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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."
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.
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.
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.
The Struggle for Lincoln's Soul
Mark Noll says the following facts now well established:
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."
|Bob Shepherd adds:
Not in any way to contradict Dr. Noll (like Harry Jaffa, Carl Sandburg 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 her 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, my impression is that Lincoln more and more sought solace in some kind of faith. 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 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)
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."|
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