The Christianity of Abraham Lincoln
ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE HOLY BIBLE Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky, in a little log cabin on what was then known as “Nolin’s Creek”. In this home was a book, the Holy Bible,
ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE HOLY BIBLE
Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky, in a little log cabin on what was then known as “Nolin’s Creek”. In this home was a book, the Holy Bible, that managed to mold his manners and his mind, made him a mighty man and offered America a matchless soul.
It was in the Bible that Lincoln found a great Truth that could take care of many of men’s ills, problems and suffering. It offered comfort for those on the verge of death as well as to those who could find no other living friend close by.
In some writings, Lincoln is said to be an enemy of the Bible instead of a friend of it. Some say he was, at best, an unbeliever and skeptic, while others said that he didn’t believe in God at all. However, this seems to be an err in reasoning, as most of the President’s speeches, if not all of them, seem to be influenced by the Bible. In fact, to a student of Lincoln’s speeches and writings, it’s hard to understand how anyone could think him to be anything less than wholly dependant on God.
Lincoln’s mother, who was an avid Bible reader herself, suffered from an illness that drug on for quite some time. She finally passed when Lincoln was only ten years old. During her illness, he cared for her tenderly, and sat for hours by her side reading the Bible to her. It is said that his later life was greatly influenced by those early years of Bible reading.
Lincoln learned, early in his life, that the Bible was by far the most useful book to him as a public speaker. In fact, from 1857 on, there was rarely a speech given by this man that did not refer back to the Bible, in specific quotations. He was known, by his tutor, as one who studied the Bible often, and used Cruden’s Concordance, which was always nearby, as a study aid.
William Herndon’s Book
Many years after Lincoln died, William Herndon wrote a biography of the President’s life. Herndon had been a law partner with Lincoln while in Springfield, at which time they shared an office.
In his book, Herndon stated that Lincoln was an infidel. It’s true that Lincoln did experience a bit of skepticism with regards to Christianity in his earlier years, but he changed. Herndon either did not understand that, or chose not to accept it as truth.
Even his own wife said that he wasn’t “technically” a Christian, but the true meaning of that one pivotal word has been debated since then. The term “born again” wasn’t a term that was neither often used nor understood in those days. It’s likely that the term was applied to him because he had failed to join any particular church.
However, the President faithfully attended services, and said in his own words, concerning his church membership, “When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and thy neighbor as thyself’ that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.”
At another time, he spoke again of his faith when he said, in 1846, “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…I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.”
Other Examples of His Speech
At Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, Bishop Simpson has this to say: “Abraham Lincoln was a good man, a man of noble heart in every way. He read the Bible frequently; he loved it for its great truths, and he tried to be guided by its precepts. He believed in Christ as the Saviour of sinners, and I think he was sincere in trying to bring his life in harmony with the precepts of revealed religion. I doubt if any President has shown such trust in God, or in public document so frequently referred to divine aid.”
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech to the American Bible Society on the act of reading the Bible. In this speech, speaking of Lincoln, he said, “Lincoln, sad, patient, kindly Lincoln, who, after bearing upon his shoulder for four years a greater burden than that borne by any other man of the nineteenth century, laid down his life for the people whom, living, he had served so well, built up his entire reading upon his study of the Bible. He had mastered it absolutely, mastered it as later he mastered only one or two other books, notably Shakespeare, mastered it so that he became almost a man of one book who knew that book, and who instinctively put into practice what he had been taught therein; and he left his life as part of the crowning work of the century just closed.”
The President spoke and wrote often about the Bible and how valuable it was to him. He wrote a letter to one of his best friends and one-time roommate, Joshua F. Speed, “I am profitably engaged in reading the Bible. Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a better man.”
After Lincoln was elected as President in 1860, he reportedly said to Judge Joseph Gillespie, “I have read on my knees the story of Gethsemane, where the Son of God prayed in vain that the cup of bitterness might pass from him. I am in the garden of Gethsemane now, and my cup is running over.”
On September 7, 1864, He was presented a Bible, of which he gave the opinion, “In regard to this great book I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good Saviour gave to this world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for men’s welfare here and hereafter are to be found portrayed in it. To you I return my most sincere thanks for the very elegant copy of the great Book of God which you present.”
Lincoln once had a conversation with a Mr. Bateman, as recorded in Life of Lincoln by J. G. Holland. “Mr. Bateman, I have carefully read the Bible.” At this time, he took a New Testament out of his pocket. “These men will know that I am for freedom in the territories, freedom everywhere as far as the Constitution and laws will permit, and my opponents are for slavery. They know this, yet, with this book in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me. I know there is a God, and that he hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming, and I know that his hand is in it. If he has a place for me – and I think he has – I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything. I know I am right, for Christ teaches it, and Christ is God.”
Still, There are Scoffers
Many people who have no faith in the Bible themselves have said that Lincoln felt the same way towards the Book as they did. However, Lincoln used Bible quotes so often, one could say his speeches and writings were simply saturated with the Word. It is with great forth his speech declared that no house could stand if it were divided, and that a tree would be known by its fruit. When his own father was ill, he wrote to friend to remind his father to call out to God. He said that just as God was aware of the fall of a sparrow, and knows the number of hairs in the head, so he would remember a man, dying, who trusted in Him.
William S. Speer once wrote and asked Lincoln for a letter, clearly defining his views on the issue of slavery. Lincoln replied by writing that he had done so already, many times, and it was in print for all to see and read. He went on further to say, “Those who will not read or heed what I have already publicly said would not read or heed a repetition of it. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.”
Lincoln speaks a great deal of the Bible in his 1842 Temperance Speech. He recalled the death of Abel when President Polk spoke of the American blood Mexico had spilled on American soil. In his eulogy for Henry Clay, he again used Bible a Bible story, stating that he hoped we would never have such a disaster come on us. During a debate with Judge Douglas, Douglas spoke of man being able to choose either good or evil in the garden, but Lincoln corrected him. He said, “God did not place good and evil before man, telling him to take 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.”
Douglas was clear in saying that Lincoln was very prone to quoting the Bible, something Lincoln replied to when he addressed Springfield on July 17, 1858. “If I should do so now it occurs that he places himself somewhat upon the ground of the parable of the lost sheep which went astray upon the mountains, and when the owner of the hundred sheep found the one that was lost and threw it upon his shoulders, and came home rejoicing, it was said that there was more rejoicing over the one sheep that was lost and had been found than over the ninety and nine in the fold. The application is made by the Saviour in this parable thus: Verily I say unto you, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance. Repentance before forgiveness is a provision of the Christian system.”
At times, people became incessantly anxious to hear and see the President while he was en route to the White House. However, he preferred keeping silent, saying that Solomon had said there was a time to keep silence.
Lincoln’s Feelings about Slavery and War
From his office, Lincoln wrote these words: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
These types of ideas continued to be forefront in Lincoln’s mind, and so in his speeches, for the remainder of the war. In fact, it was on his mind during his second Inaugural Address in March of 1865, when he said, “Both [North and South] 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 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.”
Important Historical Significance from Lincoln
It was in the fall of 1863, after the first real battle outcome that favored the Union, Lincoln mandated a federal day of Thanksgiving, which would be recognized the last Thursday of every November, to reflect on success that happened throughout the year prior.
In his own reflection, as Thanksgiving Day was officially mandated, Lincoln said, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Later that same year, in the month of December, the Secretary of the Treasury prepared for a new motto to be engraved on the US coin: “In God We Trust.” It isn’t entirely clear whether or not Lincoln was actually involved in making this decision. We can, however, assume that Lincoln’s complete dependence on God in almost all matters, could only have sifted down into the lives of those around him.
Not long after this, a minister of the Gospel happened to remark to the President that he certainly hoped that the Lord was on our side. Lincoln stated that was not his worry at all, but that he rather lived in constant anxiety that he and the nation would be on the Lord’s side.
An Appointed National Day of Prayer and Fasting
At one point, Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Fasting, stating that it must be done in the full conviction of the fact that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In fact, part of Lincoln’s proclamation for this fasting and prayer declaration, issued on March 30, 1863, is as follows:
“It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? 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 has 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. 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. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”
A Well Rounded Life
The Bible had a remarkable influence on Lincoln’s life and literature. Because of it, the nation received from Lincoln a life of sincere service, dedicated to love, sympathy, sobriety and sincerity. The London Quarterly Review said that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had far surpassed that of any other in known literature. They said that only Pericles’ speech over the Peloponnesian War victory had the closest comparison.
The Bible was the foundation of Lincoln’s childhood, and was expanded upon as he became a young man. In his middle ages, the Word was ripened in him, and it helped to comfort and keep him when his soul was gripped with sorrow. Furthermore, it gave him a clearer understanding of both God and man, as well as immortality and freedom.
Finally, in the words of Henry Watterson, we read, “Where did Shakespeare get his genius? Where did Mozart get his music? Whose hand smote the lyre of the Scottish plowman, and stayed the life of the German priest? God, God and God alone, and surely as these were raised up by God, so was Abraham Lincoln.”
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name be the glory
Because of Your love and your faithfulness!