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Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian? In this article, excerpted from Books & Culture(one of ten magazines published by Christianity Today), Wheaton College historian Mark Noll probes the complex character of Lincoln's faith.
Lincoln's religion has been debated almost from the moment of his assassination 130 years ago. Even today, conservative preachers and broadcasters who bemoan the decline of Christian America repeat moving stories of Lincoln's deep piety, while populist naysayers deny such claims. Both groups seem to feel that if only Lincoln could be enlisted on their side—whether of evangelical faith or naturalistic rationalism—it would amount to a great victory for them. But what does the evidence show? The following are facts now well established:
—Lincoln was exposed to Calvinistic Baptist preaching as a child and to a clamor of competing Protestant preachers as a young man. In a strange way, he seems to have been both absorbed and repelled by these early influences.
—As a young man, Lincoln expressed views that differed from Christian orthodoxy—perhaps a thorough skepticism or maybe only the hypothesis of universal salvation.
—Lincoln only once wrote directly about his faith. When opponents in a race for Congress in 1846 accused him of lacking faith, Lincoln penned these careful, noncommittal words: "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."
—Lincoln knew and quoted the Bible. Sometimes this quoting was only to find a striking metaphor, as in the House Divided speech of 1858. Other times the quotations were integral to the very substance of what he wanted to say. In 1864, Lincoln told a group of African Americans who had presented him with a Bible: "All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated ...