In debates on whether Ohio’s state motto unconstitutionally advances religion, some motto supporters pointed out that Abraham Lincoln mentioned God in some of his speeches. Lincoln’s religious views, however, were inconsistent with the motto.
Ohio’s motto, “With God, all things are possible,” is from Jesus’ teachings on salvation as set forth at Matthew 19:26. The motto thus endorses Christian theology, including the belief that God assists human activities by intervening in the world and altering the course of nature. Lincoln did not subscribe to those ideas.
As a young man, Lincoln read the theological works of the deist Thomas Paine. It was well known among his friends and neighbors that he agreed with Paine and was a deist and infidel. Historian Craig Nelson writes that Lincoln was “converted to a life of deism after repeatedly studying [Paine’s] The Age of Reason. . . .”
The youthful Lincoln even wrote a manuscript, which he intended to publish, extolling deism and arguing against the divinity of Christ and the divine inspiration of the Bible.
One of his friends became worried about the effect this writing would have on Lincoln’s career, and therefore destroyed it by throwing it into a fire. Nonetheless, Lincoln never denied he had written the manuscript. Nor did he ever disavow the views contained in it, join a Christian church, or be baptized.
His friend’s concerns turned out to be well founded. When Lincoln ran for state legislature in the 1830s, his opponent accused him of being an infidel and of having called Jesus an illegitimate child. And when Lincoln ran for Congress against a Methodist minister in 1846, he was again charged with being an infidel, if not an atheist.
Lincoln did not deny the charges of infidelity, which were indeed injurious to his early political career. But these experiences taught him to keep his religious views much more private.
As a result, Lincoln’s later public statements about religion became guarded and discreet. He employed vague language such as “Divine Providence,” “Justice of God,” “Most High,” and other expressions that were generally consistent with his own deistic inclinations and the various religious views of his constituents.
Still, when he ran for president in 1860, his candidacy was opposed by 20 of the 23 ministers in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
The outbreak of the Civil War made even more imperative the need for Lincoln to appease religious groups and downplay his disagreements with their creeds. The southern churches had sided with the Confederacy, and the northern churches were divided. Lincoln knew that if he lost the support of religious persons in the North, his administration and the Union would be ruined.
It was in this political context that Lincoln, in some of his speeches, was impelled to employ vague, deferential, and sometimes complimentary references to religion as part of his efforts to save the Union. He sincerely needed and appreciated the support of ministers and their congregations in the war effort.
Nevertheless, a careful reading of Lincoln’s speeches gives no clear indication that his views about Christian theology had changed from his younger days. In fact, he never publicly renounced his earlier views – despite the political benefits he could have gained by doing so.
Instead, as the New York World stated in about 1875: “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.”
Although Lincoln expressed religious platitudes during the Civil War, his specific ideas about the divinity differed markedly from those of the orthodox churches. His close friends knew the details of his private beliefs.
For instance, Jesse W. Fell had been secretary of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee, and was instrumental in bringing forth Lincoln as a candidate for president. Fell later wrote of Lincoln’s religious views: “He fully believed in a superintending and overruling Providence that guides and controls the operations of the world, but maintained that law and order, not their violation or suspension, are the appointed means by which this Providence is exercised.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis, appointed to the court by Lincoln, was a longtime confidant since their days as Illinois circuit-riding lawyers. He served as Lincoln’s campaign manager at the 1860 Republican convention, and administered the estate of the slain president. Davis said of Lincoln’s religion: “He had no faith, in the Christian sense of the term – had faith in laws, principles, causes and effects.”
Lincoln’s law partner of 22 years, William Herndon, similarly related that Lincoln did not believe in miracles or the efficacy of prayer. According to Herndon, Lincoln maintained “that all things, both matter and mind, were governed by laws, universal, absolute and eternal. . . . Law was to Lincoln everything, and special interferences [were] shams and delusions.”
Herndon also said there is no evidence that Lincoln’s religious views changed after he became president. Herndon wrote in the 1890s: “Now let it be written in history and on Mr. Lincoln’s tomb: ‘He died an unbeliever.'”
Moreover, Mrs. Lincoln quoted her husband as saying, “What is to be will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.” She explained he “was a religious man always, I think, but was not a technical Christian.”
The famous orator Robert Ingersoll corroborated that fact. He served as Illinois Attorney General in the 1860s, was somewhat acquainted with Lincoln, and knew well many of Lincoln’s friends and associates.
In regard to Mrs. Lincoln’s statement that her husband was not a Christian, Ingersoll added: “Hundreds of his acquaintances have said the same thing. Not only so, but many of them have testified that he was a Freethinker; that he denied the inspiration of the Scriptures, and that he always insisted that Christ was not the Son of God. . . .”
Because Lincoln rejected the idea of miracles and other supernatural interference with the laws of nature, he emphasized reliance on human effort in solving problems. In an 1856 speech in Kansas, he stated: “Friends, I agree with you in Providence; but I believe in the Providence of the most men, the largest purse, and the longest cannon.”
Lincoln also advocated the use of reason and experience instead of an unquestioning adherence to ancient doctrines. He explained in an 1860 speech in New York: “I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience – to reject all progress, all improvement.”
In an 1892 editorial, the Chicago Herald summarized Lincoln’s religious views: “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. . . . It must be accepted as final by every reasonable mind that in religion Mr. Lincoln was a skeptic.”
[Much of the information in this article is from Franklin Steiner’s book The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: From Washington to F.D.R. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, Reprinted 1995).]