God Blessed America: Lincoln and Christianity
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
God blessed America through our sixteenth President. Lincoln’s life displayed many Christian virtues. He was kind, temperate, humble, morally straight, God-fearing, compassionate, honest, forgiving, Bible knowing and honoring. His story deserves to be told again and again by believers.
Was Lincoln a born again evangelical Christian? He never claimed to be. Only God knows for sure. His spiritual state remained a mystery to the end.
Lincoln’s situation was much like Benjamin Franklin’s. When old and dying, Ben was asked to clarify for history’s sake what his religious beliefs were. He said he didn’t think about that much any more because he would soon be finding out for himself for sure what his religious condition was.
Lincoln often felt compelled to defend his religious views. In 1846 he wrote a response to accusations by political opponents who labeled him an infidel. “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scripture; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular” (T.15).
One reason he had trouble articulating his religious views was because of his own inner doubts and struggles to know where he stood. He said it was his lot to go reasoning his way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did.
Lincoln said he related to the father who wanted Jesus to heal his son suffering convulsions. Jesus said, “Everything is possible to the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:23b-24). Lincoln’s search for faith was agonizing (S.1.417).
The wildly emotional worship and extreme predestinarianism in the Baptist churches of Lincoln’s youth drove him away from institutional Christianity. He strayed a long way off, and stayed way off a long time.
As Lincoln started making his way back, huge barriers stood in the way: hypocrisy in professing Christians, pro-slavery church members, man-made creeds, the problem of suffering, the fairness of Hell, self-righteous preachers, etc.
To his credit, Lincoln kept exploring spiritually. He had little patience with people who felt they had arrived at knowing God’s will for sure (T.6). Lincoln’s personal theology never grew stagnant. It was always developing (T.7).
How far back toward the faith of his fathers did Lincoln come? We can’t say for sure, but evidence strongly indicates he was moving in the direction of embracing the Bible Christianity of his parents, minus the emotionalism and extreme predestinarianism.
Lincoln embraced Christian churches. As the Civil War progressed, Lincoln drew ever closer to the Northern churches as they became more and more loyal and tenacious supporters of the Union and the war.
In 1863 Lincoln rejoiced and felt very gratified in having received resolutions of support “from, I believe, all denominations of Christians in the North” (S.5.376). He wrote in a letter, “I am much indebted to the good Christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations” (S.5.225).
Lincoln embraced Christian Scripture and Christian principles. He said, “The fundamental truths reported in the four gospels as from the lips of Jesus Christ, and that I first heard from the lips of my mother, are settled and fixed moral precepts with me” (S.1.418).
Lincoln embraced the Christian trait of temperance. “Don’t get drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18a). John Berry, a Cumberland Presbyterian preacher, and father of Lincoln’s law partner, made strong arguments against alcohol that affected Lincoln deeply when he was a young man (S.1.166).
In his Springfield years, he was a leading temperance advocate (S.1.270). In the White House, an officer who lost his rank of colonel due to drunkenness asked Lincoln to restore his rank. The President refused, and explained, “I dare not restore this man to his rank and give him charge of a thousand men when he puts an enemy into his mouth to steal away his brain” (S.4.56).
Lincoln embraced the Christian trait of kindness. “Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4:32a).
Lincoln pardoned soldiers and loved his enemies. His views toward Southerners were always sympathetic (G.698). A Bible verse he often quoted was Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Lincoln embraced the Christian trait of humility. “God requires us to act justly, to love faithfullness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). Lincoln certainly wanted to leave his mark on the world. After returning from his term in Congress due to losing an election, he lamented, “How hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better than if one had never lived for it” (S.1.419).
Though Lincoln had lofty dreams, he never ceased being down to earth. When a woman knelt to thank him for the release of her husband, Lincoln quickly said, “Don’t kneel to me but thank God” (S.5.527).
When Lincoln rode the Illinois circuit as a lawyer, his humble spirit helped make him the most popular person in the group. Though he did not drink, smoke, use profane language, or gamble, he never acted condescendingly toward those who did. In an address to the Springfield Temperance Society he said, “Such of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more from the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have” (G.150).
Lincoln was able to staunchly hold a strong moral conviction without any accompanying air of superiority or self-righteousness (T.5). It was to a New York minister, berating Grant for his drinking, that Lincoln said if he could find where General Grant gets his liquor he would furnish a supply to some of his other generals who had never yet won a victory (S.4.120).
With typical, self-effacing humor, Lincoln said the following was the best story he ever read about himself. Two ladies were overheard. “I think Jefferson Davis will succeed. He is a praying man. But Abraham Lincoln is also a praying man. Yes, but the Lord will think Abraham is joking” (S.5.367).
Lincoln embraced the Christian trait of prayer. He held strong convictions about its purpose. Deeming God’s wisdom perfect, Lincoln never believed the prayers of a finite person could alter God’s infinite will. To Abe, the chief concern of prayer was not to change God’s will, but to discern what His will already was (T.77).
Lincoln embraced the Christian trait of submission in suffering. He had many opportunities to practice it. When he was nine, his mother died. When he was nineteen, his sister Sally died in childbirth. At 26, Lincoln became almost suicidal when Ann Rutledge died suddenly. His son Eddie died in Springfield. His son Willie died in the White House (W.136). The war ravaged him.
The death of Eddie staggered Lincoln, producing a huge spiritual crisis in his life, but Ida Tarbell, one of his biographers, felt the ultimate turning point for Lincoln was Willie’s death, coupled with the war. She believed these two burdens finally brought Lincoln’s self-reliance crashing down. Tarbell wrote, “It was the first experience of his life, so far as we know, which drove him to look outside of his own mind and heart for help to endure a personal grief. It was the first time in his life when he had not been sufficient for his own experience” (T.30).
When Willie died, Mrs. Rebecca Pomeroy, a friend of the family, assured Lincoln many Christians were praying for him. He replied, “I am glad to hear that. I want them to pray for me. I need their prayers.” At Willie’s burial, Lincoln told Mrs. Pomeroy, “I will try to go to God with my sorrows.”
Through all his life, and especially during tragedies, Lincoln struggled terribly with depression, but never yielded to bitterness. He shared the attitude of Job, The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away (1:21b).
After Appomattox, as the war was ending, Lincoln could feel a huge burden being lifted off his shoulders. On Good Friday 1865 Lincoln talked at Ford’s Theater with Mary of his hope to travel someday to the Holy Land (G.733).
He told Mary there was no city on earth he so much desired to see as Jerusalem (AG.434). Some accounts say Jerusalem was the last word he spoke. If true, Lincoln would have liked the irony of ending his life of war-torn strife by mentioning Jerusalem, which means the city of peace.