So, why is there so much confusion about Abraham Lincoln’s religious beliefs? Was Lincoln a Christian? Was Lincoln an atheist? Did he believe in the truth of the Bible? It seems that everyone tries to prove their viewpoint of Lincoln's religious beliefs by pointing to one or two of their favorite Lincoln quotes.
This really shouldn’t be that difficult. Like most people, Lincoln’s religious beliefs evolved over his lifetime. After all, who maintains the exact same religious beliefs all their lives? In his youth, Lincoln attended with his parents what was called a “hardshell” Baptist church. Typical of children everywhere, he went to church and listened to the lessons and sermons. Atypical of children everywhere, he sometimes memorized them.
When Lincoln left home at the age of twenty-one, he went through a period of skepticism towards Christianity. While he was in New Salem, Illinois he pursued intellectual arguments of individuals like Thomas Paine (who was a deist) and openly questioned the validity of the Bible. Some scholars believe that this was a result of his desire to distance himself from the Calvinist faith of his Father, with whom Lincoln had developed an estranged relationship. Some think it was just a natural result of Lincoln’s intellectual development, as evidenced by his studying of law, Euclid’s theorems, and logic.
It is the skeptical Lincoln of his twenties and thirties that atheists like to point to in their efforts to claim him as their own. They, as well as many scholars, seem to have difficulty looking beyond this phase of Lincoln’s life.
But as Lincoln grew older, got married, and raised children, his skepticism diminished. He had always read the Bible, even during his cynical years, and when the Abraham and Mary Lincoln experienced the tragic death of their second son Eddy in Springfield, they sought solace from the message of love and hope of the Bible. Lincoln developed a close relationship with the minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Dr. James Smith, and began attending this church with Mary.
Skeptics of Lincoln’s Christianity make a big deal of the fact that Lincoln never “officially joined a church," although by the time he was President he attended services frequently. This is hardly proof that he had no faith. Many Christians today are not formal members of a church.
It was when Lincoln became president that the most significant change seemed to happen regarding his religious beliefs. His writings, while President, are the obvious evidence of his deepening faith in God. Additionally, there are testimonies of people that knew him while he was in the White House, who describe his increasing faith. The Civil War, and the associated deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, was a constant torment to him. The loss of a second son, Willie, while in the White House caused Lincoln to draw closer to Phineas Gurney, his pastor at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The fact that Lincoln prayed and read the Bible regularly while President is well documented. In 1862 he pondered God’s purpose for the Civil War in his “Meditation on Divine Will.” By the time he wrote his famous Second Inaugural Address, something any minister of the Bible would be proud of, he had reached his conclusions about how God was using the war. He believed that God allowed the Civil War as punishment for the nation’s sin of slavery. He quoted from scripture in the Second Inaugural, “The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
So even though Lincoln had deistic and atheistic sympathies when he was a young man, he had clearly changed by the time he became President. President Lincoln not only believed in God, but he also believed that God answered prayer. He believed that God intervened in American history. So he was clearly a Theist rather than Deist or Atheist. To say that Lincoln was a born-again Christian, however, goes beyond the evidence. This would have required him to make statement of personal faith, and there is no reliable evidence that Lincoln ever accepted Christ as his personal savior. By the time he was President, Lincoln is most accurately categorized as a “believer” in Christianity. It is known that he read the Bible regularly, he prayed, and he talked about “the Savior" (but not “his Savior"). Some believe that if had Lincoln lived, his intention was to join a church and formally declare his faith in Christ. We will never know. What his exact relationship with God was at the time of his death, “the Lord only knows.”
For more on Lincoln’s faith, including his writings about God, go to Great American History's Lincoln’s Faith.
The two best books I know of on the subject of Lincoln’s faith are Allen Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Library of Religious Biography) and Stephen Mansfield’s Lincoln's Battle with God: A President's Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America Both cogently discuss Lincoln's evolving faith.