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Was Abraham Lincoln Born-Again?

Abraham Lincoln - A Christian?

by Dennis Pollock

While most Americans assume that if one is not an atheist or a Jew he is probably a Christian, we evangelicals are a little more skeptical. Knowing our Lord's insistence upon being born-again, we expect to both see fruit and hear words that mark one who truly loves Jesus. We have serious doubts about divas who talk about praying before their concerts, only to go out on stage wearing next to nothing and sing suggestive lyrics while they lift their audience into the heights of lust. We likewise wonder about politicians who attend prayer breakfasts while they do everything in their power to promote abortion and champion homosexual marriage. But even with the less blatant, we are skeptical when certain things are missing: when people never mention the name of Jesus in conversation, when they rarely go to church or else attend a liberal church where salvation is never brought up, or when the only time they touch the Bible is when they are moving it from one shelf to another.

Today let us consider the question: was our most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln, a born-again Christian? We know that his presidential speeches were peppered with references to God. We also know that are a lot of stories in circulation about him being very earthy and suggestions that he was a deist at best. So what is the truth?

Lincoln and God

I recently read a most excellent book, Lincoln's Battle with God, by Stephen Mansfield. In it he presents nearly all the solid available evidence, pro and con, for Lincoln, the Christian. While he comes short of saying that Lincoln was ever an orthodox Christian, he does present the view that Lincoln evolved greatly over the course of his life in terms of his acceptance of Biblical truth and Christianity.

One reason for the great contradiction between the two portrayals of Lincoln, devout believer or cynical skeptic, is that over the course of his life he was both. Born into a poor Kentucky family, Lincoln's parents were extremely devout Christians. They were deeply steeped in the Kentucky revivalist tradition that was popular at that time. They went to "camp meetings," shouted, cried, prayed, and lived a strict, some would say legalistic, life. But if both mother and father were united in their religious faith, they were worlds apart in their personalities. Lincoln's mother was gentle, loving, and nurturing, and young Abraham doted on her. He would hear her quoting Scriptures aloud during the day and memorized many of them. The Christianity she represented was attractive, comely. But with his father it was just the opposite. This strong-willed man believed in hard work, the fear of God, and little else. He had little appreciation for his son, whose enquiring mind and brilliant intellect sometimes kept him from doing his chores on time, or doing them at all.

Mansfield writes: "He punished the boy well into his teenage years, lacerated him with criticism, condemned him with Scripture, and forced him to work so tirelessly that Lincoln later told his audiences he had once been a slave… The two Lincoln men argued often, endured lengthy seasons of stony silence, and parted company almost as soon as the law allowed." Because Abraham's mother had died while he was only nine, Abraham came to identify Christianity with his domineering father and as a young adult decided he wanted nothing to do with it.

Abraham Lincoln became an infidel. As a young man he would read passages of Scripture to his friends and then attempt to demonstrate how ridiculous and false they were. John Stuart, a friend, wrote: "Lincoln went further against Christian beliefs, doctrines, and principles than any man I ever heard: he shocked me – Lincoln always denied… that Jesus was the Son of God as understood and maintained by the Christian world." Abraham haughtily dismissed Christianity as a myth.

Passage of Time

But time has a way of changing people, some for the better and some for the worse. In Lincoln's life it was clearly for the better. For all his loud and blustery talk, Abraham Lincoln was destined to become an instrument in the hands of the God he once denied. His progression toward faith in God was gradual, but once it began it never slowed down. One of the major milestones occurred while he was in his father-in-law's home, settling affairs for the family after the man's death. Lincoln happened upon a book written by a Pastor James Smith. The book was essentially an apologetics treatise, and answered the major criticisms raised against Christianity by the skeptics. Unlike most of the screaming preachers of the day, Smith was a scholarly man, whose careful reasoning and logical presentation of the evidence was not nearly so easy to ridicule. Lincoln also liked what Smith wrote about race, arguing that blacks and whites were essentially the same apart from skin color. The Christianity presented by Smith greatly impressed Lincoln, and while the future president did not submit to Christ there and then, the book did much to disarm him of his skepticism. Because the author lived in Springfield, Lincoln sought him out and had a number of conversations with him. He and his wife eventually started attending his church. Lincoln's brother-in-law reported that Lincoln told him, "I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of Christianity, and have heard him preach and converse on the subject , and I am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion."

Some writers have suggested that Lincoln's relationship with pastors was nothing more than a shrewd political ploy. There is evidence that in his early political days he did play the hypocrite in order to win favor with the voters. But by the time he became president, he was very earnest in his feelings about God. One evidence of this has to do with the prayer meetings at the church he attended during his presidency. Most people who attend church for social reasons are strictly SMOs (Sunday morning only Christians). Lincoln was not. He loved to attend the Thursday evening prayer meetings. But soon this presented a problem for him and for the church, as he attracted all kinds of people to the gathering who only wanted to see the president and ask favors from him. The pastor suggested that the president sit in his own adjacent office during the meetings, where he could experience the prayer meetings anonymously. This became his practice, and many a Thursday evening Lincoln would slip into the office and pray quietly while the others prayed aloud, not realizing that the president was even in the building.

Bible Reader

It is strange and yet significant that throughout his life, even during his days as a scoffer, Lincoln read the Bible. Lincoln was a natural reader, and somehow couldn't keep from picking it up and reading. Perhaps at first he read it merely to find ammunition for his mockery, but as the years rolled by he found himself more and more impressed with and affected by the Scriptures. Even in general conversations he would quote Scriptures to make his points. Eventually he would memorize huge sections of the New Testament. Celia Holland wrote an article about Julie Taft who at 16 used to bring her brothers over to play with Lincoln's boys at the White House. Describing how young Julie would sometimes avail herself of a book from Lincoln's library, she writes: "She liked to curl up to read in a favorite chair in Lincoln's own study, often with Lincoln himself sitting nearby reading his Bible, one long leg crossed over the other, the sock foot gently wagging."

As Lincoln slowly but surely inched closer and closer toward evangelical Christianity, it was probably the Bible reading more than anything else that served as fuel which would not allow him to settle down into atheism or deism. After becoming president and finding himself in the midst of the most terrible war the United States had ever seen, Lincoln's thinking and speeches became more and more focused on the sovereignty of God. One of the things that frustrated and perplexed the president was just how "unlucky" the north was in the early years of the war. By rights, the Civil War should have been over in a short time, with the north experiencing a thorough and decisive victory. Yet all sorts of factors kept that from happening: union generals with great résumés but unable to lead, freak circumstances that led to southern victories, General Robert E. Lee, who seemed invincible for the first half of the war… It seemed to Lincoln as though God Himself was prolonging this war and requiring bloodshed far beyond anything anyone had ever imagined.

Lincoln the Prophet

Lincoln finally concluded that the United States was being punished for centuries of enslaving the black race. In his Second Inaugural Address, he declared: "if God wills that it (the war) continue, until all the wealth piled up by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" Stephen Mansfield writes: "This Second Inaugural Address was more than a speech. It was Lincoln as prophet pleading the case of God."

The battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War and it may well have been a turning point in Lincoln's life as well. Until now things had not gone at all well for the Union armies. Without a major victory soon the nation would not endure more slaughter of her sons. At Gettysburg there was great panic in Washington, knowing that if Lee beat the Union army of General Meade, Washington D. C. might be next in Lee's crosshairs. The president of the United States later shared these words with one of his generals: "I went into my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told Him… we couldn't stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville (major Union defeats). And I then and there made a solemn vow to Almighty God that if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him. And He did, and I will. And after that, I don't know how it was and I can't explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that things would go all right at Gettysburg…" Things did indeed go all right at Gettysburg, which became a decisive victory for the north.

On the evening of April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was sitting with his wife in a theater box. According to Mary Todd Lincoln, he leaned over and spoke of their plans after his days as president were over, saying, "We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem…" At that point the loud crack of a derringer filled the air. Abraham Lincoln slumped over in his seat, never to regain consciousness in this life. Nine hours later he belonged to the ages.

Was He or Wasn’t He?

Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian? Certainly not during the majority of his life, but there is fairly strong evidence that by his final night in Ford's Theater, he had indeed put his faith in Jesus Christ and been born again. If so, his was not the dramatic conversion we love to celebrate. There was no life-changing vision, no Saul of Tarsus experience. Nor did he come to Christ through hearing any of the many loud, forceful preachers of his day. He had heard plenty of sermons, but sermons didn't do the job for him. His experience with Christ was more of a thoughtful, gradual moving toward the Savior through the varied and often tragic events of his life.

The reality is this: it is not so important how you get to the Savior, as long as you get to Him. For some, salvation comes with a bang. There are tears and emotions to spare. But with others, generally the more intellectual types, it may be the result of a lengthy process of thought and consideration. But sooner or later, whether with explosive emotion or cool deliberation there must be a crossing over from death to life, from condemnation to forgiveness. This we call being born again and it works the same for presidents and plumbers, for statesmen and middle school teachers. It is not an option. Our Lord Jesus has told us plainly, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."



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