Stephen Mansfield on the Faith of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 8, 1863. Photo by Alexander Gardner/LOC/Creative Commons

Stephen Mansfield is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Faith of George W. Bush,” “The Faith of Barack Obama,” “Lincoln’s Battle with God” and “Choosing Donald Trump.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.


The recent rediscovery of a Bible once owned by Abraham Lincoln has renewed a long-standing debate about Lincoln’s faith and what role it played in his life and presidency. It has also reminded us how maddeningly untraditional and surprisingly modern his faith was.

The high ground in these debates has long been occupied by those who see Lincoln as a stalwart believer, a man converted and equal to the many references to God in his magnificent speeches.

Then there are those, most Lincoln scholars among them, who insist that Lincoln was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, and that his public use of God-language was merely the religious window dressing required of politicians in a religious age.

A wide variety of other views are arrayed between these two camps — not to mention a few outliers that maintain, for instance, that Lincoln was a wizard who astonished friends with his magical powers.

Obscured by the fog of these debates is the reality that the story of Lincoln’s faith was a journey, a progression. He was an atheist, then a seeker. He claimed to be spiritual but not religious, was churched though not converted. Ultimately, he was convinced of God’s existence but agonized over the meaning of Providence in a tragic world.

In other words, Lincoln’s faith was much like what we see among millions today.

He spent his childhood on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening, that raucous, fiery, transforming revival that drew teeming crowds and set young Abraham’s home state of Kentucky ablaze. Lincoln watched but was not won, the awakening proving too sweaty, too loud, too intellectually thin for his sensitive young soul.

It did not help that his father was the kind of man who would get weepy about Jesus at dinner and the next day treat his children harshly. It served to drive Abraham from the fold.

At the age of 21, Lincoln left his family and settled in New Salem, Illinois. His later law partner, William Herndon, said of this time that Lincoln was “surrounded by a class of people exceedingly liberal in matters of religion.” He began reading works like Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason,” Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and Constantin-Francois Volney’s “The Ruins of Empires.” These convinced Lincoln of both the fallacy of the Christian faith and the folly of religious men.

He became the village atheist. He carried a Bible only to argue against it. He was contentious and began living out what Winston Churchill would offer as a definition of a fanatic: “one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” People saw him on the streets of New Salem and quickly walked the other way.

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Source: Religion News Service