Lincoln, the Irreligious

This is the year, apparently, when I come to grips with Mr. Lincoln’s practical atheism. He does God’s work, as I see it, in his preservation of the Union and emancipation of the African slaves. Granted, he made statements, mostly aimed at mollifying the Southern states, that put the preservation of our Union over emancipation. Thus, Mr. Lincoln uttered words that would be unthinkable in our day. He was not in our day and must be judged by the forces incumbent on him in his own time.

He consistently swam against the tide of his times. He would not fight unless forced and never used more force than he needed. He took no liquor or tobacco, abhorred his own “insatiable lust” and bemoaned his superficiality of character. He would find our culture bewildering. In his day, work on one’s character was as important as technical education is in our day.

So, he did God’s work, performed ethically with consistent honesty and worked hard on himself. He also once published a completely hateful pamphlet that condemned religion of any kind that was so vitriolic, his friends bought up every copy and burned them all, in fear that his comments would end his political career. His ill-tempered words are lost to history, but not his actions.

Mr. Lincoln:

  • Never joined a church of any kind. This includes the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church, where all his family joined, and every church he attended thereafter. He reserved a pew in the expected church in DC when he served there and he attended but he never joined a church. He was never baptized, or mentioned taking the Eucharist. He and his wife had a marriage ceremony in front of an Episcopalian minister in canonical robes reading from the Book of Common Prayer, but that seems to have been pro forma. At one point in the service, one of the wedding party snorted aloud, “God Almighty, Lincoln, this is all covered in the (state) statute.”
  • His associations were with the irreligious; John Hay, John Nicolay, William Seward, or with the outright atheist, like Billy Herndon, his law partner. Herndon denied any association with religion by Lincoln.
  • After his murder, countless preachers claimed to have baptized him but no one can produce a witness to the baptism.

So, we are left to think deeply about this matter. Just as deeply, it seems, as did Mr. Lincoln.


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