Abraham Lincoln & Religion: Complex Man of Faith

The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with about 23,000 casualties on both sides. In this photograph, taken days after the battle, Lincoln himself visited Antietam. He was accompanied by his good friend and political ally Major General John A. McClernand. Courtesy Library of Congress.EDWARD MCNULTY, the well-known faith-and-film writer, reviews Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and also wrote this story about historical perspectives on Lincoln’s faith.

Man of Faith


THERE HAS LONG BEEN controversy over whether Abraham Lincoln was a believing Christian, an issue that Steven Spielberg’s film largely ignores, as does its source book. Lincoln was unorthodox in that he was more of a Universalist than most Christians: He just could not see how a God of infinite love could send persons into everlasting torment.

As a young man, Lincoln was a skeptic, very much like his law partner William H. Herndon, their keen analytic minds 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 the Rev. Dr. James Smith, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, preached so effectively at the boy’s funeral that Mary Todd joined the church. Although her husband did not apply for membership, he attended the Sunday service with her and even gave a lecture on the Bible there. Dr. Smith, a minister born and educated in Scotland, became a spiritual mentor for Lincoln, the latter studying and treasuring the pastor’s book The Christian’s Defense. The work was based on reason as well as the Bible, thus appealing to the mind of a young lawyer like Lincoln. The two became friends, Dr. Smith himself having come to his reasonable faith, the only kind that would appeal to Lincoln, after passing through a period of doubt. Late in his administration the President appointed Smith to a diplomatic post in Scotland.


Dr. Phineas Gurley of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.In Washington the Lincolns attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church where the Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley’s sermons also appealed to the President’s mind. They rented a family pew for $50 a year. As the President’s pastor Dr. 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 often did not sit in his 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 midweek service.

Two other clergy whom Lincoln respected were the Rev. Dr. Francis Vinton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, and Bishop Matthew Simpson of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Dr. Vinton came to the Lincolns during the dark hour following son Willie’s death, the pastor providing Lincoln much comfort through reason and arguments from the Bible that the boy is alive in God’s loving care. It is strange in the Spielberg film, Lincoln, that scene of anguish when Mary Todd and her husband are lamenting the death of their son that there is no reference to Dr. Vinton’s real-life aid to the family. The historical record tells us that the Episcopal priest played an important role in their lives at that time.

Methodist Bishop Matthew SimpsonBishop Matthew Simpson preached the final funeral sermon for Lincoln when the train carrying the President’s 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 talked with Simpson. Lincoln was keenly interested in the theme Simpson raised and it became the subject of his last great speech.

Lincoln regarded the bishop as such a keen observer of public life that earlier, near the beginning of the war, he invited him to speak to the Cabinet about the mood of the country. When the Bishop reported that the war was going to take far more than the 75,000 men who had been mustered because the war would be long and severe. Seward disagreed, but Edward Bates defended his statement. Lincoln kept the bishop afterward to talk in greater detail.

Further proof of Lincoln’s faith is provided by the story of the visit of the Quaker Mrs. Eliza Gurney and three other Friends to the White House on October 26 1862. As a Quaker she was different from most other visitors in that she had no axe to grind, no program to promote. 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 for seeing “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 D.C.—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.”

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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