As I read this, I was suddenly struck with immense curiosity. I wanted to know what this pastor said that could have made such a difference in Lincoln’s faith? I sought the answers in Smith’s book, The Christian’s Defence (sic): A Fair Statement and Impartial Examination of the Leading Objections Urged by Infidels Against the Antiquity, Genuineness, Credibility, and Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures.
Smith had a passion for answering the “Infidels” of his day. He was convinced that Infidels (that is, loud opponents of Christianity) were about to destroy the Christian faith in America in the 1840’s. At the end of his 672-page tome, he states his purpose as follows: “Is the reader a young man, just entered upon the busy scenes of life, and perhaps destitute of any fixed principles? For such this work has chiefly been prepared, and by one who knows from experience the danger to which they are exposed; having himself, for a time, fallen a victim to the assertions and sophisms of the Infidel … let such remember, that it is much more easy to insinuate and to assert, than to prove that Christianity is not true.” In his last line, Smith warns and beseeches the young and inexperienced “to be upon their guard against the inroads of scepticism (sic).” Lincoln, no doubt, was listening with great interest, not as an Infidel, but as a young man with no religion who needed reason to believe.
The Infidels whom Smith seeks to refute had names like Hume, Paine, Olmsted (an Anglican turned atheist), and Taylor (a Unitarian). Some made claims that Jesus never existed, that the Jews never existed as a nation, and that the entirety of the Christian faith was one giant hoax from cover to cover. Many of the arguments have a most familiar ring to a 21st century ear: the Bible is irredeemably primitive and hopelessly unreliable. (Smith would have probably classed modern revisionists such as Bishop Spong as Infidels as well.)
Lincoln may well have been impressed with Smith’s careful logic and massive marshalling of evidence. Smith fills dozens of pages with charts full of quotes from contemporary Jews and Romans that confirm the existence of Jesus, and quotes from early church writers that confirm the text of the New Testament. He uses the latest in modern science and the best principles of the historical-critical method in his defense of the Bible.
Smith blasts those who treat the Bible as guilty of error until proven innocent. He writes, “It is striking to observe the perfect confidence with which an Infidel will quote a passage from an ancient historian.” But put the Bible on the same level, he says, and “the sacred history would far outweigh the profane in the number and value of its testimonies… Had the subject not been sacred,” he says, the history of Jesus would have proved to be “the best supported by evidence of any history that has come down to us.”
Smith declares that the Bible is as genuine as the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta, neither of which is in dispute. The facts about Jesus are better authenticated than the existence of Cyrus, Alexander, and Julius Caesar, “yet the very boldness and recklessness of the enemies of Christianity startle the enquirer after truth.” Smith is at his best when examining the Gospel writers as if they were witnesses giving testimony in court. He observes that legal testimony is judged by the character and circumstances of those who depose it. The judge and jury will examine the testimony itself, to see whether it has the unerring signs of veracity, and whether it has that honest consistency in different parts which is the sure mark of truth. The court will examine the witnesses’ moral character. It will ask whether they were in the proper situation to know the real truth, and whether their temporal interests or previous prejudices and habits are affecting their motives.
Apply all this to the Gospels, Smith says. To whom should we go to find the truth about Jesus, if not these guys? (Who better to ask about Socrates, than Plato?) The apostles write from rational conviction, not internal persuasion alone. They specify times, places, and the presence of crowds. They write, not to obtain fame, but out of necessity. And they do so with remarkable restraint. (Can you imagine someone relating so dispassionately the murder of their mom, as the Gospels do the cross and resurrection?)
For these witnesses to foist a huge lie on the human race, says Smith, for them to succeed in proclaiming a dead Jew as the Lord of the universe, for them to dethrone ancient heathen deities, and place their converts on the throne of Caesar, implies a miracle “more infinitely stupendous” than any in all of Scripture.
“Let the Infidel answer: ‘You say the Jews on the scene did not believe in Jesus?’” Smith asks. But many eyewitnesses did, which shows that the apostles’ credibility was strong. “The witnesses, says the Infidel, were Christians, therefore their testimony is not to be relied upon; but, pray, what made them Christians?” If the witnesses were not persuaded by the evidence, Smith asks, then by what?
In the end, Smith asks, how can God create intelligent agents, and then turn us loose with no clue? Unless the Bible is from God, he says, there is no way to know anything about God, how to reach God, how to be saved, or where we are going. If the Infidel rejects divine revelation as imposture, “let him never more brand the Christian with an easy faith, seeing that he himself is the very portant of incredulity.”
Lincoln must have been impressed with the weight of Smith’s arguments. We cannot know what evidence or logic carried the most impact for Lincoln, but taken together, Lincoln seems to have become convinced by the evidence that God was real, and that the Bible was a revelation from God. And whatever managed to persuade a mind like Lincoln’s deserves our careful consideration today.
TOM HOBSON is pastor of First United church in Pinckneyville Ill., and First church in Murphysboro, Ill.
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