Abraham Lincoln and the Bible
William J. Wolf, The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1959)
When Abraham Lincoln visited his friend Joshua Speed in Kentucky in the summer of 1841, Speed’s mother gave him an Oxford Bible. When Mr. Lincoln returned to the judicial circuit that fall, he wrote Speed’s sister back in Kentucky: “Tell your mother that I have not got her ‘present’ with me; but that I intend to read it regularly when I return home. I doubt not that it is really, as she says, the best cure for the ‘Blues’ could one but take it according to the truth.” 1 Because Mr. Lincoln had suffered severe blues in January after breaking his engagement with Mary Todd Lincoln, an antidote was needed.
Mr. Lincoln may have had trouble taking the Bible as literal truth, but he had no trouble reading it. As President Lincoln said: “In regard to this Great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.” 2 But Mr. Lincoln was too honest a man to portray himself as conventionally pious. “A well-known picture of Tad and his father…represents the boy standing by his father’s side, looking over the pages of a large book.,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. “Lincoln explained to me that he was afraid that this picture was a species of false pretense. Most people, he thought, would suppose the book a large clasped Bible, whereas it was a big photograph album which the photographer, posing the father and son, had hit upon as a good device to use in this way to ring the two sitters together. Lincoln’s anxiety lest somebody should think he was ‘making believe to read the Bible to Tad,’ was illustrative of his scrupulous honesty.” 3
But Mr. Lincoln’s deep knowledge of the scriptures could not have come without regularly reading them. As Lincoln scholar Paul Angle noted: “There was one book…which left its mark on much of what he wrote. That was the Bible. Upon a familiarity which extended back to his youth he could always depend.” 4 Historian Michael Nelson wrote: “For all his mockery, Lincoln was consumed by religion as a subject, as well as by the Bible, a book that all of his biographers agree he had read and studied assiduously since his youth. Although disdainful of Christianity in its cruder, frontier forms, Lincoln seems to have been open to, even seeking, an account of the faith that rang true on grounds of reason and justice.” 5 Religious scholar Earl Schwartz wrote: “Lincoln’s legacy, farm more than any other president, has, over time, become inextricably bound up with the words and themes of the Bible. He has been endowed repeatedly with biblical features – sometimes cast as Moses, on other occasions as Father Abraham, and yet again as a fiery prophet or martyred savior. An aura of prophetic authority has accrued to his own words, heightened by his skillful use of literary devices that are also characteristic of biblical texts.”6
For Mr. Lincoln, the Bible brought him a lifetime of education. Scholar Elton Trueblood wrote of Mr. Lincoln: “While it is generally recognized that young Lincoln heard many passages from the Bible both in his cabin home and in the Baptist meeting house, it is not equally known that he also encountered it in his fragmentary schooling. In this, as in so many aspects of his development, our most reliable evidence is that provided by the man himself. One day in the White House, as the President was speaking to Senator John B. Henderson, he was suddenly reminded of his early education. “Henderson,” he asked, “did you ever attend an old blab school? Yes? Well, so did I, and what little schooling I got in early life was in that way. I attended such a school in a log schoolhouse in Indiana where we had no reading books or grammars, and all our reading was done from the Bible. We stood in a long line and read in turn from it.” Thus, Lincoln read the Bible and heard it read before his father could afford to own a copy. According to his kinsman, Dennis Hanks, a family Bible was not purchased until 1819, when Abraham was ten years old.” 7
Julia Taft Bayne, a teenager who spent much of 1861 at the White House supervising her brother and their playmates, the two youngest Lincoln boys, recalled: “It is well known, of course, that Mr. Lincoln was a great reader of the Bible, but I have a notion, without knowing exactly why I have it, that at the beginning of the war, he read the Bible quite as much for its literary style as he did for its religious or spiritual content. Perhaps I have this notion from his attitude when reading it. He read it in the relaxed, almost lazy attitude of a man enjoying a good book….Only once do I recall his saying anything about the Bible or religion and that was in reply to Tad’s plea as to why he had to go to Sunday-school . ‘Every educated person should know something about the Bible and the Bible stories, Tad,’ answered his father.” 8
Mr. Lincoln’s knowledge of the Bible was impressive. After he heard that only 400 persons attended the Ohio convention nominating John C. Frémont for President in May 1864, Mr. “Lincoln took his Bible up from his desk and after a little search came upon the passage which told of David and the company which gathered about him at the cave of Adullam when he was pursued and persecuted by King Saul: ‘And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.’ (I Samuel 22:2.). Thus the president used his knowledge of the Bible to describe and ridicule the critics, complainers, and malcontents who had gathered about Fremont,” wrote Clarence Edward Macartney in Lincoln and the Bible. 9
In his reply to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’s criticisms at the beginning of their 1858 campaign, Mr. Lincoln said: “My friend has said to me that I am a poor hand to quote Scripture. I will try it again, however. It is said in one of the admonitions of the Lord, ‘As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.’ The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect as the Father in Heaven; but He said, ‘As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.’ He set that up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can.’” 10
During the 1860 campaign, a Springfield minister wrote a New Jersey colleague in defense of Mr. Lincoln: “From the frequency and readiness with which he is accustomed to quote from the Bible and the use he makes of such quotations it is clear that he has read and pondered its contents. I wish I could say that he is born of god.” 11 Clarence E. Macartney wrote: “The ordinary daily speech of Lincoln was salted with timely and apt quotations from the Bible.” He cited President Lincoln’s response to General George B. McClellan’s complaints about the weather bogging down his army. Mr. Lincoln told aide John Hay that the general “seemed to think, in defiance of Scripture, that heaven sent its rain only on the just, and not on the unjust.” 12 Also during the presidential campaign, Mr. Lincoln had a long conversation with State Superintendent of Instruction Newton Bateman. Five years later, Bateman wrote that in October 1860, Mr. Lincoln “repeated many passages of the Bible, in a very reverent & devout way, & seemed especially impressed with the solemn grandeur of portions of revelation describing the wrath of Almighty God.” 13
Mr. Lincoln himself said “the Bible is the richest source of pertinent quotations.” 14 Paraphrased biblical quotes were sprinkled through Mr. Lincoln’s public and private speech. Theologian William Wolf wrote: “Lincoln enjoyed quoting a text as his immediate response to something said to him. He deflated the somewhat pompous Lord Lyons, the British ambassador, who made an official call to announce formally to the President in the name of his gracious sovereign Queen Victoria the betrothal of the Prince of Wales to the Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Said Lincoln to the bachelor ambassador when he had finished his communication, ‘Go thou and do likewise.’
“Next to this type of repartee, he liked to quote Scripture in answer to Scripture. Hugh McCulloch, an official of the Treasury Department, once introduced a delegation of New York bankers with much deference. Speaking of their patriotism and loyalty in holding the securities of the nation, he clinched his commendation of them with the text: ‘Where the treasure is there will the heart be also.’ Lincoln, like a crack of the ship, rejoined, ‘There is another text, Mr. McCulloch, which might apply, ‘Where the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together.’” 15
Pennsylvania Republican leader Alexander K. McClure wrote: “President Lincoln was censured for appointing one that had zealously opposed his second term. He replied: “Well, I suppose Judge E., having been disappointed before, did behave pretty ugly, but that wouldn’t make him any less fit for the place; and I think I have Scriptural authority for appointing him. “You remember when the Lord was on Mount Sinai getting out a commission for Aaron, that same Aaron was at the foot of the mountain making a false god for the people to worship. Yet Aaron got his commission, you know.” 16
Presbyterian scholar Clarence Macartney wrote: “To a man who complained bitterly and carelessly against Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, accusing Stanton of not carrying out the order that Lincoln had given two weeks before to have a man liberated from prison who was under sentence of death, but had been pardoned, Lincoln said: “If it had not been for me, that man would now be in his grave. Now, sir, you claim to be a philanthropist. If you will get your Bible and turn to the thirtieth chapter of Proverbs, the tenth verse, you will read these words: ‘Accuse not a servant unto his master, lest he curse thee, and thou be found guilty.’” 17 Macartney continued the story with the reminiscences of White House staffer Thomas N. Pendel:
“Whereupon the man got ‘huffy’ and went away. But as he went out, he said angrily, ‘There is no such passage in the Bible.’ ‘Oh, yes,’ said Mr. Lincoln, “I think you will find it in the thirtieth chapter of Proverbs and at the tenth verse.’ This was late in the afternoon, and I thought no more of the occurrence. Next morning I was at Mr. Lincoln’s office door as usual, about 8 o’clock, and heard some one calling out: ‘O Pendleton! I say, Pendleton, come in here.’ When I went inside Mr. Lincoln said to me, ‘Wait a moment.’ He stepped quickly into the private part of the house, through what is now the Cabinet Room, but which was then used as a waiting room, and soon reappeared with his Bible in his hand. He then sat down and read to me that identical passage he had quoted to the philanthropist, and sure enough it was found to be in the thirtieth chapter of Proverbs, and at the tenth verse.” 18
William Wolf wrote: “Lincoln’s knowledge of the bible was so thorough that his political opponents generally found themselves on dangerous ground when they quoted it against him. When Judge Douglas somewhat fantastically cited Adam and Eve as the first beneficiaries of his doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’ Lincoln corrected him. ‘God did not place good and evil before man, telling him to make his choice. On the contrary, he did tell him there was one tree, of the fruit of which he should not eat, upon pain of certain death.’ Then added Lincoln pointedly, ‘I should scarcely wish so strong a prohibition against slavery in Nebraska.’” 19 The evidence of President Lincoln’s religious faith is in the clearest possible location: his writings and speeches. Lincoln scholar Earl Schwartz wrote that his Collected Works are…peppered with biblical references, including several dozen direction quotations. These are taken, for the most par, from Hebrew bible narratives, including Psalms, Wisdom texts, and the Gospels.” 20 Mr. Lincoln’s most famous works are studded with biblical quotations or references:
The “house divided” analogy from his 1858 Republican nomination speech for the Senate.
His reference in his First Inaugural Address to “a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land”.
His invocation in his First Annual Message to Congress that: “With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”
The quotation in his Second Inaugural Address that “judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
The reference in the Gettysburg Address that this “Nation shall under God have a new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln biographer William E. Barton wrote that Mr. Lincoln “read the Bible, honored it, quoted it freely, and it became so much a part of him as visibly and permanently to give shape to his literary style and to his habits of thought.” 21 When a delegation of African-Americans from Baltimore presented President Lincoln with a Bible in September 1864, he replied: “This occasion would seem fitting for a lengthy response to the address which you have just made. I would make one, if prepared; but I am not. I would promise to respond in writing, had not experience taught me that business will not allow me to do so. I can only now say, as I have often before said, it has always been a sentiment with me that all mankind should be free. So far as able, within my sphere, I have always acted as I believed to be right and just; and I have done all I could for the good of mankind generally. In letters and documents sent from this office I have expressed myself better than I now can. In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man.”
All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it. To you I return my most sincere thanks for the very elegant copy of the great Book of God which you present. 22
Rev. S. W. Chase spoke for the delegation that presented Mr. Lincoln with a Bible: “The loyal colored people of Baltimore have entrusted us with authority to present this Bible as a testimonial of their appreciation of your humane conduct towards the people of our race. While all others of this nation are offering their tribute of respect to you, we cannot omit suitable manifestation of ours. Since our incorporation into the American family we have been true and loyal, and we are now ready to aid in defending the country, to be armed and trained in military matters, in order to assist in protecting and defending the star-spangled banner.”
“Towards you, sir, our hearts will ever be warm with gratitude. We come to present to you this copy of the Holy Scriptures, as a token of respect for your active participation in furtherance of the cause of the emancipation of our race. This great event will be a matter of history. Hereafter, when our children shall ask what mean these tokens, they will be told of your worthy deeds, and will rise up and call you blessed.’
“The loyal colored people of this country everywhere will remember you at the Throne of Divine Grace. May the King Eternal, an all-wise, Providence protect and keep you, and when you pass from this world to that of eternity, may you be borne to the bosom of your Savior and your God.” 23
The Bible was the source of Mr. Lincoln’s deep conviction of the role of “Providence” in human life. U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon reported Mr. Lincoln recalling a dream that foretold his death. Mr. Lincoln read: “It seems strange how much there is in the Bible about dreams. There are, I think, some sixteen chapters in the Old Testament and four or five in the New in which dreams are mentioned; and there are many other passages scattered throughout the book which refer to visions. If we believe the Bible, we must accept the fact that in the old days God and His angels came to men in their sleep and made themselves known in dreams. Nowadays dreams are regarded as very foolish, and are seldom told, except by old women and by young men and maidens in love.” 24
In a lecture delivered 15 years after Mr. Lincoln’s death, Joshua F. Speed recalled a visit to President Lincoln at the Soldiers’ Home: “As I entered the room, near night, he was sitting near a window intently reading his Bible. Approaching him I said: “I am glad to see you so profitably engaged.’ ‘Yes,’ said he, “I am profitably engaged.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’ Looking me earnestly in the face and placing his hand on my shoulder, he said: ‘You are wrong, Speed. Take all of this book upon reason that you can and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.’” 25 Lincoln scholar Wayne Temple wrote: “Lincoln had greatly modified his religious beliefs since Speed at Springfield in 1841. It appears, the longer Lincoln lived, the closer he felt to God and the more he relied upon God for sustenance.’” 26
Mr. Lincoln reportedly told Treasury Department official Lucius E. Chittenden: “Now, let us treat the Bible fairly. If we had a witness on the stand whose general story we knew was true, we would believe him when he asserted facts of which we had no other evidence. We ought to treat the bible with equal fairness. I decided a long time ago that it was less difficult to believe that the Bible was what it claimed to be than to disbelieve it. It is a good book for us to obey – it contains the ten commandments, the Golden Rule, and many other rules which ought to be followed. No man was ever the worse for living according to the directions of the Bible.” 27
But Mr. Lincoln also approached the Bible with his customary humility. William Wolf wrote: “One of the greatnesses of Lincoln was the way he held to strong moral positions without the usual accompaniment of self-righteousness or smugness. He expressed this rare achievement provisionally in his humor and in an ultimate dimension in his religious evaluations. To the Pennsylvania delegation that congratulated him after the inauguration he said, urging forbearance and respect for differences of opinion between the states, ‘I would inculcate this idea, so that we may not, like Pharisees, set ourselves up to be better than other people.’” 28
- Roy P. Basler, Editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Reply to the Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible), September 7, 1864, Volume VII, p. 542.
- Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks, p. 252.
- Paul Angle, Lincoln’s Power with Words, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1981, p. 13.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxiv.
- Earl Schwartz, “‘A Poor Hand to Quote Scripture’: Lincoln and Genesis 3:19,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2002, pp. 37-38.
- Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish , p. 50.
- Roy P. Basler, Editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Speed), Volume I, p. 261.
- Julia Taft Bayne, Tad Lincoln’s Father, p. 183.
- Clarence Edward Macartney, Lincoln and the Bible, p. 84 (See William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln), pp. 93-94.
- Roy P. Basler, Editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Speech at Chicago, Illinois, July 10, 1858), Volume II, p. 501.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, (Letter from Rev. Albert Hale to Rev. Theron Baldwin) , May 31, 1860, p. 95.
- Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln,’” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,(Letter from Newton Bateman to Josiah G. Holland, June 19, 1865), Winter 2002, p. 28.
- Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 273.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 134.
- Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Own Yarns and Stories, p. 90.
- Clarence Edward Macartney, Lincoln and the Bible, pp. 74-75.
- Thomas N. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House, pp. 25-26.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 132.
- Earl Schwartz, “‘A Poor Hand to Quote Scripture’: Lincoln and Genesis 3:19,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 2002, p. 38.
- William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 275.
- Roy P. Basler, Editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible), September 7, 1864, Volume VII, p. 542.
- Roy P. Basler, Editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Statement by S.W. Chase to President Lincoln, Washington Chronicle), September 8, 1864, Volume VII, pp, 543.
- Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865, pp. 114-115.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln (Joshua F. Speed, ), 1880, p.22.
- Wayne Temple, From Skeptic to Prophet,
Lucius E. Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration (Chittenden’s reliability in presenting facts as well as Lincoln quotations has often been questioned), pp. 449-450.
- William Wolf, The Almost Chosen People, p. 139.
- Clarence Edward Macartney, Lincoln and the Bible, p. 77.