Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Abraham Lincoln - Unitarian, Universalist, Deist, or Atheist?

A pretty comprehensive look at the religious beliefs of Abraham Lincoln and the early controversy when Christians tried to claim him as one of theirs after his death. After their first attempt in a hasty biography by a Dr. Holland was shot down by the more comprehensive biography by his friend Colonel Ward H. Lamon, a second attempt was made by a Presbyterian minister in Springfield who claimed his predecessor Rev. Dr. James Smith had converted the adult Lincoln, a very vocal atheist in his youth. The evidence seems clear that Mrs. Lincoln joined the church and Lincoln was presented with a book by Dr. Smith attempted to sway the unchurched but that Lincoln never joined the church.

Another long letter from Lincoln's close friend William Herndon goes on extensively about his lack of orthodoxy.

As a politician, Lincoln had learned to express his faith in God or Providence while avoiding expressing his lack of belief in the veracity of the Bible and the divinity of Christ. This is similar to the experience of the Deist Thomas Jefferson which the more ignorant and credulous of Christians have also claimed as one of their own. As with Jefferson and Thomas Paine, Lincoln had produced a small book of his religious beliefs and lack thereof but a friend of Lincoln's tossed the book into a fireplace for fear it might damage his political career. Jefferson's redacted New Testament with all the miracles and "superstitions" taken out was not published until after Jefferson's death while Thomas Paine's religious books harmed his later reputation in the United States.

The friend who was instrumental in getting Lincoln the Republican nomination for president gave Lincoln a complete set of the works of the Unitarian Dr. W. E. Channing as well as the writings of Theodore Parker. Afterwards he had discussions with Lincoln and thought Lincoln had a religious viewpoint similar to that of Parker - author of the sermon The Permanent and Transient in Christianity which argues against the veracity of the Bible. Another Parker belief:
"Manly natural religion -- it is not joining the Church; it is not to believe in a creed, Hebrew, Protestant, Catholic, Trinitarian, Unitarian, Nothingarian. It is not to keep Sunday idle; to attend meetings; to be wet with water; to read the Bible; to offer prayers in words; to take bread and wine in the meeting house; love a scape-goat Jesus, or any other theological clap-trap."
Jesse W. Fell wrote:
"On the innate depravity of man, the character and office of the great head of the Church, the Atonement, the infallibility of the written revelation, the performance of miracles, the nature and design of present and future rewards and punishments (as they are popularly called) and many other subjects, he held opinions utterly at variance with what are usually taught in the Church. I should say that his expressed views on these and kindred subjects were such as, in the estimation of most believers, would place him entirely outside the Christian pale. Yet to my mind, such was not the true position, since his principles and practices and the spirit of his whole life were of the very kind we universally agree to call Christian; and I think this conclusion is in no wise affected by the circumstance that he never attached himself to any religious society whatever.
Another close friend of Lincoln's, Bishop Matthew Simpson of the Methodist Church in Washington, is often given as another source for the"Christianity" of Lincoln but his actual words on the subject say "as to his religious experience I cannot speak definitely, because I was not privileged to know much of his private sentiments" and then shows his character and actions as examples of the highest Christian virtues. Like many Christian ministers he fails to make clear to his audience that Christian virtues can be found among the non-Christians. Many infidels, including Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have admired some of Christ's teachings, but none of them believed in his divinity or supernatural character.

The case for Lincoln's Universalist beliefs can be summarized by Lincoln's Secretary of State, William H. Seward, who recalled the following story often told by Lincoln to illustrate his disdain for the doctrine of eternal punishment:
"I recall President Lincoln's story of the intrusion of the Universalists into the town of Springfield.

"The several orthodox Churches agreed that their pastors should preach down the heresy. One of them began his discourse with these emphatic words: 'My brethren, there is a dangerous doctrine creeping in among us. There are those who are teaching that all men will be saved; but, my dear brethren, we hope for better things." (Travels Around the World, p. 545.)
In the Lincoln Memorial Album, pp. 336-337, it is related that Mr. Lincoln gave a Universalist minister an appointment as chaplain, notwithstanding that a delegation of the orthodox waited upon him to protest against the appointment.
Regarding eternal punishment, he said: "If God be a just God, all will be saved or none." (Manford's Magazine.) In this connection he was fond of repeating the epitaph on the Kickapoo Indian, Johnnie Kongapod:
"Here lies poor Johnnie Kongapod;
Have mercy on him, gracious God,
As he would do if he were God
And you were Johnnie Kongapod."

"Abraham Lincoln's belief was clear and fixed so far as it went, but he rejected important dogmas which are essential to salvation by some of the evangelical denominations. 'Whenever any Church will inscribe over its altar as a qualification for membership the Saviour's statement of the substance of the law and the gospel, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself," that Church will I join with all my heart and soul.'" (Abraham Lincoln, p. 375.)

A little more history in closing:
In 1864, Lincoln issued a fervent Thanksgiving Proclamation. Of this, Judge Nelson says: "I once asked him about his fervent Thanksgiving Message and twitted him with being an unbeliever in what was published. 'Oh,' said he, 'that is some of Seward's nonsense, and it pleases the fools.'"

The Opinions of Independent Investigators. The New York World (about 1875), in summing up the facts concerning Lincoln's religious beliefs, said:
"While it may be fairly said that Mr. Lincoln entertained many Christian sentiments, it cannot be said that he was himself a Christian in faith or practice. He was no disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. He did not believe in his divinity and was not a member of his Church.

"He was at first a writing Infidel of the school of Paine and Volney, and afterwards a talking Infidel of the school of Parker and Channing."
The World then refers to Lincoln's friendly attitude toward the Churches during the war:
"If the Churches had grown cold -- if the Christians had taken a stand aloof -- that instant the Union would have perished. Mr. Lincoln regulated his religious manifestations accordingly. He declared frequently that he would do anything to save the Union, and among the many things he did was the partial concealment of his individual religious opinions. Is this a blot upon his fame? Or shall we all agree that it was a conscientious and patriotic sacrifice?"
As evidence of Lincoln's piety, we are often referred to the picture of himself and his family in a reverential group. Lincoln has a Bible before him, and his son Tad is at his side. The Boston Globe said:
"The pretty little story about the picture of President Lincoln and his son Tad reading the Bible is now corrected for the one-hundredth time. The Bible was Photographer Brady's picture album, which the President was examining with his son while some ladies stood by. The artist begged the President to remain quiet, and the picture was taken. The truth is better than fiction, even if its recital conflicts with a pleasing theory."
Manford's Magazine (January, 1869), a religious periodical, published in Chicago, made the following comment:
"That Mr. Lincoln was a believer in the Christian religion, as understood by the so-called orthodox sects of the day, I am compelled most emphatically to deny; that is, if I put faith in the statements of his most intimate friends in this city (Springfield). All of them with whom I have conversed on this subject agree in endorsing the statement of Mr. Herndon. Indeed, many of them unreservedly call him an Infidel."
The Herald and Review, a Seventh Day Adventist journal, said, in 1890:
"The testimony seems conclusive.... The majority of the great men of the world have always rejected Christ, and, according to the Scriptures, always will; and the efforts of Christians to make it appear that certain great men who never professed Christianity were in reality Christians, is simply saying that Christianity cannot stand on its own merits, but must have the support of great names to entitle it to favorable consideration."
Several other ministers seem to have taken it upon themselves to describe their conversions of Lincoln many years after the supposed events of which no evidence exists and which contradict many other sources and the other conversion stories. Probably the less said about these Christian embarrassments the better.

The Rev. John W. Chadwick, the well-known Unitarian minister, of Brooklyn, N.Y., in an address delivered in Tremont Temple, Boston, in 1872, upon a proposed "Christian Amendment" to the Constitution, recognizing the Bible, God, and making Christianity the state religion, said:
"Of the six men who have done most to make America the wonder and the joy she is to all of us, not one could be the citizen of a government so constituted; for Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, certainly the mightiest leaders in our early history, were heretics in their day, Deists, as men called them; and Garrison, Lincoln and Sumner, certainly the mightiest in these later times, would all be disfranchised by the proposed amendment... Lincoln could not have taken the oath of office had such a clause been in the Constitution."
During February, 1892, the Chicago Herald published an editorial on Lincoln's religion. The most important points:
"He was without faith in the Bible or its teachings. On this point the testimony is so overwhelming that there is no basis for doubt. In his early life Lincoln exhibited a powerful tendency to aggressive Infidelity. But when he grew to be a politician he became secretive and non-committal in his religious belief. He was shrewd enough to realize the necessity of reticence with the convictions he possessed if he hoped to succeed in politics."

"So it must be accepted as final by every reasonable mind that in religion Mr. Lincoln was a skeptic. But above all things he was not a hypocrite or pretender. He was a plain man, rugged and earnest, and he pretended to be nothing more. He believed in humanity, and he was incapable of Phariseeism. He had great respect for the feelings and convictions of others, but he was not a sniveler. He was honest and he was sincere, and taking him simply for what he was, we are not likely soon to see his like again."

Had Abraham Lincoln died as an obscure Springfield lawyer and politician; had he advanced no further in political preferment than his one term in Congress, nothing would have ever been said about his being a believer in orthodox religion. But when a man becomes prominent, and reaches the highest place in the gift of the nation, and in addition becomes a hero and a martyr, he is idealized. His virtues are exaggerated and his faults extenuated. Regardless of his real religious views, the ministers laud him as an orthodox believer and shining exemplar of Christianity. In time this passes as history, unless it is vigorously contradicted. If a man is a good man, they hold that he must have been a Christian. They likewise say that no bad man can possibly be one.
Maybe some other time I will post some arguments on the possibility that Lincoln was the first bisexual President and the second gay or on the heresies of George Washington.