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 It is amazing to discover how many forms of faith and non-faith have claimed Abraham Lincoln. "Seven cities strove for Homer, dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread."
More than seven churches have striven for the dead Abraham Lincoln, some of whom would not even now admit to their membership a living man who professed his sentiments.
Before we undertake the difficult task of assessing the real faith of Abraham Lincoln, let us dispose of a few of the claims that have been made on his behalf, or the charges that have been made against him, and which clearly have no sufficient weight of evidence. Let us ask first,
Was Abraham Lincoln an atheist?
Herndon declared that Lincoln was an infidel, "sometimes bordering on atheism." This last phrase has been overstrained. What Herndon appears to have meant was that in some of Lincoln's blackest hours of gloom his mind hung over that utter void; and he more than hints that in such hours Lincoln's mind was scarcely sound. Herndon was far from believing or meaning to charge that atheism was Lincoln's real view of God and the world. The contrary is shown in a score of places in Herndon's works and letters.
Some years ago the Open Court of Chicago contained an article by Theodore Stanton, quoted from the Westminster Review. It said:
[Pg 226]
"That Lincoln was an orthodox Christian nobody pretends to assert. But his friends and biographers differ as to how much of a Christian he was. If Lincoln had lived and died an obscure Springfield lawyer and politician, he would unquestionably have been classed by his neighbors among freethinkers. But as is customary with the Church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, when Lincoln became one of the great of the world, an attempt was made to claim him.... The shrewd politician who has not an elastic conscience—and that was Lincoln's case—simply keeps mum on religious subjects, or, when he must touch on the subject, deals only in platitudes, and this is just what Lincoln did. Lincoln thought little on religious subjects, and read less. That, when left to himself, he was quite indifferent to religion, is frequently evident in the acts of his life."—Open Court, September 24, 1891, pp. 2962-63, quoting Westminster Review of September, 1890.
This statement was not sufficiently radical for one reader of the Open Court, who thought that Mr. Stanton had made Lincoln out to have been virtually an agnostic, and who wished to prove him an atheist. He wrote an article in which he said:
"Free-thinker means anything or nothing.... Plain words are the best. That Lincoln was A-theos connotes a definite attitude toward the great religious chimera, and really defines Mr. Lincoln's position more closely than any of Mr. Stanton's epithets [as, e.g., Agnostic]. It is positive, not negative, indicates what the man professedly was rather than what he was not or what he oppugned. We are in position to define his life-creed with all due measure of exactness."—"What Was Abraham Lincoln's Creed?" by George M. McCrie, Open Court, November 26, 1891.
This writer then proceeded to define Mr. Lincoln's creed in terms of atheism. But his argument was based on a subjective scheme of philosophy, a kind of Hylo-Idealism derived from Hegel more than from Lincoln, and one which it is safe to affirm Lincoln would neither have admitted nor even understood.
[Pg 227]
Some time after, the same journal had a third and very different article, which said:
"Lincoln was an extremely religious man, though not a technical Christian. He thought deeply, and his opinions were positive. His seriousness was a characteristic trait, showing itself even in his genuine good humor. His very jokes were a part of his seriousness.... Lincoln was an extremely practical man. He believed not for belief's sake, but for his own sake. He made a practice of religion; he used it. His religion was his life, and his life was his religious service. It was his own public profession. Religion was a fact to him. He believed in prayer, because he found use for it: and when the fate of the union seemed to waver, when doubt and despair hovered over the land and the future was uncertain, Lincoln often shut himself within his room and offered up his prayer to God. 'So, many times,' he said, 'I was forced to my knees, not knowing where else to go.'
"While there is considerable in his writings to indicate a strong faith in God and prayer, there is little to indicate his beliefs regarding Christ, the Bible, etc. But the very absence of anything on those points is good evidence that he did not hold the views that have been attributed to him....
"He was a firm believer in the 'great and good and merciful God,' but not in a revengeful or cruel God who could consign them to an eternal hell when nothing good to those who suffered could possibly come from such punishment. He believed in and used prayer as a means to bring himself in closer relations with right in everything.... He believed in 'universal inspiration and miracles under law,' and that all things, both matter and mind, are governed by law. He believed that all creation is an evolution under law, not a special creation of the Supreme Being. He hoped for a joyous meeting in the world to come with many loved ones gone before. He believed that Christianity consists in being, not believing; in loving 'the Lord thy God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself.' He believed that the Bible is a book to be understood and appreciated as any other book, not merely to be accepted as a divine creation of infallibility. He believed in the man Christ, not in the God Christ.... He was once an admirer of Volney, Paine, and Voltaire; later[Pg 228] of Theodore Parker, Emerson, and Channing. He was once a scoffer of religion; later a supporter."—R. C. Roper, Religious Beliefs of Abraham Lincoln, Open Court, 1903, pp. 76-85.
Whatever Abraham Lincoln was, he was not an atheist. If any other convenient term were to be applied to him, it would be necessary that the term itself should be defined. Thus, Lyman Abbott has spoken of Lincoln as an agnostic, meaning that Lincoln did not find himself in position to affirm dogmatically on certain of the articles of faith. This article by Dr. Abbott was particularly illuminating as discriminating between the measure of uncertainty which a man may feel in the matter of positive declaration of his views, while cherishing in his heart and manifesting in his life the essentials of a Christian faith. It was published as an editorial in reply to a letter of inquiry, and both are worth reprinting entire:
"'My dear Dr. Abbott: You are quoted in the New York Press of October 15 as having referred in your Yale sermon to Abraham Lincoln in the following terms: "Agnostic though he was." Are you correct in the implication? If so, I should greatly like to know, as it is a subject in which I am much interested. J. G. Holland says, in his Life of Lincoln, page 61 ff., "He believed in God, and in His personal supervision of the affairs of men.... This unwavering faith in a divine Providence began at his mother's knee, and ran like a thread of gold through all the inner experiences of his life"; and much more to the same purpose. You are doubtless familiar with his words on leaving Springfield for Washington: "He [Washington] would never have succeeded except for the aid of divine Providence upon which he at all times relied. On that same Almighty Being I place my reliance. Pray that I may receive that divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain." The first inaugural would seem to indicate a most pronounced Christian sentiment. Not to consume too much of your time, I might refer further to Nicolay and Hay's Life, the following passages: Vol. VI, p. 539, which contains a statement of[Pg 229] Lincoln's religious principles; also, same volume, pp. 323, 324, 327, 328, 341, 342.
R. A. A.'"
To this letter Dr. Abbott replied:
"The life of Abraham Lincoln appears to me to furnish a very striking illustration both of the difference between theology and religion and of the way in which religious experience is often developed in the life of a true man, and is accompanied by a real though generally quite unconscious change in theological opinion. Mr. Herndon, in his Life of Lincoln, portrays the earlier religious faith of Mr. Lincoln, Nicolay and Hay his later religious faith: neither biographer is able to find that he ever formulated his own creed, neither is able to formulate one for him. Yet between the religious convictions of the period when he wrote an essay against Christianity, which, fortunately for his reputation, a wise friend threw into the fire, and the period when he wrote his second inaugural address, there is a difference which cannot be measured by the mere lapse of years.
"Agnostic? What is an agnostic? Huxley invented the phrase to define his own position in contrast with that of his friends whom he called gnostics because they had each a theory of the universe and he had none. He more specifically defines the basis of his no-theory of the universe in a pathetic letter to Charles Kingsley (Life and Letters, Vol. II, pp. 233-239): 'It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my lifelong hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not, if I would.' Compare with this Mr. Herndon's measure of Mr. Lincoln's earlier habit of thought: 'As already expressed, Mr. Lincoln had no faith. In order to believe, he must see and feel, and thrust his hand into the place. He must taste, smell, or handle before he had faith or even belief.' Or compare Mrs. Lincoln's expression concerning her husband's religious opinions, as quoted by Mr. Herndon: 'Mr. Lincoln had no faith and no hope, in the usual acceptance of those words. He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature. He first seemed to think about the subject when our[Pg 230] Willie died, and then more than ever about the time he went to Gettysburg; but it was a kind of poetry in his nature; and he was never a technical Christian.'
"Religion is always a kind of poetry. Faith is kin to imagination; both faith and imagination look upon the unseen and refuse to base life merely upon the senses or upon mathematical formularies like the law of the inverse squares. This poetry is often quite dissociated from philosophy, or is even inconsistent with the philosophy which the individual entertains. But Mr. Lincoln's early philosophy prepared for his later religious experience. Mr. Herndon reports him as saying: 'There are no accidents in my philosophy. The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future. All these are links in the endless chain stretching from the Infinite to the finite.' With this philosophy of fatalism was a profound faith in justice, a profound reverence for it, and an uncompromising obedience to it. At first he did not put this philosophy and this faith together. He who does put them together, that is, he who infuses this philosophy in an overruling cause with this faith, which is a 'kind of poetry,' in the supremacy of righteousness, comes to a faith in a righteous God, who deserves our reverence, not because he is great, but because he is good.
"When Abraham Lincoln began to feel the burden of the nation resting upon him, and felt it too great a burden for him to carry unaided, he wanted the sympathy of all men and women in the country who with him believed in a Power directing the course of human history greater than the actors in it, and who also believed in eternal justice; and he asked their prayers. As the conflict went on and the burden grew heavier and heavier, his faith in righteousness more and more infused his belief in a superhuman power and transformed it into a belief in a righteous God; but it was, till the last, a belief in a God of justice rather than a Christ of pity, even as it phrased itself in that most religious utterance of his life, his second inaugural: 'Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said three[Pg 231] thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."'
"There is no evidence that Mr. Lincoln had become a gnostic, or that he had a comprehensive scheme of the universe, or that he had either wrought out a system of theology for himself or accepted any that had been wrought out by others; but there is abundant evidence that he had learned in the four years of tragedy a lesson of dependence and trust, that he had insensibly put together his belief in a supreme Power and his faith in righteousness, and that thus there had been born in him faith in a supreme righteous Power, whose will we may help to carry out, and on whose wisdom and strength we may rely in achieving it. It is thus that the life of Abraham Lincoln illustrates both how a reverent agnostic may be deeply religious and how the life of service and self-sacrifice leads through doubt to faith.—L. A."—The Outlook, November 17, 1906.
Was Abraham Lincoln a Roman Catholic?
The question is absurd, and worth asking only that it may receive a simple negative answer. Yet, singularly, a report was current and somewhat widely believed in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln had been baptized as a Roman Catholic and was himself a renegade from that faith. The rumor appears to have had two roots. First was the fact that much missionary work was done in early Illinois by Jesuit priests; and it was assumed, not only contrary to every fact but to every element of probability, that Abraham Lincoln had been baptized by one of them. The other was the fact that he acted as attorney for Rev. Charles Chiniquy, who after fifty years in the Church of Rome came out from that communion and became a notable antagonist of the church in which he had been reared. His unsparing criticisms led to various attacks upon him through the courts and otherwise. When Lincoln was elected President much was made of the fact that Lincoln had been Father Chiniquy's attorney, and the rumor that he also was a renegade Catholic gained wide currency.
Chiniquy professed to see in these rumors a peril to the[Pg 232] life of Mr. Lincoln, and both then and at intervals during his administration warned the President that his life was in danger. The scarcely concealed favor of the Vatican toward the cause of the South did not tend to allay this anxiety. The fact that among those concerned in the plot which finally ended in the assassination of the President were several Roman Catholics, revived these reports immediately after his death, and they are occasionally recalled even now.
So far as our present inquiry is concerned, we have only to ask and answer the question. Mr. Lincoln was not in any period of his life affiliated in any way with the Roman Catholic Church.
Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?
During Mr. Lincoln's occupancy of the White House, there were several rumors to the effect that President and Mrs. Lincoln were both Spiritualists. A definite claim that Mr. Lincoln fully believed in Spiritualism was set forth in 1891 by a medium named Mrs. Nettie Colburn Maynard. She wrote a book relating in detail almost innumerable sittings which she alleged were attended by Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. According to her story her mediumship began in her childhood in 1845. At the outbreak of the war she was lecturing and giving public séances and went to Washington to gain a furlough for her brother. She learned of Mr. Lincoln's interest in Spiritualism, and of the visits to the White House of two mediums, Charles Colchester and Charles Foster. She was invited to the White House, where, if we are to credit her story, she imparted to Mr. Lincoln very nearly all the wisdom which he possessed during the period of the Civil War.
We learn from other sources that Lincoln permitted two or three mediums to come to the White House and to tell him what the spirits said he ought to know; but Lincoln said of them that the advice of the spirits, as thus received, was as contradictory as the voices of his own Cabinet, of whose meetings the séances reminded him.
[Pg 233]
The last attempt to make Mr. Lincoln out a Spiritualist is by Mrs. Grace Garrett Durand, in a privately printed book issued since Sir Oliver Lodge's Raymond. She claims to have talked with Raymond, with William T. Stead, and other people, as well as with Mrs. Eddy, from whom she expects to receive additional material supplementary to her Science and Health, and Key to the Scriptures. She is, however, according to her own account, especially intimate with Mr. Lincoln. She says:
"President Lincoln has himself told me in many conversations I have had with him from the spirit world that he was directed in his great work during the Civil War by his mother and others in the spirit world. Mr. Lincoln, or 'Uncle Abe,' as he has lovingly asked me to call him, said that had he respected his mother's advice the day of his assassination he would not have gone to the theater the fateful night, as his mother had that day warned him not to go."
If Mr. Lincoln's spirit has indeed requested this lady to call him "Uncle Abe" he has accorded her a liberty which was infrequent during his lifetime. Near neighbors of Mr. Lincoln during his years in Springfield inform me that no one called him "Abe" to his face, and that very few even of his political opponents thus spoke of him. He habitually addressed his partner as "Billy," but Mr. Herndon uniformly called him "Mr. Lincoln." One could wish that Abraham Lincoln in heaven might be at least as dignified as Abraham Lincoln was on earth.[52]
Was Abraham Lincoln superstitious?
Both President and Mrs. Lincoln were superstitious. They believed in dreams and signs, he more in dreams and[Pg 234] she more in signs. When Mrs. Lincoln was away from him for a little time, visiting in Philadelphia in 1863, and Tad with her, Lincoln thought it sufficiently important to telegraph, lest the mail should be too slow, and sent her this message:
"Executive Mansion,
"Washington, June 9, 1863.
"Mrs. Lincoln,
"Philadelphia, Pa.
"Think you............
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