November 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Atheist Period

Stephen Mansfield
November 16, 2012

We have heard the soaring phrases often. They are fixed in the American book of verse. Now, they sound again in Steven Spielberg's magnificent film, "Lincoln."

They come to us as tones of faith from Abraham Lincoln's presidential speeches: "a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land," "the Almighty has his own purposes," "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom," and "the judgments of the Lord are true." They suggest a God who rules in the affairs of men and does so with both love and justice.

Yet this God was not always Abraham Lincoln's God. In his early years, Lincoln hated this being. It was a natural response. He was thoroughly convinced that God, in turn, hated Abraham Lincoln. It is one of the most surprising facts of Lincoln's life, a fact that makes his religious journey among the most unique in our history.

The 16th president of the United States was born on an American frontier swept by almost violent religious revivals. Men routinely responded to preaching and the "Spirit's work" by shouting, convulsing, passing out and even barking. Few were caught up in this excitement more eagerly than Thomas and Nancy Lincoln.

Their intelligent, sensitive son found it all too much. Young Abraham rejected his parents' loud, sweaty brand of faith and in part because he could not reconcile the weepy, religious version of his father with the man who beat him, worked him "like a slave," and resented his dreams of a more meaningful life. Historian Allen Guelzo has written, "on no other point did Abraham Lincoln come closer to an outright repudiation of his father than on religion."

Young Abraham chose reading over religion -- and reading made him rethink religion. Alongside "Aesop's Fables" and "Robinson Crusoe," he read the works of religious skeptics. Books like Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason," Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and "Ruins" by the French writer Volney gave Lincoln the intellectual tools for dismantling the edifice of religion.

His move to the Illinois village of New Salem did the same. As his friend and biographer, William Herndon, wrote of this time, "he was surrounded by a class of people exceedingly liberal in matters of religion. Volney's 'Ruins' and Paine's 'Age of Reason' passed from hand to hand." Lincoln drank deeply from this anti-religion stream. Soon he began openly attacking Christianity. Friends recalled that he openly criticized the Bible, that he called Christ a bastard and that he labeled Christianity a myth. He even wrote a pamphlet defending "infidelity." To protect his political aspirations, friends tore the booklet from his hands and burned it. Lincoln was furious. He had become the village atheist.

His closest friends doubted his atheism, though, believing that he used it to mask a deeper pain: the suspicion that God had cursed him. This grew from his mother's "illegitimate" birth. Lincoln felt tainted by it. Herndon recalled "rumors of bastardy" that convinced Lincoln "God has cursed and crushed him especially." His outspoken atheism was actually "a blast, Job-like, of despair."

Lincoln lived under this angry cloud during his first ventures into politics, into a troubled marriage and through the sufferings that marred his life and assured him of his curse. Oddly, it was through the portal of these very sufferings that faith slowly returned.

When little Eddie Lincoln died in 1850, just shy of his fourth birthday, his parents were devastated. Ever haunted by depression, Abraham needed help pushing back the darkness. He turned to the Rev. James Smith, a Presbyterian minister in Springfield. The two met, counseled and prayed. Slowly, unsteadily, a change began.

It was the bugle call of Lincoln's epic battle for faith. Though he never joined a church and seldom spoke of Jesus Christ publicly, he became our most spiritual chief executive, sometimes more prophet than president.

We see this in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He told his cabinet he did it because of a covenant he made with God. He would end slavery where he could if God would grant the Union significant victories. He had become convinced the war was divine judgment upon a slave-trading nation. He believed the act of Emancipation could help lift that judgment.

This same sense of need to mediate between God and the nation infused his Second Inaugural Address, perhaps the greatest of American political sermons. God wills this war, Lincoln said, in order to purge the wickedness of slavery. Now, at war's end, both North and South should humble themselves, honor God's righteous judgment, and heal the land through forgiveness and mercy. It tells us much about Lincoln's religious views in the latter years of his presidency that he expected the speech to disappoint the nation. Why? "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them," he explained to a friend.

This "difference of purpose" was a reality Lincoln knew well. He had suffered under it, hated God for it, and, ultimately, tried to heal it in himself and in the nation. We should be thankful that he did, for these efforts helped to give us our greatest president.