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[Chalice] The Evolution of [Chalice]
Lincoln's Theology

Presented October 16, 2011, by Reg Ankrom
Executive Director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County

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JOHN TODD STUART: "Lincoln always denied that Jesus was the Christ of God . . ."
JOSHUA SPEED: ". . .When I first knew Mr. L(incoln) he was skeptical as to the truths of the Christian Religion."
JAMES MATHENY: "Lincoln often, if not wholly, was an atheist . . ."
MARY TODD LINCOLN: "Mr. Lincoln had no hope & no faith in the usual acceptation of those words: he never joined a Church: he was not a technical Christian."
WILLIAM HERNDON: "He died an unbeliever."

These were the people who knew Abraham Lincoln best. Two were his law partners . . . two his best friends . . . one of them the best man at his wedding . . . and one was his wife.

Those closest to him -- speaking even years after his death -- believed Abraham Lincoln on religion was at minimum a skeptic or, as Herndon put it, fully an unbeliever. Yet the spirit of the man had the capacity to lift others -- hundreds of thousands of others -- to offer the last full measure of devotion in the creation of one nation, under God.

Skeptic or not, a century after Lincoln's death, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr would place Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of America's greatest theologians. Lincoln's spiritual journey began on February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Kentucky, where he was born the son and second child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. The Lincolns were hardscrabble farmers. Although Thomas Lincoln had been born into a family of means, the family's legacy went largely to Thomas's older brother Mordechai. Thomas was left to eke out a living on his small farm, occasionally doing carpentry work for his neighbors. It was a hard life. But that was understood, even by their religion. The Thomas Lincolns were Calvinist Baptists.

What Abraham learned of the Calvinists in his first years was that only the elect. were going to heaven. Everyone else was going to hell. And there was nothing they could do about it. No one would know before death itself whether he or she was a member of the elect.

His family's religion taught Abraham Lincoln that no amount of grace or good works could gain salvation for those who were predestined to hell. Theirs was a faith as hard as the Kentucky soil the boy helped his father work . callused, cold, unforgiving. Abraham's early lessons about life were existential. If life seemed to offer little comfort, it would teach the boy that things could change . . . mostly for the worse. When in 1816 a poor title forced the Lincolns off their Kentucky land, Thomas moved the family to Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana. He set out to build a cabin for his family -- wife Nancy, their nine-year-old daughter Sarah and seven-year-old son Abraham. Thomas fashioned the 14-foot-square structure from small logs without floors . . . or doors . . . or windows. He built a half-faced camp, meaning it had only three walls. Through their first winter in Indiana, the Lincolns lived in that three-walled hut with only a fire -- built where the fourth wall should have been -- between them and the wild. It was a full year before Thomas completed the family home. To help clear the wood where the home would go, Thomas for the first time put an axe into his seven-year-old son's hands. If Thomas Lincoln was a cold and demanding father, Abraham's mother Nancy was infinitely more nurturing. In later years, Lincoln declined to make a trip from Springfield to Coles County to visit to his dying father. On the other hand, Lincoln would say -- even shortly before his own death some 50 years later -- that he owed all that he was to his "angel mother." Although Nancy Hanks Lincoln had opted for the hard life into which her husband led her, Lincoln biographer William Herndon paints her clearly as an enlightened woman. She was a child of the American revolution, in which democracy had cast aside aristocrats and kings. . . and just in her day the structures of the church. This was the period of the Second Great Awakening, conceived in the same spirit of liberty as the American Revolution. It was a new evangelism that grew out of an unsettling democratic movement. Writers like Thomas Paine spoke against civil authority and Thomas Jefferson envisioned the leveling of institutions and the rise of the ideal yeoman farmer whose self-sufficiency ultimately would lead to ethical self-government.

What came of such idealisms was not only a separation of church and state, but the shaping of new religious communities by common people. The people's preachers replaced Puritans. Bible thumpers replaced Biblical theologians. And camp meetings replaced congregations.

Abraham Lincoln would never join a church, but he attended occasionally with his parents. His biographers say he didn't take it seriously. His stepsister Matilda Johnston remembered Abraham mounting a stump on Sunday mornings. "He preached and we would do the crying," she recalled. Sometimes he would join in the chorus of tears. While Lincoln might mock a service, he took to heart the message. When his stepbrother John Johnston once crushed the shell of a turtle, Abraham mounted his stump and preached against cruelty, arguing that "an ant's life was as sweet to it as ours to us." Lincoln was a boy when his mother died. Nancy Lincoln had been his rock. Where life and, indeed, his own father could be harsh, Lincoln's "angel mother" provided warmth and stability to the boy. In late September 1818, she drank the milk of one of Thomas's cows, which had eaten a toxic weed. Just three days before, the "milk sick," as it was called, had killed two relatives. And now, Nancy Hanks Lincoln knew she was going to die of the same poison.

Abraham's cousin Dennis Hanks recalled that Nancy struggled for a week before calling her son and daughter to her bedside. Dennis said Nancy spoke these words to Abraham: "I am going away from you, Abraham, and I shall not return. I know that you will be a good boy, that you will be kind to Sarah and to your father. I want you to live as I have taught you and to love your Heavenly Father." What must have played desperately on the boy's mind was what his mother did not say . . .and what as a Calvinist Baptist she could not say. She could not know whether she was a member of the elect . . . and, therefore, whether she -- or, indeed, her son -- would be going to heaven or hell. What young Lincoln had to coldly calculate was that his God-loving mother could not truthfully say she would ever see him again. Nancy was 36 when she died on October 5, 1818. Her son Abraham was nine. Years later, in a telling reflection that would recall his own experience in the loss of his mother, Lincoln would write to a child who had lost a parent in the war, "In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them (so) unawares."

With Lincoln's father remarried and the family moving on from Indiana to the east side of Illinois, Lincoln at 21 struck off on his own. He made his way to Central Illinois, where in August of 1831 the currents of the Sangamon River carried his flatboat to the fledgling town of New Salem. According to Billy Herndon, it was in New Salem that Lincoln became associated with a "class of people exceedingly liberal in matters of religion." Lincoln joined them in reading Volney's Ruins, in which the author opined that "populations are kept quiet by being read religious tales," and Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. Paine was a Deist -- one who believes God created the universe, established its laws and order, and then moved on. Paine argued that religion should be subjected to scrutiny and reason. The Bible was among the books the self-taught Lincoln had read, and he could quote the scriptures liberally. But Paine furnished lessons to Lincoln and his New Salem group of free thinkers who discussed religion cracker-barrel style in Rutledge's Tavern and in the village store.

In 1834 Lincoln wrote his own small book about religion in which he expressed his developing views -- reflecting Volney's and Paine's. Samuel Hill, a New Salem friend and miller to whom Lincoln showed the book, was aghast and tried to persuade Lincoln to destroy it. But Lincoln said it should be published, instead. Believing 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. Douglas Wilson, author of Honor's Voice, believes the story is credible. Letters from New Salem friends -- and the testimony of Lincoln's New Salem teacher, Mentor Graham -- noted that Lincoln had written a work on infidelity.

Herndon claims that Lincoln's book assimilated the works of Volney and Paine to argue against Christianity, to prove that the Bible was not the inspired word of God, and that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God. Lincoln had become a skeptic. The book was burned, and Lincoln would become more discreet in his public discussions about religion. But Herndon claims Lincoln's infidelity remained undiminished.

After Lincoln moved to Springfield in April 1837, he developed a close friendship with James Matheny, another young lawyer who would be best man at Lincoln's wedding. Years later, Matheny wrote that he knew Lincoln to be an infidel in religion. He remembered Lincoln in 1838 leading discussions about religion in the Sangamon County Clerk's office: "Sometimes Lincoln bordered on atheism. He went far that way, and shocked me. . . .Lincoln would come into the clerk's office, where I and some young men . . .were writing or staying, and would bring the Bible with him; would read a chapter; (then) argue against it." Lincoln's first law partner, John Todd Stuart, confirmed Matheny's observation: "Lincoln went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard . . . . Lincoln always denied that Jesus was the Christ of God, -- denied that Jesus was the Son of God, as understood and maintained by the Christian Church. The Rev. Dr. Smith . . . tried to convert Lincoln from infidelity as late as 1858, and couldnet do it." As his New Salem friend Samuel Hill had feared, Lincoln's views on religion -- rejecting the prophetic inspiration of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, denying the infallibility of the Scriptures, refusing the possibility of an afterlife -- did in fact return to haunt him. In 1846, he ran as the Whig candidate for Congress against the popular Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright. Some of Cartwright's friends spread rumors about Lincoln's infidelity. For the first time, Lincoln was compelled to talk about it publicly. He parsed words in declaring in a handbill distributed around his Congressional District that he was not an "open scoffer" of Christianity. "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, it is true," he wrote, "but I have never denied the truth of the Scripture; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."

Lincoln's religious thought at this time was following Thomas Jefferson's. The father of the Declaration is known for two momentous initiatives in 1803, each controversial. He paid $15 million for the Louisiana Territory -- and even he doubted he had the constitutional authority to do it. He also began cutting out his favorite parts of the New Testament and gluing them into a volume he called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." In Jefferson's Bible, Jesus was not divine. The story of the virgin birth didn't make it in. Neither did Jesus's water to wine miracle at Cana. . . or the miracles of the loaves and fishes, the walk on the water or the raising of Lazarus. Neither did the resurrection. What was left was what Jefferson could believe in: "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

Religious dogma greatly bothered Jefferson. It got in the way of the important ethical teachings of the man Christ. Calvin's idea of predestination was absurd. There seemed little reason to respect a dogma for which good behavior meant nothing. If Christ's death had, in fact, atoned for the sins of the elect, then the elect had no reason to practice morality. And, it would follow that there would be even less reason for those who were not members of the elect -- if even they could have known that -- to practice morality. They had been doomed to eternal damnation even while in their mother's womb.

To a man so committed to science and logic, Jefferson could only consider Calvinism an absurdity. So, too, Abraham Lincoln. As did Jefferson, Lincoln saw the flaw in predestination: it removed any reason for personal responsibility for one's actions. And Lincoln strongly valued personal responsibility. If humans had been condemned to immorality, certainly, they could not be blamed for it. In Calvinist terms, only God could have ordained immorality? Likewise, Jefferson thought clerics hid -- more than illuminated -- the important teachings of Jesus. It was Jefferson's belief that the message of Christ was simple and easily understood -- without the clerics to intervene. Clerics tended more to vestments, ceremonies and metaphysical speculations that had little or nothing to do with right or wrong. Lincoln's thoughts paralleled Jefferson's. Unlike Jefferson, however, Lincoln wrote little about his personal religion. We have his friends to thank for an understanding of that.

Isaac N. Cogdal of New Salem claimed first-hand knowledge of Lincoln's religious views. The year after Lincoln's death, he wrote to Billy Herndon: "I have often talked to Mr. Lincoln on the question of Religion. He did not believe in Hell -- Eternal punishment as the Christians would say . . . .He could not believe (God) created a world and that the result of that would be Eternal damnation." Would a God of love, working in the world, have created man in his own image -- only to have him fall . . . and would a loving God send his own son -- who was without sin -- to suffer death for the sins of others? Denying that God could love -- then create the circumstances for which he would condemn his own children -- his own son, Abraham Lincoln could not conceive of Hell."

Lincoln built the foundations of his religion in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Lincoln frequently noted that he had never had a political thought that didn't stem from the Declaration. His moral touchstone for the natural rights of man are found there. The declaration for Lincoln was the connection between God and a moral world. The chords of that connection were that (1) God had created all men equal; (2) that all men have inviolable -- or natural -- rights; (3) that those rights are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; and (4) that those rights are superior to governments. Rights enumerated in the declaration were a gift of God, not of government. In fact, Jefferson wrote, and Lincoln believed, men created government to secure their rights, and, therefore, government could exist only as long as it enjoyed the consent of the governed.

Lincoln would add his own moral dimension to Jefferson's ideal of natural rights. It began with Adam yielding to temptation and his fall from perfection. As Lincoln saw it, when Adam violated God's injunction not to eat from the Tree of Life, God committed him to labor: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." (Genesis 3:19) Lincoln concluded from this verse from Bible's first book that a man was not to enjoy a thing unless he earned it through his own labor. And what he earned he had a right to keep. "And, inasmuch [as] most good things are produced by labour,.\" Lincoln wrote, "it follows that [all] such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue."

It followed for Lincoln that every man had a right of property in himself . . . and that no other person had a right to it without the man's consent. Lincoln found it "strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces." This was to become the foundation for Lincoln's moral argument against slavery. For Abraham Lincoln, the principles of Jefferson's Declaration were universal. If God created all men equal, then every man was equally entitled to the natural rights of life, liberty and happiness. This included blacks as well as whites. Lincoln knew that Jefferson, in fact, had included blacks in the Declaration's rights in two provisions that were stricken out by the Continental Congress. And while he did not excuse Jefferson's own moral duplicity for owning slaves himself, Lincoln believed that Jefferson foresaw that divine judgment would someday be at hand: "Indeed," said Jefferson about slavery in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." Lincoln could acquit Jefferson's duplicity.just as he did for all the fathers . . . believing that without conceding slavery in the Constitution there would have been no new nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal."

The fact was, Lincoln was uncomfortable with moral absolutes, an anxiety from which he found comfort in transcendentalism. The man most responsible for that was his law partner Billy Herndon in Springfield, who introduced him to the thoughts of the Unitarian reformer Theodore Parker of Boston. Herndon had carried on a long-running correspondence with Parker, and he pushed Parker on Lincoln. Lincoln . . . was willing. At their law office's closing time, Herndon often put Parker's correspondence at the edge of the table before Lincoln left. He noticed them gone with Lincoln's departure, then found them on the table the next morning after Lincoln's return. Lincoln . . . read them. In Parker, Lincoln found a kindred spirit. Both believed that the Declaration's dictum for equality was the founderse greatest legacy. It was an idea that transcended history, and even though equality had been alienated in the country, the idea still was true. As a good transcendentalist, Parker saw that the ideal continued "to shine through the particulars." He believed democracy was the best hope for equality. (Wills, 103) Herndon was struck by this proposition of Parker and was eager to pass it along to Lincoln. He underlined this particular passage: "Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people." Herndon thought that passage might interest Lincoln.

It was Parker who taught Lincoln how he might accept the founderse great flaw -- writing slavery into the constitution. Parker introduced Lincoln to a larger dialectic. The constitution was not the end but the means for reaching the ideals of the Declaration. It was the provisional compromise. between the ideal of equality and the selfishness of men in both the North and South. Lincoln adopted Parker's proposition for a dialectic that the ideal runs alongside the real -- which men should constantly tend toward. Lincoln said: "(The founders) meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."

It explains why Lincoln so fiercely opposed the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 and . . . The Dred Scott decision of 1857, which opened all the territories to slavery. They tended dangerously away from the ideal. It also explains Lincoln's -- and Parker's -- own racism. Neither considered blacks their social or political equal. Yet each believed in a moral imperative to tend toward those ideals.

As Lincoln began his Senate race against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, he answered Douglas's charge that he was a "poor hand to quote scripture." Lincoln said he would try again. "It is said in one of the admonitions of the Lord, 'As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.' The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect as the Father. . .; but. . . he set that up as a standard (as) . . . the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature." Jesse Fell, a close Lincoln friend -- who for three years happened to live in Payson, said the man to whom Lincoln owed most for his theology was Theodore Parker.

In his Inaugural Address in 1861 as president, Lincoln sought to calm the fears of both North and South. "We are not enemies but friends." Lincoln said. "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." Lincoln's hope for reconciliation did not mean a retreat from Union. The Union is perpetual, he said. To that end, he was resolved to do his duty to preserve it.

And the war came. Thousands of men could die in a single battle. And there were many battles.

Devastated by the mounting losses and the continuation of the war, Lincoln in mid-1862 penned an introspection, never intended for other eyes, that sought some revelation for the purposes of the war.

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will 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 human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost 15 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 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.

Theologian Elton Trueblood wrote that the evidence shows Lincoln never believed that his prayer could change the will of God. He prayed, instead, that he might know the will of God. Lincoln's short catechism led him to conclude that the "Almighty has his own purposes."

Within three months of his meditation Lincoln revealed what had reached him in his role as God's human instrument. In September he announced the Emancipation Proclamation.

As the Civil War neared its end, there were those in the North who sought revenge against the South, that the leaders of the rebellion should be hunted down and hanged. But Lincoln sought reunion, not judgment.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan. . . .

Near the end of his life -- when only a few assassins could know he was near the end of his life -- Lincoln was asked by Congressman Henry Deming of Connecticut why he had not joined a church. Deming had long been impressed with Lincoln's humility, his charity -- his spirituality. He was puzzled that a man so righteous in nature and spirit was not affiliated with any organized religion. Deming reports that Lincoln told him he could not agree to "Confessions of Faith" or doctrines with "long, complicated statements." Lincoln's was a simple theology. Here is what Abraham Lincoln said:

When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership . . . .Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and (love) thy neighbor as thyself,e that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.


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©2011 Reg Ankrom

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Ankrom, Reg 2011. The Evolution of Lincoln's Theology, /talks/20111016.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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