2000 Years of Disbelief: Abraham Lincoln

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Excerpt from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 1996). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

In the heart of nearly every American, a tender spot is held by Abraham Lincoln, the eloquent, tragic hero who suffered the torment of the nation’s worst cataclysm.

Each schoolchild is taught about Lincoln’s birth in a log cabin, his setbacks in rural politics, his agony in the Civil War, his emancipation of the slaves, and his martyrdom by an assassin. But none is taught that Lincoln rejected Christianity, never joined a church, and even wrote a treatise against religion. Such matters remain taboo in America.

After Lincoln’s death, many clergymen declared that he had been a pious Christian. A photograph of Lincoln and his son Tad examining a book of Matthew Brady photos was widely distributed in churches with the misleading caption: “Lincoln Reading the Bible to his Son.”

Actually, Lincoln was an enigma, sometimes superstitious, sometimes brooding over tragic forebodings, often inconsistent. After two of his sons died, the grieving president attended church a few times with his wife and invited spiritualists to the White House to seek the boys’ departed souls. But he scoffed at the mediums during their seances.

At the behest of White House confidants, religious words were written into some of Lincoln’s public pronouncements, inasmuch as the public expected it of their leader. But Lincoln’s lifelong intimates knew him differently.

Allegations of disbelief had haunted him over the years. In 1843, after he lost a campaign for Congress, Lincoln said in a letter to his political supporters: “It was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to vote for me because I belonged to no church and was suspected of being a Deist.”

In 1846, his congressional campaign opponent publicly accused him of infidelity. Lincoln responded in a cautious circular: “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.”

When Lincoln first was considered presidential timber, a fellow Illinois lawyer, Logan Hay, wrote to his nephew, future Secretary of State John Hay: “Candor compels me to say that at this period, Mr. Lincoln could hardly be termed a devout believer in the authenticity of the Bible (but this is for your ear only).”

Interviewer Opie Read once asked Lincoln his conception of God, to which he replied: “The same as my conception of nature.” Asked what he meant, Lincoln said: “That it is impossible for either to be personal.”

In the years following Lincoln’s assassination, his former law partner, William H. Herndon, made public statements such as: “Mr. Lincoln was an infidel, sometimes bordering on atheism.” “He never mentioned the name of Jesus, except to scorn and detest the idea of a miraculous conception.” “He did write a little work on infidelity in 1835-6, and never recanted. He was an out-and-out infidel, and about that there is no mistake.”

Herndon’s remarks caused a storm among the clergy. In response, Herndon discussed Lincoln’s religious views extensively in a biography titled The True Story of a Great Life. Here is an excerpt:

“In 1834, while still living in New Salem and before he became a lawyer, he was surrounded by a class of people exceedingly liberal in matters of religion. Volney’s Ruins and Paine’s Age of Reason passed from hand to hand, and furnished food for the evening’s discussion in the tavern and village store. Lincoln read both these books and thus assimilated them into his own being. He prepared an extended essay – called by many a book – in which he made an argument against Christianity, striving to prove that the Bible was not inspired, and therefore not God’s revelation, and that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God. The manuscript containing these audacious and comprehensive propositions he intended to have published or given a wide circulation in some other way. He carried it to the store, where it was read and freely discussed. His friend and employer, Samuel Hill, was among the listeners and, seriously questioning the propriety of a promising young man like Lincoln fathering such unpopular notions, he snatched the manuscript from his hands and thrust it into the stove. The book went up in flames, and Lincoln’s political future was secure. But his infidelity and his skeptical views were not diminished.”

Herndon quoted statements by others to document the late president’s disbelief. Some examples follow:

John T. Stuart, Lincoln’s first law partner: “He was an avowed and open infidel, and sometimes bordered on atheism…. He went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard.”

Supreme Court Justice David Davis, who administered Lincoln’s estate: “He had no faith, in the Christian sense of the term – had faith in laws, principles, causes and effects.”

Jesse W. Fell, to whom Lincoln had entrusted some of his writing: “He did not believe in what are regarded as the orthodox or evangelical views of Christianity.”

Mary Todd Lincoln: “Mr. Lincoln had no faith and no hope in the usual acceptation of those words. He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature. He first seemed to think about the subject when our boy Willie died, and then more than ever about the time he went to Gettysburg; but it was a kind of poetry in his nature, and he was never a technical Christian.”

Lincoln’s views on religion:

“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” – 1862 letter to Judge J. S. Wakefield, after the death of Willie Lincoln

“The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.” – quoted by Joseph Lewis in a 1924 New York speech

“I am approached … by religious men who are certain they represent the Divine Will….I hope it will not be irreverent in me to say, that if it be probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.” – Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion

“It will not do to investigate the subject of religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to infidelity.” – in Manford’s Magazine

“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.” – memorandum, Sept. 30, 1862

“We, on our side, are praying Him to give us victory, because we believe we are right; but those on the other side pray Him, too, for victory, believing they are right. What must He think of us?” – to the Rev. Byron Sunderland, Senate chaplain, 1862

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” – inaugural address, March 4, 1865

“I am not a Christian.” – Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion

“What is to be, will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.” – ibid

“I have never united myself to any church because I found difficulty in giving my assent without mental reservation to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize the articles of belief and the usual confession of faith.” – ibid

Excerpted from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 1996. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

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