The following book review is from the October 30, 1999 edition of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record (newspaper)
By Richard N. Ostling - New York - Associated Press
After Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot on Good Friday in 1865, American preachers forgot their prepared Easter sermons and rhapsodized about the martyred president. Some compared him with Moses or even Christ. Ever since, religionists have portrayed Lincoln as an exemplar of Christian faith.
But he wasn't in any conventional sense. So reports Allen Guelzo, professor of American history at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., in a new book: "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" (Eerdmans). Much has been written about Lincoln's belief and disbelief, but this account goes deeper.
Guelzo, a 46-year-old Episcopalian, has been intrigued with the man since he narrated Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait with his high school orchestra. And yet, Guelzo said, "I thought of him as a secular figure with relatively few intellectual interests." After all, Lincoln received only a few winters of formal schooling.
But in 1994, Guelzo researched American thinking about free will and discovered that Lincoln gave considerable attention to this and other theological topics. That roused Guelzo to write what's billed as the first intellectual biography of the man about whom more has been written than any other American.
The religious aspect of the tale, in a nutshell: Lincoln was unable to believe, but was never comfortable in his unbelief. Youthful skepticism gave way to deeper respect for religion. And during the devastation of the Civil War, Lincoln's self-made theology reshaped American history. The key to Lincoln's belief system was a roughhewn version of predestination that he absorbed from his parents' churches.
In Kentucky, Lincoln's parents were devoted to the hard-shell Primitive Baptists; later in his boyhood in Indiana, his father and stepmother joined the slightly more moderate Separate Baptists. Both were rigidly Calvinistic. Young Abe had little interest in his parents' churches. And while living in New Salem, Ill., in 1834, he wrote a "little Book on Infidelity" that contemporaries said attacked the divinity of ASUS and the special inspiration of the Bible. Then 25, he considered submitting it for publication but friends persuaded him to burn it.
That was fortunate, since Lincoln was just launching a political career. As a champion of small and big business, his natural home was the Whig Party. Like today's Republicans, the Whigs drew heavy support from evangelical Protestants - roughly equivalent to today's religious right - who wanted public piety and the abolition of slavery.
Lincoln would have gained politically by joining a church, maintaining a religious front and keeping doubts to himself. But that would have been out of character. "He was, quite literally, honest Abe," Guelzo says.
Religion became a hot issue in 1846 when Lincoln won a seat in the U.S. House over Democrat Peter Cartwright. The Cartwright camp spread talk of Lincoln as infidel and he responded in a handbill distributed days before the election. Guelzo thinks this was probably Lincoln's most revealing theological statement. "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true," Lincoln wrote But he denied disrespect toward religion in general or any Christian group.
When young, he said, he became inclined toward the "Doctrine of Necessity-that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest, by some power over which the mind itself has no control."
Four years later his wife, Mary, devastated by the death of their son, Edward, converted to active Presbyterian commitment. Thereafter, Presbyterian clergy in Springfield Ill., and Washington, D.C., were regarded as the Lincoln family pastors. But Lincoln never affiliated with any religious body.
Chats with pastor
Lincoln had many chats with the Springfield pastor, James Smith, who recounted that unlike most skeptics, Lincoln was "a constant reader of the Bible?' That was obvious in his DC, culminating in the magisterial Second Inaugural Address ("let us judge not that we be not judged").
Smith said Lincoln believed some form of providence was at work in the universe, but was unable to believe in a personal God or in Jesus as his saviour. That amounted to Unitarianism, but Lincoln had no interest in that liberal denomination.
Guelzo believes Lincoln combined two classic strains in American culture. He personifies the hope that in a market-oriented democracy the poorest citizen can prosper through ambition. But in addition, Americans "want our mobility linked to a lofty set of principles, not just profit," says Guelzo, and Lincoln also represents firm moral commitments.
For instance, on principle he helped conquer Protestant Whig and Republican elements that despised Catholic immigrants. And, after some struggle, he came to see slavery not as a pragmatic problem, but a moral blight.
Early in the Civil War, with the North's effort sputtering, Lincoln came to believe that defeat was inevitable if the war was being waged only to save the Union, not for a higher moral cause.
At a crucial cabinet meeting after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln astounded his colleagues by saying he had made a vow to himself and - he added after a pause -"to my Maker": If God allowed the North to repel Lee's Confederate invasion, it would then be Lincoln's duty to abolish slavery.
This prewar skeptic was now Guelzo writes, "offering as his reason for the most radical gesture in American history a private vow fulfilled in blood and smoke by the hand of God."
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued the following January, Lincoln added this conclusion, at the prompting of Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase: "Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favour of Almighty God?"
When Mary Lincoln, the daughter of Kentucky slave-owners, questioned the president about abolition, he looked heavenward, son Robert recalled.
"I am under orders," Lincoln told his wife, "I cannot do otherwise"