2000 Years of Disbelief: Abraham Lincoln

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

(Apr. 20, 2020 – Daylight Atheism)

This is the tenth segment of a series on renowned skeptics throughout history. These profiles are drawn from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.

In the heart of nearly every American, a tender spot is held by Abraham Lincoln, the eloquent, tragic hero who suffered the torment of the nation’s worst cataclysm.

Each schoolchild is taught about Lincoln’s birth in a log cabin, his setbacks in rural politics, his agony in the Civil War, his emancipation of the slaves, and his martyrdom by an assassin. But none is taught that Lincoln rejected Christianity, never joined a church, and even wrote a treatise against religion. Such matters remain taboo in America.

After Lincoln’s death, many clergymen declared that he had been a pious Christian. A photograph of Lincoln and his son Tad examining a book of Matthew Brady photos was widely distributed in churches with the misleading caption: “Lincoln Reading the Bible to his Son.”

Actually, Lincoln was an enigma, sometimes superstitious, sometimes brooding over tragic forebodings, often inconsistent. After two of his sons died, the grieving president attended church a few times with his wife and invited spiritualists to the White House to seek the boys’ departed souls. But he scoffed at the mediums during their seances.

At the behest of White House confidants, religious words were written into some of Lincoln’s public pronouncements, inasmuch as the public expected it of their leader. But Lincoln’s lifelong intimates knew him differently.

Allegations of disbelief had haunted him over the years. In 1843, after he lost a campaign for Congress, Lincoln said in a letter to his political supporters: “It was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to vote for me because I belonged to no church and was suspected of being a Deist.”

In 1846, his congressional campaign opponent publicly accused him of infidelity. Lincoln responded in a cautious circular: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”

When Lincoln first was considered presidential timber, a fellow Illinois lawyer, Logan Hay, wrote to his nephew, future Secretary of State John Hay: “Candor compels me to say that at this period, Mr. Lincoln could hardly be termed a devout believer in the authenticity of the Bible (but this is for your ear only).”

Interviewer Opie Read once asked Lincoln his conception of God, to which he replied: “The same as my conception of nature.” Asked what he meant, Lincoln said: “That it is impossible for either to be personal.”

In the years following Lincoln’s assassination, his former law partner, William H. Herndon, made public statements such as: “Mr. Lincoln was an infidel, sometimes bordering on atheism.” “He never mentioned the name of Jesus, except to scorn and detest the idea of a miraculous conception.” “He did write a little work on infidelity in 1835-6, and never recanted. He was an out-and-out infidel, and about that there is no mistake.”

Herndon’s remarks caused a storm among the clergy. In response, Herndon discussed Lincoln’s religious views extensively in a biography titled The True Story of a Great Life. Here is an excerpt:

“In 1834, while still living in New Salem and before he became a lawyer, 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, and furnished food for the evening’s discussion in the tavern and village store. Lincoln read both these books and thus assimilated them into his own being. He prepared an extended essay – called by many a book – in which he made an argument against Christianity, striving to prove that the Bible was not inspired, and therefore not God’s revelation, and that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God. The manuscript containing these audacious and comprehensive propositions he intended to have published or given a wide circulation in some other way. He carried it to the store, where it was read and freely discussed. His friend and employer, Samuel Hill, was among the listeners and, seriously questioning the propriety of a promising young man like Lincoln fathering such unpopular notions, he snatched the manuscript from his hands and thrust it into the stove. The book went up in flames, and Lincoln’s political future was secure. But his infidelity and his skeptical views were not diminished.”

Herndon quoted statements by others to document the late president’s disbelief. Some examples follow:

John T. Stuart, Lincoln’s first law partner: “He was an avowed and open infidel, and sometimes bordered on atheism…. He went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard.”

Supreme Court Justice David Davis, who administered Lincoln’s estate: “He had no faith, in the Christian sense of the term – had faith in laws, principles, causes and effects.”

Jesse W. Fell, to whom Lincoln had entrusted some of his writing: “He did not believe in what are regarded as the orthodox or evangelical views of Christianity.”

Mary Todd Lincoln: “Mr. Lincoln had no faith and no hope in the usual acceptation of those words. He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature. He first seemed to think about the subject when our boy Willie died, and then more than ever about the time he went to Gettysburg; but it was a kind of poetry in his nature, and he was never a technical Christian.”

Lincoln’s views on religion:

“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” – 1862 letter to Judge J. S. Wakefield, after the death of Willie Lincoln

“The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.” – quoted by Joseph Lewis in a 1924 New York speech

“I am approached … by religious men who are certain they represent the Divine Will….I hope it will not be irreverent in me to say, that if it be probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.” – Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion

“It will not do to investigate the subject of religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to infidelity.” – in Manford’s Magazine

“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.” – memorandum, Sept. 30, 1862

“We, on our side, are praying Him to give us victory, because we believe we are right; but those on the other side pray Him, too, for victory, believing they are right. What must He think of us?” – to the Rev. Byron Sunderland, Senate chaplain, 1862

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” – inaugural address, March 4, 1865

“I am not a Christian.” – Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion

“What is to be, will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.” – ibid

“I have never united myself to any church because I found difficulty in giving my assent without mental reservation to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize the articles of belief and the usual confession of faith.” – ibid

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Image Credit: James Haught.

3 thoughts on “2000 Years of Disbelief: Abraham Lincoln

  1. I have received this letter hope all of you will enjoy it:

    In her radio show, Dr Laura Schlesinger said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.
    The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, penned by a US resident, which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:
    Dear Dr. Laura:
    Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination … End of debate.
    I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.
    1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations.
    A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
    2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
    3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24.
    The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.
    4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord – Lev.1:9.
    The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
    5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death.
    Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
    6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
    7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
    8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
    9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
    10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)
    I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help.
    Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
    Your adoring fan.
    James M. Kauffman, Ed.D. Professor Emeritus, Dept. Of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education University of Virginia
    (It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian)

    • Thanks for that Shane. Good for a laugh. I’m assuming if I bothered to look all that up, I’d find his references accurate. I’m always amazed to find out the religious foundations for behaviour – like insisting on only one crop in a field. Good thing there are people ignoring this requirement for vulnerable monoculture. Anyone happen to know where I can find a reference to the the early tribes interacting with large animals? Giant sloths, mammoths, that sort of creature? (Certainly not dinosaurs.) That part I would accept as true, the more I study human history. I want to recommend a book: Architecture of First Societies by Mark Jarzombek. It even includes different approaches to menstruation that would intrigue James M. Kauffman. Baba Brinkman has a different approach.

  2. Is is true that Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery because it put melanin-deficient people in close proximity with the melanin-rich, and that might result in babies? This strange pseudo-scientific idea I never learned in school (and I have always been a diligent student) called miscagenation? Never mind whether the children were the product of consensual relations or abusive situations. What, really, was Abraham Lincoln’s vision? How does he compare to the British Abolitionist William Wilberforce? Are they both influenced by the bible, ignorantly
    dividing people into 3 groups, white, black and yellow? Yay, Crayola: Colors of the World – crayons, markers or coloured pencils. A lesson in the true diversity of skin colour in people – 24 colours. Have a little fun with reality! (And notice the range of hair and eye colours too. Mix and match.)

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