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Lincoln's Christianity by Michael Burkhimer
12-10-2015, 02:06 PM
Post: #82
RE: Lincoln's Christianity by Michael Burkhimer
In 1906, a man by the name of John E. Remsburg wrote a book titled Six Historic Americans in which he attempted to show that Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were either deists or freethinkers. In his 365-page book, Remsburg focused 317 pages on Lincoln, methodically going through Lincoln's life and giving quotes from those who claimed to witness events or conversations that proved Lincoln was a freethinker. In the chapter on the Washington years, Remsburg mentioned Judge James M. Nelson. Here, in its entirety, is what he wrote:

The last, and in some respects the most important, of our Washington witnesses is Judge James M. Nelson. Judge Nelson for many years has been a resident of New York, but he formerly lived in Kentucky and Illinois, Lincoln's native and adopted states. He is a son of Thomas Pope Nelson, a distinguished member of Congress from Kentucky, and the first United States Minister to Turkey. His great grandfather was Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Virginia. He was long and intimately acquainted with Lincoln both in Illinois and Washington. About the close of 1886, or early in 1887, Judge Nelson published his "Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln" in the Louisville, Ky., Times. In reference to Lincoln's religious opinions he says: "In religion, Mr. Lincoln was about of the same belief as Bob Ingersoll, and there is no account of his ever having changed. He went to church a few times with his family while he was President, but so far as I have been able to find out he remained an unbeliever."

"Mr. Lincoln in his younger days wrote a book," says Judge Nelson, ''in which he endeavored to prove tlie fallacy of the plan of salvation and the divinity of Christ."

I have yet another passage from Judge Nelson's "Reminiscences" to present, a passage which, more than anything else in this volume, perhaps, is calculated to provoke the wrath of Christian claimants. To lend an air of plausibility to their claims these claimants are continually citing expressions of a seemingly semi-pious character occasionally to be met with in his speeches and state papers. These expressions, in a measure accounted for by Mr. Herndon, Colonel Lamon, and others, are still further explained by a revelation from his own lips. Judge Nelson says: "I asked him once about his fervent Thanksgiving Message and twitted him with being an unbeliever in what was published. ' Oh,' said he, ' that is some of Seward's nonsense, and it pleases the fools.'"

Source: Six Historic Americans: Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant. The Fathers and Saviors of Our Republic, Freethinkers (New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1906) pgs. 261-262.

Whether this is the first reference to Nelson's work outside of his Louisville Times article, I don't know. The paper has not been digitized therefore I could not find the article in which he made the claim. Before I could pass judgement on it, I would have to see in its entirety what Nelson says and how what he says in respect to other topics matches the historical record. For instance, in what part of Illinois did the two know each other? Given that Nelson was a lawyer, it wouldn't be beyond reason to believe the two knew each other on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, yet there is no mention of him in Guy Fraker's history of Lincoln's time there. There are no letters in the Collected Works between the two and nothing in the Lincoln Legal Papers Project.

In addition, before the Civil War there is some evidence that Nelson was a Democrat. Elizabeth Leonard, writing in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society about Joseph Holt, notes that in the 1850s Holt received encouragement from several in the Democratic party both inside and outside of Kentucky to run for national office. "Indeed by the end of the 1850s, some in the party considered Holt a serious contender to become the Democratic nominee for the 1860 presidential election," Leonard writes. One source used for this is "James M. Nelson to Joseph Holt, September 26, 1859, container 21."

(Source: "One Kentuckian's Hard Choice: Joseph Holt and Abraham Lincoln", Register of the Kentucky Historical Society Summer/Autumn 2008, pg. 387)

This assumes that Leonard is talking about our James M. Nelson. That Nelson was a Democrat, would not, of course, make it impossible for him to be a friend of Lincoln, but the differences in political views would be a red flag for the two having an "long" and intimate friendship without more evidence. Plus, there is a cunningness in the "fools" quote that simply doesn't sound like Lincoln. It appears that Nelson's reminisces were never published outside of the Louisville paper. At least I found no book in the usual sources.

I have to believe that, without more evidence (and using the Fehrenbacher's grading scale) I would give this quote an "E" and say it is likely inauthentic.


Abraham Lincoln is the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell

I want the respect of intelligent men, but I will choose for myself the intelligent.
--Carl Sandburg
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RE: Lincoln's Christianity by Michael Burkhimer - Rob Wick - 12-10-2015 02:06 PM

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