The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln

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But three historical circumstances help explain the nature of Lincoln’s religion—with its unusual belief in God’s sovereign power—that came to fullest expression in the Second Inaugural Address.

First, Lincoln grew up in a poor dirt-farming family in the upper South and lower Midwest without privilege, position, or much formal education. The world of his upbringing was much closer to the culture of Puritanism than the culture of narcissism.

Common people were often deeply religious, believing without question in God and the unseen world. Yet they were not much troubled about doctrines, ecclesiastical affairs, or the glorious prospect of the millennium, which then preoccupied some of America’s religious elite. Rather, the common people tried to accept their fate, to overcome guilt, to enjoy the fleeting comforts of love and family, to survive the uncertainties of birth, to eke out existence on an often brutal frontier, and to come to terms with the ever-present reality of death.

As with many other such families, Lincoln’s had very few books. But it did have the Bible, which Lincoln evidently read with great care. His later speeches and ordinary conversation were peppered with biblical quotations and allusions.

This family history provided the backdrop of Lincoln’s religion. It had nothing to do with modern ideas about “finding oneself” or about “God’s wonderful plan” for life.

The second circumstance was Lincoln’s experience with denominations in the Indiana and Illinois of his youth. He found the harsh infighting among Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples, Universalists, and “village atheists” repulsive. As a consequence, Lincoln several times professed willingness to join a church that required nothing of its members but heartfelt love to God and to one’s neighbors.  The competing creeds of the churches were not for him.

The third circumstance was instruction in reality by the coldest master—death. The passing of his mother when he was 9, the death of a beloved sister shortly after her marriage, the death of two sons (in 1850, and at the White House in 1862), the death of several close friends in the early days of the Civil War (his Civil War), and increasingly, the heart-wrenching lists of casualties from the battlefields—these left him no taste for easy believism, no escape from the mysteries of God and the universe.

The truly remarkable thing about Lincoln’s religion was how these circumstances drove him to deeper contemplation of God and the divine will. The external Lincoln, casual about religious observance, hid a man of profound morality, an almost unbearable God-consciousness, and a deep belief in the freedom of God to transcend the limited vision of humanity.

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