Baptists and the American Civil War: November 19, 1864

lincoln_emancipationAlthough U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was raised in a Baptist church (his father serving as a Baptist deacon) and occasionally attends a local Presbyterian church in Washington D.C., many Christians of the North are of the opinion that he is not a Christian, while most Southern whites consider Lincoln to be evil incarnate.

An anonymous story is now circulating concerning the president and his faith. According to an unidentified pastor from Freeport, Illinois who allegedly visits Lincoln at the White House (Lincoln maintains an open door policy for clergy) this month, the president, when asked by the pastor if he “loved Jesus,” replied in the following manner:

When I left home to take this chair of state, I requested my countrymen to pray for me. I was not then a Christian. When my son died, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But, when I went to Gettysburg and looked upon the graves of our dead heroes who had fallen in defense of their country, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus.

The quote later this month appears in a Thanksgiving sermon preached by another Freeport pastor, Presbyterian minister Isaac E. Carey.

There is no certainty that Lincoln made such a statement, while there are some indications (from Lincoln’s various statements about faith and God) that Lincoln has long considered himself a Christian, if a rather unorthodox one.

Following his assassination in 1865, public opinions regarding Lincoln’s religiosity grow notably, with several biographies in the next decade arguing for, and others against.

On the other hand, the nation’s black citizens during the war years and following seemingly have little doubt about Lincoln’s Christian faith. Baptists, the largest denomination represented among blacks North and South, have long praised the president as a fellow Christian and instrument of God in abolishing slavery and extending freedom to persons of color, and continue to do so after the war.

Into the 21st century the debate about Lincoln’s faith continues unabated among scholars, with no more certainty of answers than in the Civil War years.

Sources: Freeport Weekly Journal, “The Victory of Truth, a Discourse Preached on the Day of National Thanksgiving, November 24, 1864, in the First Presbyterian Church of Freeport, Illinois, by Isaac E. Carey,” December 7, 1864, p. 1; “Abraham Lincoln and Religion,” Wikipedia (link)