The Mystery of Lincoln’s Religion

If Abraham Lincoln still matters to Americans in the 21st century—and he does—a major reason is that there’s much at stake politically in how we remember him. This is as true of Lincoln’s religious beliefs as for any other part of his life. In a nation deeply divided over the proper role of religion in the public square, it makes a difference whether our greatest president was a religious skeptic or an orthodox Christian, a devotee of Thomas Paine or a disciple of Jesus.

The debate began almost immediately upon his death. Although Lincoln had never joined a church, Christians typically insisted on his devout faith. Although the late president had quoted extensively from the Bible, non-Christians protested that he doubted much of what it said.

Professional historians joined the debate in the first half of the last century, but they haven’t resolved it. There are outliers, but most agree that by the time of his presidency, Lincoln was not an atheist, if he ever had been. Most agree, as well, that he was almost certainly not an orthodox Christian, if by that we mean someone able to assent wholly to one of the major Christian confessions. It’s been difficult to determine beyond this, thanks to limitations in the surviving evidence.

After his death, countless acquaintances claimed intimate knowledge of the state of Lincoln’s soul, but these testimonies are hopelessly contradictory and their objectivity is doubtful. In addition, Lincoln’s voluminous personal papers are characterized by a pervasive, seemingly intentional ambiguity. Lincoln scholars all acknowledge that he used biblical language, but the questions of why he alluded to the Bible and how much of it he believed remain unanswered—and are probably unanswerable.

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ROBERT TRACY MCKENZIE | “America’s ‘First Evangelical President’ Might Not Have Been a Christian at All” | August 1st, 2023


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3 comments

  1. Lincoln was a pragmatist – he didn’t care about slavery, it was his wish to stop the South from leaving. There are far too many quotes from him that demonstrate his practical beliefs. In his heart? Who knows.

    Lincoln was simply the first product of the Chicago political machine. It is ALWAYS about big(ger) government. If he cared about slavery, why did the Emancipation Proclamation ONLY APPLY to the States that seceded? It actually freed NOBODY!

    He was also quite clear about how he viewed black people fitting into this nation. It is fascinating how much of a hero he has been made. Growing up in SoCal I never gave it much thought, but living in the South, they have never let it go. Oh … and the romp through the South by Sherman does not demonstrate anything remotely godly.

  2. The man carried a lot on his shoulders in the face of great adversity from within and without up until his death. I admire him…

    Lincoln’s Greenbacks…
    “… gave the people of this Republic the greatest blessing they have ever had – their own paper money to pay their own debts…”

    In response, The London Times: “If that mischievous financial policy, which had its origin in the North American Republic, should become indurated down to a fixture, then that Government will furnish its own money without cost. It will pay off debts and be without a debt. It will have all the money necessary to carry on its commerce. It will become prosperous beyond precedent in the history of the civilized governments of the world. The brains and the wealth of all coun­tries will go to North America. That govern­ment must be destroyed, or it will destroy every monarchy on the globe.”

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