God Blessed America: Lincoln and Baptists
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Like most Americans, I have long admired Lincoln. I am a Baptist preacher who through the years would occasionally read an incident from Lincoln’s life and fleetingly think, Sounds like a Baptist. I did not know he had any connections with Baptists until I was in my mid-forties, when I began reading Sandburg’s Lincoln, my wife’s Christmas gift to me in 1995. Learning of the Baptist connection prompted me to want to take a closer look at Lincoln’s religious life.
The Lincolns arrived in Hingham, Massachusetts, in the 1630s as part of the migration of Puritans who fled England (AG.26). In Kentucky, where Abe was born on a Sunday, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln belonged to Little Mount Separate Baptist Church (AG.36). Abe attended this Baptist church with his parents.
Nancy was a brilliant woman (G.47), a fervent, excitable worshiper, and a Bible reader (S.1.13). Nancy read the Bible to Abe and used it to teach him to read and spell.
Nancy’s influences stayed with Abe his whole life. Lincoln said, before he learned to read he heard his mother quoting Bible verses repeatedly through the day as she worked at home. He memorized many of these verses and said when he later read them, he heard her voice speaking them (S.1.416). He said, “I had a good Christian mother, and her prayers have followed me thus far through life” (T.73).
Kentucky Baptists were pro-slavery. This was a major reason the Lincolns, who always opposed slavery, moved to Indiana, a free state. Abraham was seven (T.11). The preachers he heard in Indiana were strongly anti-slavery (T.12).
Nancy died at age 36. In her dying words, she told her children to be good and kind to their father, and to one another, and to love, reverence, and worship God (T.73). Abe, at age 9, helped track down a traveling preacher to say words over his mother’s grave (S.1.64).
A mile from the Lincoln Indiana home stood Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church, where Thomas Lincoln joined by letter. Sarah Lincoln, Abe’s step-mother, joined by experience of grace (T.12).
Thomas served three years as a church trustee, and served on committees to look into the accused misconduct of members. He once signed a pledge to deliver 24 pounds of corn to help the church financially (S.1.59). The Lincolns helped build a Baptist church house (S.1.104), and Abe served as a church sexton.
Abraham’s step-mom, Sarah, believed the world was held together by a God who is kindhearted toward humans (S.1.50). As Abe’s birth-mom had done, Sarah continued to teach Abe the ways of gentleness and kindness.
She said, “Abe never spoke a cross word to me in his life since we lived together” (S.1.50). Sarah also said “Abe never refused to do anything she asked. He was kind to everybody and every thing” (G.49).
As President-elect, before leaving Springfield for Washington, he went to Charleston, Illinois, to visit 72-year-old Sarah Lincoln. When she expressed fear for his safety, Abe said, “No, no, Mama, trust in the Lord and all will be well.”
Abe was 21 when the Lincolns left Indiana. Tom and Sarah were granted a letter of Dismission, which meant they were members in good standing with Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church (S.1.103). Abe never joined a church.
At age 23 Abe settled in New Salem, Illinois, which had no churches. The local schoolmaster, Mentor Graham, a Baptist, encouraged and helped Lincoln in his studies. Lincoln lived at Graham’s house a while (T.13).
The Baptist name followed Abe to the end. Ford’s Theater, where Booth assassinated Lincoln, had been the First Baptist Church, Washington DC, building (AG.316). The church decided to lease the building in 1861 to Mr. John Ford. A member of the church board predicted a dire fate for anyone who turned the house of worship into a theater. Fire gutted the building in 1863. Mr. Ford bought and rebuilt it. Booth, after assassinating Lincoln, escaped by way of Baptist Alley, named for the Baptist church house Ford’s Theater had been.
In early political days, when asked his religious views, Lincoln would answer “his parents were Baptists, and brought him up in the belief of the Baptist religion” (AG.116). Understanding Lincoln’s Baptist roots helps us better understand some of Lincoln’s religious tenets (T.55).
He once said if anyone was right about baptism, it must be the Baptists. He thought immersion was the true meaning of the word baptism, for he said John baptized the Savior in the river Jordan because there was much water and they went down into it and came up out of it (AG.152).
His Baptist roots would have played a role in Lincoln’s love for the Bible. He always believed faith is more centered in the Bible than in a church.
Known as people of the Book, Baptists place a high priority on Scriptural knowledge being a vital part of Christian experience. His reverence for Holy Writ helps explain why he adamantly refused to acknowledge any denomination’s creed. The Bible held priority over any form of liturgy or ritual.
These positive Baptist influences were unfortunately counterbalanced by two highly negative influences. First, emotionalism. At the Baptist churches attended by the Lincolns, worship services often became exercises in hysterics. The preachers were wild, worshipers danced and fainted. Emotion not logic, feeling not understanding, was the basis of religious experience. For young Abe, the emotionalism never caught on. It was an extreme turn-off (S.1.61).
He ridiculed it. In early days Abe would amuse his family and neighbors by mounting stumps to mimic Baptist preachers (AG.65). He repeated their sermons word for word, and hilariously aped their gestures (AG.38).
The second negative influence, and by far the most damaging, was predestinarianism. The Baptist churches Lincoln attended were Separate Baptists, also known as Primitive or Hard-shell Baptists (T.11).
In their theology only God had a will of His own. He dictated human lives. There was no free will in any part of life. What is to be is to be was their motto. Their churches had no mission sending agencies, because God had long before predetermined who would be saved or lost (W.134).
Fatalism was an attempt to simplify the conflict between Sovereignty and free will. Rather than having to juggle the two in a delicate paradoxical balance, predestinarianism settled the issue. It gave an easy explanation for events.
Hardshell Baptists strongly taught, since God’s will could not be altered, humble submission to His providence was extremely important (AG.155). It was a trait Lincoln displayed through his whole life.
Lincoln never believed in free will. He flatly said, “There was no freedom of the will” (AG.118). He referred to his belief system as “a doctrine of necessity. The human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest, by some power over which the mind itself has no control” (AG.117). “There are no accidents in my philosophy. Every effect must have its cause. The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future. All these are links in the endless chain stretching from the Infinite to the finite” (S.1.414).
He couldn’t escape this instinct. His thoughts always fled to it. He tended to think the human lot was helpless and sad (AG.20). The predestinarianism of his Baptist days he could not shake (AG.19).
Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, said Lincoln’s lifelong despairing sense of fatalism came from his early days in Baptist churches (W.134). His lifelong depression followed a pattern very common in people who embrace predestinarianism, and who believe they are not among the elect. They feel they can not be saved by any efforts of their own (AG.119). They believe their everlasting destiny is humanly impossible to change.
Predestinarianism caused Lincoln to struggle with the possibility of eternal punishment. He did not find the concept troublesome in and of itself. He told a friend the world might be better off if preachers talked more about punishment, and less about pardon for sin. His problem with Hell was that he saw it as an injustice in a system where the outcome was predetermined (AG.50).
Predestinarianism drove Lincoln personally and professionally. His friends sensed he was a driven man who strongly believed he was meant for importance. His friend Orville Browning said, “I have no doubt Mr. Lincoln believed there was a predestined work for him in the world” (AG.120).
Fatalism affected everything in his thinking. Lincoln told a Quaker lady he did not understand why God let the war go on as long as He did, yet “we cannot but believe that he who made the world still governs it” (S.3.590). He lamented the surprising length of the war. So true it is that man proposes and God disposes (S.5.41). Ironically the war Lincoln viewed fatalistically seemed to press on him eventually the possibility Providence might be personal (AG.325).
His spiritual journey was not one of belief in a personal God leading to fatalism, but the reverse. By early on embracing absolute predestinarianism, Lincoln boxed God in, forced Him into a rigid mold. As years went by, and circumstances spun out of Lincoln’s control and expectations, he struggled with the possibility God may not be as rigid as Lincoln had thought He was. In Lincoln’s expressions, God seemed to take on more and more personality.
For instance, near the end of the war, Lincoln was being turned down by a man whose appointment the President felt was essential for the North to succeed. The man recalled, “He said the crisis was such as demanded any sacrifice, even life itself, that Providence had never deserted him or the country, and that his choice of me was special proof that Providence would not desert him” (G.636). This well clarifies the dilemma Lincoln died facing. He had been a predestinarian, but in the end seemed unable to embrace impersonal fatalism totally.
Was Lincoln a Christian? Before leaving Springfield for Washington, he told Newton Pateman, Republican state superintendent of education, I am not a Christian, God knows I would be one if he could. His predestinarian upbringing stood like an insurmountable barrier between Lincoln and conversion. He felt a person could become a Christian only if forced to become one (AG.261) by some miraculous Damascus Road experience. His rigid Calvinism was unrealistic, a Calvinism that would have out-Calvined Calvin (William Preston, AG.20).
As Lincoln’s predestinarian views softened, maybe he began to think of God as more personal. Only Heaven knows how far he came in this belief, and whether or not He finally believed God was personal enough to know personally.
Our Baptist errors that negatively influenced Lincoln humble me. In our interpretation of Scripture, we could be wrong. Be humble. Only Scripture is inerrant (without error), infallible (unfailing), and immutable (never changing).