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Lincoln and religion
08-26-2012, 04:24 PM (This post was last modified: 08-26-2012 04:26 PM by Rob Wick.)
Post: #1
Lincoln and religion
So, with the news that a new book on Lincoln and religion will soon be available, i would like to get member's opinions on where they place Lincoln in terms of his religious belief. Of course, Mary Todd Lincoln told William Herndon that Lincoln was not a technical Christian, but toward the end of his life, there can be no doubt that Lincoln was very spiritual, if not overly religious.

In full disclosure, I approach this with a worldview on my own part of agnosticism bordering on outright atheism. That said, I've never accepted that Lincoln was an outright atheist himself. There certainly is enough evidence to suggest that he was a skeptic in his early years, but I'm not sure that he fits the pattern of someone who doesn't accept that God exists. In my progression from skeptic to disbelief, I went through several different stages that at any point could have gone either way, and I imagine Lincoln's progression was much the same.

Once, during a presentation at the Conference on Illinois History on Lincoln and religion, I asked the presenter to ponder just what Lincoln's view of religion would have been if he had never been elected president and had died in his bed as an old man. The presenter could only say that such a question would be speculative and therefore he couldn't answer it. So I will. I sincerely believe that had Lincoln never been elected president, and had he not oversaw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, I believe he would not have been as spiritual as he became, but I still don't believe he would have embraced outright atheism, although it would have been interesting to know what Lincoln thought of Robert Ingersoll, who will be the subject of a biography by Susan Jacoby in January 2013.

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Rob

Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell
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08-26-2012, 06:53 PM (This post was last modified: 08-26-2012 06:58 PM by Gene C.)
Post: #2
RE: Lincoln and religion
Lincoln was like many people who go through tragedy. You can either draw closer to God, or push him away.
The personal tragedy of his son Willie' death seems to be a turning point in his life. Lincoln's knowledge of the Bible was a life long learning experience. You can't know its contents and understand the Bible as well as he did in a short time. His religious development was a continuing process.

He was a man of deep belief and faith in God, and he tried to use his belief in the Bible as God's word, to be the foundation and guide for his actions. You see this in many of his speech's, particularly the Gettysburg address, the proclamation for Thanksgiving, and his second inaugural address. His belief in God was not something he was embarrassed to talk about.

So when is this "Old Enough To Know Better" supposed to kick in?
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08-26-2012, 07:26 PM
Post: #3
RE: Lincoln and religion
Gene,

You are absolutely correct that Willie's death proved to be a turning point in his life, and I also agree with you that Lincoln's knowledge of the Bible was well-versed (pun fully intended), although it certainly was for any literary person. Mind you, I'm not saying that he learned the Bible simply to utilize it as a literary device, but I also think he got as much enjoyment out of Robert Burns or Shakespeare as he did the Bible--indeed, I think he used all those to bring his points and views to other people.

Your point about deep belief and faith in God, however, in my opinion, only describes the Lincoln late in life. It was the Lincoln who saw the brutality and carnage going on in his name. It was the Lincoln who also was coming to terms with his own mortality.

His decision to not join a formal church (although he certainly attended) or to express agreement with one particular doctrine, I believe, speaks more of the skeptic in his mind, which I don't think he ever fully got rid of. Unbridled atheism in his day was very rare. Plus, for someone with the hope for a political career it would have been professional suicide, but I think the Lincoln that lost his mother, his sister, Ann Rutledge, and who was generally melancholic in general where life was concerned, never held a deep belief in God. Indeed, I think he probably blamed God for the tragedy he had seen in his life. To not do so would, I think, require super-human strength that no one possesses.

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Rob

Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell
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08-26-2012, 08:51 PM
Post: #4
RE: Lincoln and religion
I believe that lincoln received a lot of guff from people because he never formerly joined a church. I do believe that the Lincoln's purchased pews from time to time at various churches, but unlike his wife he never committed to any church. That said, this does not mean that he was wholly without spiritual guidance or did not believe in God. I believe his various mentions of God in his writings point as proof that he at least believed in a divine being.

Rob, Robert Ingersoll was a very interesting character. I first became acquainted with his work a few decades ago when I was reading the works of Thomas Paine. In the late 1870s Ingersoll claimed that he would give $1,000 in gold to anyone that could prove that Paine died in terror because of his Deist beliefs. I believe that there were a few people who took him up on it!

Craig
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08-26-2012, 09:40 PM (This post was last modified: 08-27-2012 12:19 AM by Gene C.)
Post: #5
RE: Lincoln and religion
(08-26-2012 07:26 PM)Rob Wick Wrote:  I think he probably blamed God for the tragedy he had seen in his life. To not do so would, I think, require super-human strength that no one possesses.

I can agree with your assessment above. As a young man I can understand him blaming God. I think this blame turned into questioning God, "why"? I'm not sure he ever got the answer he wanted. This may have contributed to his melancholy and depression.

From "The Religion of Abraham Lincoln" by William Wolf, p 144-145
"There is testimony to the effect that Lincoln found the book of Job a source of strength in the White House. That ancient patriarch (Job), stripped of possessions, family, health,dared in dialogue to challenge the Almighty. Out of the whirlwind God replied that the mystery of suffering was too great for one as finite as Job to grasp, but if he could not understand the divine answer he was at least blessed in his resolute faith, which had retained its fidelity and intergrity when all outward supports had been smashed. (Job 38-42)

"Undoubtedly Lincoln resembled Job in being a wrestler with God. The match, however, was of a different order. Lincoln never questioned the ultimate justice of God. That was a settled convictin that gave his struggle a different twist than Job's. Lincoln's battle was to read "the signs of the times", to learn what the will of God actually demanded in the confiliting events of his day. Lincoln did not question the supremacy of the God before Whom "the nations are as the small dust of the balance." He questionedf how to know that divine will in the day-to-day responsibilities of a nation at war with itself. He sought to avoid both the futility and the rebellion of opposing God's purposes in history."

This is an interesting study, one I have not focussed on in the past. Seeing how our own faith and beliefs progress over time as did Lincoln's, is something we can have in common with him.

Rob, I will be looking forward to you comments about the new book "Lincoln's Battle With God"

So when is this "Old Enough To Know Better" supposed to kick in?
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08-26-2012, 10:11 PM
Post: #6
RE: Lincoln and religion
Persons who knew Lincoln in the Indiana years indicate that they were unclear about his religious thinking. He was so articulate, even about complicated things, that he must have deliberately left his friends and neighbors in the dark. Which suggests that there was something about his religious beliefs that would have upset residents of his community.

I think that Lincoln, as a young adult and into middle age, was a skeptic about Christianity and was instead a Deist, who believed that a Creator set the great clockwork of the universe in motion and then stood aside. Deism was surely an element in Lincoln's fatalism, that what will be will be. That every event is caused by previous events, and humans cannot (and God will not) change anything that will happen. His comment that he did not control events, but that events controlled him, can be read in that context. Lincoln did not seem to think freewill existed, though he certainly believed persons should take responsibility for their actions. Yes, such a stance has some paradox.

My study of Lincoln focuses on his pre-presidential years, but my impression is that during the White House years he became a Bible believer and a Christian even though he didn't join a church.
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08-27-2012, 04:33 AM (This post was last modified: 08-27-2012 06:35 AM by RJNorton.)
Post: #7
RE: Lincoln and religion
Rob, when you were at that presentation, was anything said about Samuel Hill and an alleged book or pamphlet Lincoln wrote at New Salem? I don't know how true the story is, but here goes.

In 1834 Lincoln wrote his own pamphlet about religion in which he expressed his personal religious skepticism. Samuel Hill, a New Salem friend and miller to whom Lincoln showed the small book, was totally shocked by what Lincoln had to say and tried to persuade Lincoln to destroy it. But Lincoln wanted to publish it. Thinking it would destroy Lincoln's future, Hill is said to have snatched it from Lincoln's hands and to have thrown it into the fire.

If the story is true, I think we would know a lot more about Lincoln's early skepticism if that small book had not been destroyed.
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08-27-2012, 07:15 AM
Post: #8
RE: Lincoln and religion
I believe Lincoln's views on God evolved during the course of his lifetime. We know he was exposed to church early on as his folks were Baptists. As he grew into a young man he read literature of some of the skeptics and seemed to be influenced enough by them to have become at least an agnostic if not an atheist. However, as he got older he seemed to have moved to Deism. This position seemed to change in the last years of his life as events like the death of Willie and the Civil War took place. It appears he came to have a strong faith in God. Did he become Christian? Some authors claim so. At best, we can say "maybe?"

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08-27-2012, 08:49 AM (This post was last modified: 08-27-2012 09:50 AM by Rob Wick.)
Post: #9
RE: Lincoln and religion
Roger,

If it was, I think it was probably mentioned, but not really gone into to. The presenter was more interested in trying to prove that Lincoln was a Christian, which I think is a major problem with many books on Lincoln, although I also think that some authors try to go too far to show that Lincoln was an atheist. I agree with Richard that Lincoln was likely a Deist and while not questioning the existence of God, did question his purpose.

William Barton didn't believe that Lincoln wrote the pamphlet in question, but that Hill actually burned a letter Hill had written about Ann Rutledge, although his reasoning is as circuitous as he alleges Herndon's and James H. Matheny's to be. Barton, a Congregationalist minister, clearly shows his own bias in The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.

In 2011 I presented a paper at the Conference on Illinois History exploring James G. Randall's "Blundering Generation" thesis and how his Methodism influenced his views. The moderator for the panel was Stewart Winger, a professor at Illinois State University, and the author of Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics. I wanted to talk with him about Lincoln's views on religion, but didn't get the chance as my panel was just before the Thursday luncheon. I've owned his book since it came out, but I haven't had time to read it. Hopefully some day.

Best
Rob

Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell
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08-27-2012, 10:34 AM
Post: #10
RE: Lincoln and religion
As it happens, I am in the "H's" in Tarbell's papers, and one of her correspondents was John Hill, who was Samuel Hill's son. On February 17, 1896 he wrote to Tarbell the following:

There was one feature of Mr. Lincoln that I wish to mention--Mr. Herndon was an infidel. I have often talked with him on this subject. He was Mr. Lincoln's partner. His publication as to Mr. Lincoln's religious belief has a great deal of truth in it, but had better never have been said. The Edinburgh Review made a fearful onslaught on Mr. Herndon's life and the appearance of statement as to Mr. Lincoln's belief. It is a fact that my father burned up the manuscript of a book which Mr. Lincoln wanted to publish, after having tried to dissuade him. When you get to the matter of Mr. Lincoln's religious belief, if you wish to stand by the facts, I think you will obscure all previous to the death of his son "Tad" while he was President. [Obviously, this should have been Willie. RW]. From that time to his death, I have no doubt but that he was a Christian. As he took no part in religious matters in Ill., I think Mr. Herndon made a great error in the publication. When he was searching for facts, he wished to get statements from my mother who was a Presbyterian all her life, and who had often talked religion with Mr. Lincoln at the table of her home and I advised her under no circumstances to make any statement as to his belief and she would not and I think the world's better off than if this matter had been sustained. It could only do harm and no possible good. He died a Christian beyond doubt and that was his final record whatever may have been the earlier.

Hill later asked Tarbell not to mention anything he said about Lincoln's religion.

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Rob

Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell
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08-27-2012, 10:42 AM
Post: #11
RE: Lincoln and religion
Really nice bit of information Rob. Wow! Another thing I would like to mention is the influence of Rev. Gurley late in Lincoln's life towards becoming "Christian." I do think Lincoln highly respected him and his views on faith and God. If he did convert to Christianity it might be due to, in some way, Gurley's ministry.

Bill Nash
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08-27-2012, 01:05 PM
Post: #12
RE: Lincoln and religion
I have an article by our own Dr. Ed Steers on this subject. It's entitled "A Question of Faith: Was Lincoln a Christian?" in the September 1999 edition of North & South magazine (Volume 2, Number 7).

Essentially Dr. Steers argues that Lincoln had a very strong faith although he probably was not a Christian in the strict 19th century sense of the term.

I do not know if the article is online.
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08-27-2012, 07:57 PM
Post: #13
RE: Lincoln and religion
(08-27-2012 01:05 PM)RJNorton Wrote:  I have an article by our own Dr. Ed Steers on this subject. It's entitled "A Question of Faith: Was Lincoln a Christian?" in the September 1999 edition of North & South magazine (Volume 2, Number 7).

Essentially Dr. Steers argues that Lincoln had a very strong faith although he probably was not a Christian in the strict 19th century sense of the term.

I do not know if the article is online.

Roger, I would love to read this article. Perhaps Dr. Steers knows if it is posted on-line anywhere.

Craig
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08-28-2012, 02:48 PM
Post: #14
RE: Lincoln and religion
I enjoyed reading a few years ago Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage by Joe Wheeler. Anyone else familiar with it?

Bill Nash
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09-01-2012, 07:42 PM
Post: #15
RE: Lincoln and religion
Regarding the Dr. Rev. Gurley, I believe that he delivered the sermon and servive for Willie's funeral. Dr. Rev Gurley's sermon was very well recieved by AL and was a great influence. If I remember correctly, the Lincolns were not regular church attendees anywhere in Washington. After Willie's death they were very regular in their attendence.

The loss of a child is an event that all consuming event that can very easily take over a parents life. It will shake your faith to it's very core and make you question the very existence of God. It usually when make someone question their faith, but usually you fall back and accept the circumstances and that often you cannot explain or understand HIS plan. Too completely lose your believe in God, under the circumstance of losing a child will put the parent into a much deeper depression.

It could be that after the death of a second young child, Mary may have lost faith and Abraham may have gained it. Not unusual circumstances given the enormity of the loss(es),
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