Friday, November 30, 2007

Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?

One of my great hobby horses outside of New Testament studies is reading and learning about the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Recently, I was asked for a wish list for Christmas and invariably as I do every year, I listed a couple of Lincoln books. Well, this year I have found what looks to be a real gem titled, Lincoln's Christianity by Michael Burkhimer. To get a flavor for Burkhimer's thesis it reads:

In Lincoln's Christianity, Michael Burkhimer examines the entire history of the president's interaction with religion—accounts from those who knew him, his own letters and writings, the books he read—to reveal a man who did not believe in orthodox Christian precepts (and might have had a hard time getting elected today) yet, by his example, was a person and president who most truly embodied Christian teachings.

Lincoln's religious beliefs have always been the source of controversy and brought to mind a book review I did in seminary four years ago on Allen C. Guelzo's Redeemer President.

I have reproduced it in full here:

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1999.

With as many biographies already written about Lincoln, one would assume that there would not be any stones unturned. Lincoln’s legacy has often been viewed through a Christian lens. Themes in Lincoln’s presidency readily lend to those assumptions, such as his ability to lead the nation through its darkest hour, claiming guidance from “Providence,” and his assassination on Good Friday. These factors all serve to give Lincoln a Messiah-like quality, and have remained relatively unchallenged until recently.
Allen C. Guelzo, dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern College, and Grace F. Kea Professor of American History, manages to piece together a Lincoln never before studied by biographers in the past. Far from the Christian and backwoods lawyer turned president that he is often been portrayed as, the author paints a convincing picture of Lincoln’s personal and public life as one shaped out of intellectual curiosity, skepticism, and the determination for self-improvement. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President traces Lincoln’s intellectual roots to the religious, social and political movements of his day: Calvinism, the Enlightenment, and classical liberalism. These factors would ultimately guide Lincoln to associate himself closely with the Whig party.
According to Guelzo, Lincoln’s affiliation with Whig thought was due to the rejection of his father’s lifestyle, modeled after the Jeffersonian agrarian economics that he despised. If Jefferson’s vision of America illustrated the virtues of self-sufficiency, the Whigs vision was concerned with self-advancement highlighted by their vision of a national banking system, investments in internal improvements in canals and railroads, and the advocacy of high-tariffs to safeguard American businesses. These factors guaranteed Lincoln’s support of the party as he affirmed himself “an old-line Henry Clay Whig.” According to Guelzo, the lifestyle of Lincoln’s father as a subsistent farmer also shaped Lincoln’s attitudes about slavery. Lincoln believed this Jeffersonian and later Jacksonian democracy lead to economic slavery by restraining people from self-advancement. Although Lincoln’s liberal inclinations fit well with the Whig ideal, his religious thoughts were shaped more by identifying with the skeptical thought of Thomas Paine.
This skepticism, according to the author was rooted in Lincoln’s rigid Calvinistic upbringing. Guelzo writes,
“It was also a Calvinism which Lincoln rejected, partly because it was his father’s religion, partly because he could make no intellectual sense of it; and yet it was ingrained so deeply into him that his mental instincts would always yield easily to any argument in favor of determinism or predestination, in favor of the helplessness of humanity to please God, in favor of melancholy as the proper estimate of the human condition.” (20)

This melancholy regarding the human condition forged what Lincoln deemed his “Doctrine of Necessity.” Lincoln’s “doctrine” held the belief that human beings did not possess free will or the moral responsibility for their actions. Instead of responding based with free will, Lincoln believed that human beings responded to “motives.” These motives always appealed to the self-interest, and lead to a fatalistic world-view from Lincoln. According to Guelzo, Lincoln’s view of God then was not one of a redeemer but an impenetrable judge. He writes,
“If Lincoln’s concept of God looked like anything else on offer, it was not the orthodox
Trinitarian God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit described by the Old School theologians, but a truncated one with God the Father-remote austere, all-powerful, uncommunicative-and neither Son or Spirit.” (153)

Lincoln’s thoughts were anything but static, however. Guelzo notes two important shifts in his thinking that lead to shifting attitudes about slavery and ultimately God.
The first major shift occurred in 1854 during the Lincoln-Douglas debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and continued through the demise of the Whig Party causing Lincoln to join the newly formed Republican Party. According to the author, Lincoln expanded his views on slavery to encompass a moral overtone. Originally, Lincoln’s views on slavery contained Whig leanings emphasizing that slavery was wrong because it fostered pride in the ownership of slaves, denying the motivation for self-improvement. Once Lincoln understood that slaves yearned for self-improvement, he was able to relate to them on a human level. Despite this significant change in thinking, Lincoln still would not affirm his total support of the abolition of slavery.
The second shift in thinking came during the Civil War in 1861 and 1862. Guelzo demonstrates that Lincoln began to reevaluate the meaning of providence when the war continued with no foreseeable end in sight. Previously Lincoln viewed providence as an impersonal law that governed human affairs, but following numerous defeats and mounting causalities, he believed that providence was addressing him, demanding that slavery needed to end. The author writes,
“Lincoln had come, by the circle of a lifetime and the disasters of the war, to confront once again the Calvinistic God who could not be captured or domesticated into Tom Paine’s Almighty Architect, who possessed a conscious will to intervene, challenge, and reshape human destinies without regard for historical process, the voice out of the whirlwind speaking to the American Job.” (327)

Lincoln’s new understanding of providence enabled him to pen the Emancipation Proclamation, despite political risk. However, Lincoln’s admittance of the divine personality of providence did not draw him closer to religion, but served instead to reinforce the wide distance that separated him from God. Guelzo concludes that Lincoln’s faith could be best be summed up as a “…deep sense of helplessness before a distant and implacable Judge who revealed himself only through crisis and death, whom Lincoln would have wanted to love if only the Judge had given him the grace to do the loving.” (446)
Guelzo’s portrayal of Lincoln is lucid, balanced, and original. Many of the myths that have turned Lincoln into a strong Christian are effectively exposed by the author as an inaccurate attempt to portray Lincoln as a Messiah-like figure by early biographers. Instead, Guelzo depicts Lincoln as a man plagued by doubts, whose thought was closely aligned with others such as Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, who questioned the complete sincerity of faith in a Calvinistic God. Guelzo is successful in tracing Lincoln’s thought due to his remarkable grasp of the secondary literature of Lincoln’s time. Despite the enormity of the sources used, the author is successful in producing a very readable book.
No aspect of Lincoln’s life is untreated in this intellectual biography. Lincoln’s early years, his romances and marriage, his legal and political career, his disdain for abolitionists, his modified views of slavery, his strained relationships with cabinet members and Union Army generals, are all uncovered by Guelzo and are treated with the same rigorous care that is characteristic of the remainder of the book. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President provides the ideal starting point for anyone interested in Lincoln’s life.

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