Birthplace of a president’s faith


One of the places I consider a “hometown” is the tiny town of Magnolia, Ky., located in the tiny county of LaRue. Our county’s claim to fame is being the birthplace of the 16th president. Of course, when Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, LaRue County did not exist. We were part of neighboring Hardin County. Many people do not know that Lincoln was a Kentuckian by birth, which is understandable. The Thomas Lincoln family left Kentucky for Indiana when Abraham was just a boy. Still, I love telling people where I’m from and offering up little factoids about our most famous son’s boyhood. On the bicentennial of the president’s birth, I wrote this story which was picked up nationally by Baptist Press.

Because of the volatile times into which Lincoln was born and to which he later contributed epic volatility, the question of his faith is one that fascinates many. We know Lincoln had crippling bouts of depression and suffered terrible losses in his life even before he became president. And the burden he experienced as commander in chief during the catastrophe of the American Civil War is one few of us could comprehend. I was intrigued to learn more about what is actually known about Mr. Lincoln’s view of God and Christianity. 

As Kentucky launches a two-year bicentennial celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln enthusiasts are sharing their views on the president’s spiritual journey — a journey that, like the man, began in the commonwealth of Kentucky.

Born three miles south of Hodgenville on April 12, 1809, Lincoln was only 2 years old when the family moved about seven miles northeast to a farm along Knob Creek. It was here that the future president’s parents, Thomas and Nancy, took the family to Little Mount Baptist Church.

It was a Separatist congregation whose main clergyman was an abolitionist, said Gary Talley, pastor of Magnolia (Ky.) Baptist Church and retired chief of operations at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site.

“There’s always been a wide range of speculation about (Lincoln’s) faith since he was not really affiliated with a particular church,” said Talley, who worked at the birthplace nearly 30 years. “But I really think his life seemed to reflect someone God was able to use for a purpose.”

According to Ronald Rietveld, professor emeritus at California State University in Fullerton, Lincoln’s lack of church affiliation, and the controversial writings of one of his former law partners, paint an incomplete picture of the president’s views about God, the Bible and the Gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ.

“In the end, his faith is his own,” said Rietveld, an ordained Baptist minister. “It isn’t something he has parroted from any particular church or movement.”

Many historians agree that the Lincolns’ anti-slavery sentiments were cemented, in part, because they regularly saw slaves driven past their Knob Creek farm.

“Bardstown was a major slave market,” said LaRue County Judge Executive Tommy Turner, co-chairman of the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. “The Lincolns lived along the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike,” a major artery through the state, he said.

“Seeing people in chains, families that were driven down the road like cattle, and all the horrors associated with that,” Talley said, “one would not be able to look at something like that and not be repulsed.”

The early 19th century was a time of church disputes that foreshadowed the traumatic political and military conflict yet to come. “South Fork (Baptist Church) was quite severely divided over the issue of slavery,” Talley noted.

Lincoln scholar Louis Warren wrote that 15 members of South Fork left the church over the issue in 1805 to form the Little Mount congregation about three miles from Lincoln’s boyhood home.

In that home young Abraham experienced his greatest spiritual influence, his mother. As president, Lincoln recalled his mother’s love for the Bible and how she taught her children Bible verses. In later years, the president “said he could hear her voice in certain scriptures,” Rietveld reported.

In 1816 the Lincolns left Kentucky for Indiana. Two years later, Nancy died. A local man, perhaps a Baptist layman, “prayed over her grave,” Rietveld writes, but later 9-year-old Abraham penned a letter to the pastor of Little Mount Baptist, asking him to travel from Kentucky to perform a proper funeral service.

“For a 9-year-old boy to want the preacher to come and preach his mother’s funeral — at a time when a 75-mile trip was a big deal — shows he had a very high regard for who that preacher was and the things he would say,” Turner said. The pastor honored the family’s request.

Scholars speculate there were aspects of the Lincolns’ strict Separatist teachings that perhaps chafed on Abraham as he reached adulthood. Perhaps his dismay was best illustrated when he decided not to join his father’s church in Indiana even though he helped construct the building.

According to Frank Masters’ “A History of Baptists in Kentucky,” many Separatist churches embraced Calvinist teachings so rigidly they eventually rejected missionary endeavors. Some scholars believe Thomas Lincoln’s Indiana congregation subscribed to such teachings.

By 1830, at the age of 22, Lincoln “seems to have held unorthodox religious views when he openly expressed skepticism toward the religion of his parents,” Rietveld wrote. Among those ideas was that God was without wrath or anger; 34 years later, it was obvious that opinion had changed radically.

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address “he deals with the issue of slavery but … in the context of God’s judgment,” Rietveld said, noting that the speech contains three quotations from the Bible and 10 allusions to Scripture. Other speeches followed a similar pattern.

Rietveld’s interest in Lincoln began about 50 years ago. In 2006 he devoted six months to organizing his decades of research with a specific goal in mind: writing an overview of the spiritual journey of the president.

“I’d never seen anyone pull those things together in one article,” he said. The view that Lincoln was not a believer because he never joined a church is a shallow one, Rietveld said. “I call it ‘churchianity.’ … I see a difference in the Lincoln who didn’t join a church and the Lincoln who has a growing relationship with God.”

The opinion of William Herndon has had a great influence on the topic of Lincoln and religion, Rietveld said. Only a year after the president’s assassination, Josiah Holland, an editor and devout Christian, wrote a best-selling biography of Lincoln that characterized him as “a true-hearted Christian.”

Rietveld said the description offended Herndon, one of Lincoln’s former law partners in Springfield, Ill., who said the president “held many of the Christian ideas in abhorrence.” Herndon’s writings characterized Lincoln as “an infidel” and a man “living on the borderland between theism and atheism.”

Rietveld said Herndon’s words are “not a fair estimation at all,” of Lincoln’s spiritual views. “Herndon never knew, in a personal daily way, Lincoln’s life in the White House years,” Rietveld said. “The Lincoln of the war years is a man whose faith deepened through crisis, repeatedly.”

When the president and his wife, Mary, arrived in Washington, they already had lost a son, Eddie, to illness; in 1862, another son, Willie, died. Biographer Ida Tarbell wrote that after Willie died, Lincoln’s “personal relation to God occupied his mind much.”

His faith also matured through the fires of war and the issue of slavery. Although finding slavery morally repugnant, Lincoln attempted to compromise on the issue, rather than risk secession by the Southern states. His attitude was transformed by war and a renewed conviction about the evil trade, Rietveld said.

“Today if a politician were to change views that like, he’d be called wishy washy,” Turner observed. “When you look at Lincoln, you have to look at his life as a whole. Religion and spirituality played a very strong part in his later life.”

In his research, Rietveld found a dramatic statement by Phineas Gurley, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., that seems to support this assertion. The Lincolns attended Gurley’s church regularly during their Washington D.C. years.

The pastor maintained that after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln said he intended to make “a public profession of his Christian faith.” He died before he could make a public profession but Rietveld said he has no doubt Lincoln was “a biblical Christian.”

“I would have liked to see Lincoln make a more definitive statement about his faith,” Talley said, “but maybe he made the most definitive statement he could simply by his actions.”

Lincoln was in Kentucky less than a decade, but Talley said he believes the experiences of this “LaRue County boy,” and the family in which he was raised, had a profound effect on the future president’s life and faith. “By the time he left Kentucky, the foundation had been laid for what he was later in life.”

Feb. 12, 2008 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder

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