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.
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."
Lincoln's new belief in God contributed to a policy decision: In September 1862 after Union forces stopped the Confederates at Antietam, he read the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, stating (according to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles), "God has declared this question in favor of the slaves."
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase recorded Lincoln's further explanation: "I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker," that the proclamation would follow a Union victory. Newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Christian Advocate rejoiced as Lincoln broke down the separation of church and army: God "will now fight for the nation as He has not yet fought for it."
If so, it seemed just in time. As Lincoln announced the Proclamation, Washington was a city of hospitals, over 50 temporary ones. Almost 20 more stood in and near Alexandria, across the river. When Lincoln visited the injured, gaping wounds assaulted his eyes and groaning resounded in his ears. Whenever Congress was not in session the Capitol itself became a hospital, with 2,000 cots set up in the rotunda, legislative chambers, and hallways. Most deaths occurred on the battlefield, but those who died in the hospitals, typically 50 per day, cost the army $4.99 per soldier (pine coffin, transport to the cemetery, and burial all included).
The fatalities and injuries led Lincoln to God; he had nowhere else to go. In October 1862, he told visitors, "We cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it." Calling the war "a fiery trial" and himself "a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father," Lincoln said, "I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to His will, and that it might be so, I have sought His aid."
Some insisted that the Republican Party was doing God's will; Sen. Henry Wilson said the party was "created by no man" but "brought into being by Almighty God himself." An Illinois Christian leader said that a Democratic triumph in the 1862 congressional elections would force God's "chastising hand."
Lincoln, though, did not claim that God is a Republican. In 1863 his "Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day" asserted, "We know that, by Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world." He called the war "a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people."
Furthermore, Lincoln's proclamation emphasized how Americans had taken for granted God's kindness: "We have forgotten the gracious Hand which 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." That proclamation applied the Old Testament pattern-God's faithfulness, man's forgetfulness, God's discipline-to a new people who had become "too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us."
Lincoln, who had questioned prayer previously and not even affirmed it under earlier political pressure, was becoming a praying man. He told one general that as reports came in from Gettysburg during the first two days of fighting, "when everyone seemed panic-stricken," he "got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed. . . . Soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into His own hands."
Increasingly he relied on the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Once Pastor Gurley announced at Sunday morning service that "religious services would be suspended until further notice as the church was needed as a hospital." Officials had already made plans and stacked supplies outside the building, but Lincoln stood up-he did that often, believing that all prayers should be made standing up-and announced, "Dr. Gurley, this action was taken without my consent, and I hereby countermand the order. The churches are needed as never before for divine services."
Lincoln also needed the Bible. By 1864 he was even recommending Scripture reading to Joshua Speed, his fellow skeptic from Springfield days. When Speed said he was surprised to see Lincoln reading a Bible, Lincoln earnestly told him, "Take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man." When the Committee of Colored People in 1864 gave Lincoln a Bible, he responded, "But for this book we could not know right from wrong."
That year became the war's bloodiest, with Union troops attacking repeatedly at Cold Harbor and elsewhere, losing thousands of men, but winning a war of attrition against Southern forces that could not readily replace their losses. Lincoln hated the casualty lists and told pastor Byron Sutherland of Washington's First Presbyterian Church that God "has destroyed nations from the map of history for their sins." Still, he said his "hopes prevail generally above my fears for our Republic. The times are dark, the spirits of ruin are abroad in all their power, and the mercy of God alone can save us."
Lincoln's second inaugural address, a month before his assassination in 1865, most clearly exhibits his theological change. That speech, with its call to "bind up the nation's wounds," is often cited as evidence of Lincoln's emphasis on reconciliation, but it shows even more his new sense of Providence. "Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray-that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away," he said. "Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"
How many drops of blood were there? Lincoln's understanding of God had changed his public policy emphases. At first, he had ignored God except when it was politically useful to take His name in vain. Then, Lincoln had speculated repeatedly about God's will, as the war dragged on with no resolution in sight. Finally, Lincoln came to believe that God was the prime actor in history-and a president's task was to lean on and trust Him.