Unlike that of recent American presidents, so eager to testify about their "come to Jesus" experiences, the exact nature of Abraham Lincoln's religious faith is hard to pin down.
In early campaigns for Congress, opponents were able to tar him as a "scoffer" of religion. But Lincoln emphatically denied the charge, saying he couldn't vote for an enemy of religion. Lincoln is the only U.S. president who never joined a church, but he read the Bible frequently, and he told a friend in the year before his death: "Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man."
And though Lincoln rejected the God's-on-our-side certainty of Northern abolitionist preachers, he eventually came to see the Civil War as divine retribution for the national sin of slavery. "Lincoln is clearly a believer in God and providence, yet it's a more mysterious God than his contemporaries worshiped," says Mark Noll, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.
Beyond his reticence about personal matters and his obvious discomfort with organized religion, Lincoln's faith life eludes easy description because it changed dramatically during the White House years. If Lincoln arrived in Washington as an Enlightenment deist who, like the Founding Fathers, perceived a distant creator who left his creation to its own devices, the crucible of the Civil War made him believe in a justice-seeking God who intervened in history, even if his intentions were difficult to read.
"Because he never became a convert or joined a church, some people say he never changed," says Allen Guelzo, author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. "But you can't read about how Lincoln talks about God in speeches and documents after 1862 and say he's an infidel. Something had changed."
For Lincoln, growing up on the northern edge of the Bible Belt, the Good Book was one of the few volumes in the family collection. Lincoln read it closely enough to sprinkle conversations with biblical allusions. But he rejected his parent's Baptist faith as too emotional and chafed at the noisy denominational battles that had Methodists, Baptists, Universalists, and others denouncing one another on Sundays. Lincoln preferred the Enlightenment-fueled rationality of writers like Thomas Paine. Says Guelzo: "As a young man, Lincoln has a reputation as a village atheist."
His failure to clinch the Whig nomination for Congress in 1843 taught Lincoln that that reputation had political consequences, according to biographer Richard Carwardine. "[I]t was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to go for me, because I belonged to no church," Lincoln remarked after his loss. His secular reputation "levied a tax of considerable per cent upon my strength throughout the religious community."
Faith-based attacks against Lincoln returned in 1846, when he faced Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright in a race for Congress in Illinois. Lincoln denied claims that he looked down on religion but pointedly refused to defend his personal piety: "I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion." This time, he prevailed.
Fifteen years later, in his first presidential inaugural address, Lincoln struck an overtly religious tone. "Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land," Lincoln said in acknowledging the cracks that had begun emerging between North and South, "are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty."
What had changed? Lincoln had started attending Presbyterian services in 1850, following the death of his 4-year-old son, Edward. And once elected to the White House, Lincoln kept up his churchgoing ways, finding solace in what scholars call Old School Presbyterianism: a conservative, God's-in-charge brand of Christianity that rejected the political activism—including the abolitionist stance—of the new revivalism.
The onset of the Civil War and its spiraling death toll, along with the death of a second son, Willie, in 1862, deepened Lincoln's faith, even as that faith continued to defy categorization. (Lincoln declined to formally join the Presbyterian Church, even after his wife did.) "The failure of the North to thwart the South had shaken his self-confidence," says Guelzo. "The only confidence he could find was in a providential, interventionist God who had something up his sleeve, and that something was Emancipation."