The President everyone wants

Growing up a Southerner, I didn’t get the heavy dose of Lincoln adulation so many Americans in other parts of the country do. Perhaps that’s why the endless references to the sixteenth president by the forty-fourth are lost on me, any why I only get interested in the man when the subject turns to religion. (And his family: my heart goes out to Mary Todd even when Honest Abe leaves me cold.)

Lincoln’s shadowy faith is about as far removed from “Obama’s pastor problems” as possible. Was he our first (only?) president to be true religious seeker or independent? In lists of the religious identifications of presidents — unseemly for an office for which there is no religious test, but so be it — I’ve seen Lincoln come up as liberal, which in this case is vague and unsatisfying. That he was a Universalist, Disciple of Christ or Presbyterian — claims I’ve seen — seem confected.

Fortunately, Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service gives us a bigger view of the man and his faith in “200 years later, Lincoln’s faith remains an enigma

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. My Church must have been very opposed to him at the time. The Geneva Illinois Church get rid of their minister for preaching abolition, and the Unitarian Church in Rockford got rid of the same minister for the same reason. Obama’s held himself with Lincoln and FDR and a few have pointed out that both War Presidents over the bloodiest of wars…

    …anyways, Unitarians in Northern Illinois at the time seem to have had little use for Lincoln. Not about to go to War over the Union.

    Thanks for the link though. Anything on Lincoln appreciated. A fellow at our Church does a series about Lincoln and he’s convinced Lincoln was a Universalist.

  2. somewhere I quoted Manford’s Monthly from the late 1860s- early 1870s about Lincoln. (this is why all researched material needs to be on one’s own blog, to be able to find it easily). Manford, a Murry Universalist, lived and published his magazine in Chicago at this time. The gist of what I recall is that if Lincoln was an Universalist, he didnt tell any Universalists about it – or at least any Universalists who shared that information prior to Lincoln’s death.
    His political opponents did call Lincoln an Universalist, deist, atheist, Catholic, etc – and he took the taunts in style (his cousin’s were Catholic), with semi-sympathetic remarks to Universalists . The fact that he is claimed by a fair number of religious denominations show how hard it is to pin him down.

  3. An interesting article, thank you. (And a quote in the article from Dewey Wallace, my undergraduate church history professor! A genuine model of scholarly excellence, BTW.)

    I guess my cynicism about contemporary religious literacy and theological education leads me to comment that even if Lincoln were not a Christian (in the “technical” sense, however we may choose to be technical) he probably had more thorough biblical knowledge and literacy than many mainline Christians today.

  4. Scott—

    Hagiography aside, there are many reasons to put your understandable regional bias aside and spend some time studying Lincoln. As flawed and inconsistent as any man, he is still rewarding for the subtlety and depth of his thought and his life long struggle to reconcile a true and deeply held idealism with both personal ambition and the need to act in a brutal and unforgiving environment. Even Harry Truman, a Missouri Democrat whose unreconstructed Confederate mother never forgave him for making Lincoln’s Birthday a national holiday, came to deeply admire his ancient tribal enemy.

    Lincoln’s relationships to religion are not a murky as some suppose. Certainly any denomination that would attempt to claim him as its own is self-delusional. Here is some of what we know.

    1) At no time in Lincoln’s life did he ever claim to be a Christian as understood at his time or to be “saved.”
    2) As far is known he was never baptized and never became a member of any church.
    3) Among his earliest published writing, while still in New Salem, were attacks on a political rival who was a fire-and-brimstone style Methodist circuit rider which mocked both the man’s religion and his attempts to use his followers as a political base. These letters, published under a nom-de-plume would regularly be used against him later in life.
    4) Like most self-educated Americans who had literary aspirations and who were not versed in the Latin and Greek of the Eastern college educated elite, Lincoln had two primary sources to draw from for both inspiration and style—The King James Version of the Bible and the popular plays of William Shakespeare. He knew both. But his writing was infused with the cadences and majesty of the Bible. He could also, if the occasion called for it, usually in response to some hypocrisy from the mouth of a believer, quote verse with ease.
    5) He deeply admired Jefferson and treasured the Declaration of Independence as the essential founding document. He borrowed from Jefferson, and from George Washington, the language of Deism in public discourse. He frequently spoke of Providence, Creator, and other Deist constructions. He did not avoid the word God, but he did not invoke an explicitly Christian God. One can search in vain for much use of the words “Christ” or “Savior” outside of the context of letters of condolence to the families of fallen soldiers often echoing back sentiments expressed by the bereaved. He was all for giving what ever comfort he could.
    6) In Springfield he attended Mary’s Presbyterian Church and was friendly with its minister but never joined the church or partook in the Spartan Presbyterian communion.
    7) He read the published sermons of both Channing and Theodore Parker and appropriated or adapted words from each in his speeches. But in practice as President he found Abolitionist Boston Unitarians to be pig-headed impediments to a practical prosecution of the war and a move toward healing a post-war, re-united country.
    8) He believed deeply and viscerally in “Fate” and implacable “Destiny.” This was part and parcel of his widely reported melancholia. Some scholars have attributed this to a sort of Calvinist hang-over. Could be. But Lincoln’s sense of fate and destiny seem to rise from far more ancient impulses.
    9) There is nothing to connect Lincoln to institutional Universalism. Yet there is much to suggest that he privately embraced a kind universalism of spirit that accepted a common struggle to understand a greater mystery that transcended mere denominationalism.
    10) In the White House, with the gruesome burdens of a war-time presidency on his shoulders and the private grief over the loss of his beloved son, Lincoln followed Mary’s lead and seemed to take Spiritualism, then at the height of its American popularity, with due seriousness. At the time many Universalist ministers were also toying—to considerable controversy—with Spiritualism. But again Lincoln never publicly endorsed Spiritualism, or acknowledged it as his faith.

    In the post-war years both the Abolitionist preachers with whom he sparred during the war and a generation of new Unitarian leaders bloodied on the battlefields of that war—Jenkin Lloyd Jones being a prime example—participated in the myth making that turned the martyred President into a kind of a Saint. They went too far. And rubbing the defeated South’s nose in it exacerbated, the regional disdain with which you grew up.

    But I think many modern Unitarians and Universalists can find much with which to resonate in Lincoln’s personal spiritual journey.

  5. FWIW, Lincoln was reportedly a fan of Theodore Parker’s writings. His own statement about his religion, “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad; that is my religion,” seems to strongly suggest at least a liberal Christianity.

    And almost any educated individual of that era in the US would have been pretty Bible literate.

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