Lincoln's God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation

Image of Lincoln's God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Reviewed by: 

Lincoln’s God contends that the Civil War and, more particularly, the struggle over slavery, affected a religious transformation in Lincoln—a personal spiritual awakening . . .”

Historians have long debated the role that religion played in Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency. Joshua Zeitz in Lincoln’s God contends that the Civil War and, more particularly, the struggle over slavery, affected a religious transformation in Lincoln—a personal spiritual awakening that in some respects matched the nation’s spiritual awakening and transformation.

Zeitz notes that Lincoln’s parents subscribed to a strong Calvinist faith that a young Lincoln consciously sought to break away from. Lincoln’s parents lived what Zeitz describes as a “hardscrabble” existence as subsistence farmers and readily accepted their lot in life. Lincoln was ambitious and had a “passion for reading” that reinforced his desire to leave the world of his parents.

After Lincoln helped his family move to Illinois in the 1830s, Zeitz writes, he “burned his bridges and scarcely looked back.” “Lincoln so thoroughly distanced himself from his family,” Zeitz explains, “that even his friends knew little of his upbringing.” And Lincoln rarely spoke about it. He was not religious at all, writes Zeitz, instead “his convictions lay with ‘reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason.’”

Zeitz discusses the religious Great Awakenings in largely Christian America in the early and mid-19th century among Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other sects. The Christian religion, “with its promise of sanctification, deliverance, and a personal relationship with Christ—proved a resonant source of faith, stability, and community in a changing world.” But not for Abraham Lincoln—aspiring lawyer and politician. “[B]y all accounts,” Zeitz notes, “the future president appears to have been a full-throated disbeliever.”

But Lincoln was also a shrewd politician who understood that much of the electorate was religious. And there is some evidence that Lincoln believed in an impersonal God that “governed human affairs from a distance.” When Lincoln became a national political figure, Evangelical Christians started entering the public square, especially on the issue of slavery. Like its effect on the country at large, slavery caused a schism within Christianity between northerners and southerners. Ministers and preachers urged their flocks to “vote as you pray.” And they often did.

Anti-slavery Christians gravitated to the new Republican Party in the 1850s, especially after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In Kansas, Zeitz notes, pro-slavery Democrats stuffed ballot boxes and stole elections, which infuriated anti-slavery Republicans. “Lincoln soon emerged,” Zeitz writes, “as the acknowledged leader of the political anti-slavery movement in Illinois.” Zeitz believes that Lincoln became “consumed by the moral injustice of slavery,” and he understood that Evangelical Christians formed a strong base of Republican voters.

So for Lincoln, Zeitz believes, appealing to Christians who opposed slavery was both sincere and politically practical. Lincoln in his speeches and letters repeatedly described slavery as morally and politically unjust, yet before he became president Lincoln made mostly secular arguments against slavery. He “studiously avoided mixing religion and politics,” even in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. But Lincoln’s moral anti-slavery position appealed to those voters who invoked religion to oppose slavery.

After winning the presidency, Lincoln in several speeches said he would need the assistance of God (“that divine Being,” “God who has never forsaken this people,” “the Maker of the Universe,” and “Almighty God”) to save the Union. He called himself a “humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty.” Lincoln’s religious transformation had begun.

Zeitz believes that it was the twin tragedies of the war and the loss of his son Willie that completed Lincoln’s religious transformation. The president became more and more convinced that God’s will guided the destinies of men and nations, but that it was difficult, if not impossible, for humans to accurately perceive God’s will or plans. Zeitz notes that it was both the public Lincoln and the private Lincoln that increasingly invoked God.

Lincoln’s second inaugural address—perhaps his greatest speech—was “infused . . . with religious sentiment and phrasing.” Zeitz notes that Lincoln mentioned God fourteen times, quoted or paraphrased the Bible four times, and referenced prayer three times. God gave the North and South “this terrible war,” Lincoln said, because of the grave sin of slavery so that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” because “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous . . .”

Religious belief helped Americans on both sides in the war cope with the death and destruction, including Lincoln’s assassination, which occurred on Good Friday. “Religion,” Zeitz writes, “helped soldiers steel themselves for battle, reconciled their families to the inevitable loss of loved ones on the battlefield, and prepared a sinful nation to envision a different future.”

Zeitz calls Lincoln “the first president to channel the spiritual currents of his electorate into a powerful political movement,” and the nation’s “first evangelical president.” He was not the last. Though secular liberals have sought to ban religion from the public square, it hasn’t worked. Americans are a religious people and many, as in Lincoln’s time, still “vote as they pray.”