In 1846 at age 35 Abraham Lincoln ran for Congress against a preacher who accused him of not being a Christian. He responded in a handbill: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true: but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”
This is a distinctly modern take on Christianity.
Throughout his life in Illinois politics, Lincoln was frequently asked why he didn’t join a church. The clearest answer that he recorded was: “When any church will inscribe over its alter as its sole qualification for membership the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both the law and the Gospel, ‘Thou shall love the Lord thy God will all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself’ that Church will I join with all my heart and soul.”
He was known to quote Hamlet to explain life: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them as we will.”
In 1862 John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary found a private note Lincoln had written: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against, the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”
Union victory in the Battle of Antietam in 1862 led to Lincoln’s decision to proceed with the Emancipation Proclamation. He told his cabinet: “I said nothing to anyone; but I made the promise to myself, and, (hesitating a little according to Treasury Salmon P. Secretary Chase) to my Maker.”
A clergyman once asked Lincoln when he was president, “Do you love Jesus?” His answer: “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. Yes, I love Jesus.” (One of those graves was for Richard Nixon’s great-grandfather who had taken the place of a wealthy man in the army and perished at Cemetery Ridge. President Obama’s 3G Grandfather also fought for the North in the Civil War.)
Lincoln’s religious faith may have deepened during his presidency. But he still held: “These are not … the days of miracles. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.” He put “In God We Trust” on coins in 1864 but his religion is hard to classify. He apparently studied the Book of Mormon during the presidency because he borrowed it from the Library of Congress and kept it for eight months.
To sum up: Abraham Lincoln echoed Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in his evocation of simple Christianity. He read the Bible. He identified as a Christian but was skeptical and tolerant. He perceived a reality larger than himself guiding life.
In all of these he prefigured modern liberal Christianity which took off in the United States after Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” (1859) and the arrival of Higher Criticism of the Bible from Germany.
If these groups of modern Mainline Christians – Congregationalists, American Baptists, Episcopalians, United Methodists and possibly liberal Catholics and some others – wanted a patron saint, Abraham Lincoln would be a good candidate.