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 We do not know of any other books which deserve to be classed with the two we have been considering in their relation to the formation of Mr. Lincoln's religious ideas; but our inquiry is at a point where it will be instructive to learn of any collateral influence which at this period, the period of the 50's, after the death of Eddie, and before his election as President, helped to give shape to his convictions. Mr. Lincoln did not unite with Dr. Smith's church. It is difficult to think that it would have been possible for him to have done so. Old-school Calvinism had its permanent influence upon him through his Baptist antecedents, but while that of Dr. Smith came to him most opportunely, it did not wholly meet his spiritual requirements.
For many years Herndon was in regular correspondence with Theodore Parker. They agreed in their view of the slavery question, and had much in common in their religion. Herndon had Parker's theological books, and Lincoln read them, not very thoroughly, perhaps, but with interest.
About the same time, Mr. Jesse W. Fell, for whom he wrote the first sketch of his life, presented him with the works of William E. Channing.
When Herndon was gathering material to confute Dr. Reed, he assembled very nearly everything that seemed to prove that Lincoln was not orthodox, however far short it fell of proving him an infidel. Among the rest he interviewed Fell, and from his statements made up this report, which appeared in Lamon's book, and subsequently in Herndon's:
"Mr. Jesse W. Fell of Illinois, who had the best opportunities of knowing Mr. Lincoln intimately, makes the follow[Pg 173]ing statement of his religious opinions, derived from repeated conversations with him on the subject:
"'Though everything relating to the character and history of this extraordinary personage is of interest, and should be fairly stated to the world, I enter upon the performance of this duty—for so I regard it—with some reluctance, arising from the fact, that, in stating my convictions on the subject, I must necessarily place myself in opposition to quite a number who have written on this topic before me, and whose views largely preoccupy the public mind. This latter fact, whilst contributing to my embarrassment on this subject, is, perhaps, the strongest reason, however, why the truth in this matter should be fully disclosed; and I therefore yield to your request. If there were any traits of character that stood out in bold relief in the person of Mr. Lincoln, they were those of truth and candor. He was utterly incapable of insincerity, or professing views on this or any other subject he did not entertain. Knowing such to be his true character, that insincerity, much more duplicity, were traits wholly foreign to his nature, many of his old friends were not a little surprised at finding, in some of the biographies of this great man, statements concerning his religious opinions so utterly at variance with his known sentiments. True, he may have changed or modified those sentiments after his removal from among us, though this is hardly reconcilable with the history of the man, and his entire devotion to public matters during his four years' residence at the national capital. It is possible, however, that this may be the proper solution of this conflict of opinions; or, it may be, that, with no intention on the part of anyone to mislead the public mind, those who have represented him as believing in the popular theological views of the times may have misapprehended him, as experience shows to be quite common where no special effort has been made to attain critical accuracy on a subject of this nature. This is the more probable from the well-known fact, that Mr. Lincoln seldom communicated to anyone his views on this subject. But, be this as it may, I have no hesitation whatever in saying, that, whilst he held many opinions in common with the great mass of Christian believers, he did not believe in what are regarded as the orthodox or evangelical views of Christianity.
[Pg 174]
"'On the innate depravity of man, the character and office of the great Head of the Church, the atonement, the infallibility of the written revelation, the performance of miracles, the nature and design of present and future rewards and punishments (as they are probably called), and many other subjects, he held opinions utterly at variance with what are usually taught in the church. I should say that his expressed views on these and kindred topics were such as, in the estimation of most believers, would place him entirely outside the Christian pale. Yet, to my mind, such was not the true position, since his principles and practices and the spirit of his whole life were of the very kind we universally agree to call Christian; and I think this conclusion is in no wise affected by the circumstance that he never attached himself to any religious society whatever.
"'His religious views were eminently practical, and are summed up, as I think, in these two propositions: "the Fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of man." He fully believed in a superintending and overruling Providence, that guides and controls the operations of the world, but maintained that law and order, and not the violation or suspension, are the appointed means by which this providence is expressed.
"'I will not attempt any specification of either his belief or disbelief on various religious topics, as derived from conversations with him at different times during a considerable period; but, as conveying a general view of his religious or theological opinions, will state the following facts. Some eight or ten years prior to his death, in conversing with him upon this subject, the writer took occasion to refer, in terms of approbation, to the sermons and writings generally of Dr. W. E. Channing; and, finding he was considerably interested in the statement I made of the opinions held by that author, I proposed to present him [Lincoln] a copy of Channing's entire works, which I soon after did. Subsequently, the contents of these volumes, together with the writings of Theodore Parker, furnished him, as he informed me, by his friend and law partner, Mr. Herndon, became naturally the topics of conversation with us; and though far from believing there was an entire harmony of views on his part with either of those authors, yet they were generally much admired and approved by him.
"'No religious views with him seemed to find any favor,[Pg 175] except of the practical and rationalistic order; and if, from my recollections on this subject, I was called upon to designate an author whose views most nearly represented Mr. Lincoln's on this subject, I would say that author was Theodore Parker.
"'As you have asked from me a candid statement of my recollections on this topic, I have thus briefly given them, with the hope that they may be of some service in rightly settling a question about which—as I have good reason to believe—the public mind has been greatly misled.
"'Not doubting that they will accord, substantially, with your own recollections, and that of his other intimate and confidential friends, and with the popular verdict after this matter shall have been properly canvassed, I submit them.'"—Lamon: Life of Lincoln, pp. 490, 491, 492.
Herndon was attempting to collect evidence that Lincoln was an infidel, and what he obtained, and what essentially he was called to certify and did certify in effect, was that Lincoln's views were in essential accord with those of Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing. Theodore Parker was not an orthodox Christian according to the standards of Dr. Smith's church, or of the church of which the present writer is pastor, but he was a Christian, and a very brave and noble Christian. William Ellery Channing's views were not in full accord with the orthodoxy of his day, but he was a noble friend of God and man, and a true Christian.
I have already referred to the very loose and inexact way in which Herndon and others use the term "infidel" as applied to Lincoln. Such inexactness is subversive of all clear thinking.
We are told, for instance, that he was an infidel, his views being essentially those of Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing. I doubt if he ever read very deeply in the writings of these men; but that he read portions of them and approved of some of their noblest and most characteristic utterances, is certain. What were the discourses of these two men which he must almost certainly have read if he read anything of theirs? He would almost certainly have read Parker's discourse on "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,"[Pg 176] and that on "Immortal Life," and Channing's Baltimore address and his discourse on the Church. And these are just the sort of utterances which he would have read with approval as he found them in these discourses of Theodore Parker:
"Compare the simpleness of Christianity, as Christ sets it forth on the Mount, with what is sometimes taught and accepted in that honored name, and what a difference! One is of God, one is of man. There is something in Christianity which sects have not reached,—something that will not be won, we fear, by theological battles, or the quarrels of pious men; still we may rejoice that Christ is preached in any way. The Christianity of sects, of the pulpit, of society, is ephemeral,—a transitory fly. It will pass off and be forgot. Some new form will take its place, suited to the aspect of the changing times. Each will represent something of truth, but no one the whole. It seems the whole race of man is needed to do justice to the whole of truth, as 'the whole church to preach the whole gospel.' Truth is intrusted for the time to a perishable ark of human contrivance. Though often shipwrecked, she always comes safe to land, and is not changed by her mishap. That pure ideal religion which Jesus saw on the mount of his vision, and lived out in the lowly life of a Galilean peasant; which transforms his cross into an emblem of all that is holiest on earth; which makes sacred the ground he trod, and is dearest to the best of men, most true to what is truest in them,—cannot pass away. Let men improve never so far in civilization, or soar never so high on the wings of religion and love, they can never outgo the flight of truth and Christianity. It will always be above them. It is as if we were to fly towards a star, which becomes larger and more bright the nearer we approach, till we enter and are absorbed in its glory."—Theodore Parker: The Transient and Permanent in Christianity, p. 31.
"I would not slight this wondrous world. I love its day and night: its flowers and its fruits are dear to me. I would not willfully lose sight of a departing cloud. Every year opens new beauty in a star, or in a purple gentian fringed with loveliness. The laws, too, of matter seem more wonderful, the more I study them, in the whirling eddies of the dust, in the[Pg 177] curious shells of former life buried by thousands in a grain of chalk, or in the shining diagrams of light above my head. Even the ugly becomes beautiful when truly seen. I see the jewel in the bunchy toad. The more I live, the more I love this lovely world,—feel more its Author in each little thing, in all that is great. But yet I feel my immortality the more. In childhood the consciousness of immortal life buds forth feeble, though full of promise. In the man it unfolds its fragrant petals, his most celestial flower, to mature its seed throughout eternity. The prospect of that everlasting life, the perfect justice yet to come, the infinite progress before us, cheer and comfort the heart. Sad and disappointed, full of self-reproach, we shall not be so forever. The light of heaven breaks upon the night of trial, sorrow, sin: the somber clouds which overhung the east, grown purple now, tell us the dawn of heaven is coming in. Our faces, gleamed on by that, smile in the new-born glow. We are beguiled of our sadness before we are aware. The certainty of this provokes us to patience, it forbids us to be slothfully sorrowful. It calls us to be up and doing. The thought that all will at last be right with the slave, the poor, the weak, and the wicked, inspires us with zeal to work for them here, and make it all right for them even now."—Theodore Parker: Immortality, pp. 23-24.
It is affirmed that Lincoln was an infidel, believing essentially the same as Theodore Parker: and he himself expressed such admiration for and accord with the utterances of Parker which he knew that the statement is partly true. These two quotations, from two of the most easily accessible of Parker's discourses, represent the kind of teaching which Lincoln assimilated from Theodore Parker and show us what kind of infidelity Lincoln learned from him.
When Lincoln turned to the most widely circulated of Channing's discourses, he read such utterances as these:
"We regard the Scriptures as the records of God's successive revelations to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of His will by Jesus Christ. Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve or exception. We do not, however,[Pg 178] attach equal importance to all the books in this collection.
"Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. We believe that God, when He speaks to the human race, conforms, if we may so say, to the established rules of speaking and writing. How else would the Scriptures avail us more than if communicated in an unknown tongue?
"If God be infinitely wise, He cannot sport with the understandings of His creatures. A wise teacher discovers his wisdom in adapting himself to the capacities of his pupils, not in perplexing them with what is unintelligible, not in distressing them with apparent contradictions, not in filling them with a skeptical distrust of their own powers. An infinitely wise teacher, who knows the precise extent of our minds, and the best method of enlightening them, will surpass all other instructors in bringing down truth to our apprehension, and in showing its loveliness and harmony. We ought, indeed, to expect occasional obscurity in such a book as the Bible, which was written for past and future ages, as well as for the present. But God's wisdom is a pledge, that whatever is necessary for us, and necessary for salvation, is revealed too plainly to be mistaken, and too consistently to be questioned, by a sound and upright mind. It is not the mark of wisdom to use an unintelligible phraseology, to communicate what is above our capacities, to confuse and unsettle the intellect by appearances of contradiction. We honor our heavenly teacher too much to ascribe to Him such a revelation. A revelation is a gift of light. It cannot thicken our darkness, and multiply our perplexities.
"We believe, too, that God is just; but we never forget that His justice is the justice of a good being, dwelling in the same mind, and acting in harmony with perfect benevolence. By this attribute, we understand God's infinite regard to virtue or moral worth, expressed in a moral government; that is, in giving excellent and equitable laws, and in conferring such rewards and inflicting such punishments, as are best fitted to secure their observance. God's justice has for its end the highest virtue of the creation, and it punishes for this end alone, and thus it coincides with benevolence; for virtue and[Pg 179] happiness, though not the same, are inseparably conjoined.
"God's justice, thus viewed, appears to us to be in perfect harmony with His mercy. According to the prevalent systems of theology, these attributes are so discordant and jarring, that to reconcile them is the hardest task, and the most wonderful achievement, of infinite wisdom. To us they seem to be intimate friends, always at peace, breathing the same spirit, and seeking the same end. By God's mercy, we understand not a blind, instinctive compassion, which forgives without reflection, and without regard to the interests of virtue. This, we acknowledge, would be incompatible with justice, and also with enlightened benevolence. God's mercy, as we understand it, desires strongly the happiness of the guilty, but only through their penitence."—W. E. Channing: Baltimore Discourse of 1819, Passim.
"Inward sanctity, pure love, disinterested attachment to God and man, obedience of heart and life, sincere excellence of character, this is the one thing needful, this the essential thing in religion; and all things else, ministers, churches, ordinances, places of worship, all are but means, helps, secondary influences, and utterly worthless when separated from this. To imagi............
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