The Struggle for Lincoln's Soul
—Lincoln almost certainly was not converted in a Methodist camp meeting in 1839 as the organizer of the meeting claimed in 1897.
—Lincoln almost certainly did not write to a certain judge during his White House years to affirm, "My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them." This "document" was first produced in 1924 by Joseph Lewis at the annual banquet of New York's Freethinkers Society.
—An 1883 book includes an oft-quoted testimony to Lincoln's personal faith. The author wrote that he had taken the words from a newspaper, which in turn extracted them from a letter Lincoln wrote to an old friend in Illinois sometime in 1864 or early 1865. The quotation ran, "When I left Springfield I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus." No corroborative evidence has ever been found to legitimate this letter.
So, what was Lincoln's religion? When the solid have been separated from the spurious, the stories show Lincoln's respect for God, his own personal sense of living under the authority of divine providence, and his eagerness to commit the Civil War to divine rule.
When it came to the war, Lincoln often displayed a higher, finer theology than did the nation's professional Christian theologians. Lincoln knew that God had not enlisted on either side. As early as 1862, he would write in a private memorandum: "In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party."
Still, what this account and the other stories do not show is a clear-cut profession of orthodox faith: his faith was genuine, but only partially Christian. That was the testimony of those who knew Lincoln best, including his wife, who said shortly after his death that he was "a religious man always" but not "a technical Christian."
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.