God Blessed America: Lincoln’s Defender
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12a)
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Mary Todd, of Southern aristocracy, grew up Episcopalian. When she and Abraham Lincoln, who had no church affiliation, decided to wed, they asked Reverend Charles Dresser, the Episcopal minister in Springfield, Illinois, to perform the ceremony.
Mary’s sister insisted the wedding take place at her house, thus thwarting the couple’s plan to wed at Rev. Dresser’s home. Ironically, two years later, in 1844, Abe and Mary purchased Dresser’s house, the only residence they ever owned.
A week after the marriage, Abraham wrote on November 11, 1842, to his friend, Samuel Marshall. Lincoln closed the letter with the sentence: “Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.”
In October 1849 the Lincolns were in Lexington, Kentucky, settling the estate of Mary’s father. While at the Todd home Lincoln discovered a copy of a book defending the Christian faith. What caught Abe’s eye was that the book, entitled “The Christian’s Defense,” had been written by Dr. James Smith, a native of Scotland, who had recently (March) moved to Springfield, Illinois, to become Pastor of First Presbyterian Church. The book consisted of arguments presented by Smith during a debate with an unbeliever in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1841.
The Springfield connection with the author inspired Lincoln to read enough of the book while in Lexington to become interested in the subject matter. Part of Lincoln’s fascination was rooted in the fact Smith, like Lincoln, had at one time been a doubter. When Abe returned to Springfield in November 1849 he contacted Dr. Smith and borrowed the Pastor’s personal copy of the book.
A few weeks later, on February 1,1850, Abe and Mary’s second son, Edward, died. They wanted the funeral to be directed by Rev. Dresser in the house he had sold the Lincolns, but Dresser was out of town.
The family asked Dr. Smith, Pastor at First Presbyterian, to conduct the service in Rev. Dresser’s absence. Smith’s ministry was a huge comfort to the Lincolns. Thus began a close relationship that lasted past Mr. Lincoln’s death. Smith became a dear family friend, and was a frequent guest in the Lincoln home.
Mary was so comforted by Dr. Smith that she left the Episcopal Church and began attending, with her husband, First Presbyterian. Mary joined the church. Abe did not, but did rent Pew Number 20 there at fifty dollars a year for the duration of their time in Springfield.
Lincoln never joined a church. He stated clearly his reasoning. “I have never united myself to any church, because 1 have found difficulty in giving my assent, without mental reservation, to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their articles of belief and confessions of faith. When any church will inscribe over its altars as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will 1 join with all my heart and all my soul.”
After Edward’s death, Lincoln finished reading Smith’s book and long discussions between the two men followed. Lincoln most enjoyed Smith’s logical, legalistic, lawyer-like approach to the faith.
The book gave Lincoln a chance to look at the Bible as one who seeks to find truth by investigating testimony. Smith was familiar with the arguments of his fellow Scotsman, the Dr. James A. Smith famous atheist and critic of Christianity, David Hume. Smith answered Hume’s arguments in a way that was congenial to Lincoln’s methodical way of reasoning.
Elton Trueblood, in his biography of Lincoln, said he believed Smith’s book led Lincoln down a path similar to one taken by Dr. Samuel Johnson, “The Christian religion has very strong evidences. It, indeed, appears in some degree strange to reason; but in History we have undoubted facts, against which, in reasoning à priori, we have more arguments than we have for them; but then, testimony has great weight, and casts the balance.”
Witnesses to the profound effect Smith and his book had on Lincoln included John Stuart, Lincoln’s early law partner, and Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards. Lincoln told Edwards, “I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith in the evidence of Christianity and have heard him preach and converse on the subject and am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.” Lincoln confessed his doubtful views were changing, and went on to say Smith’s arguments were “unanswerable.”
Smith returned to his native Scotland to serve in the Lincoln administration as USA Consul at Dundee. In July 1869 Mary and Tad Lincoln spent several weeks in Scotland at the invitation of Dr. Smith.
Dr. Smith served not only as God’s defender for Lincoln, but eventually went on to become Lincoln’s defender for God. After Lincoln died, his law partner Herndon claimed Abe had lived to his dying day an infidel. Smith became a strong voice refuting Herndon’s claims.
After Lincoln’s assassination, one of his first biographers, Josiah Holland, traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to interview former acquaintances of the slain President. Holland embraced the overwhelmingly accepted opinion that Lincoln would be remembered as a Christian President. But when Holland asked William Herndon about Lincoln’s religion, the President’s law partner replied, “The less said the better.” Robert Havlik, in an essay written for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, says Herndon recalled Holland then replied with a wink, “O never mind, I’ll fix that.” William Herndon Herndon decided he would seek evidence to prove Lincoln had always been an infidel. Thus Herndon began waging a war raging to this day. Was Lincoln an infidel, doubter, seeker, casual believer, devout Christ-follower, etc?
A precise answer eludes us, but one truth can be stated for sure. Lincoln’s life was a never-ending movement from inclination toward disbelief to inclination toward belief.
Lincoln for sure had many doubts as a young man. As an older man, he for sure held strong beliefs, as shown in his second inaugural address. Strong evidence can be presented to confirm this general shift in Lincoln’s spiritual pilgrimage.
When Herndon in 1867 pressed Smith on what Lincoln believed about the Scripture, the preacher replied, “It is a very easy matter to prove that while I was Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Mr. Lincoln did avow his belief in the Divine Authority and the Inspiration of the Scriptures.”
A credible assessment of Lincoln’s spirituality is found in Mary Todd Lincoln’s letter of June 3, 1870, to Dr. Smith, acknowledging his role in helping form the President’s religious views. She said she was shocked at the falsehoods being set forth by Herndon.
Mary claimed her husband never took God’s name in vain, always read his Bible diligently, never failed to rely on God’s promises, and looked to God for protection. She believed he was a true Christian gentleman.
Mary claimed from the time of the death of Edward, Mr. Lincoln’s heart began to be directed intently toward religion. The Presidency and devastating Civil War caused his heart to go up daily, hourly, in urgent prayer to God for His sustaining power. The overwhelming sorrow of Willie’s death turned Mr. Lincoln’s heart to Christ.