“Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s film on the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s administration, largely ignores the religious faith of our 16th president, as do most films and all too many books about him.
There has long been controversy over whether or not Lincoln was a believer. He joined no church and was quite skeptical when he was a young man confronted with Holy Roller style preaching. Circuit preacher Peter Cartwright spread rumors that Lincoln was “a religious scoffer,” to which Lincoln responded via a letter to the editor denying that he was “an infidel.”
But before and after Lincoln left Illinois his close contact with two Presbyterian ministers offer plenty of evidence that, if not an orthodox Christian, Lincoln was by no means “an infidel.”
Lincoln was unorthodox in that he was more of a Universalist than most Christians: he could not see how a God of infinite love could send persons into everlasting torment. His keen analytic mind was turned off by Fundamentalist frontier preachers who appealed to emotions and scorned reason. A “free thinker,” Lincoln did not join a church, which has bolstered the belief of some that he believed in Fate rather than God. However, the latter view ignores a great amount of evidence from Lincoln’s life and writings.
In 1850, when the Lincolns’ son Eddie died, James Smith, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, preached so effectively at the boy’s funeral that Mary Todd Lincoln joined the church. Although her husband did not apply for membership, he attended the Sunday service with her when he was not out riding with the judge and his fellow lawyers on their judicial circuit around Illinois.
Smith became a spiritual mentor for Lincoln, who studied the pastor’s book “The Christian’s Defense.” The work was based on reason as well as the Bible, thus appealing to the lawyerly mind of Lincoln. The two became friends, with Smith himself having come to his reasonable faith after passing through a period of doubt. Lincoln even gave a lecture on the Bible at First Church. The pastor and president corresponded with each other after Lincoln moved to Washington, and late in his administration Lincoln appointed Smith to a diplomatic post in Scotland.
In Washington the Lincolns attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Phineas D. Gurley, also chaplain of the U.S. Senate, preached.
Gurley’s sermons also appealed to the president’s mind and heart. As the president’s pastor, Gurley frequently called at the White House to discuss theology and Bible with his famous parishioner. Most weeks the president attended the congregation’s midweek prayer service, but he usually did not sit in his family pew because of the commotion his attendance would cause in the smaller gathering. Instead, he sat in the pastor’s study with the door slightly open so that he could hear the proceedings. A man of prayer himself, Lincoln found great comfort from the service. Gurley was present in the hotel room where Lincoln died, and he preached the sermon at the funeral held at the White House.
Two other clergy whom Lincoln respected and who also influenced him were the Rev. Francis Vinton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, and Bishop Matthew Simpson of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Vinton came to the Lincolns during the dark hour following their son Willie’s death, with the pastor providing Lincoln much comfort through reason and arguments from the Bible that the boy is alive in God’s loving care.
Simpson preached the final funeral sermon for Lincoln when the train carrying his body arrived in Springfield. Lincoln had attended a service in 1864 in Washington at which the clergyman’s topic was “The Providence of God as Seen in Our War.” After the service, the president, keenly interested in the subject (which indeed was to become the theme of his last great speech) talked with Simpson. One can wonder if the bishop inspired Lincoln to write the short piece that has come to be known as “Meditation on the Divine Will.” The undated document was found after the President’s death. We can see in this document the seed from which grew the president’s greatest speech that still inspires millions:
“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
More proof of Lincoln’s personal faith is provided by the story of the visit of Eliza Gurney and three other Quakers to the White House in 1862. Gurney was different from most other visitors in that she had no ax to grind, no program to promote, no favor to seek. In what amounted to a short sermon, she stated that she just wanted to assure the president that he was an instrument of God, that his concern that “the oppressed go free” would bear fruit, and that he should continually seek God’s will. In her concluding prayer she prayed for God’s guidance for the president.
Visibly moved by her sincerity, the president thanked the visitors, “… I have desired that all my words and actions may be in accordance with His will; but if, after endeavoring to do my best with the light which He affords me, I find my efforts fail, then I must believe that, for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been; but, nevertheless, it came. If I had had my way, the war would have ended before this; but, nevertheless, it still continues. We must conclude that He permits it for some wise purpose, though we may not be able to comprehend it; for we cannot but believe that He who made the world still governs it. I repeat that I am glad of this interview.”
A decade after Lincoln’s assassination, it was Gurley — Lincoln’s pastor in Washington — who wrote to rebuke critics who were referring to the late president as an “infidel.” Gurley publicly issued the following statement in response:
“I do not believe a word of it. It could not have been true of him while here, for I have had frequent and intimate conversations with him on the subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teaching. And more than that: in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battle-field of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believed his heart was changed, and that he loved the Saviour, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion.”
Most of the information for this article is gleaned from Elton Trueblood’s fascinating book, “Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish.” (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
Edward McNulty, a Presbyterian minister, is author of “Faith and Film” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) and other books. He reviews films, including “Lincoln,” at www.visualparables.net.