President Lincoln’s Secret

Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is celebrated February 12, never kept a diary, and never lived to write an autobiography. He … Continued

Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is celebrated February 12, never kept a diary, and never lived to write an autobiography. He was so utterly private a man that even his best friends frequently admitted that there were regions of his mind to which they were never granted access. He was a “terribly reticent, secretive, shut mouth man,” said his law-partner of fourteen years, William Henry Herndon, “and close-minded as to his plans, wishes, hopes, and fears.”

That was particularly true about religion. “I don’t Know anything about Lincoln’s Religion,” grumbled David Davis, Lincoln’s personal attorney and his first appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, and “don’t think anybody knew.”

Herndon, however, had been around Lincoln long enough to hazard a few guesses. First, the Lincoln he had known did “not believe…as a rational man…that the Bible was the peculiar, only, and special revelation of God.” As an ambitious young lawyer, he acquired a reputation for mocking religion, and even wrote “a pamphlet attacking the divinity of Christ special inspiration revelation &c.” Lincoln never joined a church, was never baptized, and never made any profession of belief.

And yet there were secrets about Lincoln’s religion about which even Herndon’s guesses failed. Lincoln had been raised in a family of pious, ultra-Calvinist Baptists, soaking up a substantial amount of sermons, hymns, and Scripture. He might not have believed “as a rational man…that the Bible was the peculiar, only, and special revelation of God,” but according to Herndon, Lincoln remained “superstitious, believed more or less in dreams, consulted negro oracles, had apparitions and tried to solve them.” And as he grew older — and wiser about things that antagonize voters — he agreed with the “absolute necessity of some form of Christianity, and never did, after reflection, attempt to disturb any man’s opinion,” his law partner wrote.

Lincoln’s election to the presidency, just in time to see the country fall into civil war, presented him with a different set of challenges to his meager stock of religious belief. Lincoln expected a quick and direct restoration of the Union. But in battle after battle, the Union armies were handed humiliating defeats. The president could make no logical sense of this apparent contradiction of progress. After a year-and-a-half of seemingly fruitless bloodshed, he concluded that God had taken a direct hand in events to stymie the war’s progress so long as it was waged for purely political purposes, and to force Lincoln to recognize that the war must be turned in a moral direction that spoke directly to the crime of slavery.

This insight is what eventually drove Lincoln to depart from the policy direction with which he had begun the war, and to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. To the astonishment of his Cabinet, Lincoln explained that his decision to issue the Proclamation was a “vow” he had made “to myself, and…to my Maker.”

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln came as close to preaching a sermon as any U.S. President has ever dared utter. The war, he said, was not a struggle between a righteous Union and evil slaveholders – both North and South had been complicit in the crime of slavery, and the war was a judgment that God had chosen to bring on the entire nation “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Only by submitting to that national judgment, Lincoln told his audience, could “malice toward none” and “charity for all” follow.

Lincoln’s public role as president embodied a profound struggle to preserve a “government of the people” that nevertheless still respected a core of moral truth which not even “the people” could repeal. And in that role, he reminds us that religion is neither alien to public life (to be locked up in private) nor a jack-in-the-box (ready to jump into every situation). It is, instead, a reminder of the feebleness of our own wisdom, and of the costliness of truth.

Allen C. Guelzo is Director of Civil War Era Studies and the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg College

  • Robert Willis

    One of the most important parts of this brief is that Lincoln was not a Christian. He believed in God and therefore could be called a Deist. If you research it you will find that 12 presidents were not Christians. 3 of our early presidents began a Epicopaleans and changed to Deist. 5 of our presidents were Unitarians and 2 were Quakers. If you research it many of the early Congregational Churches as a group changed to Unitarians.

  • Robert Willis

    One of the most important parts of this brief is that Lincoln was not a Christian. He believed in God and therefore could be called a Deist. If you research it you will find that 12 presidents were not Christians. 3 of our early presidents began a Epicopaleans and changed to Deist. 5 of our presidents were Unitarians and 2 were Quakers. If you research it many of the early Congregational Churches as a group changed to Unitarians.

  • Merrick

    I don’t think there’s enough of a record to make a claim about what Lincoln believed other than the Union must be preserved at all cost. He was also undeniabley a schrewd politician. Abolishionists were an important and highly Christianized part of the Republican party, and threatened rebellion of one sort or another throughout Lincoln’s presidency. I think any public religous proclamations (and private with respect to his Cabinet) should be considered in that context. I didn’t see anything particularily persuasive in Mr. Guelzo essay to convince me Mr. Lincoln believed in God. I think its more likely (from conventional wisdom) that Mr. Lincoln believed in some form of Spiritualism, which was popular from 1840s – 1920s Deism was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. It explicitly specifies belief in a single God (which I’m not convinced Lincoln did) and Deists “typically reject supernatural events (prophecy, miracles)”

  • Noor Asmani

    Hello. I am a recent convert to Christianity from Islam although informally I along with my mother practised Christianity for the last three years. I would like to clear some misunderstandings about Islam and Jesus and Christians, Christians do not believe that Muhammad was a prophet of God and that the Arabic god Allah that Muslims worship is the same as the Almighty God who came to earth as man to save humanity. We believe that Christianity is the final chapter of Judaism and the final answer for all humans. Muhammad tried to incorporate Jesus into his Islamic theology merely to ingratiate himself into the Judeo-Christian fold and be accepted as a prophet of God. God would never choose a man of such a low character as Muhammad to be His Prophet. My warning is especially to Christians who could be fooled into becoming Muslims. Christians have always been dhimmis or second class citizens in Muslim countries. An example is Iraq where they are being killed or driven away by Muslims if they do not convert to Islam. I illustrate my claim with what is happening to Christians in my native Pakistan where along with Shias and Hindus they are being exterminated. Recently a Christian woman Martha Bibi was accused of blasphemy. It’s just a matter of time before the blasphemy case against Martha Bibi of Kasur proves to be another one of the many concocted and fabricated cases falsely implicating innocent Christians. The rate at which the controversial blasphemy laws are being misused is alarming. The law only requires the testimony of one Muslim man to bring charges against another person for blasphemy; from the time of its conception it has been used for personal animosity and revenge against the religious minorities, Christians in particular. It is being easily and widely misused and Christians are being victimized at the hands of Islamic extremists. Not a single case under this law has been proved. The higher courts of Pakistan have acquitted those accused of blasphemy, after they were sentenced by the lower courts. Twenty individuals accused of blasphemy, including six Christians, have been murdered during their trials. When the alleged persons are acquitted by higher courts, it is found out that the cases were registered primarily on the basis of personal animosity. Furthermore, once acquitted, they still continue to live in fear of their lives. Their families uprooted, their lives jeopardised, the chances of leading any kind of a safe and normal life are diminished forever -– their faith being their only fault. The religious minority leaders have constantly demanded that the blasphemy laws be repealed and until the laws are repealed, the government must ensure that those who are accused of blasphemy and those who defend them are given proper protection and the norms of justice are strictly followed. While discriminatory laws play havoc with the lives of innocent non-Muslims, the authorities continue to look the other way, of course having issues to resolve like whether to allow the nation to celebrate ‘basant’ or whether there should be more than one dish at weddings. How many more innocent people like Martha Bibi need to face the brutality of prison, how may more families need to be traumatised, how many more homes need to be shattered, how many more innocent lives need to be lost, how many more children need to be orphaned, before the government can turn its attention towards the discriminatory laws that are affecting the non-Muslim citizens of the much-talked-about ‘moderate enlightened’ state of Pakistan. What is happening in Pakistan will happen in the United States and Canada if we do not take steps to stop the growth of Islam. Non-Muslims are fast approaching a zero growth rate in population because of education. Among Christians had non-Christians been not accepting Jesus as Saviour the number of Christians would go down over time. On the other hand the growth rate of Muslims is very high about 3% and it is matter of time before they become the majority and then all non-Muslims are doomed unless they accept the Arabic imperialism that goes by the name of Islam.

  • Solid NOx

    Seems as though my earlier response has caused a re-think. It does not suprise me that President Lincoln rejected manipulation of his mind by the current religious doctrine. It was a doctrine, after all, twisted to justify slavery. Perhaps he had seen some humanity in his contacts with Negro spitual advisors in his earlier years. So he was a skeptical agnostic of his time. I do suspect that Christ was on the side of Lee and God intervened inspite of his Son’s stubborness. God can manifests in a manner that can not be denied or perhaps can only be explained by temporary insanity. So, let’s say that the Union Generals were only giving 60 percent effort to the war and the Confederacy was giving 110 percent. Of course the Union was losing. So President Lincoln *sees the light* and starts thinking in terms of emmancipation as *the* answer. He finds his way to Frederick Douglas who advises him on the: “The Civil War, beginning in 1861, raised several issues, not the least of which was what role the black man would play in his own liberation–since one of the main objectives of the war was emancipation of the slaves. Douglass kept this issue alive. In 1863, as a result of his continued insistence (as well as of political and military expediency), President Abraham Lincoln asked him to recruit African American soldiers for the Union Army. As the war proceeded, Douglass had two meetings with Lincoln to discuss the use and treatment of African American soldiers by the Union forces. In consequence, the role of African American soldiers was upgraded each time and their military effectiveness thereby increased” source

  • Ralph

    If you read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech carefully, you can see that he carefully avoided making statements about his own religion. For example, he says, roughly, that both sides pray to the same God to prevail over the other. He didn’t say we pray to God and so do the Confederates. To those who say Lincoln was not a Christian, they would need to explain his use of the words “Almighty” in the speech. Also, he says that the war was God’s curse on America for slavery — saying that maybe the blood shed during the war would equal the blood shed over the centuries in the enslavement of other people. Anyway, the Second Inaugural speech is a tough challenge to those who say Lincoln was without religion or was not either a Christian or a Jew. (It is sometimes said that Christians and Jews pray to the same God, less Jesus in the case of Jews.)

  • me

    Lincoln was gay, isn’t that more contraversal than his religion?

  • Me Two

    Noor Asmani is a wise person. Lincoln fought a war to stop black people from being treated as second class citizens. Christians have always been dhimmis or second class citizens in Muslim countries. What is the difference between a slave and a second class citizen. Not much if anything. Muslims are salves to a God called Allah. Further, Christians are made salve under the rule of Islam. Wake up America and listen to Noor Asmani or find yourselves one day a slave to Allah. Laugh if you want but the threat is real.

  • Merrick

    ME TWO:ME:

  • mikel

    The supposition that Lincoln was gay because he shared beds with other men is ludicrous. That was a common thing back then, most country folk not earning enough to have a room of their own.

  • Sam

    I am a christian living in Egypt (Copt). We are actually treated as a second class citizens or slaves.Christians in Egypt represent around 20% of the Egyptian population, totaling around 15.000.000 citizens.The Christians of Egypt are suffering from large scale discrimination in jobs, salaries and basic human rights. Christians in Egypt are prevented from any important post or position in the universities, Army, Police or Intelligence. Many what so-called Islamic companies do not allow Christians to work in these companies or to buy the companies shares. We had suffered enough of hearing the insults every day in TV, newspapers and in the streets. Recently a book published by Islamic theologist and financed by the Egyptian government said that according to Islam, Christians has to be killed; the Christian women and moneys are the right of Muslims and can be taken by Muslims, according to their holy book (Quran).Lately in the street someone had insulted me as a pig because he realized that I am Christian. Last year someone in the street insulted my wife as a prostitute because she is not veiled (hair cover).Several abuse cases and kidnapping of Christian women and islamization had been reported in Egypt lately.The Egyptian constitution shall be amended next month to confirm and legalize the discrimination against the Christians by stressing on the Islamic law as the base of Egyptian constitution.Kindly take an action against this new fascism/racism and discrimination from the Egyptian government and other Islamic groups in the country.Radical Islamic groups, like the Muslim Brothers, are free in Egypt to harass, intimidate, and threaten Christians. The Egyptian government fails to protect the Christian citizens. In many cases, the Egyptian government even cooperates with radicals against Christians. Help the christians of Egypt.I hope I will not be put on jail tonight because I expressed my right to speak up and talk to you and send you this email.

  • Stan Moody

    RALPH reminds me that for modern Americans, the evidence of belief in Christ is reduced to a few buzz words, like “the Almighty” in a speech. Another word of wisdom from McChurch, the drive-through, fast-food temple of the Christian Right.SAM reminds me of the legion of Christians around the globe who suffer from real persecution, as opposed to being subjected to a gay scout leader, a blasphemus movie, television programs that poke fun at fundamentalists or an IRS investigation of violations of tax-free status for McChurch.ALLEN GUELZO reminds me of the revisionist history of McChurch that makes saints out of scoffers.CHRIST reminds me that His kingdom is not of this world.Stan Moody, Christian Policy Institute, author of “McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry.”

  • Ralph

    I have to kind of backtrack on what I said about Lincoln’s careful wording of the Second Inaugural speech. I said he spoke in the third person a lot to avoid speaking about his own faith, but now I believe this was a rhetorical device.In one place he does speak in first person plural when he spoke of religion. He said,”Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”The one verse of scripture that Lincoln quotes is from the New Testament, Matthew 18:7.

  • frank collins

    if it was a secret – how do you know about it?

  • J Rhinehart

    When Lincoln was campaigning, he was asked point-blank if he was anti-slavery. His reply is to me a revealing way of how his mind worked:(paraphrased)Lincoln spoke of both sides, of both owner and slave, and he elaborated on how the institution of slavery warped the lives of both peoples, from childhood on. He made it plain that he was repulsed by the twisting of the spirit of all who came in contact with slavery. It doesn’t surprise me that Lincoln eventually came to believe that the damage done by slavery was destroying the spirit of the country. Lincoln was a healer. He was a negotiator, a diplomat, and if he had lived, his view of healing the nation’s spiritual wounds might have changed the post-war years dramatically. I wish he had. The South was not only ruined economically, it was full of hate that only grew as decades went by, and that hate was aimed at the Negro. It destroyed any chance they had of growing into a valued, productive part of society. This society is still suffering from the low self-esteem of blacks who live in a completely different culture from whites, a culture that is filling our prisons today.

  • thrh

    Faulkner has been over all this ground, more profoundly, and repeatedly. Except perhaps for the convert from Islam. He would’ve liked that.

  • Viejita del oeste

    Noor, I am delighted that Christianity has brought you strength and comfort. Just a note, many Christians do believe that Allah and our God are one and the same, and we leave room for the possibility that Muhammed could have been a prophet of God if not The Prophet of God.

  • frank collins is a genius

    frank collins:if it was a secret – how do you know about it?

  • Ghostbuster

    Mr. Guelzo – Thank you for writing such an interesting article on the progression of Lincoln’s faith. I find all Civil War history fascinating and I will have to read up more on this subject.Robert Willis – Are Quakers not Christians?Sam – Thank you for your courage to post despite the persecution you are risking. God Bless You!

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