Lincoln – What Did He Believe?
It’s February 12th – and you know what that means, don’t you? It’s Abraham Lincoln’s birthday today – 203 years after he was born in Kentucky, on Feb. 12, 1809. Although he is regarded as one of our greatest presidents, insight into his life has always been one of the greatest areas of conflict – not so much among politicians, but among theologians. In fact, there is even some controversy as to whether he was actually born in 1908, but the vast majority of historians have finally settled on that date.
And there are many misconceptions about Lincoln in other areas as well. For example, each February, we celebrate President’s Day – but did you know that the official day really only celebrates Washington’s birthday and not Lincoln’s? That’s right – even though several states have designated Lincoln’s birthday as a state holiday, the official attempt to have it designated a national holiday failed when representatives from Virginia successfully preserved the celebration of President’s Day for George Washington alone. Go look it up – I’m not kidding! So if we can’t even agree on when he was born, or whether he is included in the celebration of President’s Day, it is even more difficult to understand what he stood for from a religious perspective.
There is, however, no doubt that Lincoln believed in God. His closest friends, when asked, were unable, though, to define his religious convictions or to speak to his belief system. When confronted with questions about his convictions, Lincoln usually deferred, with the exception of saying that he probably would not trust a man in government who openly mocked, or scoffed, at religion. In fact, at one service, when the minister asked who wanted to go to heaven, Lincoln didn’t stand. Then, when asked who wanted to go to hell, he still didn’t stand. When he was directly singled out and confronted as to his intentions, since neither heaven nor hell seemed to be preferred destinations, Lincoln quietly indicated his destination was “Congress.” Typical Lincoln – not constrained by the limitations put before him.
Mrs. Lincoln certainly referred to her husband as religious and stated that after he was elected President, he found increased solace in the Scriptures. Self taught, he had spent years memorizing large portions of the Psalms, Isaiah and the New Testament. He used the text of the Bible as foundational for many of his speeches, and after the death of two sons, according to his wife, he became even more committed to “Christ,” even though there is no external evidence to support this.
Many of the founders of this country are what we call “deists,” and Lincoln followed many of the writings and beliefs of these men. For example, Thomas Paine, a confirmed desist, was a favorite of Lincoln’s. So what does a deist believe? That God started the world, then more or less, set it in motion and does not intervene in the events of our lives on a day to day basis. Lincoln believed that this position, by the Creator, was part of the reason that the Civil War came when it did. It was of divine action, in other words. There is also no proof that Lincoln was a Trinitarian, that he believed in the the inerrancy of Scripture, or many other tenets that conservative believers hold fundamental to their faith.
So while we can confirm that Lincoln was a devout reader of the Bible and undoubtedly turned to God for solace and comfort, we can’t define how Lincoln viewed God; or whether he ever sought the face of Christ or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We do know that there are several very famous quotes about his position on God’s intervention in our lives. For example, both the north and the south sides prayed for victory in the Civil War; and both armies claimed that God was on their side. Lincoln, however, took a different approach. He prayed that he was on God’s side – again, a view very few other people embraced.
And, in something of an act of irony, he was shot at the Ford Theatre in Washington, on Good Friday – April 14, 1865. So, Lincoln’s theology, as well as those of many other famous men, including Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams remain hidden from us. In a sense, just as the Bible seems to be interpreted by different people different ways, so do the writings of these great men of our country. This side of heaven, we will never know, conclusively, what Lincoln’s personal beliefs were. But for now, we can hold to the promise that he believed in God.
The verse for today comes from the verse Lincoln referred to in his “House Divided” speech. In Luke 11:17, we are told, “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” This is something of a difficult verse to understand because Jesus used it to explain that He was of God, not of the devil. That if a demon was driven out of something, it could not be the work of the devil, as the devil would not hurt his own cause. But since demons were driven out of things, it had to be by the hand of God; and Jesus represented God in the world.
So, in other words, nothing can stop the commitment of God in the world. While we may be thwarted from time to time by the influences of Satan, we are unable to be defeated when we stand with God. So my encouragement is to stand with the Father and make sure that you do not fall into the false promises of Satan. My prayer is that you will always turn to God and make sure that you are on His side, just like President Lincoln suggested. Grace and peace…..