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Pilgrim politician

Presidency | Leading up to a bicentennial celebration, Abe Lincoln is remembered as a president who learned that God is the prime actor in history

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Abraham Lincoln popped out of his mother's womb on Feb. 12, 1809, which means that soon begins a year of activities leading up to his bicentennial in 2009. With only $200, the devoted can buy the "premier package" for "The Official Bicentennial Kick-Off" next week in Kentucky, where Lincoln was born. That expenditure buys admission to a "Champagne Reception" and other activities.

In a campaign year when reporters often ask candidates for yes-or-no answers concerning their religious beliefs, there is something to learn from Abraham Lincoln's long and winding road to God. Apart from the spin-proclamations that Lincoln was a Christian from youth, or an atheist even during his last year-the fact pattern is more complex.

Here's what's known: When Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lincoln and daughter Sarah joined the Pigeon Baptist Church in 1823, their teenage son Abraham did not. He often listened to sermons and made fun of them afterwards, continuing that practice into his 20s. He once gave a memorable imitation of a preacher so plagued by a small blue lizard running up his leg that the preacher took off his pants and shirt in an attempt to shoo the reptile.

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One opponent in an 1837 legislative race, James Adams, attacked Lincoln for disbelief in Christ's divinity and biblical accuracy. Religious accusations plagued Lincoln again in 1843 when an opponent in the race for a congressional seat called Lincoln a deist who "belonged to no church." Lincoln's law partnership with William Herndon, a frontier evangelist for transcendentalism-the first attempt to bring Hindu and Buddhist ideas to America-did not help his reputation among Christians.

When Lincoln gained the Whig nomination for Congress in 1846, he ran against famous evangelist Peter Cartwright, who called Lincoln an infidel. Lincoln's response included carefully chosen words: He acknowledged his lack of church membership but stated that he had not "denied the truth of the Scriptures." He did not say that he affirmed scriptural truth, only that he had never denied it, and off he went to Washington-but only for one term. Lincoln returned to Illinois, became a successful and affluent corporate lawyer, and seemed to ignore religious questions.

During the 1850s, though, the nation was not ignoring religion. Spiritism-what today we would call New Age religion-swept through fast-growing cities, 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." The Christian revival of 1857 (see "Guarding revival," Oct. 6, 2007) was one response to that.

The following year Lincoln used religious talk to win favor among anti-slavery Republicans suspicious of a Midwest corporate lawyer. In a New York speech he quoted chapter 12 of Matthew in explaining that "every city or house divided against itself shall not stand." Those who understood that the United States could not be half-free and half-slave rejoiced: In 1860 Illinois Congressman John Wentworth proclaimed 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 tragedy of civil war apparently got Lincoln thinking more deeply about God, but his first recognition of desperate need came after a personal tragedy, the death in February 1862 of his beloved 11-year-old son, Willie. Mary Todd Lincoln tried to deal with her grief by searching out New Age mediums, and Lincoln went to a seance with his wife, but was unimpressed: Afterwards, he joked that it was like a cabinet meeting, with several spirits presenting contradictory messages.

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. Lincoln later told a confidant that he was "driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go." Lincoln began attending Pastor Gurley's church on Sundays and sometimes went to Wednesday prayer meetings as well.

From the death of his son to the deaths of thousands of soldiers: Lincoln began to muse on God's nature. After Union forces in August 1862 lost the second battle of Bull Run, Lincoln wrote a "Meditation on the Divine Will" that concluded: "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."

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