A Long, Long Time Ago in the Land of Lincoln: The Faith of Abraham Lincoln

Religious expression by Presidents today is infrequent, and if it happens at all there are some who claim to have been offended. We live in  time where many want to sweep faith under the rug and when protests are made, usually by a tiny but noisy minority, that religion has no place in the public square. But the two presidents we honor today lived in a different time, a time when religious expression was an accepted part of the national scene. The ease with which both Washington and Lincoln speak of God, and the lack of protest at their utterances depict a time when Faith was integral to life in America.

Back in November we discussed some of the ways our First President George Washington invoked God in National Addresses. If you missed it, it is here: A Founding Father Gives Thanks to God.  But today I’d like to present a few quotes here from Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was not initially known as a religious man. He belonged to no denomination and did not attend church with any regularity. When asked of this he responded by citing annoyance over the varying creeds and doctrinal squabbles among Christians. But Lincoln lived in a time where God was more present in the national psyche than today. The more religious climate than now combined with the terrible tragedy of the war and also the death of his son in 1862 combined to make Mr. Lincoln more religious as his presidency unfolded. More frequent and fervent references to God and requests for prayer began to dot his speeches and proclamations. There are many that could be cited, but perhaps just a few here. As you read them, consider how they reflect his own faith and trust but also how they reflect the religious sensibilities of the time. Imagine some of these things being said of done now! Caution you are about to enter a non-religion-free zone!

That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular….I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.” [Abraham Lincoln On Campaign, July 31, 1846]

The Almighty has His own purposes….Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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.” (Abraham Lincoln – Second Inaugural Address)

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch  as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.” [Abraham Lincoln, a Proclamation of a National Day of Fasting and Prayer, March 30, 1863]

“I invite the people of the United states (on Aug 6)… to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit… to guide the counsels of the government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles, and sieges have been brought to suffer in mind, body, or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and internal peace.” [Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation of a National Day of Prayer, July 15, 1863]

Amazing really. The third quote sounded almost like the sermon of a prophet. Go on Mr. President!

My, how times have changed. I am not that old (just shy of 50) and I can remember living in the deep south and attending public school. Every day the Principal, Mr Bulware would turn on the PA system. Every one stood and we said the Pledge of Allegiance and then a student would read from the King James Bible. Mr. Bulware would then called us to a moment of silent prayer and things concluded by the Our Father (with the Protestant ending). Evidently Mr. Bulware had not gotten the memo that the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 had issued rulings against such prayer. But there we were still, in the late 1960s,  praying and reading from the Bible (John 3:16 was a favorite along with the 23rd Psalm). But no one in our sleepy Southern town of Orange Park ever questioned the fact that you started the school day with prayer. Even into High School in the mid 1970s we still sang Christmas carols that spoke clearly of Christ and his birth (e.g. Silent Night, O Come All Ye faithful). But in my brief lifetime that’s  all changed. Don’t you dare mention Jesus in a public school today! Prayer and Bible Reading? Unthinkable! But not so long ago things were very different. Imagine a president today speaking like Lincoln did in these quotes.

Once upon a time in a moral galaxy far far away, God was freely mentioned, invoked and accepted as part of the National Discourse.

17 Replies to “A Long, Long Time Ago in the Land of Lincoln: The Faith of Abraham Lincoln”

  1. When I was younger, I thought Lincoln, a good president. After having survived public education, I really wonder who his teleprompter was? Our Lady said war was a punishment for sin. lincolns presidency occured at the time of Lasalette, Our Lady of Grace, and Lourdes. The soveriengty of the states was given to 9 people who now tell us what we can say in our “free” land, about God. Basicaly, nothing. I think that in the south, Carolina would not be separate, in north or south, but one and equal. That the church would have gotten rid of slavery as it has in every nation in which it found citizens willing for the greater goodness of Jesus. To think of lincoln now, one has to read what was done behind the public speaches, to see where he destroyed our unity, in favor of a few people to control our nation. He isnt unlike our current “president”, bowing before the world, and with honeyed tounge, telling us we have to be part of the new order. Look behind the speaches, and see the religating of christians to killing our brothers, and putting up with the killing of babies, and submtting to the law, of the few.

    1. I am not sure I really follow a lot of the connections you are making. It is true that Mr. Lincoln did some very questionable things in terms of Constitutional law. It was a time however of national crisis and war. I too have read some revisionist histories of Lincoln and find many of their concerns compelling to some degree. Surely the Central Government expanded and some constitutional rights seem to have been suspended. But in the end I always come back to the fact that it was a time unprecedented in our history and never since surpassed in terms of national crisis.

      As for connecting Lincoln to the current situation, that all seems murky to me. The Political landscape has shifted significantly in the past 140 years. I also stay away from overt political things on this blog. Though J. I will say that I don’t think anyone, supporter of the president or not, should appreciate you putting “president” in quotes. He is the current President of this country, duly elected and properly refered to as the President of the United States. In the end, you and I and others may differ with the President on some or many issues but he is the President.

      Some of the other points you make comparing President Obama to President Lincoln are hard to follow so I can’t really comment on them

      1. God is great and I think that people can choose what religion they want to be, but God will always be the only way in my life. Abraham Lincoln turned to God when his son died and started to refer more to him as he grew older. God shouldn’t be a fall back he should be your life. That is why President Bush(s) are the best and why Obama……. is another story. I loved Abraham Lincoln. I thought he was a great president. He grew better and better as he said more things about God. Became more wise he sure did.

        1. Ah Granny, that too is my understanding of Lincoln though some modern historians doubt what you and I think. Not all do though. I hope you will understand that I am not going anywhere near your other comments about our current and recent presidents since this blog isn’t partisan and can’t be. 🙂

  2. I think historians and scholars chalk up Lincoln’s religious words to “he did it for national unity, nothing else.”

    1. You may be right. I offer the possibility that Lincoln became more religious in his later years only as one interpretation of the Data. It reamins true that politicians, epecially in the past, often appealed to religious themes to “connect” with the populous. But that is really my central point here, that America was once and really until quite recently a far more consciously religious country. By the mid 70s public figures who talked about “the Lord” and “the Almighty” were being labeled Jesus freaks, religious zealots, and Moral Majority right wingers. Now they are called insensitve and divisive. I am convinced that these sorts of complaints are from a small but vocal minority of Americans. But they have been effective in eliminating religious speech in many ways. Much has changed in the good ole USA.

  3. Good Article Msgr. Pope. God and Country. Lincoln could speak compellingly in the idioms of coarse country humor or a rolling rhetoric he learned from reading Shakespeare and the Bible. Prior to the start of the Civil War Southern plantations provided raw materials for the Industrialized North, and the North provided the South with finished goods. “In brief and in short,” concluded Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, “the two halves of this Union were made for each other as much as Adam and Eve.” (Brother against Brother – The War Begins: Time Life Books; 1983) God is the golden thread which holds the fabric of society together until society transgresses against God by disobedience similiar to Adam and Eve. Todays problems stem from Roe v. Wade where humans become as like unto Gods when they make decisions which should be left to God when dealing with life, death, and the Soul. Without God we are like a boat drifting without an anchor. During the Civil War it was common for Commanders on both sides to invoke the Grace of God by reading from the Bible before going into battle. In the autumn of 1860, 1,108 Officers of the United States Army graduated from West Point, and were scattered across the nation. Forty percent of the class “went South.” Army Brass on both sides pledged their allegiance to God and Country.

  4. Yes. And on a personal note, in coming back to the Church, I find it difficult as an individual to adapt myself and use ‘religious speech’. It is good for me to read it being used by others, however. Actually, if I may recall, even in the forties and fifties as a child however, I don’t remember my family speaking religiously; religion was something talked about, and we prayed at school, not at home. We had the calendars, and went to church on Sunday, and that was all. I came from a ‘poorer’ Irish Catholic family; where the tradition was well grounded, but even then my immediate family was adapting to the ethic of the ‘business world’. But it is specifically these issues that I feel are predominant, and show in all of the peripheral issues that have been spoken about recently on this blog; i.e. the general secularization of society. Thank you.

  5. This “religion” comes from the age of “enlightment”. Mr. Lincoln did not practice what he “preached”. Law breaker, liar, murder, theif, bigot…,etc., etc., etc. Besides, there is no mention of Our Lord Jesus anywhere in our founding documents.

    1. Hmmm….pretty severe denunciation of Lincoln. A little over the top No?

      As for Jesus being mentioned nowhere in our founding documents, not exactly true. From the conclusion of the US Constitution:

      Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names.

      “Our Lord” aka Jesus the Lord for the year is a reference to his birth. Not exactly a sectarian affirmation but still a reference to Jesus “Our Lord”

      1. Msgr. Pope: Very good point – “in the year of our Lord”. Perhaps my denunciation of Lincoln was a bit simple; however, in like manner we don’t respect Herod for his construction skills. My research over the past 8-10 years has revealed to me the True history of our land and of the world. I have found that wherever the Church is not supreme then neither is the truth. Respectfully, Ken

        1. Yes, Thanks. I must admit being a bit surprised at what I experince accounts of Lincoln that are far more negative than what I grew up with. I remember as a young Child in Chicago that Lincoln was seen as a hero and the Civil War was a noble war to end slavery. When we moved for three years to the deep South I heard very different accounts. It was the “war of northern agression” and that the idea of ending slavery was only tacked on at the end. But then I left the South and came north again and Lincoln was a hero again.

          I know the truth of heroes is usually more mixed than admirers like to admit. The Bible has a great way of showing this. Hence I am surely prepared to hear that the simplified history I was given in Public School is in need of greater sophistication. In the end though I think we have to admit that had Lincoln not had the resolve he had this nation’s stength and rural/industrial diversity would have been seriously compromised and we would never have become what we are. Beyond doubt, Lincoln profoundly affected our destiny.

  6. http://stores.lulu.com/tower7 Here is some info from the Catholic viewpoint…very interesting stuff from Professor Miller. If you someday read these (and More), please in you spare time e mail me your thoughts! Yours in Christ! Ken

  7. This is an excellent article. For those of your readers interested in more on this issue, there’s a very good book by William Lee Miller entitled ” Lincoln’s Virtues, an Ethical Biography”, which may be what Mr. Kannady was referring to. It traces Lincoln’s moral development and thought.

    Apparently, in his younger years Lincoln was rather critical of religion in general. Your first quote cited above (1846 on campaign) is what we would today call “damage control”. It arose in response to his opponent’s allegations that Lincoln was, in his words, ” in open scoffer at Christianity”. Thereafter, Lincoln was careful with what he said (even in casual conversation) about organized religion, and he confined himself to general quotes from Scripture.

    Ultimately, I think Lincoln’s personal views are really beyond our recognition. There are indications and remarks that could support either position. (Personally, I think it is pretty clear, however, that Lincoln did experience spiritual growth as he aged).

    Moreover, as several folks above have mentioned, remarks about God and religion were commonplace – even expected of politicians – in mid-19th century America.

    Nevertheless, as is so often the case when Scripture is employed or the Lord involked, Lincoln’s words transcend beyond the personal beliefs, prejudices, or spiritual limitations of the speaker. In many respects, his was God’s message, and that was how the majority of Lincoln’s northern contemporaries viewed it as well.

    1. Yes, agreed. I think we can’t know for sure but if one has any spirituality at all it’s hard not to grow spiritually through suffering and Lincoln had a lot of it.

  8. In a small town in the Midwest, my father and his siblings attended Catholic school. My mother and her siblings were too poor and not the right ethnic group to get aid, so they went to public school. In almost every community in the area it was a settled practice that the Chairman of the School Board was the Protestant pastor of the town. One town was told they at to at least go through the formalites of an election so at the end of the congregational meeting confirming a new pastor, it was adjourned, re-convened as a Town Meeting, a motion made to appoint the new minister as School Board Chairman and adjourned again, all in less than five mins. (and of course, the Catholics knew nothing of this “town meeting.”)

    Protestant evangelization and prayer in the school was overwhelming and all at taxpayer expense.

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