The Spiritual Side of Abraham Lincoln
most heroes, Abraham Lincoln has been obscured by the gauze of myth and
the lure of legend. More books have been written about him than any
No president is more steadfastly revered or
readily recognized. The unschooled farmers son, tall and gawky, with
outsized ears, brooding eyes and weathered face, stands out within the
pantheon of presidents. We think we know him well.
Yet for all
the words and worship devoted to Lincoln, he remains an elusive and
enigmatic figure. He was an unstable blend of contrasting elements and
warring emotions. A homely hero remarkable for his folksy humor and
profound reflections, he struggled all his life with turbulent moods and
While managing a terrible Civil War, he
experienced personal tragedy (the loss of a second child and a wife
plagued by mental instability) and chronic depression. What kept him
from unraveling was a principled pragmatism and godly foundation that
endowed his life with purpose and ambiguity.
was a deeply spiritual man who never embraced organized religion. Dogma
repelled him. He preferred to embody his beliefs rather than recite
them. His father and stepmother were hardshell (Calvinist) Baptists who
exposed their children to the passions of backwoods religion in Kentucky
Such unquestioning faith was not for young Lincoln,
however. While serving as the postmaster in New Salem, Ill., the
freethinking Lincoln looked with disdain on the emotional excesses of
circuit-riding evangelists and the sectarian quarrels of local Christian
Lincoln never joined a church and shied away from
creeds and rituals. His friend Jesse Fell noted that Lincoln seldom
discussed religion, and when he did discuss theological issues, his
views were unorthodox on the innate depravity of man, the character and
office of the great head of the Church, the Atonement, the
infallibility of the written revelation, the performance of miracles,
[and] the nature and design of . . . future rewards and punishments.
often charged Lincoln with religious infidelity. In 1846 he responded
to critics by declaring: That I am not a member of any Christian Church
is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures. Such a
distinction did little to satisfy evangelical Christians. When Lincoln
ran for president in 1860, 20 of the 23 ministers in his hometown of
Springfield opposed his candidacy because of his failure to profess the
Lincoln took no joy in his skepticism. He often
wished that I was more devout than I am. His absence of belief did not
lead to irreverence. Lincolns struggle with the mystery of the unseen
gave ballast to his outlook. While alienated by confessional church
life, Lincoln steadfastly believed that a divine purpose was at work
shaping human events. The Bible was his favorite book, and his speeches
and letters were sprinkled with biblical allusions and phrases.
righteous God found no more effective champion than the 16th president.
In his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, a weary
but resolute Lincoln longed for peace. Fondly do we hope fervently do
we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. He
wondered aloud why the war had lasted so long and been so brutal. The
Almighty, he acknowledged, has his own purposes.
the paradoxical irony of both sides in the Civil War reading the same
Bible, praying to the same God and appealing for divine support against
the other. The God of judgment, however, would not be misled or denied.
If God willed that the war continue until every drop of blood drawn
with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn by the sword, as was
said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said the judgments of the
Lord are true and righteous altogether.