NR Digital

Tried in the Fire

by James E. Person Jr.
Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America, by Stephen Mansfield (Thomas Nelson, 241 pp., $22.99)

‘It is difficult, and in some quarters thought to be almost tasteless, to talk sense about Lincoln,” observed commentator Alistair Cooke. “But we must try.”

Try though we might, few topics of discussion bring men and women of the Right to sword’s point faster than the significance of Abraham Lincoln in American history. He has been decried by some as the first significant champion of creeping statism, the author of confusion on matters related to America’s founding, a law unto himself, a ruthless suppressor of dissent, an inciter of servile insurrection, and much else. “The monster Lincoln,” he is recurrently called on one website.

In other quarters, he has been praised as perhaps the nation’s preeminent president, the Great Emancipator, an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren, a secular Christ figure, and a symbol of all that is great and good about the American Republic. As Lincoln breathed his last, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton murmured, “Now he belongs to the ages,” initiating nearly a century and a half of the ongoing beatification of Father Abraham.

Both sides tend to transform Lincoln from a man, with all the failings and glory to which human flesh is heir, to either a villain with no redeeming qualities or a latter-day demigod — but these clichés are of little help in understanding the inner man and his motivations. And thus the need for this book, which examines the spiritual Lincoln.

“Every American president employs the phrases of Christian piety; yet few presidents have been conspicuously devout,” Russell Kirk observed almost 60 years ago. “Lincoln began as a naïve skeptic; he received next to no religious instruction of any sort; solitary reading of the Bible gave majesty to his mind and his style, but never brought to him any faith less cloudy and austere than a solemn theism.” Others have claimed that Lincoln was nothing more than a typical opportunistic politician who used the language of faith to sway the more gullible members of the public — akin to the smirking Bill Clinton’s conspicuously carrying a large black Bible to Sunday services during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But Lincoln’s faith was more interesting than either of these claims would suggest, according to historian Stephen Mansfield, author of several other respected works on the religious views of notable persons: His faith exceeded “a solemn theism.” Mansfield understands from the outset of his book that he faces a tough challenge, for, just as Lincoln’s historical significance has been quarreled over, the question of whether he was a Christian has been hotly debated since the day of his death.

As Mansfield notes, there are legions of historical commentators — many of them eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s life — who have had axes to grind. Mansfield delves into the numerous accounts of Lincoln, and focuses on his letters. He finds a huge clue in the story of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, who was dogged throughout her short life by the knowledge of her illegitimacy and her unending struggle with deep inner sadness and depression. Nancy’s son inherited this troubled disposition, mixed with the trait of pronounced melancholy that ran in the heritage of his father, Thomas Lincoln. It seemed that God, if He existed, doled out happiness and a soft life to some of His children and hopeless misery to others — and yet the words of the Authorized Version held such beauty and power and promise of something better. Here, to Lincoln, was mystery wrapped up inextricably with tragedy.

The frontier religion of Abraham’s youth was also a factor, with its mixture of high-octane revivalist fervor and fleering hypocrisy: At camp meetings, some of the same people who shouted the loudest about Jesus in one breath could in the next be found knife-fighting or fornicating in the bushes nearby. Lincoln thought long and hard on what he observed, and as a young man in New Salem, Ill., he became known as the village atheist, a skeptic who reveled in scandalizing the pious through his growing verbal gifts married to extensive reading in the rationalistic works of Tom Paine and the comte de Volney, author of the Enlightenment work The Ruins of Empires.

But in time Lincoln’s reading came to include the works of intelligent men of faith, notably James D. Smith, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Springfield and author of a formidable work of Christian apologetics titled The Christian’s Defence. A married man by now, Lincoln was much taken with this work, and he spent a great deal of time attending services at First Presbyterian and discussing issues of faith with Smith. Over time, Lincoln became convinced that God exists, and that the central tenets of Christianity might be true.

Mansfield details how, during the years of Lincoln’s political life, this faith grew — not through having his prayers answered in a direct manner, but through suffering. He steadily and convincingly builds the case that, by 1862, with the death of his beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, and with the Civil War at a low point in terms of Union successes in the East, Lincoln had reached a place at which his spiritual groping had entered the realm of orthodoxy. Basing his view on Lincoln’s writings, and records of his conversations by reliable witnesses, Mansfield concludes that Lincoln had come to believe

in God as Creator, as ruler of the world, Judge, Comforter, the author of justice, the author also of much if not all of the Bible, and increasingly, as benevolent guide. He believed in the Holy Spirit and in Jesus Christ as teacher, Savior of the world, and model for mankind. He believed in heaven, in the resurrection of the dead, and in what Christians call eternal life. He believed in the value of Christian ministry, in the duty of generosity, in fasting and prayer as a means of urging God to change human affairs, in repentance from sins, in observing the Sabbath, in reading Scripture, and in the religious training of the young. And, yes, he also believed in the citizens of the United States being a “Christian people,” in her military forces being “Christian soldiers and sailors,” in American history as the carefully woven tapestry of a sovereign God, and in the nation possessing a divine destiny yet to fulfill.

“He had once been the village atheist in New Salem and Springfield,” adds Mansfield, “but he had grown beyond those days and become the kind of man who could valiantly declare his Second Inaugural Address — what must surely be the greatest American political sermon — to a wounded, angry, self-righteous nation. That he died a prophetic figure, determined to show his countrymen the difference between ‘the Almighty’s’ purposes and their own, is perhaps all the statement of Lincoln’s religion we need.”

If Lincoln was indeed a believing Christian, and the evidence seems to show he was, his was not the beaming, everything’s-fine-with-Jesus-and-me brand of Christianity popular in some segments of America today: It was a spiritually ravaged, tried-in-the-fire faith reminiscent of that of another son of the soil, Johnny Cash. It was a faith won through struggle and longtime, deep inner pain — in Lincoln’s case, through the suffering and death of his children, his sorely trying marriage to the shrewish and possibly bipolar Mary Todd, and the agony of America’s Civil War, with its early years of bloody military reverses for the Northern forces. In the end, it seems Lincoln found a faith of mercy and hope, more than capable of outlasting the darkness.

– Mr. Person is the author of  Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow.

Send a letter to the editor.