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Lincoln Shunned Religion

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In the heart of nearly every American, a tender spot is held by Abraham Lincoln, the eloquent, tragic hero who suffered the torment of the nation's worst cataclysm.

Each schoolchild is taught about Lincoln's birth in a log cabin, his setbacks in rural politics, his agony in the Civil War, his emancipation of the slaves, and his martyrdom by an assassin. But none is taught that Lincoln rejected Christianity, never joined a church, and even wrote a treatise against religion. Such matters remain taboo in America.

After Lincoln's death, many clergymen declared that he had been a pious Christian. A photograph of Lincoln and his son Tad examining a book of Matthew Brady photos was widely distributed in churches with the misleading caption: "Lincoln Reading the Bible to his Son."

Actually, Lincoln was an enigma, sometimes superstitious, sometimes brooding over tragic forebodings, often inconsistent. After two of his sons died, the grieving president attended church a few times with his wife and invited spiritualists to the White House to seek the boys' departed souls. But he scoffed at the mediums during their seances.

At the behest of White House confidants, religious words were written into some of Lincoln's public pronouncements, inasmuch as the public expected it of their leader. But Lincoln's lifelong intimates knew him differently.

Allegations of disbelief had haunted him over the years. In 1843, after he lost a campaign for Congress, Lincoln said in a letter to his political supporters: "It was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to vote for me because I belonged to no church and was suspected of being a Deist."

In 1846, his congressional campaign opponent publicly accused him of infidelity. Lincoln responded in a cautious circular: "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."

When Lincoln first was considered presidential timber, a fellow Illinois lawyer, Logan Hay, wrote to his nephew, future Secretary of State John Hay: "Candor compels me to say that at this period, Mr. Lincoln could hardly be termed a devout believer in the authenticity of the Bible (but this is for your ear only)."

Interviewer Opie Read once asked Lincoln his conception of God, to which he replied: "The same as my conception of nature." Asked what he meant, Lincoln said: "That it is impossible for either to be personal."

In the years following Lincoln's assassination, his former law partner, William H. Herndon, made public statements such as: "Mr. Lincoln was an infidel, sometimes bordering on atheism." "He never mentioned the name of Jesus, except to scorn and detest the idea of a miraculous conception." "He did write a little work on infidelity in 1835-6, and never recanted. He was an out-and-out infidel, and about that there is no mistake."

Herndon's remarks caused a storm among the clergy. In response, Herndon discussed Lincoln's religious views extensively in a biography titled The True Story of a Great Life. Here is an excerpt:

"In 1834, while still living in New Salem and before he became a lawyer, he was surrounded by a class of people exceedingly liberal in matters of religion. Volney's Ruins and Paine's Age of Reason passed from hand to hand, and furnished food for the evening's discussion in the tavern and village store. Lincoln read both these books and thus assimilated them into his own being. He prepared an extended essay - called by many a book - in which he made an argument against Christianity, striving to prove that the Bible was not inspired, and therefore not God's revelation, and that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God. The manuscript containing these audacious and comprehensive propositions he intended to have published or given a wide circulation in some other way. He carried it to the store, where it was read and freely discussed. His friend and employer, Samuel Hill, was among the listeners and, seriously questioning the propriety of a promising young man like Lincoln fathering such unpopular notions, he snatched the manuscript from his hands and thrust it into the stove. The book went up in flames, and Lincoln's political future was secure. But his infidelity and his skeptical views were not diminished."

Herndon quoted statements by others to document the late president's disbelief. Some examples follow:

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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