"AS I SEE IT"
Volume 2, Number 2, February, 1999
Almost certainly, the most hotly debated issue with regard to Abraham Lincoln is the exact nature of his religious beliefs. On the one hand is Billy Herndon, for a dozen years Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, Illinois, who wrote an "insider's" biography of Lincoln. In that biography, Herndon insisted dogmatically that Lincoln lived and died a skeptic, never embracing any of the fundamental tenets of Biblical Christianity. On the other hand, pastors in both Springfield and Washington, D.C. with whom Lincoln frequently conversed and in whose churches Lincoln regularly was present on Sunday affirmed that Lincoln embraced all the basic doctrines of the Bible, and died in the faith. Which view--if either--is in accord with the truth?
Let us retrace the religious influences on Lincoln and his reaction to them. First, he was born into a devout Baptist family in Kentucky--Baptists with a Hardshell bent (his ancestors, in fact, had been Baptists for several generations). The strong pre-destinarian influence seems to have inculcated in young Lincoln a touch of fatalism which he carried with him all his life. His parents were members of a Baptist church in Kentucky, and later in southern Indiana. Both his mother and his step-mother taught him the Bible and prayed with and for him. Among the few books in their frontier home was a Bible, which Abe read extensively and of which he memorized many verses and whole chapters. He, however, though regularly attending the Baptist church on Pigeon Creek in Indiana, never made a profession of faith nor was baptized there.
When Abe struck out on his own, he settled for a time in New Salem, Illinois. In its brief existence, the town had no church of any kind. It was here, apparently, that Lincoln developed his debating and reasoning skills by engaging other young townsmen in debates about various subjects, taking now one side, and now another. On one occasion, he took the side against Christianity and the Bible, setting forth a case against them, not necessarily as an expression of his own views but for the sake of the debate. He also propounded in private views in support of the doctrine of "necessity," a variety of rigid predestinarianism. It was this that led some--notably Herndon--to conclude that Lincoln was in fact a skeptic.
Rumors of skepticism were circulated in 1846 by Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright, Lincoln's opponent in the race for election to the U.S. Congress. In response to these allegations, Lincoln issued a campaign handbill in which he expressly denied that he had ever sought to discredit the Christian religion or deny any of its basic truths (for the full text of this handbill, and a contemporary letter from Lincoln about it, see THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, edited by Roy P. Basler, vol. 1, pp. 382-384). In that same campaign, Lincoln attended a revival meeting Peter Cartwright was holding. During the invitation, Cartwright shouted at Lincoln from the pulpit, "If you are not going to repent and go to Heaven, Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?" He retorted that he was, in fact, going to Congress (see IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE LINCOLNS by Ida Tarbell, pp. 270, 271). Lincoln won the election.
Three events compelled Lincoln to seek answers from God. The first was the death of his second son, 3-year-old Eddie, in Springfield in 1850. Shortly afterward, the Lincolns began attending a local Presbyterian church whose pastor, James Smith, had sought to console them over the death of their son. Lincoln and Smith became good friends and spoke frequently about religious subjects. Later, in Washington, the death in February, 1862, of Lincoln's favorite son,11- year-old Willie, again drove him to seek answers from God. Finally, the overwhelming spectacle of the vast cemetery at Gettysburg in November, 1863, culminated in a self- acknowledged spiritual transformation in Lincoln. If he was not converted earlier in conjunction with the death of Willie (as I suspect), he certainly was truly converted in connection with his visit to Gettysburg.
While President, Lincoln was a regular attender of a conservative Presbyterian church in the capital. He often attended the mid-week prayer meeting--driven by a sense of his absolute necessity of personal communion with God in prayer--occupying a side-room, with the door slightly ajar, so that he could hear without disrupting the service by his presence. Pastor Phineas Gurley by his extensive personal contact with Lincoln was absolutely convinced of the reality and genuineness of Lincoln's Biblical faith. While in the White House, Lincoln maintained 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. as a time for personal prayer.
On Good Friday, that fateful day of his assassination, Lincoln expressed to his wife a desire to take a trip to the Holy Land, to see Jerusalem. He did see Jerusalem less than 24 hours later--not the earthly city, but the heavenly one.
How do we explain the contradictory evidence--Herndon's affirmation that Lincoln never expressed any Christian faith to him (and Herndon knew Lincoln in Springfield better than anyone else), and the opposite assertions, made by two pastors who together knew Lincoln for the last 15 years of his life, of a clear-cut Christian testimony? The answer may lie in part in the fact that Herndon knew Lincoln only until 1860. He was not witness to the Lincoln transformed by Willie's death and the visit to Gettysburg. Further, if Lincoln were struggling in his mind with the teaching of Scripture while in Springfield, it is no surprise that he did not consult Herndon on the matter. No one goes to a skeptic (as Herndon was) for answers when they are seeking to find the truth of God. Finally, Herndon may have in part created a portrait of Lincoln in his own image, as biographers are often inclined to do.
Most good biographies of Lincoln address the question of Lincoln's religion. There are even some volumes that deal exclusively with this subject. One particularly well-done volume that focuses on Lincoln's religion is THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN by D. Raymond Taggert, D. D. (printed in Topeka, Kansas in 1943 by The Service Print Shop). The author, evidently himself a conservative Presbyterian preacher, published a series of articles in a periodical "The Covenanter Witness" which were then compiled and published as a book. I am wholly unfamiliar with this periodical and have never seen reference to this book in any study of the life of Lincoln. I found the book in a used book store in 1992, and have never seen another copy. Taggart is a competent researcher and an able writer, and while a "partisan" of the view that Lincoln was a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, nevertheless does a fair and thorough job of presenting the evidence for and against the thesis that Lincoln was a believer. His gives a full and fair hearing to the assertions of Billy Herndon and others in his camp. He also presents a considerable amount of material supporting the genuineness of Lincoln's Christian faith which was new to me, even after my reading through 4 or 5 biographies of Lincoln, and consulting others. The book is adequately (though not quite thoroughly) documented as to its sources.
For anyone who wishes to study the religious beliefs of Lincoln, it will be worth the trouble to secure a copy of this book through inter-library loan, and perhaps make a photocopy (the copyright has, I think, expired).
I will confess to being a very enthusiastic and adamantly unrepentant admirer of Abraham Lincoln. In my modestly informed opinion, Lincoln was the single greatest American in the four hundred years since the first permanent English settlement was established on this continent in the 17th century. One of the great highlights of my life was a visit in 1993 to Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, Illinois. "Lord, this would be a great place to be on the day of the Resurrection. Abe and I could go up together."
I have no patience with those who wish to denigrate, deride, attack, or abuse Lincoln. Those who do so fall into two categories:
1. The intellectual heirs of John Wilkes Booth who view Lincoln as a monster who subverted the Constitution, ruled by tyranny, invaded the South and was perhaps the most evil man who ever lived, this side of Judas Iscariot.
2. Black extremists who trash Lincoln for not being quite anti-slavery enough for them. Because Lincoln was not a foaming-at-the-mouth abolitionist like John Brown, these "Monday morning quarterbacks" with 130 years of hindsight can tell exactly what Lincoln should have done (whether in fact it would have worked at all) and what his attitudes should have been.
In truth, Lincoln was perhaps the only political leader in America who was capable of rallying the North, conducting a massive war, preserving the Union, and freeing the slaves in what was the greatest convulsive turmoil this country has ever endured. Who else could have done it? Not Seward, nor Douglas, not Chase nor Stanton, nor any other leader in the North, and no one in the South--not Bell or Breckinridge nor even Lee--would have if he could. As Lincoln himself would and did acknowledge, the Most High does rule in the kingdoms of men and sets over them whomever He wishes. And we Americans can be forever grateful that God in His over-ruling Providence guided the circumstances that resulted in Lincoln's election at that crucial juncture in our history, the election of 1860. I have no doubt that had any of the other candidates or wanna-be candidates been elected, the result would have been vastly different: almost certainly the destruction of the Union and the continuation of slavery in the South for at least another generation or two.
Lincoln was great because Lincoln had real character that reached to the depths of his being. He had the personal resources of soul to draw upon in times of great crises, resources for which no amount of mere cleverness or political savvy can substitute. His opinions were not that which was politically expedient at the moment, but were the natural outgrowth of strongly held, well-reasoned principles.
Lincoln's character was the result of his long-drinking at the fountain of Holy Scripture in his youth. The teaching and principles of the Bible filled Lincoln's mind and molded his thinking, even in the period before he himself became a believer in the Saviour the Bible presents. Besides the Bible, Lincoln read much of Shakespeare, and had his legal training chiefly through the reading and re-reading of William Blackstone's monumental COMMENTARY ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND. Both Shakespeare and Blackstone are strongly based in a theistic world view, and focus on matters and principles of justice and of right and wrong. Long exposure to such literature could only affect the heart and mind in a positive way.
About no other person in American history has so much been written. The torrent of Lincoln biographies which began at his death in 1865 has hardly slackened and just about every aspect of his life has been examined, analyzed, written about and debated, from his religion to his law practice to his humor to his military genius to his youthful romances. The total number of books, pamphlets and published articles which focus on Lincoln surely exceeds 10,000. The biographies of Lincoln alone, from youth- oriented (often largely fictitious) to popular and scholarly number in the hundreds. An entire lifetime could be devoted just to the study of Lincoln literature--with the mass growing prodigiously year by year.
As one who has grown to admire greatly the character and achievements of Lincoln through the reading of a small fraction of what has been written about him, I wish to pass on what I have learned about Lincoln literature, in the hope of directing the reader to some of the jewels I have located. No doubt there is much good stuff out there that I know nothing about (and I am always appreciative of anyone who can guide me to new treasures), but I must write about what I do know, not about what I do not.
The single best one-volume biography of Lincoln is probably ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Benjamin P. Thomas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography ca. 1954 (and is still in print--available from Barnes & Noble for $7.98, hardback!). Thomas earlier wrote a survey of some of the major Lincoln biographies and biographers, PORTRAIT FOR POSTERITY: LINCOLN AND HIS BIOGRAPHERS (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1947; 329 pages), which serves as an introduction to some of the most-acclaimed (and disdained) biographies. Both books are highly readable and very informative.
Carl Sandburg's LINCOLN which has been printed in one- and multiple-volume editions, has probably sold more copies than any other Lincoln biography. I have not read much of it, but what I have read has been very good (e.g., the chapter on Lincoln's religion).
Richard N. Current wrote THE LINCOLN NOBODY KNOWS (New York, Hill and Wang, 1958; 314 pp.), a brief biography that focuses on points of controversy (was Lincoln's mother- -and Lincoln--illegitimate? Was Lincoln in love as a young man with one Ann Rutledge of New Salem? Was Lincoln an unbeliever in the Christian religion as Herndon affirmed? Etc.). Current's annotated discussion of sources and relevant literature is very valuable.
Ida M. Tarbell was a lifelong Lincoln devotee, and wrote several books about him. Her last and reportedly best Lincoln book is IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE LINCOLNS (New York: Harper and Sons, 1924; 417), in which she traces Lincoln's ancestors from 17th century New England through Pennsylvania and Virginia to Kentucky. She also treats in detail Lincoln's life pre-Presidency, and has what seems to me to be the best, most balanced and most credible presentation regarding Ann Rutledge.
T. Harry Williams deals with Lincoln's competence as a military strategist (and finds him superior to any of his military advisers) in LINCOLN AND HIS GENERALS (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952; 363 pp.). This is the Lincoln book most commonly found in used book stores (besides Sandburg), at least in my experience, and the first I read.
Ruth Painter Randall wrote LINCOLN'S SONS (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1955; 373 pp.), which is probably as good a treament in one volume as the subjects are likely to have (Lincoln had four sons--one who died as a small child, another who died as a pre-teen, a third who died in his late teens and a fourth who survived to old age). Ruth Painter Randall also wrote a biography of Mary Lincoln which is highly praised (I own it but have not yet read it).
LINCOLN'S HERNDON by David Donald (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948; 378) is an excellent study of Lincoln's long- time law partner and most-controversial biographer, Billy Herndon. Donald, who was for years professor of American history at Harvard, also wrote LINCOLN (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995; 714 pp.), and I must frankly say I was very disappointed with it, so much so that I didn't read much past page 100 (and I usually finish books, which would be to Samuel Johnson's surprise). He makes a colossal blunder on p. 24, in describing Baptists as practicing infant baptism!!!!! The notes do give an valuable discussion of the best in Lincoln literature, including the latest stuff.
A recent and much-disputed book is LINCOLN'S UNKNOWN PRIVATE LIFE: AN ORAL HISTORY BY HIS BLACK HOUSEKEEPER MARIAH VANCE 1850-1860 (Mamaroneck, New York: Hastings House, 1995; 303, 260 pp.), edited by Lloyd Ostendorf and Walter Olesky, which is alleged to be the transcripts of reminiscences of Mariah Vance, orally presented to one Adah Sutton, a teen-age stenographer who took down the accounts in shorthand between 1901 and 1904. Frankly, I am suspicious of their authenticity.
For the really committed Lincolnite, there is the 9-volume THE COLLECTED WORKS OF LINCOLN (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1947), a not-quite-exhaustive chronological compilation of Lincoln's letters, speeches, pamphlets, telegrams, etc. There are five different versions of the Gettysburg Address, for example. Anyone wanting the exact wording of Lincoln's many and famous speeches will want to check here.
Thus far, my own first-hand opinions (I have read some other Lincoln books which were, frankly, garbage, such as THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY, which one reviewer described as "as tissue of preposterous fabrications"). And now, the second-hand. Of the many Lincoln biographies, that by his two secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay (10 vols., first appearing in 1890, and now back in print--at $900!!!) is valuable because of their eye-witness accounts and access to much primary source material. I had a chance to buy a used set for $40 a decade ago and stupidly hesitated. I've never seen another used set for sale.
The late 19th century biography of Lincoln by Lord Charnwood, commonly met with used, was praised in its day as among the best. Paul Angle edited THE LINCOLN READER (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1947; 54 pp.), a biography of Lincoln constructed from excerpts from the best of the Lincoln biographies. Stephen B. Oates, WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) is highly acclaimed, and though I own it, I have scarcely read it. Finally, LINCOLN: AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., et al. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992; 415 pp.), is a virtually exhaustive collection of all known photographs of Lincoln as well as hundreds of other photos of Lincoln's family and contemporaries, scenes from Springfield, Washington, battlefields, and much else. It is a magnificent volume.
Lincoln is a towering figure in American history. It will be to our great loss if we are ignorant of the facts regarding his life and his importance in the life of our republic. I began reading seriously about Lincoln only after I was into my thirties, and have never regretted the time devoted to the study of his life. I do regret that I did not begin the study earlier, but I had no one to guide me.
Dear Bro. Kutilek,
Thank you for the AISI. I read it as if a friend had just walked in and we had a great time. Thank you for all the work you've put into it.
As always, thanks for making me think. Also, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one with a pile of "must read soon" books. In Heaven, we'll compare notes, okay! I do not know you well, but I sure appreciate your feeding me well once a month.
God bless your every endeavor!
Dear Bro. Kutilek:
Thank you for your fine newsletter. It is very informative and represents a lot of work for which I am grateful.
This brief series of six 'oral essays' (if I may coin a term) was prepared for and presented on British television in 1976. Its purpose was to provide for the British audience (in our bicentennial year) an eminent American historian's perspective on how the discovery and development of America affected the course of world history.
Boorstin distinguishes mere discoverers (those who locate something they know is "there"--such as the sea route from Europe to India via Southern Africa) from explorers (those who examine in detail and utilize what has been discovered). This exploring spirit has characterized America.
The European--that is, British--settlement of North America was unique in history. Unlike European colonies planted in Africa and Asia, there was a near-vacuum of native population in North America (3 million Indians between the Atlantic and the Pacific was a relatively insignificant number, especially in contrast to the millions concentrated in Central America encountered by the Spanish or the vast throngs crowding Southern and Eastern Asia when the European explorers arrived). As a result, there was very little adaptation and transformation of British culture when it encountered the native culture. The British simply overwhelmed the Indian culture. Furthermore, the British culture was transported almost entire and unmodified across the 3,000 Atlantic barrier.
The isolation of North America from the Motherland-- thousands of miles, which could be traversed only after many often perilous weeks at sea--compelled the colonies to innovation, self-reliance and independent development, and, ultimately, independence. It was simply impossible for British institutions, whether governmental, religious, or social, to project their power and authority over such a vast chasm of time and space. There were innovations in government at all levels, from town meetings to the creation of a new national government. There were religious innovations (chiefly the casting off of the yoke of the Church of England and the ultimate embracing of the disunion of Church and State). And there were social innovations: aristocracy, social status back in England, and class distinctions all but disappeared in America. A man's merits here and now mattered most, not his pedigree. Land ownership became the hope of all and reality for most, unlike in England where vast landed estates controlled virtually all fields and forests. Social and economic and geographic mobility, limited only by a man's own efforts and actions, became more than an ideal.
Innovations in technology beginning in the 19th century and continuing throughout the 20th century have overcome the isolation of space and time which were so important in how America developed (including even our de-centralized governmental system). Steam, employed on boats and then trains, shrank the vastness of the continent and the oceans, and cars and airplanes furthered the shrinkage exponentially. Electronic communication--telegraph and telephone, then radio and television--eliminated the time- delay of days, weeks and even months and years that had characterized for all of prior human history the spread of news of events. Now there was immediate information available to the most isolated about events in the most remote parts of the globe.
And, simultaneously, contradictory as it may seem, as the time and space gaps were vastly reduced and as access to the sights and sounds and news from the furthest reaches of the globe became a reality, the isolation from our near neighbors became greater. Instead of thousands of individuals experiencing an event collectively in person (whether a political speech or a sports event), now the event was experienced electronically by many thousands more, but each in isolation from all others (each viewing or listening in private via television or radio). [And with the rise of the internet, the isolation intensifies--whereas small groups together viewed television, "surfing the net" is strictly an individual activity]. As the vast spaces are collapsing, the short spaces seem to be expanding. A thousand-mile airplane ride takes only a couple of hours, but a 20-mile drive home from the airport through rush-hour traffic can take nearly as long.
Americans have not been hesitant to embrace innovation and invention. Most new technologies become "essential" within a couple of decades--electric lights, the telephone, the automobile, the radio, television (and we could add personal computers). Old World societies are much slower than us in accepting the new.
With the immediacy of information, there has arisen a "tyranny of the present"--the flood of information about the here and now, however ephemeral (after all, that precisely timed newscast has to be filled with SOMETHING), has stolen away any focus on the past or the future. Formerly, news came in a weekly paper (which of necessity sifted out most of the "news," focusing on the most important) which yielded place to the daily. Then there came the radio's periodic newscasts, and nightly television as the chief source of news dispersal--all spewing out a stream of information, much of it of vast passing insignificance [and now we have the 24-hour newscycle, with non-stop cable news channels--and a very heavy dose of nothingness repeated hourly ). With so much of "the present" shoved at us, we lose the perspective that greater familiarity with the past alone can give, and we lose sight of the future.
Amidst much than I found to be worthwhile, the author did make some highly dubious assertions, by far the most ludicrous being one regarding Darwin, Marx, and Freud. "The prophets of The Exploring Spirit. . .must surely [include] such men as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. They, too, revealed new areas of our ignorance. Darwin, wandering the dark continent of genetics, showed that we did not know as much as we thought about the origin of the species. Marx, ranging the dark continent of economics, revealed that we did not know as much as we thought we knew about the processes of history and the forces of politics. Freud, plunging into the dark continent of the subconscious, revealed that we did not know as much as we thought we knew about our motives and feelings. . . .Their enduring greatness was not as system-builders but as Negative Discoverers" (pp. 90, 91). If I were to select three men whose contribution to mankind was wholly or nearly wholly harmful, unproductive, and anti- beneficial, these three would be my choices. All three constructed systems that were fraudulent and debasing to mankind. Each demonstrated, not OUR ignorance of the areas of their attention, but THEIR OWN ignorance. The legacy of each composes some of the darkest chapters in all of man's existence. (And incidentally, Darwin did NOT "wander in the dark continent of genetics." The "father of modern genetics" was Gregor Mendel, whose discoveries refute Darwinism).
Daniel J. Boorstin (b. 1914) was for a quarter century professor of American History at the University of Chicago, after which he became the Librarian of Congress, a position from which he has since retired. He is most famous for his three-volume history (or perhaps "analysis" would be a better word) of the U.S., THE AMERICANS, one volume subtitled "The Colonial Experience," another "The National Experience," and the third, "The Democratic Experience." Anyone who haunts used bookstores is also aware of his other books, THE EXPLORERS and THE DISCOVERERS, both heavy volumes dealing with man's expanding knowledge of his universe and of himself. THE DISCOVERERS is a volume I have read chunks of, but have not yet read through. It deals with man's "discovery" of time and how to measure it, of the limits of the earth's geography, of history, of astronomy, and a multitude of other areas of knowledge. It is an absorbing--and imposing--book, filled with what is to me fascinating information. When I have read it through, I hope to review it here.
On the whole, THE EXPLORING SPIRIT set me to thinking about many things, and gave me both new information and a new perspective, which is exactly why I read (at least most of the time).