Peter Cartwright takes on A.Lincoln

A great preacher-revivalist confronts Lincoln over his disbelief in God.

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Lincoln the Heretic
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the faith (or lack thereof) of Abraham Lincoln

Peter Cartwright
confronting the infidel Lincoln

Peter Cartwright
Peter Cartwright, the powerful Methodist circuit rider who in
1846 ran for Congress against a tall lawyer named Lincoln. During
his life, Cartwright preached nearly 15,000 sermons throughout the
rugged frontier, and he could deal with ruffians if the need arose.

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This circuit-riding Methodist minister opposed Abraham Lincoln in his campaign for the United States Congress in 1846. Cartwright moved westward to Illinois after a childhood in Kentucky and served two terms in the Illinois State Legislature. There, despite his religious orientation, he remained an opponent of reform movements. Unlike Lincoln, another Kentucky youth, Cartwright did not advocate education and refinement. Rather, he remained an advocate of the fire and brimstone religion of camp meetings, shorn of the message of progress and civilization that became the core of the Whig political ideology. In the campaign of 1846 Cartwright attacked Lincoln on the question of his religious beliefs, in response to persistent rumors that Lincoln was a deist or unbeliever. (Running strongly in a predominantly Whig district, Lincoln deftly parried Cartwright's blunt attack.)

Mark Noll writes:

Abraham Lincoln ran for Congress in 1846, and he faced a formidable opponent: Peter Cartwright. Cartwright, a raw-boned, circuit-riding Methodist preacher, was known throughout Illinois. During his sixty-five years of riding the circuit, he would baptize nearly ten thousand converts. During the intense 1846 Congressional campaign, some of Cartwright's followers accused Lincoln of being an "infidel." In response, Lincoln decided to meet Cartwright on his own ground and attend one of his evangelistic rallies.

Carl Sandburg, in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, tells the story this way:
In due time Cartwright said, "All who desire to lead a new life, to give their hearts to God, and go to heaven, will stand," and a sprinkling of men, women, and children stood up. Then the preacher exhorted, "All who do not wish to go to hell will stand." All stood up -- except Lincoln. Then said Cartwright in his gravest voice, "I observe that many responded to the first invitation to give their hearts to God and go to heaven. And I further observe that all of you save one indicated that you did not desire to go to hell. The sole exception is Mr. Lincoln, who did not respond to either invitation. May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?"

And Lincoln slowly rose and slowly spoke. "I came here as a respectful listener. I did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright. I believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity. I admit that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great importance. I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did. Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going. I desire to reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress."

He went.

beloved rail-splitter

The Infidel Lincoln?


Mark Noll considers the 'faith' of Lincoln

A brief look at the debate over Lincoln's religion, and at the circumstances of his life, can at least provide hints regarding the faith of Lincoln.
Puzzling, unconventional religion

Confusion about Lincoln's religion arises from the multiple ambiguities of his life. On the one hand, Lincoln was, in the words of biographers James Randall and Richard Current, "a man of more intense religiosity than any other President the United States has ever had." On the other hand, Lincoln's faith was not conventional.

As a young man in Illinois, he eagerly read free thinkers like Tom Paine. At the same time, he was a kind of "frontier spiritualist" who believed that signs, dreams, and portents foretold the future. He had no use for Christian creeds or statements of faith, and little use for formal theology. At least early on, Lincoln was probably also a Universalist who believed in the eventual salvation of all people.

He spoke of God often and in many different ways -- William J. Wolf counted thirty-three different expressions, like "Almighty Being" or "Father of Mercies," in Lincoln's Collected Works. Yet Lincoln rarely referred to Jesus. [except in the numerous brief impromptu exhortations he gave to groups of "freedmen" -- former slaves emancipated either through war or by proclamation.]

After the death of his 4-year-old son, Edward, in 1850, he regularly attended Presbyterian churches in Springfield and Washington, pastored by doctrinal conservatives. Yet he never became a member of any congregation.

art by debra hurd
Art by Debra Hurd

Making religion a political issue

An incident early in his political career highlights the unconventional character of Lincoln's faith. In 1846 he stood for election to Congress from Illinois's Seventh Congressional District.

The rumor began to spread that Lincoln mocked Christianity and scoffed at religious practice. This amounted to a vital issue since Lincoln's opponent was a Methodist circuit-riding preacher, Peter Cartwright.

To quiet the alarm, Lincoln published a broadside on his religion that denied any wrongdoing. Significantly, however, it made little claim to anything positive. Here is the key passage of the circular:

"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.... I do not think I could, myself, be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.... "

Even as Lincoln recognized the importance of religious propriety for public officials, he made clear that his religion was his own business.

Long-standing debate

Lincoln's manifest trust in God alongside his unconventional piety confounded his contemporaries. A popular early biography by Joseph Gilbert Holland, published in 1866, described Lincoln as a model evangelical gentleman. This greatly upset Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, Illinois, William Herndon, who thought he knew what Lincoln was really like. The portrait in Herndon's biography was much saltier. Lincoln was depicted as a prairie "infidel" who got along very well without the church; an ambitious, even scheming, politician; a man more fond of the bawdy than the Bible, more given to introspective melancholy than to Christian holiness.

Modern studies continue the contrast. In G. Frederick Owen's Abraham Lincoln: The Man and His Faith (published in 1976 and reprinted several times), Lincoln appears as a Christian prophet who sustained evangelical convictions throughout his life. By contrast, in Gore Vidal's historical novel Lincoln (1984), Christianity is a superfluous veneer that Lincoln occasionally parades for political purposes.

The greatest difficulty in coming to a clearer picture of Lincoln's faith is the fact that his religion does not fit into modern categories. He was not an orthodox, evangelical, "born-again" Christian striving toward the "higher life" (as these terms have been used since the 1870s). But neither was he a skeptical "modernist" with a prejudice against the supernatural and an aversion to the Bible.

Consequently, many conflicting stories about Lincoln lack concrete historical verification. In one, for example, Lincoln made a definite profession of faith; in another he was voicing agnostic opinions to the end of his days in the White House.


What makes Lincoln such a compelling figure to religious believers and nonbelievers alike is that his character was
suffused with a rare combination of rationalism and prophetic faith in almost perfect equipoise. [Susan Jacoby]

a man of sorrows, and
acquainted with grief

President Lincoln

Our greatest Crisis Leaders toil in sadness when society is happy. Yet when
calamity occurs, if they are in a position to act, they can lift up the rest of us.
Nassir Ghaemi - A First Rate Madness

The Struggle for Lincoln's Soul
Mark Noll says the following 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 through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong."
  • Lincoln valued prayer. Many instances are recorded in diaries and letters written before Lincoln's death where the president either allowed White House visitors to pray with him or solicited their prayers. There are also several accounts, though less securely based, of Lincoln himself praying.
  • After the deaths of his young sons in 1850 and 1862, Lincoln was comforted by two thoroughly conservative Presbyterian ministers (neither of whom was given to overstatement). They testified that, after these traumatic experiences, they witnessed a deepening of Lincoln's faith.
  • In Washington, especially after the death of his son, Lincoln regularly attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Sometimes he even came to the midweek prayer service but remained in a side room out of view of the congregation.
  • Lincoln did not practice what might be called a "Christian lifestyle." Historian Philip Schaff lectured to European audiences in 1865 on the meaning of the Civil War. He said that when Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday at Ford's Theater, European pietists were aghast that he was not observing the Holy Festival (which, in their experience, only infidels neglected), while American evangelicals were aghast that he was in a theater (which, in their experience, was associated with licentiousness, secularism, and prostitution).

Dr. Noll concludes that

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."

Abraham Lincoln Institute

Yankee tyrant who ripped a nation to pieces

Lincoln - our most Quaker president

Robert Shepherd adds:

Robert ShepherdNot in any way to contradict Dr. Noll (like Harry Jaffa, Carl Sandburg, Susan B. Martinez and so many other scholars of Lincoln). My own impression of Lincoln was that he was simultaneously both leery of the dangers of "muscular" Christianity, or indeed religion; while at the same time deeply SPIRITUAL in an intimate and very private way. I believe that Lincoln's early and youthful rejection of religion, sometimes said to be a reaction against his father Tom Lincoln (a "Calvinist Baptist") was something he retained for a very long time. Indeed, he commented to his law partner Herndon, "You know Billy, I never tire of reading Tom Paine." As Lincoln's presidency deepened, and his personal angst no doubt increased, I believe Lincoln more and more sought solace in some kind of spirituality or assurance. He was reaching out for help, as it were, from any source yet available. And as heartfelt freedmen came to salute him (themselves rather religiously) Lincoln responded in kind, pointing them to their Jesus ("Stand up; don't pray to me"), commending their prayers and faith and brave labors, which he said contributed to the Nation's salvation.
[10:44 AM June 05, 2010]

Lincoln and his Quakerism
Lincoln's deistic temperament might give off Quaker vibes, just as his early cautiousness (beginning of the War) caused critics to label him Quakerish. Additionally, since three of his cabinet wore "Quaker beards" (no hair on upper lip), some suggested surely he had a Quaker cabinet. But what has become more apparent to history is that Lincoln's parental roots were deeply "Friendly" too.

Jan Morris notes that Lincoln's Evanses, on his mother's Hanks' side (of Bryn Gwyn) had gravitated to Quakerism when they came to America (if not before), and Lincoln used to talk about his Quaker roots: he sometimes addressed correspondents as "Friend" --Friend Johnson, or Friend Mary -- in the old Quaker manner. (p 43) Perhaps these vestiges of childhood reflected the influence of his mother Nancy and her mother (Sarah Evans Hanks), whom he remembered from Kentucky. Those who knew the Lincolns in Kentucky commented that Nancy Hanks Lincoln was "superior" to her husband, a strong personality that taught young Abraham his letters as well as the extraordinary sweetness and forbearance he was known for all his life. She seems also to have reverted to "thees" and "thous" -- something her precocious son picked up.

He also had a tendency, discovered as scholars pored over his correspondence, to address recipients of his letters in the quaint manner of "Friend Mary" (Owens), "Friend Butler," "Friend Morris," "Friend Hardin," "Friend Durley." This was a Quaker thing, of course.

See Lincoln's Welsh ancestry. Also see "The Quakerism of Abraham Lincoln" by George B. Johnson JSTOR link.

Lincoln and the Buffalo Soldiers Marauders - From early on, Lincoln had pushed for using black soldiers in combat. There were several reasons for this. One, the blacks themselves were eager to prove themselves. Two, the draft system was much hated because of its economic bias for the affluent. Three, losses in the field were staggering. What soon became evident was that other needs were also pressing -- the restive Indians in the West. Thus, thanks to Lincoln's persistence there came into being the Buffalo Soldiers - the 62nd and 65th Regiments of Colored Infantry (what began as the 1st Missouri Regiment of Colored Infantry). A tragedy that occurred is that Lincoln's favoritism for the blacks should be juxtaposed against the Native Americans caught in the cross-hairs of history. See Minnesota Slaughter of Innocents. The Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History (well, if not totally innocent, still close to an atrocity)



The Incomparable Lincoln

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.
EH Chapin

quoted in Answers in the Heart: Daily Meditations for
Men And Women Recovering From Sex Addiction
** Hazelden Meditation Series ** [1989].



Carl Sandburg's Kind of Town :: CHICAGO
"Let us revere the Declaration of Independence."
Lincoln's Psychic Life (Susan B Martinez)
Most Hated (or Most Loved) president
The Prairie Legend of Lincoln
Dictator Lincoln (DiLorenzo)
The anti-Lincoln Republicans
Jaffa : A New Birth of Freedom
Jaffa : Crisis of the House Divided
What? A 2nd Illinois President?



        The Inlow Smear against the 'mulatto' Lincoln

During his 1860 presidential campaign, candidates' style in those days was more "reserved" than in later times. Nevertheless, his political enemies made a range of scurrilous charges against the subversive "abolitionist" Lincoln -- many of which dealt with his obscure origins, his prairie "trash" background. Lincoln frankly conceded his shadowy quaker family tree and his early poverty -- but refused to dignify all the charges with a direct response. On one occasion he wryly remarked: "I am less concerned about who my grandfather was, than who my grandfather's grandson will be."

ex obscvris lvx

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Out of Darkness the Light Hath Shined
Fiat Lux

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