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Abraham Lincoln: His Religion & Views On Race by Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery

Abraham Lincoln: 
His Religion & Views On Race
by
Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery

Let’s begin with some highlights of Abraham Lincoln’s life: Highlight #1 – Clifton Melvin Nichols – who served as editor in the 1880's – of the Springfield Daily Republic – said in his book, Life of Abraham Lincoln that “ON February 12, 1809, a babe was born in a log cabin, located on Nolin's creek, in La Rue county, Kentucky, which was then a new and
almost wild country. No doctors attended his birth. Only a few unskilled women were there to offer their willing services in caring for the mother. There was no fine linen ready in which to wrap the baby boy. His father was away from home. There was no food in the house, and  had  it  not  been  for  the kindness of neighbors he would have perished.” 1 Highlight #2 – “Mr. Lincoln was admitted to the bar of Illinois March 1, 1837, and on April 15 of that year he removed to Springfield and began practice as a  partner  of  Stuart,  being  at that time twenty-eight years of age.” 2 Highlight #3 – “The marriage of Mr. Lincoln and Mary was quick and sudden—one or two hours’ notice. The license to marry was issued on the 4th of November, 1842,  and  on  the  same  day  the marriage was celebrated...” 3 Highlight #4 – “In 1846 he was elected to the lower House of Congress (U. S. House of Representatives), and served one term only, commencing in December, 1847, and ending with the inauguration of General Taylor, in March, 1849.” 4 Highlight #5 – “On the 6th of November, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He received 1,857,610 votes; Mr. Douglas had 1,291,574; Mr. Breckinridge, 850,082; Mr. Bell, 616,124.” 5

Now let’s examine two topics.

Lincoln and His Christianity

Since Abraham Lincoln’s death in April 15, 1865, there have been a great deal of debate, weather or not, he was a Christian. Let me just say that there are many areas that a person can observe, when evaluating someone’s profession of being a Christian. Perhaps the top two are – the persons family  and the persons workplace. 

First the family: I’ll begin with Mary Todd Lincoln. In 1901 there was a book published entitled, Abe Lincoln's Yarns and Stories: A Complete Collection of the Funny and Witty Anecdotes That Made Lincoln Famous as America's Greatest Story Teller. In it, on page 386, there is a subtitle “Old Man Glens Religion” There Mary Lincoln says, “Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a friend that his religion was like that of an old man named Glenn, in Indiana, whom he heard speak at a church meeting, and who said: ‘When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad; and that's my religion.’
          
Mrs. Lincoln herself has said that Mr. Lincoln had no faith—no faith, in the usual acceptance of those words. ‘He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature. He first seemed to think about the subject when our boy Willie died, and then more than ever about the time he went to Gettysburg; but it was a kind of poetry in his nature, and he never was a technical Christian.’” 6

Daniel Webster Wilder served as secretary of the Osawatomie
Convention that organized the Republican Party in Kansas and traveled throughout the state with Abraham Lincoln. Wilder was the editor of the Leavenworth Conservative, an anti-slavery paper and wrote and published an editorial on Lincoln’s religious views, in which he affirmed, that Lincoln was a disbeliever in Christianity. In his editorial Wilder said, “Lincoln believed in God, but not in the divinity of Christ. At first, like Franklin, he was probably an Atheist. Although a forgiving man himself, he did not believe that any amount of penitence could affect the logical effects of violated law.” 7

In 1862, Josiah Gilbert Holland assumed the duties as editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican temporarily. During this time Holland wrote many of his most popular works, including the “Life of Abraham Lincoln” in 1866. It is here that we read of a discussion between Holland and Lincoln: “Newton Bateman, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Illinois, occupied a room adjoining and opening into the Executive Chamber. Frequently this door was open during Mr. Lincoln s receptions; and throughout the seven months or more of his occupation Mr. Bateman saw him nearly every day. ... Often when Mr. Lincoln was tired he closed his door against all intrusion, and called Mr. Bateman into his room for a quiet talk. ... toward the close of October, and only a few days before the election. Calling Mr. Bateman to a seat at his side, having previously locked all the doors, he said: ‘let us look over this book. I wish particularly to see how the ministers of Springfield are going to vote.’ In that manner they went through the book, and then he closed it and sat silently and for some minutes regarding a memorandum in pencil which lay before him. At length he turned to Mr. Bateman with a face full of sadness, and said: ‘Here are twenty-three ministers, of different denominations, and all of them are against me but three; and here are a great many prominent members of the churches, a very large majority of whom are against me. Mr. Bateman, I am not a Christian God knows I would be one but I have carefully read the Bible, and I do not so understand this book...’” 8

After hearing what family and friends have said, certainly begs for the question about what Lincoln himself said his personal tenants or beliefs? Is it not a logical desire to know what came from Lincoln’s lips. Well, here are some statements that Abraham Lincoln made very clear of his personal convictions:

“‘What is to be, will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.’ 9 On this maxim of Lincoln, Mary states that this “effectually sets aside the Christian idea of the efficacy of prayer.” 10

‘Friends, I agree with you in Providence; but I believe in the Providence of –  the most men, the largest purse, and the longest cannon.’ 11

‘It will not do to investigate the subject of religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to infidelity.’” 12 

It needs to be said – these are not the things that will not come out of the mouth of a born-again,  regenerated believer, one whose soul, that has been changed by the Holy Spirit of God. Scripture says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

Other evidences of no changed heart comes from Lincoln’s
workstations, from his third and last law partner and Lincoln’s biographer, William Henry Herndon who witnessed first hand  and said this of Lincoln’s approach to Christianity, “Lincoln was very politic, and a very shrewd man in some particulars. When he was talking to a Christian, he adapted himself to the Christian. When he spoke to, or joked to one of his own kind, he was indecently vulgar. Hence the different opinions about Mr. Lincoln's Christianity and vulgarity. Mr. Lincoln was chaste in his ideas and language when it was necessary, and when not so he was vulgar in his jokes and stories; he was at moments, as it were, a Christian, through politeness, courtesy, or good breeding toward the delicate, tender, nerved man, the Christian, and in two minutes after, in the absence of such men, and among his own kind, the same old unbeliever. I have witnessed this it may be a thousand times. This conduct of Mr. Lincoln was not hypocritical, but sprang from a high and tender regard for the feelings of men.” 13
Then there was Ward Hill Lamon – Lincoln’s self-appointed
bodyguard and made an astute observation – he says, “In one sense of the word, Mr. Lincoln was a Universalist, and in another sense he was a Unitarian; but he was a theist, as we now understand that word: he was so fully, freely, unequivocally, boldly, and openly, when asked for his views. Mr. Lincoln was supposed, by many people in this city, to be an atheist; and some still believe it.” 14

Now back to William Henry Herndon who gave a lecture on December 13, 1873 and made this observation, “I affirm that Mr. Lincoln died an unbeliever—was not an evangelical Christian. It is admitted on all hands that Mr. Lincoln once was an infidel; that he wrote a small book, or essay, or pamphlet against Christianity; and that he continued an unbeliever until late in life. Col. Jas. H. Matheny had often told him (Herndon) that Mr. Lincoln was an infidel; and never intimated that he believed that Mr. Lincoln in his later life became a Christian I have often said that Mr. Lincoln was by nature a deeply religious man, and I now repeat it, I have often said he was not a Christian, and I now repeat it. He was not an unbeliever in religion, but was as to Christianity. Mr. Lincoln was a theist.” 15

William Henry Herndon probably gives the best closing for Lincoln’s opinion on Christianity. In his book, “The Religion Of Abraham Lincoln,” Herdon says very clearly, “One word concerning this discussion about Mr. Lincoln's Christian views. It is important in this: 1st, it settles a historic fact. 2d, it makes it possible to write a true history of a man free from the fear of fire and stake. 3d, it assures the reading world that the life of Mr. Lincoln will be truly written. 4th, it will be a warning forever to all untrue men, that the life they have lived will be dragged out to public view. 5th, it should convince the Christian pulpit and press that it is impossible in this day and generation, at least in America, to daub up sin, and make a hero out of a fool, a knave, or a villain, which Mr. Lincoln was not. Some true spirit will drag the fraud, and lie out to the light of day. 6th, Its tendencies will be to arrest and put a stop to romantic biographies, and now let it be written in history and on Mr. Lincoln's tomb—"He died an unbeliever.” 16

Lincoln’s Thoughts On Race

Since Abraham Lincoln gave his “Emancipation Proclamation,” he
has been called, “the great emancipator.” Right? In Lincoln’s first inaugural speech on March 4, 1861, he acknowledged the right for any sovereign state to be able to succeed based on States Rights. You can find this in the thirty-eighth paragraph in this speech: “The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have referred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this if also they choose, but the Executive as such has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer the present Government as it came to his hands and to transmit it unimpaired by him to his successor.” 17

In this same speech, Lincoln promised state sovereignty and that there would be no invasion to the states. In the fourth paragraph Lincoln said, “Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” 18

In a speech given in the city of Columbus, Ohio, September 16, 1859, Lincoln gave his strong convictions on the support of the institution of slavery. In the third paragraph he said, “I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forbid their ever living together upon the footing of perfect equality...” 19

If that’s not enough – Lincoln goes on in his discourse – concerning the Negro. He says, “While I was at the hotel to-day an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing perfect equality between the negroes and white people. While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet, as the question was asked me, I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, or intermarry with the white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they can not so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” 20

So, what did Lincoln really think about, on the issue of slavery? Well, he really did not care. I mean when he emancipated the “slaves” of the South and not the slaves of the North, Lincoln didn’t free anyone. Those he could have freed in the North, he did
not. Those he could not free in the South, he stated he did but he did not. Yes, you heard me right because there were slaves in the North. Mildred Lewis Rutherford – who was a teacher, author, school administrator (principal), an accomplished public speaker – from Athens, Georgia. Mrs. Rutherford served as the president of the Georgia Division – of the UDC from 1899 to 1902 – and as the historian general – of the national UDC organization from 1911 to 1916. Impeccable credentials – wouldn’t you say. She was no fly-by-night – no want-a-be-historian. Listen to what she wrote in her boon entitled, Truths of History: A Fair, Unbiased, Impartial, Unprejudiced and Conscientious Study of History – she said, “They do not tell that General Grant, a slaveholder, was put as leader of the Northern Army and General Lee, who had freed his slaves, as the leader of the Southern Army, but they do say that the war was fought to hold the slaves yet do not tell that only 200,000 slaveholders were in the Southern Army, while 315,000 slaveholders were in the Northern Army.” 21

Elvira Evelina Worth Moffitt co-editor of The North Carolina Booklet, Volume 17 published in 1901, 22 states, “Out of the 600,000 men in the Confederate army 400,000 never owned slaves. What were those men fighting for? There were 315,000 slave-holders in the Northern army. Did they wish their slaves freed? General Lee freed his slaves before the war began. General Grant did not free his until the Thirteenth Amendment passed, for Missouri's slaves were not intended to be freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.” 23 

So at this point I want to demonstrate what Abraham Lincoln’s sentiments were toward the white race versus the black race and then show the verbal evidence of Lincoln’s solution for the conflict of what he called, the “social and political equality.” The best answer or the best outcome – that he gave – was called Colonization. First – the foundation – for how Lincoln felt about the black race.

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, particularly the fourth
debate, in Charleston, Illinois on September 18, 1858, Lincoln stated, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will ever forbid  the  two  races  living  together  on  terms  of  social  and  political equality.” 24

Interestingly enough, it’s what Lincoln said a little more than a year earlier, about this solution, since he could not see “the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” In an address at Springfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1857 – Lincoln stated, “I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. ... Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one; but ‘where there is a will there is a way,’ and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and at the same time favorable to, or at least not against, our interest to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be.” 25

The biographers and personal secretaries of Abraham Lincoln,  John George Nicolay (Left) and John Milton Hay (Right) said in their book entitled “Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 6,” that “The political creed of Abraham Lincoln embraced among other tenets, a belief in the value and promise of colonization as one means of solving the great race problem involved in the existence of slavery in the United States. ... Without being an enthusiast, Lincoln was a firm believer in colonization.” 26

And by the way, on January 26, 1857, Lincoln was elected as one of the eleven “managers” of the Illinois State Colonization Society. In the Illinois State Journal, it is recorded and then made public on the morning of Wednesday – January 28, 1857: “According to notice, the Illinois State Colonization Society held its annual meeting on Monday evening the 26th, in the Hall of the House of Representatives. In the absence of the President, (Governor Matteson,) Rev. Dr. McMastors, of Alton, took the chair. Prayer was offered, after which the minutes of the last annual meeting and last meeting of the Board of managers were read.

Managers, Rev. J. H. Brown, D. D., Rev. S. W. Ilarkey, D. D., Rev.
J. W. Pierson, Rev. C. W. Sears, Rev. N. W. Miner, Rev. A. Hale, Wm. Yates Esq., J. S. Vredenburg, Esq., Jas. Thayer, Esq., Hon. S. M. Collum, Hon. A. Lincoln.” 27  Added to this, Carl Sandburg makes an interesting statement, “Of new and old societies, unions, lodges, churches, it seemed that Lincoln belonged only to the Whig party and the American Colonization Society.” 28

It is safe to say that the religion and opinions of racial differences that Abraham Lincoln held are not the things that we have been taught all these years. In closing, we must be reminded of a statement given to us by General Robert Edward Lee. He said, “Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history and descend to posterity. History is not the relation of campaigns and battles and generals or other individuals, but that which shows the principles for which the South contended and which justified her struggle for those principles.” 29

Footnotes:

1 Clifton M. Nichols, Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1896), 17.

2 John T. Richards, Abraham Lincoln: The Lawyer-Statesman (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), 6.

3 Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln's Love Affairs: And His Early Experiences As A Lawmaker (Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, 1926), 35.

4 The Autobiography Of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Francis D. Tandy Company, 1905), 22.

5 Ward H. Lamon, The Life Of Abraham Lincoln From His Birth To His Inauguration As President (Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1872), 457.

6 Alexander K. McClure, Abe Lincoln's Yarns and Stories: A Complete Collection of the Funny and Witty Anecdotes That Made Lincoln Famous as America's Greatest Story Teller (Henry Neil, 1901), 386.

7 John B. Bramsburg, Abraham Lincoln: Was He A Christian? (New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1893), 214.
8 J. G. Holland, The Life Of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, Mass.: Gurdon Bill, 1866) 236-237.

9 D. M. Bennett, The World's Sages, Thinkers and Reformers: Being Biographical Sketches of Leading Philosophers, Teachers, Reformers, Innovators, Founders Of New Schools Of Thought, Eminent Scientists, Etc. (New York, Liberal & Scientific Publishing House, 1876), 774.

10 Ibid., 774.

11 Ward H. Lamon, The Life Of Abraham Lincoln From His Birth To His Inauguration As President (Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1872), 372.

12 Ira Detrich Cardiff, The Deification Of Lincoln (The Christopher Publishing House, 1943), 27.

13 William Henry Herndon, The Religion Of Abraham Lincoln (Plainfield, N. J., 1915), 66-67.

14 Ward H. Lamon, The Life of Abraham Lincoln: From His Birth To His Inauguration As President (Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1872), 495.

15 Lewis Collins, History of Kentucky, Volume 1 (Covington, Ky.: Collins & Company, 1874), 246.

16 William Henry Herndon, The Religion Of Abraham Lincoln (Plainfield, N. J., 1915), 105-106.

17 Arthur Brooks Lapsley, The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5 (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1906), 265.

18 Ibid., 254.

19 Arthur Brooks Lapsley, The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5 (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1906), 34.

20 Ibid., 35.

21 Mildred Lewis Rutherford, Truths of History: A Fair, Unbiased, Impartial, Unprejudiced and Conscientious Study of History. Object: To Secure a Peaceful Settlement of the Many Perplexing Questions Now Causing Contention Between the North and the South (Athens, Georgia, 1920), iv.

22 Samuel A. Ashe, Stephen B. Weeks, & Charles L. Van Noppen, Biographical History Of North Carolina: From Colonial Times To The Present, Volume 3 (Greensboro, N. C.: Charles L. Van Noppen Publisher, 1905), 352. 

23 E. E. Moffitt, The North Carolina Booklet, Volume 17 (Raleigh: Commercial Printing Company Printers & Binders, 1901), 149.

24 Arthur Brooks Lapsley, The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2 (New York: The Lamb Publishing Company, 1905),1-2. 

25 Ibid., 306.

26 Beverley Bland Munford, Virginia's Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession (New York: Longmans, Green & Company, 1909), 77-78.

27 Illinois State Journal, Volume 9, Number 186, 28 January 1857, page 4.

28 Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years And The War Years (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1960), 195-196.

29 Franklin Lafayette Riley, General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox (New York: Macmillan Company, 1922), 160.

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