The common perception of Abraham Lincoln is that he was a man whose lifelong, deeply held Christian faith gave him the courage to prosecute a long and bloody war to right one of mankind’s greatest wrongs: slavery. The facts, however, tell a different story about Lincoln’s long journey, a journey that, although it ultimately may have arrived at the same destination, involved numerous sidetracks and obstacles along the way.
As Stephen Mansfield notes in Lincoln’s Battle with God (A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America):
“He was a complicated soul, an innovative mind, and an oppressed spirit. He was raw and earthy and poetic. He could be ambitious and enraged and cold… We can hope to understand. Yet never can we confine him; never can we seek to make him conform.”
Abraham Lincoln is, after all, a man who sporadically attended church services but never officially joined a church. During his presidency, he often spoke of God and made Biblical references in his public addresses, but almost never mentioned Jesus Christ directly. Many of the people of New Salem, Illinois, those who knew Lincoln longest and best, remained skeptical about his supposed Christian faith right up to the moment of his death. And because Lincoln was such a vocal anti-Christianity advocate when they knew him, who can blame them?
Lincoln simply could not keep his personal convictions private – he never missed an opportunity to ridicule a preacher or to express his religious doubts (privately or publicly) to the more pious of his acquaintances. Citing an old Winston Churchill saying that, “a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject,” Mansfield stresses just how obsessed Lincoln was about debunking organized religion. His resulting anti-religion reputation cost Lincoln many a vote during his political life when preachers specifically asked their congregations to vote for his political opponents.
But Lincoln was a tortured soul from the beginning, and his journey would be a long one. His mother died when he was nine years old, leaving the boy in the care (if you can call it that) of a wandering, but demanding father who saw his son more as slave labor than as a member of his family. And it did not help that Mr. Lincoln was a Christian of the most hypocritical sort, helping to nip the boy’s budding faith in the bud.
Through the years, Lincoln would lose others close to him, including two young sons, and would suffer from regular (and sometimes near suicidal) bouts with depression. And just when America was most severely tested, Lincoln was forced by his incompetent Generals to redefine the presidential role of Commander-in-Chief, a role for which he was not prepared. By war’s end, Lincoln had come to believe that God was playing a direct role in what was happening on the battlefield, that the country must pay a heavy price for its past sins before God would allow the killing to stop. Although his evolutionary religious journey, almost complete, was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, the man who died in Washington was far different from the one who lived in Illinois.
Lincoln’s Battle with God is an eye-opener, particularly as regards Lincoln’s days in New Salem - a reminder that the real Abraham Lincoln is no less amazing a man than the mythical one.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)