By Al Benson Jr.
On June 24, 2012 an article appeared on http://www.westernjournalism.com written by Kevin Probst, the name of which was “Emancipation Proclamation: Was Lincoln Motivated By Political Expediency Or Religious Conviction?” Mr. Probst seeks in this article to portray Abraham Lincoln as a Bible-believing Christian who was motivated by religious conviction regarding the Emancipation Proclamation. Mr. Probst is a teacher of history and apologetics at a Christian high school in Columbus, Georgia, so I do not for a minute doubt his honesty and integrity. However, the research I have done over the years forces me to disagree with his view of Mr. Lincoln as a dedicated Christian.
One of the sources for his view of Lincoln is a book written by Rev. O. H. Pennell dealing with Lincoln’s faith. This was a short book, first published in 1899, when it sold for .25. It was only 58 pages long. Rev. Pennell cited different people and events in Lincoln’s life that led him to his conclusions. Some of these I had read about previously from other sources and they failed to convince me of Lincoln’s biblical faith. It is interesting to note that this book was written at the tail-end of that period when authors were attempting to literarily seat Lincoln at God’s right hand. The period from 1865 through around 1900 was when Lincoln was almost being deified by authors—the apotheosis of Lincoln if you will.
Many portrayed him as a sincere, humble Christian man, literally praying to God almost hourly. One such was Josiah Gilbert Holland, who wrote a biography Life of Abraham Lincoln. Before he wrote this, Holland went to visit William Herndon, Lincoln’s old law partner. According to the book Lincoln’s Herndon by David Donald, published in 1948 by Alfred A. Knopf, Holland asked Herndon all about Mr. Lincoln’s religious faith. Herndon’s reply to that was “The less said the better” to which Holland replied “O never mind, I’ll fix that.” Donald wrote: “When the Life of Abraham Lincoln appeared, Herndon learned that Holland had done just that. A sincerely devout man himself, the Massachusetts author had at the very outset decided that the defied Lincoln must have been a ‘true-hearted Christian.’ He incorporated into his biography all sorts of improbable anecdotes to emphasize Lincoln’s religiosity..”
When Herndon read some of what Holland had written he nearly had apoplexy. Donald wrote: “Decidedly unorthodox in his own religious views he (Herndon) was not willing to have his partner canonized as a Protestant saint… Herndon had little personal knowledge of his partner’s religious beliefs, but in collecting his Lincoln records he had formed an opinion decidedly different from Holland’s. Joshua F. Speed, one of Lincoln’s most intimate friends during the early Springfield years, had written Herndon that Lincoln ‘was skeptical as to the great truths of the Christian religion’; Lincoln’s first law partner, John Todd Stuart, considered him an infidel; Isaac Cogdal, a Menard lawyer who rode the circuits in central Illinois, affirmed that Lincoln gave no credence to ‘the orthodox Theologies of the day’; Mrs. Lincoln herself stated that her husband ‘was not a technical christian’;–this from Speed to Herndon in January, 1866.”
Donald also wrote that: “Hardin Bale and other New Salem survivors asserted that Lincoln had read Volney and Paine during his Menard County period and had written ‘a work on infidelity, denying the divinity of the Scriptures.’ James A. Matheny, best man at Lincoln’s wedding also knew of this pamphlet attacking the divinity of Christ—special inspiration, Revelation etc”. Matheny or one of the others took the book and burned it, explaining to Lincoln how such a work would damage his political career.
Then there was the Newton Bateman story which was mentioned in Pennell’s little book. Newton Bateman was the Illinois superintendent of education. His offices adjoined those that were used by Lincoln in the Illinois state capital. According to David Donald: “Holland received an eight-page memorandum detailing a remarkable conversation with the Republican presidential nominee in October 1860.” The quote is a bit long, but the gist of it is that Lincoln affirmed the truth about Christ and the Scriptures that he had so long denied. This surprised Bateman, who had heard the stories in Springfield about Lincoln being an agnostic. Donald continued: “When the superintendent remarked how strange it was that intimate friends should be ignorant of Lincoln’s change of heart, the Republican candidate had confided; …I am obliged to appear different to them, but I think more on these subjects than all others,& have done so for years,& I am willing that you should know it.’ All these words of Dear noble heroic Lincoln Bateman vouched for as exactly as he uttered them.” This all caused Herndon some distress. Donald continued: “With such testimony in mind, Herndon stamped into the office of the superintendent of education and charged; Bateman, in order to make Lincoln a technical Christian–you have made him a hypocrite. . Looking puzzled—or ashamed—the school superintendent backed down from his statement as quoted in Holland’s biography. His recollection of Lincoln’s words, he confessed with embarrassment, was not precise—didn’t write out in particular and full until after Mr. L. was assassinated. In later conversations with Herndon (records of which are now lost) Bateman apparently retracted even further—but prohibited Herndon from publishing his statement…If Lincoln really was a Christian, Herndon shrewdly pointed out, there was no conceivable reason why he should have felt obliged to conceal his change of heart, for to reveal his hidden conversion would have won influential political and social support. The ultimate effect of Bateman’s rather flimsy testimony was to show up Lincoln as insincere and even a little foolish.” So it would seem that a good part of one of the main stories of Lincoln’s conversion was “not precise.” Who knows what was really said, but Lincoln’s supposed “conversion” makes a good story.
Interestingly also, was Mrs. Lincoln’s statement in 1866 that “Mr. Lincoln was not a technical Christian.” Yet supposedly after the death of their son, Willie, Lincoln, supposedly, “turned his heart to Christ” according to what Mary Lincoln is supposed to have told Rev. James Smith on June 8, 1870. So which is it? In 1866 his wife says he was not a technical Christian, but in 1870 she says he turned his heart to Christ while still in office. We have a contradiction.
My own research has led me to the conclusion that Lincoln was not only not a Christian, he was a socialist.
For further research on Lincoln I would suggest the following:
The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo, Prima Publishing, Roseville, California
The Real Lincoln by Charles L. C. Minor, Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, Virginia
The South Was Right by the Kennedy Brothers, Pelican Publishing, Gretna, Louisiana
Thle South Under Siege 1830-2000 by Frank Conner, Collards Publishing Company, Newnan, Georgia
Lincoln’s Marxists by Al Benson Jr. and Walter Kennedy, Pelican Publishing, Gretna, Louisiana.
The Coming of the Glory by John S. Tilley, Bill Coates, Ltd, Nashville, Tennessee
There are several other books out there but these are some I have access to at this point.
The whole question of Lincoln’s political and theological worldview needs to be reassessed. He had a decided fondness for those on the political left and they had a decided affection for him and his policies that went all the way from support to implementation where possible. The early Republican Party had notable socialist support and participation, and Mr. Lincoln was not ignorant of this. Had he really been a Christian this should have bothered him and apparently it did not. That fact alone should tell us where he was really coming from.