Friday, May 11, 2007

Was Lincoln a Christian?

There has been plenty written on this subject, but there is hardly a clear-cut answer for this one.

Though his parents were Baptists, young Lincoln never joined their church. In New Salem, he allegedly wrote an “Infidel Book,” in which he denied several of the basic tenets of Christianity. Though his wife joined churches in Springfield, Lincoln never did, but he did attend church services with her. As president, he remained unaffiliated with any religious denomination.

All that being true, I don’t think anyone would deny that the man was “religious.” He read the Bible and was able to quote passages from memory. His political speeches contain too many references to the Almighty to consider him an unbeliever. But was he a Christian?

I came across this STORY recently. Baptist Pastor Keith Lunceford believes Lincoln became a Christian on November 19, 1863. That date should seem familiar by now—it was the date of the Gettysburg Address.

According to G. Frederick Owen, the author of The Man & His Faith, Lincoln told friends the following:

When I left Springfield, I asked the people to pray for me; I was not a Christian. When I buried my son-the severest trial of my life-I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg, and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.

Did Lincoln really say that? The article does not go into a whole lot of detail about the quote’s provenance. I did a little digging and thought I’d share what I found. The quote does not appear in Fehrenbacher’s Recollected Words. I assumed that the quote was probably conveniently “remembered” years after the assassination by a minister to combat some of the things Lincoln’s former law partner, William Herndon, was saying and writing about Lincoln’s faith. Turns out I was wrong.

The quote comes from an article in the Freeport Weekly Journal in Freeport, IL. Here’s the shocker—the article appeared on December 7, 1864. In other words, during Lincoln’s lifetime. In my view, this lends substantial credibility to the purported quote. But what does it mean?

Wayne C. Temple’s fine book, From Skeptic to Prophet, examines the quote and offers a sober interpretation:

Perhaps Lincoln did make this statement, but there was no visible change in Lincoln’s later references to deity in his public utterances and writings. He still referred to God—not to Christ. And the honest President did not rush to join a church after speaking at Gettysburg. For a number of years he had been a God-fearing mortal, and he often referred to the United States as a Christian nation, yet Lincoln still did not publicly acknowledge himself to be a Christian. Lincoln’s attitude toward Christ is most difficult to evaluate.

At any rate, Pastor Lanceford believes the quote is accurate. Here is the conclusion to his recent article:

By his own testimony, Lincoln had a real conversion experience. He was precise as to its time and place. He was precise in his testimony of faith in Christ. Can you remember when you exercised faith in the Savior? Or have you exercised faith in the One who shed His blood on Calvary’s cross? If not, I pray you will.

Pastor Lanceford’s conclusion is telling. He appears to use Lincoln’s alleged conversion experience as a catalyst to encourage you to turn your life over to Christ. The preachers have identified their Lincoln.

Again, this has me thinking about Lincoln in popular culture. I am skeptical of people who use Lincoln as a “spokesman” for their cause—be it religion or anything else for that matter. When we “define” Lincoln by attaching our cause to his shadow—when we attempt to “Get Right With Lincoln”—are we advancing our understanding of the man himself or are we really just taking a cultural shortcut?

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