Was President Lincoln a Believer or an Infidel?
Posted on 07 April 2015, 12:55
As April 15 will mark the 150th anniversary of the physical death of President Abraham Lincoln, (below) it seems like an appropriate time to examine the religious beliefs of our 16th president. Historians have not been able to agree as to those beliefs. He has been characterized as everything from a God-fearing Christian to an atheistic humanist. It seems clear that he did not often attend church services and took issue with some of the dogma, doctrine, and methods of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, he somehow emerges as one of our most spiritual presidents.
Lincoln was seen by many who knew him as a somber man with a gloomy disposition. In her book, The Psychic Life of Abraham Lincoln, Susan Martinez states that there was some speculation that Lincoln inherited his mother’s sadness and sensitivity, and his father’s moods, “strange spells,” and fits of solitude. Martinez examines Lincoln’s “peculiar melancholy” and the events in his life that shaped it, including his mother’s death when he was just nine, a strict and distant father, the death of a sister at age 10, and the death of his beloved Ann Rutledge when he was 26. Then, in 1850, his son Eddie, a month shy of his fourth birthday, died of diphtheria, and, 12 years later, son Willie succumbed to a typhoid-like diseases at age 11. Lincoln struggled to reconcile all of his hardships with a just and loving God.
According to Martinez, John Todd Stuart, Lincoln’s first law partner, called Lincoln an “avowed and open infidel” who went “further against Christian beliefs” than any man he had ever known. William Herndon, his junior law partner and friend, also referred to him as an “infidel.” It is said that the only book authored by Lincoln, referred to as “the little book,” apparently unpublished, questioned the infallibility of the Bible and rejected fire-and-brimstone Calvinism, while defending the idea of universal salvation. He rejected a God of wrath and punishment in favor of one of justice and loving kindness. Although his parents were Baptists, he said he preferred the Quaker beliefs of his paternal grandmother. His “little book” was burnt upon the advice of his political advisors; however, Lincoln continued to scoff at Christian clerics who pretended to be God-fearing, while not caring whether slavery was banished. Carl Sandburg quoted Lincoln as saying they “have not read their Bible aright.”
Martinez points out that more than 6,000 books have been written about Lincoln and that it has been said that “there are no important new facts to disclose.” She takes issue with that comment as the stories about Lincoln’s association with several credible mediums, especially one Nettie Colburn Maynard, (below) while not new, have been pretty much ignored, forgotten, or denied. Most of Lincoln’s biographers have deemed it below the dignity of such a great man, concluding that it never happened or that it should be swept under the rug. A number of web sites suggest that Colburn was a charlatan.
There is, however, evidence indicating that Lincoln sat with a number of mediums. It has been suggested that his wife Mary insisted on his attending séances with her after the death of their son, Willie, but there is evidence that he sat with mediums even before Willie’s death, and that he was accompanied by various members of his cabinet, including, Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, James J. Speed, Attorney General, and Isaac Newton, Commissioner of Agriculture. Francis B. Carpenter, painter of the famous picture honoring the Emancipation Proclamation and also of Lincoln’s last portrait made from life, discussed Lincoln’s interest in spiritualism in his book, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln.
One of those earlier mediums with whom Lincoln sat was J. B. Conklin, a trance medium from Ohio. Shortly after Lincoln was elected president, an article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which he was attacked as a “Spiritualist.” The only thing false about the article, Lincoln was quoted, “is that the half of it has not been told. This article does not begin to tell the wonderful things I have witnessed.”
Colonel Simon P. Kase of Philadelphia, a railroad tycoon serving on the staff of the Secretary of War and close friend of Lincoln’s, claimed to have been present at the president’s sitting with Nettie Colburn. He said that it lasted a full hour and a half and that the spirit speaking through the entranced young woman dwelt strongly on the importance of the emancipation of the slaves, saying that the war could not end unless slavery was abolished. “The President listened with the greatest attention throughout her discourse,” Kase recalled. “It was a scene that would never be erased from the memory bringing to mind the passage in Scriptures where the head of the nation was being taught by babes and sucklings.” Kase added that he was fully convinced in his own mind that Lincoln was fully convinced at that point of the necessity of issuing the great Proclamation, which he had prepared well before that day but did not sign until just after the séance.
The same spirits may have been active a decade earlier when Harriet Beecher Stowe penned the popular 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book said to have been very influential in the abolitionist movement. Stowe claimed that the book was written through her, “I only holding the pen.”
Joshua F. Speed, said to be Lincoln’s best friend, quoted Lincoln as saying, “I have had so many evidences of God’s direction, so many instances when I have been controlled by some other power than my own will, that I cannot doubt that this power comes from above…I am satisfied that when the Almighty wants me to do or not do a particular thing, He finds a way of letting me know it.”
Clearly, Lincoln was not an orthodox Christian. He may not have been a card-carrying Spiritualist even if his beliefs were spiritualistic in nature, but he certainly appears to have believed in a Creator and the survival of consciousness at death. In his 1909 book, Why We Love Lincoln, James Creelman, a prominent journalist and editor, wrote: “In the upward reachings of Lincoln’s life there was a singular mysticism that sometimes startles one who contemplates the imperishable grandeur of his place in history. He saw omens in dreams and experimented with the ghostly world of Spiritualism. He predicted a violent death for himself, dreamed of his own assassination, and discussed the matter seriously, and gave evidence many times of a strange emotional exaltation, alternating with brooding sadness…but behind these eccentricities were sanity, conscience, strength, and far-seeing penetrativeness.”
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.
Next blog post: April 20
I am in the in the eaarly stages of a Lincoln Biography by David Herbert Donald a two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Gettysburg Prize for this book by Gettysburg College. He is a history professor at Harvard and this book about Lincoln is the best so far of the many I have read. On page 114 he talks about Peter Cartwright who was the Democrat candidate opposing Lincoln (Whig) in the Illinois Congressional Campaign and was a hellfire Methodist Circuit rider and wannabe politician. As Lincoln was campaigning in his district, Cartwright followed him around and mentioned the “infidel” and questioned Lincoln’s religiosity. When Lincoln found about it, he retraced his steps and addressed his situation with a small handbill he had printed. He argued the “Doctrine of Necessity”, which he had published earlier and admitted he was not a member of any Christian Church, but he had not spoken negatively or disrespectfully about any denomination or religion in general and he considered himself to be a spiritual person. He had a long association with Speed and with Herndon and considered them to be very good friends and associates. I look forward to what kind of responses you get in your blog as this seems like a provocative and interesting topic.
Ken Buehler, Sat 11 Apr, 05:03
Thanks for the post. Abe’s “Little book” was reportedly influenced by Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” which was Mr. Paine’s statement of faith “in one God, and no more; and ... hope for happiness beyond this life.” (and his condemnation of organized religion.) And seeing as how Thomas Paine was hounded for the rest of his life with charges of infidelity after writing his book, it is probably for the best that Lincoln burned his book and kept his religious views to himself afterward. It is otherwise unlikely he ever would have been elected president.
John W Mumaw, Wed 8 Apr, 15:51
Great article, Mike. I really enjoyed it.
Mark Ireland, Wed 8 Apr, 01:43
It is unfortunate that none of Lincoln’s actual writings on this matter survive. It is probable that Lincoln was acutely aware of the horrors inherent in the practice of religion in his day and was one of the very few with the courage to question the actuality of how beliefs were imposed via trying to frighten the average parishioner.
Being a man of formidable intelligence, he would see conventional religion for what it was – the selective application of convenient bits of their holy book such as to reinforce the power of the clergy. He might or might not have seen it as being based on an imaginary deity.
His experience with mediums gave him something not known to the average person – information from communicating entities regarding the continuation of life (as in consciousness) after physical death that would have conflicted absolutely with religious dogma.
This extract from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln_and_religion) makes for interesting reading:
Leslie Harris, Wed 8 Apr, 01:22
“Abraham Lincoln’s religious beliefs are a matter of interest among scholars and the public. Lincoln grew up in a highly religious family, but never joined any church. As a young man he was a skeptic. He frequently referred to God. He had a deep knowledge of the Bible and quoted it often. He attended Protestant church services with his wife and children, and after the deaths of two children became more intensely concerned with religion. He was private about his beliefs and respected the beliefs of others. Although Lincoln never made an unambiguous public profession of Christian belief, several people who knew him personally, such as Chaplain of the Senate Phineas Gurley and Mary Todd Lincoln herself, stated that he believed in Christ in the religious sense. However, some men who had known Lincoln for years, such as Ward Hill Lamon and William Herndon, rejected the idea that he was a believing Christian. During his 1846 run for the House of Representatives, in order to dispel accusations concerning his religious beliefs, Lincoln issued a handbill stating that he had “never denied the truth of the Scriptures.” Without question, he believed in an all-powerful God who shaped events and, by 1865, was expressing those beliefs in major speeches.”
Given Lincoln’s public position, it is unlikely that he could have espoused much more, no matter what he actually thought. In any event, it is a matter of record that many viewed unusual experiences through the narrow aperture of the prevailing religion of the day, Christianity, hence trying to make events and observations fit into their preconceived views.
(Interestingly, Arthur Findlay’s monumental “The Curse of Ignorance” was written not long after and one must wonder how Lincoln would have viewed it.)
Unfortunately, this whole matter is all conjecture.
If Lincoln “rejected a God of wrath and punishment in favor of one of justice and loving kindness,” he sounds like a very good Christian to me!
Elene Gusch, Tue 7 Apr, 20:57
Why wouldn’t Lincoln believe in Spiritulistic philosophy? He lost so many of his loved ones so early in his life - and then he lost children one of the hardest losses to endure. It also seems that he had some psychic abilities himself in premonitions of his own death. (Sorry I’ve been reading and writing on the computer too much today - can’t spell). Thanks for an interesting article which I took time to read!!!
Karen Herrick, Tue 7 Apr, 19:52
Hello, Mike, thank you for this. It strikes me that what we see in Lincoln is the path of any spiritually evolving person - not given to any particular creed or philosophy but simply open-minded and allowing the truth to take one wherever it might lead. Best to you, Wayne
Wayne Becker, Tue 7 Apr, 16:07
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