He had already served four consecutive terms in the Illinois state legislature, but Abraham Lincoln had greater political aspirations. By 1843, he started positioning himself for a run at the United States Congress. Three years later, he earned the Whig Party’s nomination for Congress in the Illinois Seventh Congressional District.
His opponent was renowned circuit-riding Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright. Lincoln had known Cartwright for more than a decade. While the preacher was a man of God, he was also an ambitious politician who manipulated his flock to secure votes. The campaign would not be an easy one.
A few months before the election took place, Lincoln caught wind of some nasty rumors circulating throughout the district. Cartwright men were saying Lincoln was a “scoffer at Christianity.” Lincoln’s friends encouraged him to issue a handbill to set the record straight. On July 31, 1846, Lincoln issued his statement. Though he was “not a member of any Christian Church,” Lincoln claimed he had “never denied the truth of the Scriptures.” He had never “spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”
During the campaign, Peter Cartwright held a religious revival service in Springfield. Most people assumed it would be a standard Cartwright affair—both spiritual and political. Clearly interested in the latter, Lincoln decided to attend the service.
Cartwright urged his audience to renounce their sinful ways and surrender their soul to their Creator. Amidst the shouts of repentance, Cartwright asked his audience, “Who amongst you is going to heaven? If you are going to heaven, stand up and be counted!”
Everyone in the crowd rose to their feet and began to celebrate. Everyone but Lincoln.
As the crowd took their seats once again, the preacher asked another question. “Who amongst you is going to hell?”
Not a word amongst the crowd.
“If you are bound for hell, I beg you, stand up now, renounce your sinful ways, and join us in heaven!” the preacher exclaimed.
Again, there was silence and no one stood up.
Cartwright had been watching Lincoln.
“Mr. Lincoln,” the preacher said, “you have remained seated throughout the service. If you are not going to heaven and you are not going to hell, just where are you going?”
The crowd turned around and looked at him, waiting for Lincoln's response.
“Why Brother Cartwright, I’m going to Congress!”