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The Struggle for Lincoln's Soul Part 2

(continued from previous article)

The situation for Lincoln's religion resembles the situation for other facets of his private life. Once solidly verified quotations and narratives have been separated from the almost certainly spurious, there remains a vast array of embellished incidents. These stories are the puzzlers. Many of them can be verified up to a point, but they also contain unlikely or unverified details. Here are a few:

Lincoln almost certainly spoke about religion with Newton Bateman, Illinois Superintendent of Public Instruction, in the months between his election in November 1860 and his departure from Springfield in February 1861. Yet the story of a fully orthodox profession of faith that Bateman supplied Josiah Holland in the summer of 1865 was too good to be true. When challenged by William Herndon about the veracity of his account, Bateman twisted and turned, but in the end conceded that he embellished what the president-elect had said.

It is a fact that Lincoln enjoyed good relations with the Reverend Mr. Gurley and that Gurley spoke with conviction about Lincoln's general trust in God in the two memorial sermons that he preached after the assassination. Yet the story that Lincoln had arranged to join the New York Avenue church upon public profession of faith has never been securely documented.

It is probably true that the former Catholic priest Charles Chiniquy prayed with Lincoln in the White House on June 10, 1864, for the two were acquainted from Springfield days, and Chiniquy's presence in Washington can be verified. But it stretches the imagination that Lincoln professed to Chiniquy a fully orthodox faith, as Chiniquy's memoir, Twenty-Five Years in the Church of Rome (1886), claims. And it beggars belief that Lincoln agreed with the former priest in viewing the Civil War as a gigantic Jesuit conspiracy.

There are many other such incidents, most of them the product of late reminiscences. What they show is Lincoln's respect for God, his eagerness to commit the Civil War to divine rule, and his own personal sense of living under the authority of divine providence. What they do not show is a clear-cut profession of orthodox faith.

Once we have reached this twilight land of conflicted, partially legendary, and quasi-mythic history, we are in excellent position to benefit from the carefully balanced work of experts who study other aspects of Lincoln's career. Philip Paludan, for example, makes a great contribution in The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln because he is able to disengage himself, at least partially, from debates about what later interested parties have wanted to hear Lincoln saying. Earlier prevailing interpretations argued that Lincoln oriented his policies around either preserving the Union or ending slavery, either upholding the Constitution as the law of an undivided land or promoting the expansion to all Americans of ideals in the Declaration of Independence. The first notion in each pair defines the conservative Lincoln beloved of constitutionalists, twentieth-century Republicans, and even eventually Southern defenders of the lost cause. By contrast, this conservative Lincoln has been despised by twentieth-century radicals, who hold that he forfeited opportunities for civil equality by his concessions to racism. The second notion in each pair defines the emancipating Lincoln beloved of radical Republicans in the antebellum era, moderate civil-rights advocates, and many modern Democrats. By contrast, this egalitarian Lincoln was despised by Northern and Southern conservatives of his own day who accused him of using big government to foment a second American Revolution.

The genius of Paludan's research is to argue that "Lincoln respected equally the nation's institutions, manifested in the political-constitutional system, and its ideals, revealed in the Declaration of Independence." In other words, if we go to Lincoln with the ideological disjunctions of what came later, we lose the reality of what existed for Lincoln himself. If we think that the only options for Lincoln were views that have prevailed since Lincoln's day, we miss what Lincoln himself actually meant, felt, and valued. If later Americans separated what Lincoln joined, it becomes a historical task to show that these incompatibles were unified in Lincoln's own mind and in his policies. This task Paludan accomplishes superbly.

When Paludan's rigorous historical procedure is applied to Lincoln's religion, its value is evident immediately. If later interpreters are capable only of seeing either an evangelical Lincoln or an infidel Lincoln, the Lincoln who was really there remains invisible. The actual Lincoln appears to have been seriously religious, certainly immersed in the Scriptures, and not unfriendly to Christ, but he was not a born-again believer or a committed Christian in the evangelical sense. That was the testimony of those who knew Lincoln best-his wife, for example, who said shortly after his death that he was "a religious man always" but not "a technical Christian." From Springfield, the Reverend James Smith had much the same verdict, as paraphrased by Peterson: "while not a Christian in the strict sense, Lincoln believed in the divine authority of the Scriptures and grew in the faith."

Such a conclusion can be disconcerting. Lincoln's faith does not fit. It requires new categories. It is a puzzle. But if we acknowledge that it is a puzzle, then we are in a position to learn from research. Invariably, we will find out more about a historical figure like Lincoln if we go in search of something we know not exactly what, rather than for something we know very well before we even begin.

Michael Burlingame's The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln brings us closer to the truth. Burlingame has accumulated a great mass of anecdote and evidence. He has sifted this mass with care. His portrait of the private Lincoln -though, of course, not the last word-is a revelation.

Especially revealing is what Burlingame feels he must conclude about the dysfunctional character of the Lincolns' marriage. The evidence, once liberated from the demands of myth-making, is overwhelming.

The difficulty began with a remarkable set of poor matches: culture (she was aristocratic, he was dirt-poor), age (when they married, she was 23, he 33), temperament (she was what Burlingame, using Jungian archetypes, calls negative Eternal Youth, he was positive Old Man), and moods (he was able to relax, she could not).

Then there were the debilities Lincoln himself brought to the marriage. He was emotionally withdrawn, a man who prized reason over passion, a person who did not communicate himself easily. After his death, Mary Lincoln said that though her husband was a man of "deep feeling," he was "not a demonstrative man[-]when he felt most deeply, he expressed, the least." Lincoln was absent, emotionally or physically, much of the time. For years, he spent four months out of every twelve away from Springfield on the judicial circuit. When he was in Springfield, he often absented himself to the State House or his law office until very late at night. Moreover, while Lincoln was indulgent with the children, he also left their management almost entirely to his wife.

Mary Todd's contribution to the marriage may have added measurably to Lincoln's emotional distance. If she was not entirely the "wolf" that William Herndon described, she nontheless did often fly into violent rages; she pushed Lincoln relentlessly to seek high public office; she complained endlessly about poverty; she overran her budget shamelessly, both in Springfield and in the White House; she abused servants as if they were slaves (and ragged on Lincoln when he tried to pay them extra on the side); she assaulted him on more than one occasion (with firewood, with potatoes); she probably once chased him with a knife through their backyard in Springfield; and she treated his casual contacts with attractive females as a direct threat, while herself flirting constantly and dressing to kill. A regular visitor to the White House wrote of Mrs. Lincoln that "she was vain, passionately fond of dress and wore her dresses shorter at the top and longer at the train than even fashions demanded. She had great pride in her elegant neck and bust, and grieved the President greatly by her constant display of her person and her fine clothes." Commenting on one such dress, Lincoln said to his wife, "Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail was nearer the head it would be in better style."

Burlingame presents this picture of the Lincolns' marriage in a chapter buttressed with 425 notes, most of them to more than one source, many of them containing mini-essays on questions of reliability. His conclusion deserves the most serious respect: the Lincolns' marriage was a mess. But with his laboriously mined conclusions, Burlingame by no means rests with mere historical gossip. He wants, rather, to show how his deep research in Lincoln's private life also illuminates the public person. How was it that Lincoln, when president, could work so effectively with the rampant egos who filled his administration? Burlingame's hard-won conclusions on the Lincolns' marriage give him the right to attempt an explanation: "The long years of dealing with his tempestuous wife helped prepare Lincoln for handling the difficult people he encountered as president. After examining the Lincoln marriage, Benjamin Thomas eloquently concluded that 'over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.'"

Unfortunately, there has never been a Michael Burlingame for Lincoln's religion. What even preliminary research in the Civil War era shows, however, is that Lincoln displayed a higher, finer theology than did the nation's professional Christian theologians. How this came about is a puzzle. That it happened is very clear.

All throughout the war, major Christian leaders North and South consistently equated God's will with the principles of their own side. The limited vision of those theologians was truly dismaying, which is probably why almost no one now studies their words. Henry Ward Beecher, for example, in his Brooklyn pulpit and with a well-circulated Christian magazine, was the best-known clergyman of his era. Yet when he spoke at the rededication of Fort Sumter on the very day that Lincoln was shot, his only message was wrathful vengeance: In the day of God's judgment, the South's "guiltiest and most remorseless traitors . . . these most accused and detested of all criminals, that have drenched a continent in needless blood, and moved the foundations of their times with hideous crimes and cruelty, caught up in black clouds full of voices of vengeance and lurid with punishment, shall be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and forever in an endless retribution."

Just as lopsidedly self-serving were public statements from the South. John Adgar, editor of the Southern Presbyterian Review, in late 1865 defended the conduct of Southern preachers during the war with these words: "If they . . . expounded God's word as it sanctions slavery, and taught their people to commit the cause they were maintaining against a radical infidelity in humble prayer to his wise, and sovereign, and merciful arbitrament; we do not see that any part or all of this can be condemned as a preaching of politics."

Lincoln, by contrast, knew that God had not enlisted on either side. The man who never joined a church saw such theological matters more clearly than the men who led America's churches. As early as 1862, he could write words in a private memorandum that neither John Adgar nor most other American clergy could even imagine: "In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party." In March 1865, while the South still seemed to have more staying power than would actually prove the case, Lincoln nonetheless offered momentous words of the sort that Beecher and his ilk could not conceive. Almost certainly Lincoln hoped to be heard in the South, as well as in the North, when he said, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

So, what was Lincoln's religion? It was genuine, but only partially Christian. Its exact shape cannot be specified further until someone carries out broad, painstaking, conceptually sophisticated research comparable to that which Burlingame devoted to Lincoln's marriage. Certainly a start has been made in tracing Lincoln's private religion-for example, his reactions to early Calvinist preaching and to the deaths of his children-as a basis of his presidential theology. Yet only when researchers are able to extricate themselves from the partisanship of "Lincoln the Pious" or "Lincoln the Infidel" and take up the challenge of messy historical reality will it be possible to come closer to the truth of Lincoln's religion.

Why should such historical questions matter? They matter because the truth matters. God, whom believers worship as the author of truth, can accept what his creatures do and are, even on questions of great depth and immense complexity, like the question of Abraham Lincoln's faith. If God does not shy from the truth, neither should we.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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