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Abraham Lincoln's Religion
Transcript of Abraham Lincoln's Religion
by Marsha Greco
Roots of Religiosity
"I remember [my mother's] prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life."
The Bible and Lincoln's Early Years
His mother's encouragement to habitually read scriptures was never lost on him.
His parents were Calvinist Baptists, the beliefs of which would affect his views of fate throughout his life.
As a child, Lincoln learned to read the Bible and often read it aloud to his father, Thomas Lincoln
He quoted frequently from biblical stories, the Psalms, and the entire New Testament, almost from memory, for his entire life.
Dennis Hanks, his mother's cousin:
"Lincoln didn't read the Bible half as much as said...but he did read it."
Abraham Lincoln also loved to read Shakespeare
Historian Richard Carwardine wrote that Lincoln's keen interest in Shakespearean soliloquies "points to a man for whom profound private reflection on ethical matters was an essential part of his being."
As a young man living in New Salem, Illinois in the 1830s, he read deist works such as Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason."
He may have written an essay questioning that the Bible was divine revelation, but he still believed in God.
Other Early Influences
Isaac Cogdal, a long-standing acquaintance of Lincoln, in an interview with William Herndon in 1865
"Mr. Lincoln believed in God--and all the great substantial groundworks of Religion--Believed in the progress of man and of nations--He believed that nations like individuals were punished for their sins--there violations of fundamental rights.
...I have talked this often and often with him Commencing as early as 1834 and as late down as 1859. He did not believe in the orthodox Theologies of the day.
I do know that Mr. Lincoln did write a letter, pamphlet... denying Special & miraculous Revelation--Inspiration & Conception--As I stated Lincoln believed in predestined things--and governed the universe by law--nothing going by accident...His mind was full of terrible Enquiry--and was skeptical in a good sense."
Lincoln Goes Public
In the summer of 1846, Lincoln ran for a seat in the House of Representatives as a Whig candidate against Democratic nominee Peter Cartwright, a well-known Methodist preacher.
Cartwright's campaign accused Lincoln of having unorthodox religious views and being "an open scoffer at Christianity."
In response to the accusations, Lincoln arranged for the publication of a handbill explaining, but not detailing, his religious views.
Lincoln's "Handbill on Infidelity"
July 31, 1846
"A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. 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. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity” ---that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument."
See a close reading of the full document by historian Matthew Pinsker:
The Springfield Years
After his marriage to Mary Todd in 1842, he worshiped occasionally in the Episcopal Church.
When their son Eddie died in 1850, they joined and bought a pew at the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois. Mary was a full member, Lincoln attended irregularly.
Jesse Fell, a Bloomington lawyer who had "repeated conversations" with Lincoln on religion,
said that during his Springfield years (1837-1861) Lincoln "did not believe in what are regarded as the orthodox or evangelical views of Christianity."
They discussed the Unitarianism of William Channing and Theodore Parker, whose works Lincoln admired for their liberalism and rationality.
Fell continued that "his religious views were eminantly practical."
Lincoln's "Natural Religion"
Mary Todd Lincoln to William Herndon (1866):
"He was a religious man always, as I think," but "he was not a technical Christian." He had "no hope--& no faith in the usual acception of those words."
Leonard Swett, a close associate of Lincoln:
"He would ridicule the Puritans, or swear in a moment of vexation; but yet his heart was full of natural and cultivated religion."
Did You Know?
Abraham Lincoln was not known to drink, smoke, or gamble.
The Election of 1860
Lincoln personally did not openly try to use religion for electoral gain, but the Republican party did.
Historian Richard Cawardine explained that while running for president in 1860, the Republican Party sought to present Lincoln as "a figure of sound Protestant faith and firm piety" in order to appeal to evangelicals.
His biographers said:
"He is a regular attendant upon religious worship, and though not a communicant, is a pew-holder and liberal supporter of the Presbyterian church in Springfield, to which Mrs. Lincoln belongs. [He has] always held up the doctrines of the Bible, and the truths and examples of the Christian religion, as the foundation of all good."
Lincoln's Calvinist Tendencies
His Calvinist Baptist upbringing shaped his view of fate.
Lincoln described himself as a lifelong fatalist, or one who believes that whatever will happen has already been decided and cannot be changed.
He often quoted Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will."
remembered many conversations when Lincoln said that "all things were fixed, doomed in one way or the other, from which there was no appeal" and that " no efforts or prayers of ours can change, alter, modify, or reverse the decree."
This was the opposite of mainstream Christianity, which emphasized moral responsibility in determining fate.
The Influence of Religion on Lincoln's Views on Slavery
Abraham Lincoln regarded the Declaration of Independence as "consistent with his belief in a God who created all men equal and pursued his relations with humankind on the principles of justice." (Carwardine)
He believed that blacks were denied the education and path to self-improvement that God meant them to have.
"The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect as the Father in Heaven; but He said, 'As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.' He set that up as a standard, and he who did the most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can."--Speech at Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1858
Seeing the Light in the Dark: The Civil War's Influence on Lincoln's Religion
The tremendous loss of life and unimagined savagery of the war greatly shaped Lincoln's faith, religious understanding, and use of religion in mobilizing and keeping the American people hopeful during the conflict.
On August 12, 1861, a few weeks after the First Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln issued a proclamation that September 26th would be a national day of fasting and prayer.
He called on the American people (Union and Confederacy) to
"recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals."
Lincoln was beginning to publicly proclaim that God had an active role in human events.
Lincoln's Views of God's Power vs. Plans
Lincoln had called on Americans to remember God's power in human events. However, when pressed by his friend Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning to include an attack on slavery to ensure God's help for the Union,
"Browning, suppose God is against us in our view on the subject of slavery in this country, and our method of dealing with it?"
Browning later wrote
that it "indicated to me for the first time that he was thinking deeply of what a higher power than man sought to bring about by the great events then transpiring."
A Personal Tragedy and Change in Faith
In February 1862, Abraham Lincoln's third and favorite son, Willie, died of typhoid fever at eleven years old.
At Willie's funeral, Lincoln's Presbyterian pastor
gave a sermon that deeply affected Lincoln so much that he asked for a copy of it afterward.
In the sermon, Gurley suggested that God’s will is ultimately a mystery but that it must be trusted:
“What we need in the hour of trial, and what we should seek by earnest prayer, is confidence in Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well.”
After Willie's death, Lincoln began attending public worship at the Old School Presbyterian Church more often, and read scriptures at night.
He reexamined his relationship with God and began to firmly believe that God had plunged himself into human events.
Lincoln was a very private, reflective man who wrote many personal fragments and notes in which he reasoned out his beliefs with himself.
One such fragment was found in his desk drawer by his secretary John Hay after his assassination. Hay gave it the name "Meditation on Divine Will."
It is not known exactly when he wrote it, as it had no date.
See the video for a reading of the 154 word document. In the Wordle to the right, the size of a word indicates how frequently he used it compared to the other words.
"Meditation on Divine Will"
c. September 2, 1862
The Will of God
"The will of God prevails"
Lincoln invoked his belief that God controls events despite human action.
He disturbingly reflected that
"each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God"
"God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time."
Both the Union and Confederacy believed that God was on their side.
Julia Ward Howe's song "Battle Hymn of the Republic," written in 1861, expressed the notion that the war served God's righteous purpose "to make men free."
In creating their constitution, the Confederacy was "invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God"
However, Lincoln did not equate one side or the other as being on the side of God's favor:
"In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party"
Lincoln reflected that God wanted the war, the "contest," to happen and wants it to continue:
“I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.”
He expressed his belief that God's will determined the existence of the war, yet it was still a mystery as to when, how, and why it would end.
“By his mere quiet 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...He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."
A New View on Divine Intervention
"Meditation on Divine Will" reflects Lincoln's changing views on the role of God in human events as a result of the war's devastation and the personal loss of his son.
Lincoln's new version of God was one that was mysterious, intrusive, judgmental, and active in the world.
He sought to find signs as to God's plans for the war--the "contest" was proceeding for a reason. What could that reason be?
In Favor of the Slave
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln announced to his cabinet that he would be issuing his Emancipation Proclamation. His cabinet members recalled the details:
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase:
Lincoln said: "When the Rebel Army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation...I said nothing to anyone, but I made a promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker."
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:
"He had, he said, made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle (which had just been fought) he would consider it his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.
We may think it strange, he said, but there were times when he felt uncertain how to act; that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favor of the slave. He was satisfied he was right--was confirmed and strengthened by the vow and its results; his mind was fixed, his decision made."
As the war progressed, Lincoln began to express his belief that the war was God's punishment for the existence of slavery in America.
He wrote to Kentucky editor Albert Hodges in April 1864,
"If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God."
To Eliza P. Gurney of the Society of Friends, he wrote:
"this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that [God] permits it for some wise purpose of his own."
He invoked the notion that slavery was a crime that the whole nation needed to and was paying the price for, not just the South.
Theology vs. Theocracy
Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln struck a balance between public religion and religious fervor in maintaining a line between religious and civic life.
Between the summer of 1861 and autumn of 1864, he issued nine proclamations appointing days of national fasting, humiliation, and prayer and of thanksgiving, many of them prompted by moments of despair or elation occasioned by battlefield events. (Carwardine)
However, he resisted taking the country in a more explicitly Christian direction when an organization of Christians proposed changing the words of the Preamble to the Constitution as a way to solve the nation's problems.
The Christian Amendment
On February 10, 1864, a group of ministers from Ohio and Illinois asked Lincoln and Congress to support the passage of an amended Preamble acknowledging the nation's dependance on God the Father of the Holy Trinity.
According to historian Jon Meacham, Lincoln received them politely and said he would think the matter over--although he did not fully mean it.
The amendment was ruled by the House Judiciary Committee to be "unnecessary and injudicious" and they took no further action.
Religion in the Gettysburg Address
In his "Gettysburg Address," Lincoln infused the speech with biblical vocabulary and imagery but did not make any specific reference to the Bible or Christianity.
The phrase "four score and seven years ago" recalls Psalms 90:10: "The days of our years are three score years and ten..."
House Speaker Galusha A. Grow from Pennsylvania had used such phrasing in a speech in July 1861, and also cited the "birth" of the nation to be marked by the signing of the Declaration of Independence instead of the ratification of the Constitution.
Historian Lucas Morel wrote that in making this reference, Lincoln adopted the biblical reference to the nation's founding in a way that gave America's birth and present struggle spiritual significance.
For more information about the Gettysburg Address, see this video for a close reading by historian Matthew Pinsker:
Lincoln's "Sermon": The Second Inaugural Address
On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln took the presidential oath for the second time and gave one of the most powerful speeches of his life.
With the end of the Civil War in sight yet not definite, he could have used his inaugural address to discuss the progress of the war or make celebratory remarks about its impending conclusion.
Instead, in this brief speech he discussed the issues that he and the nation had grappled with for the past four years: why the war happened, why it may continue, and the role of God in those events.
This speech was the culmination of his shift from a religious skeptic to a believer in a God who was judgmental and active in human events, sometimes in ways one could not understand.
Historian Jon Meacham wrote that "Lincoln's God is neither benign nor sunny but a Lord calling his people to account."
He also expressed his belief that nations, as well as individuals, could be capable and held accountable of transgressions against divine law.
The Coming of the War
Lincoln reflected that the coming of the war was a combination of human and divine action:
The Cause of the War
Slavery, he stated, was the reason for the war:
“One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves. Not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.”
"Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
In saying “the war came,” he not only acknowledged the role of the actions of the people in the North and South, but implied that a greater force was at work—a reason that war was brought upon the American people.
The Role of God
As he had reflected privately in his "Meditation on Divine Will," even though slavery was the cause of the war that God had brought upon the nation, they still could not know which side God was on:
“Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other...The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Lincoln emphasized the power, judgment, and mysteriousness of God by saying that "this terrible war" was a just punishment for "American slavery" and wold not be over until God willed it to be:
"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 by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword...it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."
The Power of Revealed Religion
According to historian Eric Foner, Frederick Douglass, who was in the audience, called the second inaugural a "sacred effort" that was "more like a sermon than a state paper."
In a speech of only 700 words, Lincoln referred to God or the Almighty eight times and liberally quoted and paraphrased the Bible. (Foner)
Although Lincoln was a very private man who did not readily reveal his religious beliefs, he knew that religion greatly affected the northern public.
Richard Carwardine argued that the Second Inaugural Address reflects Lincoln's evolution as a religious thinker and his understanding of the power of religious ideas and institutions to inspire Americans in a struggle to which he himself attached a providential meaning.
An "American" Sin
While Lincoln stated that "American slavery," which was only located in the South, was the cause of the war, he avoided blaming the war solely on the South.
He saw the war as divine punishment for slavery while avoiding the desire for blame or vengeance, his point being that the nation as a whole was guilty of this sin. (Foner)
This was Lincoln's "sermon," but not one that northerners were accustomed to hearing, for it put them at fault as well and did not indicate that they had God's favor.
Not only was the war a punishment, Lincoln argued, but one that was just--"America was being summoned to account for its sins against the human beings it had long enslaved." (Meacham)
Because of this assertion, Lincoln later remarked that he understood that the speech was not going to be
"immediately popular" because "men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them."
Lincoln as Religious Symbol
Richard Carwardine wrote that although Lincoln did not publicly confess Christ as his personal Savior, many observers perceived in Lincoln a capacity for reverence and "religious feeling."
Jonathan Turner said that people
"seem...to imagine that he is a sort of halfway clergyman."
Many saw him as an instrument of the divine will, one who would be guided by God to be, after George Washington,
"the second saviour of our country."
After emancipation, African Americans regarded him as an Old Testament prophet, Joshua, fighting the battle of freedom.
A Chicago lawyer remarked:
"You may depend upon it, the Lord runs Lincoln."
Responses to the Second Inaugural
While the Second Inaugural was met with much praise, it was not without its critics, who felt that the message and/or religiosity of the speech were inappropriate:
Editors of the New York World
called it an "odious libel" to equate the blood that "trickled from the lacerated backs of the negroes" with the carnage of "the bloodiest war in history." It added that "the president's theology smacks as strongly of the dark ages as does Pope Pius's politics."
Charles Francis Adams, Jr.
, the colonel of a black regiment, wrote to his father, "That rail-splitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day...This inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of this war."
George Templeton Strong
wrote in his diary that the second inaugural was "unlike any American state paper of this century."
Death on Good Friday
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, a Good Friday that year.
Historian Jon Meacham writes, "That the assassination took place on Good Friday, at the time of Passover, in the closing weeks of a war of liberation from the sins of the past was lost on no one."
There was an unprecedented outpouring of grief throughout the Union upon his death. The image of the president as martyr--a latter-day Moses in leading his people out of bondage, Christ-like in falling victim on Good Friday--helped secure the sanctification of American nationalism. (Carwardine)
A Brooklyn Presbyterian remarked that "a martyr's blood has sealed the covenant we are making with posterity," guaranteeing "the rights of men, the truth of the Gospel, the principles of humanity, the integrity of the Union, the indefeasible equality of all creatures of God...no matter what may be the color of their skin."
Because of Lincoln's intellectual and emotional engagement with the idea of God, America emerged from the gloom of war not only intact, but stronger and freer. (Meacham)
Will We Ever Truly Know?
Although Lincoln, especially toward the end of his life, expressed religious beliefs and references in his public addresses and policies, we likely do not know the full story of the religiosity of the intensely private man.
Judge David Davis, Lincoln's campaign manager in 1860 and later one of his Supreme Court appointees, in an interview with William Herndon:
"I don't know anything about Lincoln's Religion, don't think anybody knew. The idea that Lincoln talked to a stranger about his religion or religious views...is absurd to me...I know the man so well: he was the most reticent--secretive man I ever saw--or expect to see."
Carwardine, Richard. "Lincoln's Religion." Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World. Ed. Eric Foner. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008. 223-48. Print.
Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2010. Print.
Meacham, Jon. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Random House, 2006. 114-41. Print.
"Top 150 Lincoln Documents." Lincoln's Writings. Ed. Matthew Pinsker. House Divided Project, n.d. Web. 2 Oct. 2013. <http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/lincoln/top-150-documents/>.
About the Painting
The painting in the background of this presentation, "The Faith of Abraham Lincoln," was done by artist Larry Winborg. See this video for the artist's explanation of the meaning and significance of the piece:
Tracing the origins, changes, and legacy of his unique and mysterious religiosity