Lincoln’s Religious Quest

Why his faith won’t suit either side in the culture wars.

The recent avalanche of Abraham Lincoln books announces the ever-closer approach of Lincoln’s 200th birthday. (Lay in some extra bunting: Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day, Feb. 12, 1809.) The year 2005 began with C.A. Tripp, in The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, freely speculating about Lincoln’s alleged “homosexual side” and with Ronald C. White Jr., in The Eloquent President, reminding us that this self-educated son of a small-time farmer evolved against all odds into an accomplished prose stylist. The year ended with Joshua Wolf Shenk inviting us to ponder Lincoln’s Melancholy, a broader state of soul-suffering than what we now call “depression,” and with Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, refocusing attention on Lincoln the politician and president. Nothing in his psychic life stopped him from defanging his Republican presidential competitors, slyly bringing them into his Cabinet, and exploiting their talents while keeping their higher aspirations in check and turning a couple of them into firm friends.

In Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, Richard Carwardine, a history professor at Oxford, extends Goodwin’s emphasis on Lincoln the politician, leaving Lincoln’s personal life wholly aside. Carwardine is not trying to protect the president’s image of greatness—he explicitly rejects the tradition of “biographical pietism” that often elevates Lincoln above mortal men. But he is wary of speculative scholarship about Lincoln’s personal life that relies not on Lincoln’s own written or publicly spoken words but on the post-assassination recollections of others (sometimes first published decades after Lincoln’s death). This Lincoln, first published three years ago in a British series called “Profiles in Power” and now reissued by Knopf in an illustrated edition, nevertheless contributes something new to our grasp of Lincoln the person as well as the politician. The author of two previous books on religion and politics before 1865, Carwardine shows how deeply religion informed Lincoln’s exercise of power and ultimately his sense of himself.

Here he joins forces with Allen Guelzo, whose ground-breaking Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) challenged the reigning outlook among 20th-century historians. They had presumed that the non-church-member Lincoln maintained a secular perspective throughout his life, even as, during the war, he found psychic solace in the Scriptures and accommodated the religious cravings of his fellow citizens by framing some of his speeches in biblical language. David Donald’s superb Lincoln (1995), while noting the president’s apparent religious turn, saw even his deeply theological second inaugural address as a translation by Lincoln of his persistent secular fatalism into religious terms familiar to his audience.

Carwardine and Guelzo concur with Donald about the continuous thread of fatalism in Lincoln’s personal and public life. As a young man he had embraced what he called “the Doctrine of Necessity,” the belief (as he summed it up in 1846) “that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” Any candidate for office in Illinois from the 1830s to the 1850s—an era of stupendous evangelical expansion—had to assure voters that he respected Christian beliefs, and the Doctrine of Necessity struck even Lincoln’s friends as a risky provocation. During his victorious congressional run in 1846 he issued a public denial that he had ever scoffed at religion, would ever vote for anyone who did, or had even argued for the Doctrine of Necessity within the previous five years. He didn’t quite say he had given up believing in it, allowing 20th-century writers to portray Lincoln as a closet secularist in a sea of Bible-believers.

Carwardine and Guelzo, by contrast, place President Lincoln’s religious quest at the center of his personal life and policymaking. Reflecting on the horrendous human sacrifices of the war and disabled by the loss of his beloved son Willie in 1862, he transmuted his secular fatalism into a religious fatalism. His parents’ Calvinist faith, which he had long since left behind, thus made an ironic comeback in his wartime deliberations. The power over which human beings had no control turned out to be the same sovereign and unfathomable God he had heard about as a child. Yet Lincoln the president still remained aloof from the churches and detached from the Christian conception of sin and redemption.

Of God’s formidable presence in history he was convinced. That did not mean he wished to build a personal relationship with that God or even thought he was capable of building one. About Jesus as redeemer Lincoln remained silent, although after his death a few overeager Christian acquaintances claimed he had privately professed his faith in Christ. One favorite tale had a weeping president tell a friend that at Gettysburg he had given himself to God and ultimately come to “love Jesus.” His wife, Mary, quashed such pious recollections when she reported after the assassination that her husband had indeed been “a religious man always,” and “felt religious more than ever about the time he went to Gettysburg” in 1863. But he had never qualified as “a technical Christian.”

Carwardine puts heavy emphasis on Lincoln’s short “Meditation on God’s Will,” a theological fragment that Lincoln wrote for his own edification, probably in 1862 (the title was later supplied by his secretary, John Nicolay). In this private document Lincoln applied his famous logical rigor to the issue of God’s purposes in permitting a gruesome Civil War. Had God’s reasons matched those of the North—extinguishing the rebellion and restoring the Union, in Lincoln’s view—it would have been easy for God to enlist his “human instrumentalities” (like the president) to defeat the Southern armies. But God obviously desired that the war “shall not end yet.” He plainly had his reasons for letting the butchery continue, but he kept those reasons hidden. As the war dragged on Lincoln appears to have concluded that God let the carnage go on so that slavery would crumble along with the rebellion. Never an abolitionist, and forthright in the early years of the war about his willingness to have ended it, if possible, without freeing a single slave, Lincoln now believed that God had effected the emancipation of 4 million African-Americans.

The president’s observation in an 1864 letter that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”—a secular-sounding reflection avidly cited by historians over many generations—is followed immediately by the less often quoted comment that “God alone can claim” responsibility for “the nation’s condition.” God seemed to have willed both “the removal of a great wrong” and the punishment of both North and South “for our complicity in that wrong.” If so, future “impartial history” would see in such judgment “new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” Carwardine’s succinct, elegant prose—he proves himself a master of concision—gives us a clear picture of Lincoln’s piety in relation to the politics of emancipation. For all his long-standing dismissals of the sectarian moral purity of the religious abolitionists, the president’s eventual conclusion that God himself counted as an abolitionist shows how profoundly the religious presuppositions of the anti-slavery movement had seeped into Lincoln’s consciousness. 

Thanks to Carwardine and Guelzo we can see that Lincoln, by the end of his life, had inverted Thomas Jefferson on the subject of religion. The third president, the great exponent of Enlightenment, had tried to banish mystery from religion while preserving a privileged place for Jesus as the greatest ethical teacher of all time. For his part, the 16th president dropped Jesus by the wayside while rekindling awareness of the unfathomable mysteries of religion. Lincoln resembles the ostensibly secular Benjamin Franklin more than he does the Jesus-infatuated Jefferson. The skeptical Franklin kept a place for Providence in his thinking about the ultimate fate of humanity, while dismissing the pleas of his friend the Rev. George Whitefield that Franklin “close with Christ.” Lincoln transformed Franklin’s Providence into a vigorous historical actor but, like Franklin, he found little use for Jesus.

Carwardine concludes with a brief reflection on the post-assassination “deification” of Lincoln, in which the martyr shot on Good Friday (the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion) experienced “instant elevation” to the national “pantheon.” This post-mortem career of Lincoln as civic-religious savior lies beyond Carwardine’s scope. But it is relevant to his theme to note that thanks to Booth’s derringer ball, the Lincoln who had let Jesus go became the Lincoln who resembled Jesus. Quickly Lincoln the icon pushed Washington upstairs: The self-made rail-splitter became the self-giving “Son” to whom Americans could attach themselves in warm companionship while the “Father” Washington hovered detachedly like a deist creator beyond the clouds.

One reason why Lincoln has endured as Americans’ prime civic icon (white Southerners having come on board in large numbers even by the late 19th century) is his straddling of the secular-religious boundary line. He can gather disciples on both sides. The 2009 commemorations will surely coincide with attempts to induct Lincoln into the ongoing American cultural tug-of-war by forcing him onto one side or the other. Pundits of faith are liable to pit a secular Darwin against a religious Lincoln. Perhaps Carwardine’s book will help shield him from such treatment. The real Lincoln remains a straddler, too religious for most secularists but too fatalistic for most religionists.