Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lincoln's Faith

Recently there was a poll as to who was the most popular, most important of all the American presidents, the winner once again was Abraham Lincoln. There are many who ascribe a non-belief in God to Lincoln, I thought it might be wise to consider what this, most popular of all President had to say on this subject, so with malice toward none, and charity toward all, let me begin.

Abraham Lincoln was a voracious reader, and passionately educated himself, reading Robinson Crusoe, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Franklin’s Autobiography, and law books when he could get them. He memorized the Illinois Statutes. Lincoln took reading seriously, making notes of the literary style, syncopation, and rhythm. Though often portrayed as a Deist, Lincoln read the Bible as studiously as he had the classics. His speeches resound with scriptural metaphors and biblical phrases, rightly applied; revealing he fully understood the context. Unlike a more recent president from the great state of Illinois.

Perhaps no aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s character is less understood that his religion. Like many young men, he was a skeptic early in life. He viewed the “good old maxims of the Bible” as little different from the Farmers Almanac, admitting in the 1830s, I’ve never been to church yet, nor probably shall not be soon.” An often misunderstood phrase Lincoln uttered-purportedly that he was a Deist-was, in fact, “Because I belonged to no church, I was suspected of being a Deist,” and absurdity he put on the same plane as having “talked about fighting a dual.” Quite the contrary, to dispute and 1846 handbill that he was “an open scoffer at Christianity,” Lincoln produced his own handbill in which he admitted, “I am not a member of and Christian Church…but I have never denied the truths of the Scriptures.” Some Lincoln biographers dismiss this as campaign propaganda, but Lincoln’s religious journey accelerated the closer he got to greatness, or perhaps propelled him to it.

A profound change in Lincoln’s faith occurred from 1858 to 1863. Mary had brought home a Bible, which Lincoln read, and after the death of Eddie at age four, he attended a Presbyterian church intermittently, paying rent for a pew for his wife. He never joined the church, but by 1851 was already preaching, in letters, to his father: “Remember to call upon, and confide in, our great, and good, and merciful Maker…He will not forget the dying man, who puts his trust in Him.” After 1860 Lincoln himself told associates of a “change,” a “true religious experience,” a “change of heart.” Toward what? Lincoln prayed every day and read his Bible regularly. He followed Micah 6:8 to a tee..”to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God,” When a lifelong friend, Joshua Speed, commented that he remained skeptical of matters of faith, Lincoln said,
“You are wrong, Speed; take all of this book (the Bible) upon reason you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier better man.”

What kept Lincoln from formal church association was what he viewed as overly long and complicated confessions of faith, or what might be called denominationalism. “When any church will inscribe over it’s alter the Saviour’s condensed statement of law and gospel, “Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart and with all they soul and with all thy mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself, that church I will join with all my heart.” In fact, he thought it beneficial that numerous denominations and sects existed, telling a friend, “The more sects the better. They are all getting somebody into Heaven that others would not.” To Lincoln, and important separation of politics and religion existed during his campaign: “I will not discuss the character and religion of Jesus Christ on the stump! That is no place for it.” It was Gettysburg, however where Lincoln was born again. His own pastor, Phineas Gurley, noted the change after Gettysburg: “With tears in his eyes,” Gurley wrote, Lincoln “now believed his heart was changed and that he loved the Saviour, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion.” Did he actually make such a profession? An Illinois clergyman asked Lincoln before his death, “Do you love Jesus?” to which Lincoln gave a straight answer:

“When I left Springfield I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I love Jesus.”

During the war Lincoln saw God’s hand in numerous events, although in 1862 he wrote, “The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, or against, the same thing at the same time.” Significantly, at Gettysburg, he again referred to God’s purposes, noting that the nation was “dedicated to the proposition” that “all men are created equal.” Would God validate hat proposition? It remained, in Lincoln’s spirit, to be determined. He puzzled why God allowed the war to continue, which reflected his fatalistic side that discounted human will in perpetuating evil. Lincoln called numerous days of national prayer, and unusual step for a supposed unbeliever. The evidence that Lincoln was a spiritual, even devout, man and toward the end of his life a committed Christian, is abundant.

The job of President of the United States is difficult, I know that I feel better knowing that the Leader of the Free World is looking to a higher intelligence for guidance.

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