by Allen C. Guelzo, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. Paperback edition, 2003. ISBN 0-8028-3872-3. 528 pp. $24
Lincoln has been the subject of an unending stream of biographies. Among the many good treatments of Lincoln’s life and times, Guelzo’s excellent biography deserves special attention because he examines Lincoln as a man of ideas. Lincoln famously wrapped his political ideas in religious themes, a trait that led many to lionize him as the “Christian president.” Often forgotten, however, is that Lincoln entered politics as an enlightened skeptic (friends burned a scandalous, irreligious pamphlet “Infidelity” so it would not ruin his political career). The story of the development of Lincoln’s philosophical and religious thought makes a fascinating story and Guelzo tells it well.
Lincoln was exposed to ultra-Calvinist Baptist Christianity early in life and did not take to it. As a child he mocked the preachers, occasionally repeating sizable portions of their sermons to the delight of his younger siblings. Later, as a young man, he joined a debate society and argued that predestination was unjust.
Though Lincoln never joined his father’s church, he never escaped his father’s Calvinism. He retained a pessimistic view of human nature, doubted the human will was free, was sure that human life should be governed by a public morality, and believed that life was governed by impersonal fate. Guezlo observes that Lincoln’s rejection of orthodox Christianity did not produce the thrill of emancipation that it did for early enlightenment figures. Instead the impossibility of God’s consolation deepened a sense of melancholy.
Shortly after their marriage, Mary Todd joined the Presbyterian Church and persuaded Lincoln to rent a pew. During this time Lincoln’s contempt for the church subsided and he began to occasionally attend worship. One friend wondered whether this was a political maneuver, though others speculated that the death of Edward Lincoln may have softened him up on religion. Lincoln appreciated the rationalism of Mary’s Old School Presbyterian pastor, engaged in conversations with him, read books he recommended, but was not persuaded. Although references to God and allusions to Scripture began to creep into his writings during this time, Lincoln’s God was little more than inscrutable providence.
In view of the other available candidates, it is hard not to conclude that a special providence brought him to the White House prior to the Civil War. In his speeches and official actions Lincoln repeatedly invoked a civil religion of a Whiggish sort. He frequently talked about divine providence and will, peppered his speeches with biblical quotations, expanded chaplaincy services, issued thanksgiving proclamations, and called for days of fasting. These actions went a long way to make the 19th century “the Protestant Century” in American life and continue to shape America’s civil religion today. People acquainted with his private life reported that they frequently saw him reading the Bible, but that they never saw him pray. While President he occasionally attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. He disliked political preachers and was annoyed by religious leaders and church groups that visited the White House hoping to influence his policies. He thought both were too certain of God’s mind and will.
As the nation descended into war, some observed a shift in Lincoln’s piety. An old friend, Joshua Speed, surmised that he sought to become a believer. Others inferred that Lincoln’s faceless providence was becoming more purposeful and personal, even though those purposes remained inscrutable and surely different from the purposes of either the North or the South. Lincoln developed these sentiments in his Second Inaugural Address.
After his death Lincoln was immediately and lavishly praised as the “Christian president.” Guelzo thinks this is understandable considering his religious rhetoric, but mistaken. Lincoln’s chief of staff, for example, denied that he ever became a believer. Guelzo thinks it is significant that the Lincolns were planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a pilgrimage many seekers at that time made prior to converting. At the same time he concludes that however much Lincoln wanted to become a believer, Lincoln’s God, though superintending human affairs, remained unapproachable.
Pastors and laity will find this biography very thought provoking. Lincoln reminds us that a significant task of leadership is “meaning making.” Indeed, his ability to help our nation make sense of the Civil War is the key to Lincoln’s lasting greatness. Since we can only make meaning in light of transcendent ideals, meaning making is unavoidably theological. Lincoln’s belief in God’s providence gave him courage to prosecute the war in the face of horrendous body counts. His belief that God’s purposes differed from all human purposes fostered an attitude of humility and magnanimity toward the South. In an age when we tend to think that religion is something one does in private, this biography pushes us to reconsider the role of religion in public life and the place of Scripture in the public imagination. Even better, though, it may inspire us to consider our actions in light of God’s continuing purposes.
Raymond R. Roberts is pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Westfield (N.J.).