The God of Abraham

REVIEW: ‘Lincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation’ by Joshua Zeitz

President Abraham Lincoln with members of his cabinet / Getty Images
July 2, 2023

People who met Abraham Lincoln for the first time were charmed by his open-handed and affable manner, easy, humorous, and unassuming. Those who knew him better understood that behind the likability lurked a depth, a remoteness, a firmly closed door that only a few were allowed to open. Lincoln once spoke of friendship as the greatest boon of life; yet, he had few real friends whom he drew into close confidence. Partly, this was a matter of prudence. Lincoln was a politician, and he had learned early on that a politician did himself no favors by putting all his cards on the table. Partly, it was a matter of temperament. He was not one of those genial souls who enjoyed self-revelation. And on no point was his prudence, and his temperament, more on guard than on the subject of religion.

Just on those terms, Joshua Zeitz’s new book, Lincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation, is a gamble, since Lincoln never handed out descriptions of what his religion was. He is the only president never to have joined a church, never to have been baptized, never to have taken communion, and attempts to lure affirmations (or denials) from him on religious topics usually fizzed away evasively into qualifications and metaphors.

At the same time, though, Lincoln had more to say publicly about faith, and with greater sophistication, than any other American president. This is enough to persuade Zeitz that Lincoln "underwent a spiritual renewal" during his presidency and that religion became "a commanding force in his personal and public lives." The principal difficulty in making this declaration is that the personal part of the evidence is so scanty. Despite well-meaning claims after his death that Lincoln had been secretly baptized (as in the notorious Maria Vance narrative), or that he kept his religious renovation concealed for political reasons (as his first full biographer, Josiah Gilbert Holland, believed), or that he was on the eve of making some public declaration of Christian faith at the time of his assassination, there is not only no worthwhile substance behind any of these suppositions, but a good deal of testimony otherwise. One of the best proofs Lincoln’s God offers of Lincoln’s religious vitality are the numerous thanksgiving and fast-day proclamations Lincoln issued as president—except, of course, that it’s generally understood that these were not written by Lincoln at all, but by his secretary of state, William Henry Seward.

The case Lincoln’s God wants to make for Lincoln is further compromised by how the reach of the book frequently exceeds its grasp, since Lincoln’s God at the same time wants to be a history of American Protestant evangelicalism in the Civil War years. The argument it formulates runs more-or-less like this: Religion in early America was a feeble affair, burdened with the weight of Puritan Calvinism; however, evangelical revivals tossed aside the encumbrance of Calvinism in favor of a self-centered free-willism that just happened to blend harmoniously with the new republic’s free-will political democracy; Lincoln pushed away his own family’s Calvinism and rallied American evangelicals to become activist supporters of the kind of large-scale modern government needed to win the Civil War. These evangelicals became the heart and soul of a war to end slavery, just as Lincoln became "the nation’s first evangelical president," and they grew from there to become liberal Social Gospellers.

But the moment any real weight is placed on it, this narrative collapses. In the first place, Lincoln’s God displays no real sense of what evangelical means, and certainly seems to have missed entirely the fact that the revivals which are supposed to have transformed a sickly American religion into a boisterous powerhouse of democratic self-assertion were themselves the offspring of Calvinists, both in their 18th- and 19th-century forms. In the second place, it makes no sense to speak of Lincoln as an exemplar of this evangelical democratization when, as Lincoln’s God repeatedly concedes, Lincoln regarded God as an "abstract and unknowable force" and "never shared the personal relationship with God in Christ that most of his coreligionists felt." Even more of a contradiction is the assertion in Lincoln’s God that the God Lincoln is supposed to have recognized was really a renascence of the predestinating Calvinist deity "he had rejected in his youth." If evangelicalism was a movement that shucked off Calvinism in favor of abolitionist democracy, how can Lincoln be its model?

The wiser path for Lincoln’s God to have pursued begins with a concession that Lincoln grew up a rebel against his parents’ Calvinism and against any real form of evangelical piety at all. There is little to show that this changes in Lincoln before his presidency. It was the Civil War and its maddeningly unpredictable course that forced Lincoln to reflect on the purposes of a God who was visiting this calamity on the nation, and which produces the private "Memorandum on the Will of God" and the Second Inaugural. It is true that the Second Inaugural is the closest thing to a sermon ever delivered by an American president. What is also true is that the theology of the Second Inaugural is not an evangelical one; it contains no reference to Christ, and speaks only in terms of judgment, with no concept of redemption.

This is not the only way in which Lincoln’s God often seems out-to-sea with the complexities of 19th-century American religion, not to say of Lincoln himself. The endnotes do not indicate much beyond the use of secondary literature (for instance: in the chapter on "Soldiers’ War," 20 out of the 45 citations are drawn from just three secondary works). And the narrative is content to repeat superficial howlers about the Civil War being a "total war," without any explanation of how one can wage a "total war"—or even a modern war—with infantry weapons limited to single-shot black-powder firearms. Lincoln’s God claims that the war was originally supposed to be waged politely according to a "West Point code." But there was no such "West Point code," which is why Lincoln’s God does not quote from it. Congress moved beyond politeness when it passed two Confiscation Acts to seize rebel propertybut Lincoln’s administration did little to enforce them, and what was confiscated under the acts was frequently turned back to its owners through federal court challenges after the war. Above all, Lincoln’s God never addresses the conundrum that bothered so many of the evangelical clergy in 1865: Why was Lincoln in a theater, watching a comedy, on Good Friday, when he was shot?

And then there is the plethora of simple factual errors: that Lincoln had an "older brother" (he had a younger brother who died in infancy), that Elijah Lovejoy was "lynched" by a "proslavery horde" (he was shot to death in an exchange of gunfire), that Lincoln received a "bar license" to practice law (he was licensed by the Illinois state supreme court to practice in all of the state’s courts), that it was Arthur Tappan who found a translator for the Amistad captives by wandering the "wharves of Brooklyn" (it was the Yale linguist Josiah Willard Gibbs), that his business partner in New Salem was William F. Barry (it was Berry), and that "millions of Americans" sang "Rescue the Perishing" or "Blessed Assurance" by "the eve of the Civil War"—which they could not have done because these hymns were not written until 1869 and 1873.

Perhaps the best thing which can be said about Lincoln’s God is that it wants to take Lincoln seriously as a religious thinker. But doing that requires a more complicated set of tools than Lincoln’s God displays.

Lincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation
by Joshua Zeitz
Viking, 331 pp., $30

Allen C. Guelzo is director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in Princeton University's James Madison Program and author of Robert E. Lee: A Life.