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Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?

By Editorial Staff
Published April 4, 2008

By Charles Coffin

Editor’s Preface

The Christian character of President Lincoln is an American enigma. A lifelong non-churchgoer, Lincoln has been the subject of numerous speculations concerning his faith. He was more intensely spiritual than almost any other American President, yet the confusion about the genuineness of Lincoln’s Christianity arises from the ambiguities of his early life. Charles Carleton Coffin, a Civil War correspondent and author of eight American history novels, published his final novel on Lincoln in 1892. Coffin provides us with a definitive answer on Lincoln’s faith. An early spiritual crisis in 1841 marked a turning point in Lincoln’s life

— Jay Rogers

Much has been written concerning him, and doubtless much more will be written. My acquaintance with him began in his Springfield home following his nomination for the Presidency. It was such an acquaintance as a correspondent of a leading journal was privileged to have with public men. I saw him frequently during his Presidential term, met him socially on several occasions, and walked with him through the burning streets of Richmond. In preparing this work, I have visited the scenes of his early years. From playmates of his childhood, and from those who knew him in later years I have obtained this information which may be accepted as authentic.1

The marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd would be a notable event. There was much preparation in the hospitable mansion of Ninian Edwards. The guests assemble; the feast is prepared; all are waiting. The evening wanes. He does not come. The guests take their departure; the lights are extinguished; the wedding feast is not eaten. Mary Todd is in her chamber, overwhelmed with mortification. Joshua Speed searches for the delinquent groom, and finds him pale, haggard, and in the deepest melancholy.2 Heart-rending is the letter which he sent to his friend, Mr. Stuart:

“I am the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be a cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better.“3

Unmindful of what was going on around him, silent, pale, his mind tempest tossed, Mr. Lincoln was sinking into distressful melancholy. It was very kind of Joshua F. Speed, who had closed his business in Springfield, and who was going to Kentucky, to take Mr. Lincoln with him to his former home just out from Louisville.4 There was tenderness in the sympathetic welcome given him by the mother of Mr. Speed, a great-hearted Christian woman.

To men who think for themselves, no matter what may have been their previous religious belief, there not unfrequently comes a period of doubting. Such a period came to Abraham Lincoln. He had not forgotten his mother’s teachings. He could repeat much of the Bible, but he was not moved by emotional appeals. When his first love Ann Rutledge died, and his soul was wrung with grief, no one had talked to him of divine love and eternal goodness. So far as he could see, his own life had been a failure. Hopes had not been realized, desires not gratified. He had accomplished nothing.

He is out in the desert – hungry, thirsty, weary, depressed in spirit – no star to guide him. But as angels of God came to the carpenter’s Son of Nazareth, so came Joshua Speed and Lucy Gilman Speed to him.

He finds himself in a hospitable home. Flowers are blooming around it; balmy breezes sweep through the halls. He breathes an atmosphere of restful peace. A saintly woman sits by his side, opens the New Testament, and reads the words of One who Himself had been in the wilderness. She talks of God as a father, Jesus Christ as a Brother. New truths dawn upon him, and the Bible becomes a different book from what it has been in the past. Little does Lucy Gilman Speed know that God has crowned her with glory and honor, to be a ministering spirit in leading a bewildered wanderer out of the desert of despair and unbelief, that he may do great things for his fellow-men. Weeks go by, the gloom and anguish disappear. The period of doubt has gone, never to return. From that hour the Bible is to be his rule of life and duty.

His biographers – those who knew him later in life – have this to say of him: “The late but splendid maturity of Lincoln’s mind and character dates from this time; and although he grew in strength and knowledge to the end, from this year we observe a steadiness and sobriety of thought and purpose discernible in his life.“5

This estimate does not include the service rendered by Lucy Gilman Speed. When the great account is made up, and the angels of God come from the harvest fields to lay their sheaves at the feet of the Master, hers will be the changed life of Abraham Lincoln.

As this biography of Lincoln unfolds, there will be seen, as the years go by and the responsibilities of life roll upon him, a reverent recognition of Divine Providence, an increasing faith and childlike trust in God.6

1 Charles Carleton Coffin, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893) Introduction.
2 W.H. Herndon, Lincoln, p. 215 (edition 1889).
3 Letter to J.T. Stuart, quoted in Herndon’s Lincoln, p.215.
4 Joshua Speed, Lecture on Abraham Lincoln, p.39.
5 Century Magazine, January, 1887.
6. Coffin, pp.110-114.


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Your comments are welcome!

If one reads Lincoln’s second inaugural address and his March 15 1865 letter to friend Thurlow Weed – he essentially sees the suffering of the then-current Civil war as a judgment of a just God on both sides of the nation – for slavery. In a letter about this speech, he says “….I believe it [this second ‘judgment of God’ inaugural address] is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governingthe world…”

Posted by v. knutsen on 10/17/2008 07:20 PM #

So what are you saying? Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian or not. Jesus Christ said to become a Christian one must “be born again,” and confess him as “the son of the living God.” So did Lincoln ever say that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior? In his writings, I have only been able to find references to God.

Have you located in any of Lincoln’s numerous writings any indication that Christ was his Lord and Savior?

Thanks

Posted by D. Couch on 02/17/2009 06:02 PM #

Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly a great man.But was he a Christian and is now comforted in the arms of Jesus ? Or was he a non beleiver and now suffering torment is the question? Jesus said in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John that no one can come to God the Father except by Him.

Posted by John Elkins on 04/18/2009 02:44 PM #

His faith we will never know. This we do know his wife after his death said he was a “christian in a poetic sense”. His law parteners said he never was a believer and this was after the speed visit. Did he quote scripture? Yes of course but was he a believer? the answer is no at least as we understand it.

Posted by Lance Harvell on 04/24/2009 09:20 PM #

John Rembsburg, Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian?

Almost immediately after the remains of Abraham Lincoln were laid to rest at Springfield, one of his biographers put forward the claim that he was a devout believer in Christianity. The claim was promptly denied by the dead President’s friends, but only to be renewed again, and again denied. Ever since, the question of Lincoln’s religious belief has been bandied about. This book collects the testimony of more than one hundred witnesses, and devotes more than three hundred pages to answer the question, “Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?”

The author, a proponent of Freethought or Freethinking, suggests that Lincoln’s religious beliefs were in line with a sort of Deism, or natural religion, and that he didn’t believe in Christianity or other organized religion. While not claiming Lincoln as a Freethinker directly, Remsburg conducts numerous interviews and other research demonstrating Lincoln’s admiration for Freethinkers such as Thomas Paine, and his contempt for religious revivalism. This is a fascinating work that stands apart form the huge mass of books about Lincoln not only by its rarity, but also by its bold thesis at a time when Lincoln worship was at its height and a full 100 years before current researchers began to take a critical and analytical look at Lincoln, the man.

Some excerpts from private letters from William Herndon to Mr. Remsburg, and published for the first time in Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian? in 1893.

I was the personal friend of Lincoln from 1834 to the day of his death. In 1843 we entered into a partnership which was never formally dissolved. When he became unpopular in this Congressional district because of his speeches on the Mexican War, I was faithful to him. When he espoused the anti-slavery cause and in the eyes of most men had hopelessly ruined his political prospects, I stood by him, and through the press defended his course. In those dark hours, by our unity of sentiment and by political ostracism, we were driven to a close and enduring friendship. You should take it for granted, then, that I knew Mr. Lincoln well. During all this time, from 1834 to 1862, when I last saw him, he never intimated to me, either directly or indirectly, that he had changed his religious opinions. Had he done so had — he let drop one word or look in that direction, I should have detected it.

That Mr. Lincoln was an Infidel from 1834 to 1661, I know, and that he remained one to the day of his death, I honestly believe. I always understood that he was an Infidel, sometimes bordering on Atheism. I never saw any change in the man, and the change could not have escaped my observation had it happened.

Lincoln’s task was a terrible one. When he took the oath of office his soul was bent on securing harmony among all the people of the North, and so he chose for his cabinet officers his Opponents for the Presidential candidacy in order and as a means of creating a united North. He let all parties, professions, and callings have their way where their wishes did not cut across his own. He was apparently pliant and supple. He ruled men when men thought they were ruling him. He often said to me that the Christian religion was a dangerous element to deal with when aroused. He saw in the Kansas affairs — in the whole history of slavery, in fact — its rigor and encroachments, that Christianity was aroused. It must be controlled, and that in the right direction. Hence he bent to it, fed it, and kept it within bounds, well knowing that it would crush his administration to atoms unless appeased. His oft and oft invocations of God, his conversations with Christians, his apparent respect for Christianity, etc., were all means to an end. And yet sometimes he showed that he hated its nasal whines.

Let me ask the Christian claimant a few questions. Do you mean to say, when you assert that Mr. Lincoln was a Christian, that he believed that Jesus was the Christ of God, as the evangelical world contends? If so, where did you get this information? Do you mean to say that Mr. Lincoln was a converted man and that he so declared? If so, where, when, and before whom did he declare or reveal it? Do you mean to say that Mr. Lincoln joined a Church? If so, what Church did he join, and when did he join it? Do you mean to say that Mr. Lincoln was a secret Christian, acting under the cloak of the devil to advance Christianity? If so, what is your authority? If you will tell me when it was that the Creator caught in his almighty arms, Abraham, and held him fast while he poured the oil of grace on his rebellious soul, then I will know when it was that he was converted from Infidel views to Christianity.

Posted by Graymalkin on 08/16/2009 01:43 PM #

Hey lets put it this way. Many are called few are chosen.
If there really is a question as to if anyone was a Christian, then he probably isn’t in heavan. It’s not my space to judge, but Jesus said “My words are what will judge you” His Holy Word says whosoever is ashamed of me, when I come back with my Glory and My Angels, I will be ashamed of you”
If Lincoln (although he was a great president) was a saved Christian then he wouldn’t have been ashamed, and everyone would have known He was a Christian.

Posted by Justin on 11/10/2009 08:30 AM #

Be careful or Mr. Lincoln will suffer the fate of Jefferson as a deist to the Texas School Board. dpember

Posted by dpember on 04/15/2010 01:22 PM #

As I was reading this I seemed to recall that Lincoln did accept Christ but not until after he had visited Gettysburg and delivered his Gettysburg Address. I looked into it and found 3 sources for the story. These sources are:

The Parish Messenger of the Church of the Saviour: Commemoration of Lincoln, 1909

Abraham Lincoln: the Christian, William J. Johnstone, 1915

The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles – O.H. Oldroyd Collection, pg 366, 1883

The story, corroborated in all three sources, goes like this. An Illinois Pastor, whom Lincoln knew well and trusted, asked him “Mr. President, do you love Jesus?” After a long pause, Mr. Lincoln replied: “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 do love Jesus.”

Posted by Michael on 05/24/2010 08:56 AM #

It is said that Mr. Lincoln’s last recorded words were,
“There is no place I should like to see so much as Jerusalem.”
He was no man’s fool and his words were well chosen.
I believe that he believed in One greater than himself. Whether he believed in Jesus as the son of God I can not know but he cared enough to want to place foot on the same ground where my Lord once walked. Frankly, his beliefs are most important to him and God.
Better we should each search our own hearts and get on with making our time on earth of value.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that tongues will wag no matter our choices in life, so make the best choices and examples possible.

Posted by Jenny on 07/12/2010 02:33 PM #

As a Civil War historian I have engaged in numerous discussions with those doing the Abraham Lincoln impression. Regardless of his ability to quote from the Bible, I have fully researched this question of Lincoln’s faith years ago and I am fully persuaded by all accounts that he was not a Christian. If anything, he was considered a traitor to the Constitution of the United States of America. Sadly, his assasination propelled his post-war popularity as both friends and foes elevated him to that of a heroic deity; eventually he was lionized by those who sought to preserve his political greatness. He will be forever enshrined, remembered and quoted as if he were a prophet.

Posted by Howard on 07/24/2010 12:05 PM #

Please. Take of the rose colored glasses.

“‘Mr. President, do you love Jesus?’ After a long pause, Mr. Lincoln replied: ‘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 do love Jesus.’”

An EXCELLENT example of Lincoln operating exactly according to what Herndon claims was his strategy:

“His oft and oft invocations of God, his conversations with Christians, his apparent respect for Christianity, etc., were all means to an end. And yet sometimes he showed that he hated its nasal whines.”

Gee, I mean if burying his son didn’t get to him, but the Union dead did, then the Civil War — during which Christians slaughtered Christians by the thousands — must have been a good thing.

Blah. He played the Christians like a Stratovarius back then, and still does today.

Great post, Graymalkin. Thank you for the info.

Posted by Jeff Stanley on 07/24/2010 05:52 PM #

“The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”
— Abraham Lincoln, quoted by Joseph Lewis in “Lincoln the Freethinker”

Posted by Patrick on 08/03/2010 12:37 AM #

Only God knows if someone is an actual Christian. There needs to be faith in Jesus Christ to be saved according to Paul in Acts. According to James, their needs to be evidence of a person’s Christian faith in terms of not favoring rich people or helping a brother in need. With Lincoln there is evidence he had compassion on Union Soldiers whom he pardoned not to be executed. However, there is no evidence he put his faith in Jesus Christ. Again, only God knows if Lincoln was saved, however, I am not sure Lincoln could defined as an authentic Christian who viewed Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

Posted by Charles on 11/23/2012 12:54 PM #

Thoroughly enjoyed this. A far more historical account than that of the opinionated account on Wikipedia.

Posted by Jim on 01/30/2013 07:33 PM #

Only God knew Lincoln’s heart. But one thing that Lincoln professed was true whether he believed it or not. God was using him not the other way around.

Posted by George on 03/16/2013 11:17 PM #

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