Lincoln's relationship with God is a subject highly debated by historians and students of history. Some say Lincoln was an unbeliever, or at least a skeptic, of Christianity. A few say he was an atheist. Many say he was a "deeply religious" man that daily sought God's guidance.
What were Abraham Lincoln's religious beliefs? Was he a Christian? A deist? Or, was he a theistic rationalist, like many of America's Founding Fathers were?
Many books have been written on the subject of Lincoln's religion. When one reads Lincoln's presidential speeches and letters, filled with his references to the Bible and demonstrative of his dependence on prayer for God's guidance, it is difficult to comprehend why anyone would perceive President Lincoln as anything but a man that sincerely depended on God.
So . . . you are invited to read further for the evidence, or jump to the Conclusions below.
Why the debate?
The primary reason for this debate over whether or not Lincoln was a man of faith can be summed up in two words: William Herndon. Herndon was Lincoln's young law partner while Lincoln lived in Springfield. He shared a law office with Lincoln for many years. To make a long story short, Herndon wrote a biography of Lincoln many years after Lincoln was assassinated, and in it he proclaimed Lincoln an "infidel."
There is little doubt that Lincoln, as a young man, went through a period of skepticism towards Christianity. But as is evidenced by Lincoln's own words, he changed. (Herndon either never understood this, or had his reasons for refusing to accept it.) There is some debate as to when this change took place, and to what extent it went. His wife said that he "was never a technical Christian." But what she meant about "technical" Christian is in doubt. In that day, "born again" was not a commonly used, or understood, phrase. It is likely she found his relationship with God lacking due to his reluctance to join any specific church.
It is true that Lincoln never joined a church, although he attended church services regularly while President. The reason he gave for refusing to join a church was that he could "never be satisfied" with all the dogmas and creeds that the denominational churches of his day required. On this subject Lincoln wrote:
"When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior's condensed statement of the substance of both law and Gospel, 'Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and thy neighbor as thyself' that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul."
One of Lincoln's earliest statements on the subject of his faith came in 1846:
"That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular....I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion." [July 31, 1846]
Note: All Lincoln quotes on this page are taken from Abraham Lincoln: Quotes, Quips, and Speeches
Lincoln's Faith Increases
Mrs. Lincoln stated that after the demise of their son Willy in early 1862, her husband drew much closer to God. The evidence of this increases steadily while he is in the White House. Many of Lincoln's presidential speeches are superb examples of a man seeking God. Below is one of Lincoln's many proclamations, as president, for a national day of fasting and prayer. Few ministers of the gospel could have done better:
"It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch (sic) as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement 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 has 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. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness." [March 30, 1863]
On January 5, 1863 Lincoln responded to a letter from some Quakers that had written to encourage him and tell him they were praying for him:
"It is most cheering and encouraging for me to know that in the efforts which I have made and am making for the restoration of a righteous peace to our country, I am upheld and sustained by the good wishes and prayers of God’s people. No one is more deeply than myself aware that without His favor our highest wisdom is but as foolishness and that our most strenuous efforts would avail nothing in the shadow of His displeasure."
On September 4, 1864 Lincoln responded to Elizah P. Guerney, another Quaker, thanking her for her prayers and kind letter:
"The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom, and our own error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best lights He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay."
The following demonstrates Lincoln's humble, unquestioned dependence on God's aid. Rarely do our history books tell the story of a president on his knees in prayer! This was a statement he made to General Dan Sickles, a participant in the battle of Gettysburg:
"Well, I will tell you how it was. In the pinch of the campaign up there (at Gettysburg) when everybody seemed panic stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to Him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told Him that this war was His war, and our cause His cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville... And after that, I don't know how it was, and I cannot explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into His own hands and that things would go right at Gettysburg and that is why I had no fears about you." [July 5, 1863]
Lincoln stated the following upon receiving a gift of a Bible from a group of African-Americans from Baltimore:
"In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to men. All the good Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man's welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it." [Sept. 9, 1864]
Lincoln: A Statesman Under God
While in the White House, Lincoln wrote out his private "Meditation on Divine Will":
"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 cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great 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."[September, 1862]
He also said:
"Whatever shall appear to be God's will, I will do."[September 13, 1862]
"Amid the greatest difficulties of my administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right." [October 24, 1863]
The following is from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. This address is widely recognized as one of the world's greatest speeches. Unlike modern day presidents, Lincoln did not have a "speech writer" to put together inspiring statements for him to read to the people. What he usually did with major documents, such as the inaugurals, was write out the complete text himself, and then submit it to a few trusted friends for comment. He rarely made anything other than minor changes as a result of these criticisms.
In this, the latter half of his second inaugural address, Lincoln starts off in describing how both the North and South was surprised at how long the war had lasted, and how they were both surprised that the cause of the war (slavery) was on the road to ending, but the war still went on. [Note: the 13th amendment, ending slavery, had been pushed through Congress by Lincoln and was already in the process of ratification by the states. The Confederate Congress was making provisions, also, of using slaves as soldiers, and as a result of that--providing the black soldiers with freedom.]
"...Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.
The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of "God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another draw with the sword, as was said 3000 years ago, so still must it be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
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 orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." [March 4, 1865]
This is Lincoln's proclamation that the last Thursday of November should be set aside as a day of Thanksgiving. Many days of Thanksgiving had been proclaimed by presidents before this one, but this is the one that finally turned into the national holiday that we celebrate annually.
"It has seemed to me fit and proper that they (gifts of God) should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens." [October 3, 1863]
Rarely do our presidents invoke the power of the Holy Spirit in their national proclamations:
"I invite the people of the United states (on Aug 6)... to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit... to guide the counsels of the government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles, and sieges have been brought to suffer in mind, body, or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and internal peace." [July 15, 1863]
Lincoln was raised in the Christian-Calvinistic traditional faith, which he abandoned when a young man. William Herndon was close with Lincoln during his years of skepticism towards Christianity, but did not go to Washington DC with Lincoln when he became President, and consequently never witnessed the change in his old friend that took place in his later years. While President of the United States, Lincoln became a man of tremendous faith and dependence on the God of the Bible. There is no reliable evidence that he ever accepted Christ as his personal saviour, but he did believe Christ was THE Saviour. There is ample evidence that Lincoln read the Bible daily, prayed, and returned to his Christian-Calvinist roots while President. As President, he was neither an atheist nor a deist, since he obviously believed in God, prayed, and believed that God was intervening in the affairs of the United States of America. He was clearly at least a theist, and attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church frequently.
Since he believed that God still intervened in the affairs of mankind, and considered the Bible to be the truth (reading it nearly every day while in the White House) theistic rationalist is a possible interpretation of Lincoln's religious beliefs.
For additional discussion, see my blog post on the Confusion about Lincoln's religious beliefs.
For further reading
The modern day, definitive study on Lincoln's religious beliefs is Allen C. Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President. Also excellent is Stephen Mansfield's Lincoln's Battle with God: A President's Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America