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Was Abraham Lincoln an Atheist?

June 24, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Every U.S. president has been a member of a church, except for one: Abraham Lincoln.

Famously opaque on the subject of religion, Lincoln’s personal faith was something even his closest friends said they couldn’t figure out. Though he became more interested in religious questions toward the end of his life, “Honest Abe” never directly identified himself as a Christian—even after he realized it could hurt him politically.

“He once spoke of how not having any kind of noticeable religious profile had levied what he called a tax on his popularity with the voters,” says Allen Guelzo, a professor of Civil War-era studies at Gettysburg College and author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. “It was something that he was aware of, something he tried to cope with, and yet he wouldn’t go the distance of trying to pretend that he was something that he wasn’t.”

Lincoln’s religious views shifted throughout his life, as most people’s do. He grew up in a Baptist household but was never baptized as a child or an adult, and in his early 20s he was outspoken about his religious skepticism.

“He would actually be aggressive on the subject of unbelief,” Guelzo says. “More than one observer who knew him from those days said that Lincoln could shock people.” For example, he might say the Bible was just an ordinary book, or that Jesus Christ was an illegitimate child. “By the time he moves into his late 20s, early 30s, he has started to temper that because he realizes that doesn’t get him very far politically.”

During his failed campaign to be a Whig nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843, Lincoln observed that the absence of religious affiliation hurt him. “It was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to go for me, because I belonged to no church,” he wrote. Three years later, after he secured the Whig nomination for the House, he faced more accusations about his faith from his opponent, a revivalist preacher named Peter Cartwright. By then Lincoln had learned not to flout his skepticism, and knew he needed to address his critics.

“That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true,” he responded in a handbill; “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 …read more


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