Though Abraham Lincoln was neither baptized nor joined a church of any kind, he was the most spiritually minded president in American history. His faith was wrought on the anvil of anguish, both personal and national, and because of this he has much to teach us in our own age of anxiety.
Some historians interpret Lincoln as a proto-secularist, not only because he never professed Christian faith in a public way but also because he made a number of skeptical comments about Christian teaching in his early years. But it’s well to remember that even great people of faith, including Mother Teresa, experience dark nights of the soul. John Calvin once said that all true faith is tinged by doubt.
When accused of being a scoffer, Lincoln said that he had never denied the truth of the Scriptures nor shown intentional disrespect for any Christian denomination. In the midst of the Civil War, when Lincoln was told that the Methodist church had sent more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to heaven than any other church, he replied: “God bless the Methodist Episcopal church! Bless all the churches! And blessed be God, who in this our trial giveth us the churches.”
So why did he never join a church himself? Two reasons. First, he was offended by the religious rivalry and braggadocio of the frontier preachers of his day. None of them made a compelling case to his lawyerly mind that only one denomination was right and all the others wrong. Further, Lincoln was reticent, “the most shut-mouthed man I know,” as his law partner William Herndon said. He did not want to cross the thin line between sincerity and self-righteousness. There was nothing smug about Lincoln’s faith.
Lincoln’s great achievement was to see the terrible times through which he lived in the context of God’s providential purposes. He referred to America as the almost-chosen nation and came to see himself as a “chosen instrument in the hands of the Almighty.” His firm belief that God is concerned for history and reveals his will in it drew on the wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, the teachings of the New Testament refracted through the tradition of St. Augustine, and the Calvinistic Baptists among whom he grew up. Though he read Voltaire as a young man, he had no interest in a deist God who dumbly peers down on human struggles. The God of Lincoln meets us in judgment and mercy and in the crucible of suffering that shapes the destiny of us all.
Lincoln also held in uneasy equipoise two other cardinal teachings of the Christian tradition: the inherent dignity of every person made in the image of God, and the corporate character of original sin. His abhorrence of slavery was rooted in the former; his disdain for utopian solutions to social problems grew out of the latter. Thus he was hated by secessionists and abolitionists alike. The tragedy of slavery and the Civil War would not be resolved, Lincoln thought, by appealing to human goodness, but by calling the nation to repentance and prayer. On nine separate occasions during the forty-nine months of his presidency, Lincoln called his fellow citizens to humble themselves before God in public penitence, prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. At the urging of the United States Senate, Lincoln issued a proclamation appointing April 30, 1863 as a day of national repentance, fasting and prayer. Between the smoke and blood of Antietam and Gettysburg, with the outcome of the war still in doubt, Lincoln declared:
And, insomuch as we know that, by God’s divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. 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. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
After the death of his beloved son Willie in 1862, the burdens of his office became intolerable, and he sought solace in the faith of the Bible he loved and knew so well. “I have been driven to my knees many times by the realization that I had nowhere else to go,” he said.
He and his wife Mary rented a pew at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short walk from the White House, and here Lincoln listened to the sermons of the Princeton-trained pastor. During special prayer services he would often sit in a side chamber lest he draw attention to himself in the congregation. Here he placed himself and his nation in the hands of God, seeking justice, imploring mercy, needing grace.
On March 4, 1865, just six weeks before he was assassinated, Lincoln presented his Second Inaugural, which has been called, “a prayer of confession for the whole nation”“more like a sermon than a state paper,” according to Frederick Douglass. At that point the Civil War was practically won, but Lincoln refused to be vindictive. He knew that the evil of slavery, rooted so deeply in the South, had also been supported by business interests in the North. The purposes of the living God could not be equated with the sectional ambitions of either side but transcended them both. By refusing to idolize the North or demonize the South, Lincoln called the entire country to its true vocation as one nation under God. Quoting the psalmist, Lincoln said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9 KJV).
Two hundred years after Lincoln was born in a rough-timbered cabin in Kentucky, America still longs for “a new birth of freedom.” In times of economic collapse, international uncertainty, of war, suffering, and terrorism, the faith of Abraham Lincoln can help us as a people act with courage and hope. Lincoln’s belief in the Bible, his reliance on prayer, his humility and acknowledgement of God’s providential design in the tumult of history, and his call for national repentance and thanksgiving beckon us forward now as then.
The words chiseled in stone in the Lincoln Memorial are still a creed for us to live by:
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 orphanto do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com. Adapted from The Birmingham News, February 8, 2009.