That’s as close as the film comes to probing the faith of Abraham Lincoln. But the nature of Lincoln’s faith — or the lack thereof — has remained one of the most fascinating aspects of the man who freed the slaves, preserved the Union and carried the wounded nation through its bloodiest war.
Beginning almost immediately after his assassination 147 years ago, hundreds of books, articles and essays have appeared, many claiming Lincoln was — if not in fact, then in sentiment — a Christian, Catholic, Jew, Mormon, psychic, spiritualist, agnostic and atheist.
Their titles range from “Lincoln, the Freethinker” to “Lincoln’s Christianity.” Just this month, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson released “Lincoln’s Battle With God: A President’s Struggle With Faith and What It Meant for America” by popular biographer Stephen Mansfield. The Jewish Journal ran a story asking if Lincoln was “’Jewish’ in his temperament, values and actions.”
Both religious believers and nonbelievers have set up websites or composed blog posts full of Lincoln quotes they believe support their own versions of Lincoln’s God. Sometimes it’s the same quote — illustrating, perhaps, that facet of Lincoln that “Freethinkers” author Susan Jacoby calls his unique balance “between belief and unbelief.”
“What makes Lincoln a compelling figure to religious believers and nonbelievers alike,” Jacoby writes, “is that his character was suffused with a rare combination of rationalism and prophetic faith in almost perfect equipoise.”
What is the truth about Lincoln’s faith? And what does it say about Americans that we seem to need to pinpoint his beliefs and claim them as our own?
“Lincoln, in many ways, is a cipher to us,” said Jennifer Weber, an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas and a Lincoln scholar. “He was not forthcoming at all about his interior life, his emotions, his experiences as a child. So we don’t know what he felt about a lot of things. There are a lot of holes there.”
So what do we know? We know Lincoln was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and that he could quote much of the Bible by heart. We also know that in his youth he wrote an anti-religious pamphlet that his friends burned, and that he steadfastly declined to become a member of any church.
We also know that the deaths of two of his sons and the horrors of the Civil War took a huge toll on Lincoln and brought about some kind of spiritual crisis. We know that as president, he wrote and delivered speeches that contain the most elegant references to God and American destiny in our history — and that he did not mention Jesus in those speeches and only rarely in his private life.