Abraham Lincoln's religion not easily defined

Chris Young

People look to a politician’s faith as a window into the heart and mind of the person who will be asked to make difficult and important decisions.

John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was an issue in 1960 in a nation that almost always elects Protestants. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain insisted on keeping his religious views private.

President Barack Obama’s relationship with the controversial pastor of his Chicago church has stirred controversy, as has the decision of where the Obamas would attend church in Washington, D.C.

Today, 146 years after his death, the religious beliefs of Abraham Lincoln remain difficult to define and continue to be the subject of debate among scholars.

Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president, was mostly private about his beliefs, though some close friends, such as law partner William Herndon, have written letters on the subject.

Lincoln’s writings contain references to God — or a Supreme Being — but he was not baptized and never joined a church.

One church that claims a tie to the Lincoln family is First Presbyterian Church in downtown Springfield, Ill. First Presbyterian, the first brick-and-mortar church built in Springfield in 1829-30 (many churches met in private homes), became a center of not just Springfield’s spiritual life, but also its social and political lives. During Lincoln’s time in Springfield, the congregation moved to another building nearby.

Lincoln never officially joined the church, but his wife, Mary, did in 1852. It is thought Lincoln purchased a pew for her, costing about $50, and he then paid an annual “subscription” fee of $36. When the old church building was torn down, the pew was removed and is now on display in the narthex of First Presbyterian’s current building. Mary’s funeral was held in the sanctuary in 1882.

During his years in Springfield, Abraham attended church irregularly because he was often out of town for weeks or months at time riding the 8th Judicial Circuit. And when he got home, there was work backed up at his own practice and family concerns to attend to.

“Lincoln didn’t really have a relationship with First Presbyterian Church, it was Mary,” said Jane Running, First Presbyterian’s historian.

However, Lincoln grew close to First Presbyterian’s pastor, the Rev. James Smith. When the Lincolns were married in 1842, the hastily arranged ceremony was officiated by an Episcopal priest. Mary was living with the family of her older sister, Elizabeth Todd Edwards, at the time, and the Edwards family was Episcopalian.

However, after the Lincolns’ first child, Eddie, died in 1850, the Episcopal priest was out of town. The couple invited Smith to preach at Eddie’s burial.

Lincoln’s estimation of Smith grew when he read the minister’s “The Christian’s Defence” while visiting Mary’s family in Kentucky.

“(Lincoln) thought he was a man with something substantive to say,” Running said. “(Lincoln and Smith) got to be very good friends and spent a lot of time with each other when they were both available.”

Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and the family moved to Washington, D.C. They attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Running said.

“And they have a Lincoln’s pew, too,” she said with a laugh.

Lincoln may have supported other churches in Springfield besides First Presbyterian, Running said.

“I don’t think he had a relationship that was supported by his presence,” she said. “When we have a major fund drive, for example, we get money from people who are supporting those things of particular value. He probably donated (to other churches) in that manner.”

Lincoln’s own religious beliefs probably evolved overtime. Questions of faith rarely have easy answers.

“I just don’t think he went on a straight line,” Running said. “He was a splendid politician in the best sense of the word and very concerned about human needs.”

Chris Young can be reached at 217-788-1528.

Herndon letter sheds light on Lincoln’s faith in God


Religion News Service

On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, a long-lost letter has surfaced that describes President Abraham Lincoln’s belief in God.

The Raab Collection of Philadelphia announced plans last month to sell a recently discovered letter written in 1866 by William Herndon, a Springfield lawyer and Lincoln confidant.

“Mr. Lincoln’s religion is too well known to me to allow of even a shadow of a doubt; he is or was a Theist & a Rationalist, denying all extraordinary — supernatural inspiration or revelation,” wrote Herndon of the nation’s 16th president.

“At one time in his life, to say the least, he was an elevated Pantheist, doubting the immortality of the soul as the Christian world understands that term. He believed that the soul lost its identity and was immortal as a force. Subsequent to this he rose to the belief of a God.”

The collection estimates the letter is worth $35,000.

Lincoln’s faith has long been an elusive topic for historians. He was never baptized, did not join a church and usually did not discuss his beliefs.

“In rare instances, he divulged his true feelings to one close friend, longtime confidant and law partner, William Herndon,” said Nathan Raab, vice president of the Raab Collection.

“He did believe in God, however difficult it might be to easily define those beliefs.”