,” he said. “Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with 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.’”

Was that God’s will? How many drops of blood were there? Lincoln’s understanding of God had changed his public policy emphases. At first, he had ignored God except when it was politically useful to take His name in vain, and repeatedly sought to control the dogs of war. Then, Lincoln had speculated repeatedly about God’s will, as the war dragged on with no resolution in sight. Finally, Lincoln came to believe that a war of attrition and attacks on civilians was militarily necessary and morally defensible, both because such conduct would end the war sooner, and because civilians who had benefited from the bondsman’s toil were culpable.

These days we tend to assume that a growing reliance on Christ will make a leader more peaceful. In Lincoln’s case, it made him more willing to follow a brutal path, and to see it as God’s will. Given Lincoln’s tenderhearted tendency to identify with the wounded, he psychologically needed a plaque on his desk that stated, “The buck does not stop here.” He wrote to one newspaper editor in 1864 that he was not responsible for devastation: “God alone can claim it.”

By then, God alone could claim Lincoln. George McClellan, the general who followed military etiquette, was the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 1864. He was ready to broker a compromise peace and probably represented the American consensus until the conquest of Atlanta just before the 1864 election showed Northern victory was at hand. But Lincoln’s newfound faith pushed him to persevere.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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Nick Hathaway

After an initial reading I'm concerned about some of the concluding comments, perhaps I may be misunderstanding this article.

Firstly, I was looking for more proof of a newfound faith in Christ than what Mr. Olasky produces in this article. Did Lincoln ever submit himself to the church? I find it so comical that he was telling the church what to do with such authority, when he told them to remain open for church instead of becoming a hospital. I think there we find some insight into where he sees himself with regard to the church, as its authority rather than as its subject. 

"Doing the arithmetic" I find to be a strategy from the pit, as I find the slash and burn tactics of Sherman. So also do I find morally reprehensible Lincoln's shutting down of hundreds of newspapers in the North that disagreed with him as well as ordering the firing on potential citizen conscripts in New York. I find none of this to be evidence of a faith in Christ, far from it. 

Furthermore, I find it morally reprehensible for a leader to pass the buck on his actions, ascribing them only to the Almighty. Faugh! Faith in Christ leads us to responsibility and repentance. 

If you seek a less beatifying take on Lincoln I commend Thomas DiLorenzo's books on Lincoln: The Real Lincoln, Lincoln Unmasked, and Lincoln: Friend or Foe of Freedom.


Well done!

Just Me 999

A very well written article about a very complex person who grew to understand the penance required for enslaving a fellow human being while at the same time calling ourselves Christian.