Feb. 12, 1809 – April 14, 1865
President during the USA Civil Warby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Although young Abraham learned the Bible from his mother until her death when Abe was but nine years old, Abraham Lincoln grew in skepticism of organized religion. However, the death of his mother, his own sons (d.1850,1862), and soldiers of "his" civil war, forced Abraham to often consider eternity, providence and God. This 16th President of the United States successfully lead his country through the greatest test in its history: the American Civil War. Did he ever return to the faith learned at his mother's knee?
Lincoln came into the world in 1809 to a poor farming family in Kentucky. He grew up there and in Indiana, but his home state was to be Illinois, where his family moved when he was twenty-one. He received little formal education – he attended the frontier school when there was a teacher, and learned to read, write, and do basic mathematics. He literally stood out in a crowd – Lincoln was well over six feet tall. In his early adulthood, had various occupations -- he served in the army during the Black Hawk War (a short Indian war), contracted to take a flatboat of goods down the Mississippi River, worked as a surveyor, and served as postmaster for the Illinois town of Sangamon.
The man of many jobs had a bent toward learning; he read all the books he could get his hands on and taught himself law. In 1834 he ran successfully for a seat in the Illinois Legislature. He grew in importance in the Whig party, and passed his bar examination to become a lawyer. For the next ten years he balanced Illinois politics and his law practice, growing skillful and gaining renown in both.
In 1842 Lincoln gathered up his courage and married. His wife was Mary Todd, a relative of a fellow Whig politician of Lincoln’s. They bought a house in Springfield, Illinois, and had a total of four children. Lincoln had a reputation as a joker; he told stories that had the Illinois Congress roaring, and had a shrewd wit – once a client, entering Lincoln’s law office and finding him with a leg on the desk, commented, “That’s the longest leg I’ve ever seen in this country.” Lincoln lifted his other leg onto the desk and replied, “Here’s another one just like it.”1
By 1844 Lincoln had the political clout to successfully run for U.S. Congress, which he did. What he witnessed in Washington was the gradual polarization of the U.S. Causing the fierce debate was the issue of whether slavery would be allowed to expand from the southern half of the country into the new states out west. After serving one term, Lincoln returned to Springfield and to his law practice. Soon afterwards, the Whig party collapsed over the slavery issue, and Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican Party. Though he did not hold political office for the next twelve years (he ran for U.S. Senate unsuccessfully once in 1856), he was becoming famous; he was a skillful speaker, and his thoughtful and very conscientious approach to the slavery issue appealed to a wide range of the antislavery community. Lincoln was a relatively moderate Republican; though he opposed slavery he would not attack it where it existed, believing it protected by the Constitution. However, he was steadfast in refusing to allow slavery to spread west to new states.
The Republicans chose Lincoln unanimously in 1858 to run for Senate against the powerful Democrat Steven Douglass. Lincoln challenged Douglass to a series of debates. Because Douglass was the acknowledged leader of the northern Democrats, the debates drew attention far out of Illinois. Lincoln argued that slavery was fundamentally wrong and must not be allowed to spread, and Douglass argued that each forming state could decide that for itself. At various times during the debate, Abraham corrected Steven's incorrect quoting of scripture. On election day, Lincoln had more votes but lost the Senate seat because of a gerrymander – the way the voting districts were drawn up favored Douglass.
After the loss, Lincoln expected himself to fade from public view, but the reverse happened. He was called on to make speeches all over the North. At the Republican convention in 1860, Lincoln, though a decided underdog, was nominated to run for president. With the Democrats divided into a northern and a southern party, each with its own candidate, and yet another party in the running, Lincoln won easily.
This set grave events into motion. Southern extremists refused to accept Lincoln as President, and one by one eleven southern states held conventions and seceded from the United States, then allied together as the Confederate States of America. Lincoln responded; after his inauguration in March 1861 he mobilized troops to take back the southern states. The war would rage for the next four years, killing more than 620,000 soldiers of both sides – a staggering number. [CMP: During China's Third Battle of Nanking of the Taiping Rebellion, more than 100,000 were killed in three days of 1864.] Events of this period began to turn Lincoln's heart toward the mercies of God. After the second battle of Bull Run, Lincoln wrote:
"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 can not 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 this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet 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."2
The U.S. Navy set up a blockade around the Southern coast to stop commerce and starve the South into submission. On land Union troops usually outnumbered their foes and were better equipped, but the Confederates were fighting on the defensive in their own territory, and were able to hold back the Union attacks along the eastern front in Virginia, led by their daring general Robert E. Lee. In the west, in Tennessee and along the Mississippi River, the Union troops made slow headway. A turning point came when, around the Fourth of July in 1863, the Union general Ulysses Grant took Vicksburg, the final Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi, and on the eastern front the Confederate General Lee suffered a significant defeat at the battle of Gettysburg.
War brought changes to the government. To run the war, the Lincoln Administration needed much more power and freedom from Congress than previous administrations had, and the gradual centralization of power in the U.S. dates from the Civil War.
All of Lincoln’s political skill and patience was needed to keep together his fragile coalition of abolitionists, who wished to abolish slavery, and unionists, who weren’t against slavery but wished to save the union. On September 22, 1862, he yielded to his own antislavery sentiments by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in rebellious states. This also forestalled Confederate attempts to persuade England to intervene and break the naval blockade around Confederate ports, since England was also anti-slavery. This act did not abolish slavery, but paved the way to its abolishment three years later. Ultimately, it was Union victories that both kept the North committed to the war and warded off foreign intervention. Success on the battlefield also secured Lincoln reelection in 1964.
On November 19, 1863, Lincoln gave a speech that, though little recognized at the time, to posterity became his most treasured words ever. He spoke for two minutes at a ceremony to dedicate a cemetery for soldiers killed at the battle of Gettysburg. The moving words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address provided a beautiful eulogy and a moving explanation of why the soldiers had died, saying that the war was testing whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. Soon after his Gettysburg address, he wrote a friend in Springfield. Therein he said, "When I came to Springfield, I was not a Christian. When I left Springfield to go to Washington and asked you to pray for me, I was not a Christian. When I came to Gettysburg, I was not a Christian; but there at Gettysburg, I consecrated my life to Christ."3
By early 1865, the Confederates had lost their capital, Richmond, and on April 9 their last main army surrendered. But just five days later, as Lincoln was relaxing at a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, a well-known actor named John Booth burst into his private box and shot him in the head. He had just told his wife how he wanted to visit the birth place of Jesus and Jerusalem. He died early the next morning. Dr. Phineas Gurley, the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church where Abraham regularly attended worship, reported that Lincoln had discussed with him his desire to make public his confession of faith and to unite in membership.
This tragedy had grievous effects on America’s healing process from the war. After Lincoln’s death, his vice president Andrew Johnson and the radical Republicans in the Senate imposed much harsher terms on the South than Lincoln had been planning. Many historians believe that Lincoln’s strong leadership of the moderates might have shortened the reconstruction period and decreased the bitterness between the North and South.
Lincoln had already accomplished much, though. His wisdom and refusal to ever be impulsive guided the North to victory. Some wrote that he was the "savior of the nation", Lincoln knew it was God who had kept the United States unified and strong, allowing it to have an incalculable effect on world history. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln said that "restoring the Jews to their homeland is a noble dream shared by many Americans," and that the U.S. could work to realize that goal once the Union prevailed. A united America decisively ended WWII and was instrumental in supporting Israel in 1948 and beyond.
By the grace of God, Lincoln led the United States through a time of social upheaval and terrible bloodshed needed to settle the issue of slavery once and for all to become a nation “with liberty and justice for all.” In his Thanksgiving proclaimation Lincoln acknowledged, "But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own."
His mother's last words had been, "I am going away from you, Abraham, and I shall not return. I know that you will be a good boy; and that you will be kind to Sarah and your father. I want you to live as I have taught you, to love your Heavenly Father and keep His commandments."4 Abraham's life exemplified the truth of Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Although honest Abe questioned much of Christianity, he returned to faith in Christ as the savior of the nation and his own soul.
1Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years (One-Volume Edition). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1954. Account of Lincoln’s joke, p. 92
2The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler,
Volume V, "Meditation on the Divine
Will" (September 2, 1862?), pp. 403-404.
3The source was a "Moody Monthly" book review in June 1977. The book quoted was "A Heart That Yearned For God: Abraham Lincoln, His Life and Faith," by G. Fredrick Owen, Third Century, Washington, D.C. (Thanks to Dr. Nelson Price for sending this to hyperhistory.net)
4Price, Nelson L., "Abraham Licoln: Was he a Christian?", http://www.nelsonprice.com/sermon_select/lincoln.html "Moody Monthly" book review in June 1977. The book quoted was "A Heart That Yearned For God: Abraham Lincoln, His Life and Faith," by G. Fredrick Owen, Third Century, Washington, D.C.
The World Book Encyclopedia (International). Chicago, Illinois: World Book, Inc., 1995
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988
Neeley Jr., Mark E. “Abraham Lincoln”, 1998 Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Interactive Inc., 1998
Noll, Mark A. "The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln", http://www.christianitytoday.com/holidays/memorial/features/33h010.html