Written by Douglas Fox
The religious conviction of Abraham Lincoln has been a subject of debate for many years, the chosen sides often serving as mere proxy for one's views on the Civil War. White Southerners who might charitably embrace even the most shallow testimony coughed up on TBN, provided the celebrity of the moment is famous enough, will take Lincoln's words with a pillar of salt. Northern sympathizers whose own evangelical credentials may have been leeched of all orthodoxy in the too-forgiving waters of New England Unitarianism will, by contrast, beat the Lincoln tambourine with the enthusiasm of a camp meeting Methodist. While the recent Lincoln movie has rekindled the debate, at long last, the truth about Lincoln's faith may finally be emerging from the shackles of hidebound historical and regional prejudices.
Nowhere has this debate been more interesting to watch than in the Southern Presbyterian churches, where in the November 19, 2012 Aquila Report, historian Mark Noll concludes that we do not have "a clear-cut profession of orthodox faith."
Let the debate be joined. Leben is pleased to present what to us, and no doubt to many of our readers, will be a surprisingly new twist on the Lincoln debate. Presbyterian Doug Fox makes not only a plausible case, but what some will conclude is a convincing one, that Lincoln may have begun as a scoffer, but ended as an "Old School" Presbyterian. For those unfamiliar with the formal workings of Presbyterian practice, the route Fox takes may seem circuitous, if not arcane, but there is purpose to his method, so we encourage you to come along for the journey.
Ruling elders in a Presbyterian Church of America congregation are regularly called upon to make judgments about the authenticity of a person's faith (or lack thereof) as they come before the elders of the church for membership in the local body. Now, when a person comes to our church seeking membership from another church in our denomination, or even from a sister church in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, the job in these meetings is considerably easier. When we receive new members by letter of transfer, we know that these persons have already been through a similar screening process by another body of elders in another church. Our Book of Church Order in the PCA simply says:
57-6. Persons received from other churches by letters of dismissal as well as those being received by reaffirmation of faith should give a testimony of their Christian experience to the Session.So reception by letter of dismissal of those who testify to their Christian experience in the meeting with the elders is almost perfunctory. These members are just being transferred; they are not being admitted to the Christian church for the first time. So the body of elders in the receiving church is relying heavily upon the prior church to have done the major job of screening a believer for authentic Christian faith. Now if an elder has the letter of transfer in his hand when the person comes before the session, so much the better, and if the letter is signed by a well-known pastor in the Reformed and Presbyterian community, that really makes the job easy!
So let me suggest that in the case of Abraham Lincoln we have something equivalent to this letter in hand, signed by two outstanding leaders in the Old School Presbyterian tradition that Abraham Lincoln was indeed a solid believer and orthodox Christian in the great Reformed and Presbyterian tradition.
Let's first distance ourselves from the "conservative preachers and broadcasters who bemoan the decline of Christian America by repeating moving stories of Lincoln's deep piety." We are not suggesting anything of the sort. Nor do we think that "it would amount to a great victory" if it could be proved that Lincoln was an orthodox Christian. We simply want to take a fresh look at some of the original sources on this question and see where they lead us. Let's take a new look at this question, from a unique perspective, that of the two Old School Presbyterian ministers with whom Lincoln developed a deep, close, and abiding friendship, two friendships that continued to the end of his life. But as we will see, there are many other Old School Presbyterian witnesses on this question as well.
The first of Lincoln's pastors that we will consider is from his time in the nation's capital, the Rev. Dr. Phineas Densmore Gurley, an Old School Presbyterian (read Conservative – Old Princeton Theology) who had been called in 1853 to pastor the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Today the website of this church, now part of the Presbyterian Church USA, accurately describes the nature of some of the Old School/New School controversies in the Presbyterian Church at the time: "The New School was ardently evangelistic and revivalist, and abandoned strict Calvinism for a theology of free will; the Old School was more doctrinally rigid." Dr. Gurley had graduated from Old School Princeton in 1840, later served as a moderator for the Old School Presbyterians in their general assemblies in 1867 and 1868 and whose theology is described on the church web site:
President Lincoln worshiped regularly at NYAPC during the American Civil War. Lincoln and Rev. Gurley developed a relationship in which they frequently discussed theology, and those discussions and Gurley's sermons likely influenced Lincoln's perception of the war and its meaning for the nation. Gurley presided over the funeral of Lincoln's son, William Wallace Lincoln, in 1862, and then over the funeral of Lincoln himself in 1865.
So if Lincoln was an unbeliever, and a non-Christian, we would want to understand why he is found "regularly attending" the preaching and prayer meetings of an Old School Presbyterian Calvinist like Dr. Gurley? Surely he could have found something a little more generically Christian if he wished to give the world a false pretense while he and his family were in Washington. And why did he develop a deep and abiding friendship with this pastor? And why have him preach at the funeral of your son? And why would his own family allow this orthodox Calvinist to preach at their loved one's funeral?
We gain some insight to the nature of their friendship when we discover that, "In February 1862, Mrs. Gurley helped the Lincoln family nurse, Rebecca Pomeroy, care for Tad Lincoln after Willie's death."http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/inside.asp?ID=49&subjectID=2 From this it appears that the Gurley's and the Lincolns were trusted family friends.
Upon his death, "Mrs. Lincoln arranged to have her late husband's hat sent to Dr. Gurley." This is quite a gesture showing the close personal familiarity between these two families. These were not mere casual acquaintances; this is something you would do for your one of your deceased husband's closest friends.
According to historian Allen C. Guelzo, Pastor Gurley's "preaching was confined with remarkable closeness to the great central doctrines of the cross."Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 321.
Once when accosted as he left the White House after an early morning meeting, Dr. Gurley explained that he and the President had "been talking of the state of the soul after death. That is a subject of which Mr. Lincoln never tires. This morning, however, I was a listener. Mr. Lincoln did all the talking."DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 37. So we must deduce from this that Dr. Gurley and Lincoln had spoken about the state of the soul after death on numerous occasions. What kind a minster, and graduate of Old Princeton, would Dr. Gurley be if he had not explained the gospel to Lincoln in these conversations relative to the state of the soul after death if he believed Lincoln to be lost and in need of salvation?
Pastor Gurley also said prayers at the Capitol and the Washington train station and again at the graveside in Springfield, Illinois, after the assassination. He also composed an original funeral hymn, "Rest, Noble Martyr."
Now we are compelled to ask, surely Dr. Gurley knows that a martyr is a deceased Christian believer? Why would he mislead the American People who would read his funeral hymn "Rest, Noble Martyr" if he judged that Lincoln was not a believer? And who, pray tell, would be in a better position to know the state of Lincoln's soul than his pastor and one of his dearest friends? Would an Old School Calvinist, who preached the great central doctrines of the cross, knowingly mislead the American people and those who would come after them who would read his funeral hymn on this central question?
The second Old School Presbyterian minister who was an earlier influential force in the life of Abraham Lincoln from his time in Springfield, Illinois, was the Scotsman Dr. James Smith, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield. He was a native of Glasgow and described himself as an "old light Presbyterian" ordained first in the Cumberland Presbyterian church in Kentucky in 1825; later he moved to Springfield to become the pastor of The First Presbyterian Church, this time as an Old School Presbyterian. He was noted as the author of an important and hefty apologetic work, The Christian's Defense, in 1843. Lincoln requested a copy from the author after he had found it on the shelves of a family member during a trip to Kentucky.When the Lincolns lost their child Eddie in Springfield in 1850, their usual Episcopal pastor was away, and they got connected with Dr. James Smith to conduct the burial services. This meeting started a lifelong friendship between the Lincolns and Dr. Smith. Mary Lincoln was admitted to membership in Dr. Smith's church on Wednesday, October 13th, 1852. Their son Thomas (Tad) was baptized there on Saturday, April 4th, 1856. Abraham was circuit riding much of the time during this period and did not immediately become a member on the same occasion as his wife. Records reveal that he was on circuit when she became a member. Havlik considers it "inconceivable" however, that Lincoln was not present when Tad was presented by his parents for baptism, as this was also Tad's second birthday. The family continued to attend services, renting pew number 20 for $50 per year, until they left for Washington nine years later in February, 1861.Robert J. Havlik, "Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr. James Smith: Lincoln's Presbyterian Experience in Springfield." p.3 Found at: http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-1999autumn/ishs-1999autumn222.pdf According to one of the Elders in the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Thomas Lewis, "I have not known of Lincoln not occupying that pew every Sunday he was in the city, until he left [for Washington]."Illinois State Register, December 10, 1898. Cited in William Eleazar Baron, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (New York: George H. Doran: 1920), p. 159. Elder Lewis would be in a position to know how often Abraham Lincoln attended church as he said he sat in the pew just behind the Lincolns. Found at: http://books.google.com/books/about/The_soul_of_Abraham_Lincoln.html?id=UDEOAAAAIAAJ On April 26th, 1853, the session of the church made a motion to retain the services of Abraham Lincoln in a church legal proceeding in Presbytery.Havlik, "Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr. James Smith." p. 6.
For those unfamiliar with such practices, Presbyterians take seriously Paul's admonition:
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? [1 Corinthians 6:1-2]
The idea is that the Church should be competent to try its own cases, and they should not do this in front of unbelievers. The case for which Lincoln was retained had to do with an alleged unpaid debt on the church organ purchased from another church in the presbytery. This dispute was not something to be paraded before unbelievers. So if Lincoln was judged an unbeliever by Dr. Smith or by his session, why would they retain Lincoln as their counsel for this action that was to be tried, not in civil court – in front of unbelievers – but in the Presbytery?
The elders of the church in Springfield clearly had a high regard for Lincoln. According to elder Lewis again, they invited him to deliver a lecture on the veracity of the Bible to the congregation and this brought a packed house of church members and fellow townspeople. Afterwards Lewis said, "It was the ablest defense of the Bible ever uttered in that pulpit."Illinois State Register, Cited in William Eleazar Baron, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 159
An important clue about when Lincoln's thinking about Christianity changed came after the Lincolns returned to Springfield after their visit to Mary's relatives in Kentucky in October, 1849. Here Lincoln first encountered the important apologetical book, The Christian's Defense. Accord to Elder Lewis, Lincoln told him, "I read it about half through, and wanted to get hold of it to finish reading it." Upon returning to Springfield he "sought out Dr. Smith to talk over some of the religious doubts he had entertained," according to the Times-Herald. "Dr. Smith tells us that as a result of these extensive talks, Lincoln's doubts were shattered and from that time on he was a believer in the Christian faith. Thus began their close and lasting friendship."W. Winston Skinner, The Times-Herald.com "Death of Lincoln's son led family to Presbyterian church." Published Saturday, November 03, 2012 Found at: http://www.times-herald.com/religion/20121103fpc-springfield-MOS
Dr. Smith had an associate who occasionally provided pulpit supply while he was on vacation. While away, the Rev. William Bishop, D.D. often preached for Dr. Smith in Springfield. Bishop says that he was a young minister at the time and "not a little intimidated" seeing Lincoln in attendance, as Lincoln was well known as a great man in the West at this time, after the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858, and this being just a year before he went to Washington as President. He and Lincoln struck up a bit of a friendship while he was in Springfield. Lincoln encouraged his preaching. Bishop was very interested in the charismatic parishioner and upon the return of Dr. Smith urged him to tell him more about the man and his spiritual state. Dr. Smith explained to him how he provided Lincoln with a copy of his book and during this time Smith had been praying for a period of weeks that "the Spirit of Truth might lead him into the kingdom of Truth. And such was the result . . . Lincoln came forth from this examination . . . a believer in God, in His Providential government, in His son, the way, the truth, and the life. And from that time [nearly seven years] to this day, Lincoln's life has proved the genuineness of his conversion to the Christian faith."William Eleazar Baron, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 163. For this great work of grace, Smith humbly ascribed the honor and the glory to his heavenly father.Soon after Lincoln's assassination a controversy broke out about the nature of Lincoln's faith, when William H. Herndon, his old law partner, who frequently suffered from financial trouble, began lecturing and writing for publication allegations that the Lincoln whom he had known earlier was not a Christian believer so he began claiming Lincoln's Christian faith must not have been genuine. Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln's son, responded: "Mr. Wm. H. Herndon is making an ass of himself."
Dr. Smith, now back in Scotland, wrote in a somewhat hostile tone, with barbs at the end, in reply to an inquiry from William Herndon in January 1867:
Your letter of the 20th of December was duly received, in which you ask me to answer several questions in relation to the illustrious President, Abraham Lincoln. With regard to your second question, I beg leave to say it is a very easy matter to prove that while I was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Mr. Lincoln did avow his belief in the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. And I hold that it is a matter of greatest importance, not only to the present but to all future generations of the great Republic and to all advocates of civil and religious liberty throughout the world, that this avowal on his part and the circumstances attending it, together with very interesting incidents illustrative of the excellence of his character in my possession should be made known to the public. My intercourse with Abraham Lincoln convinced me that he was not only an honest man, but preeminently an upright man, ever seeking, so far as was in his power, to render unto all their due. It was my honour to place before Mr. Lincoln's arguments [in the form of his book discussed above] designed to prove the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, accompanied by arguments of infidel objectors in their own language. To the arguments on both sides, Mr. Lincoln gave a most patient and searching investigation. To use his own language, he examined the arguments as a lawyer who is anxious to reach the truth investigates testimony. The result was the announcement by himself that the argument in favour of the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures was unanswerable. I could say much more on the subject, but as you are the person addressed, for the present I decline. The assassin Booth, by his diabolical act, unwittingly sent the illustrious martyr to glory, honour, and immortality, but his false friend [i.e. Herndon] has attempted to send him down to posterity with infamy branded on his forehead, as a man who, notwithstanding all he suffered for his country's good, was destitute to those feelings and affections without which there can be no excellency of character.Nicholas Parrillo, "Lincoln's Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War," Civil War History, Fall 2000, pp. 229. Found at: http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/Library/newsletter.asp?ID=127&CRLI=175From this letter, by another Old School Presbyterian minister, Dr. James Smith, we have a second testimony. Smith trusted Abraham Lincoln to represent his church as legal counsel in a Presbytery legal proceeding, and to give lectures on the divine inspiration of the scripture in his church. This wise old minister is now claiming that Lincoln had been persuaded by his apologetic book of the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. Then he proclaims, in no uncertain terms, that John Wilkes Booth "unwitting sent the illustrious martyr to glory, honor and immortality." Again the word martyr is used and the language of glory, honor and immortality most certainly can only refer to the heavenly afterlife reserved only for the elect of God in the Old School Presbyterian understanding. So here is a second clear testimony, strong though implicit, from an Old School Presbyterian minister, one who was in a position to know, because he served as the family pastor for nine years in Springfield, that Abraham Lincoln was indeed a bona fide believer.
Let all things be established on the testimony of two Old School Presbyterian Ministers!
There seems no honest way to evaluate this evidence other than to conclude that these two friends of Lincoln, both of them Old School Presbyterian pastors, first in Springfield and then in Washington, both considered him saved.
Notice that in God's providence these fine Old School Presbyterian pastors of Abraham Lincoln were both Doctors and from all accounts, each brilliant men.William E. Phipps, Journal of Presbyterian History: Studies in Reformed History and Culture: Volume 80-Number 1, Spring 2002, pp. 17-28.
Before attending Princeton, Gurley graduated from Union College, Schenectady, New York, in 1837, with the highest honors of his class. Meanwhile, Dr. Smith after "receiving an excellent education in Scotland,"Havlik, "Lincoln and Dr. Smith" p. 2. the young Deist was converted at a camp meeting in Southern Indiana in 1825 and was soon licensed to preach. He served as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church for six consecutive sessions, 1834-1840 and is known as "the first historian of this frontier Church."This is how James D. Smith, III, describes him in a 1985 memoir written on the 175th anniversary of the Cumberland Church. James Smith: Cumberland Presbyterian Minister 1798-1871, The First Historian of the Cumberland Church. Here he is also described as "clearly one of the most powerful preachers of his age." And great sorrow is expressed at his leaving to join the Old School Presbyterians. Found at: http://www.cumberland.org/hfcpc/minister/SmithJ.htm In addition to other books, he is the author of the:
"erudite volume entitled The Christian's Defense, with this statement of content: 'Containing a fair statement and impartial examination of the leading objections urged by infidels against the antiquity, genuineness, credibility, and inspiration of the Holy Scriptures; enriched with copious extracts from learned authors.'"Smith, James, The Christian's Defense (Cincinnati, Ohio J.A. James, 1843). Remarkably, this rare and scholarly volume is freely available as a 43MB download at the following location: http://archive.org/details/christiansdefens00smit. In Adobe PDF format, it goes over 714 pages!
Smith was familiar with such authors as David Hume, a fellow Scotsman and the most prominent skeptic of modern history. He was also knowledgeable of outstanding pagan philosophers as well as with Thomas Paine, a thinker who was as radical in his religious as in his political views. Their objections to biblical claims, along with those of Olmstead whom Smith debated, were stated in their own words, and then Smith combated them in a reasonable manner in the book. He displayed an understanding of the original biblical languages as well as knowledge of several world religions. Anyone who will spend a few minutes examining this rare volume, readily available online, will recognize the author is a solid and diligent scholar. Smith's Volume was favorably reviewed in the mouthpiece of Old School Presbyterianism, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review by the first principal of Princeton Seminary, Archibald Alexander.Alexander, Archibald, "The Christian's Defense....by James Smith...". (―Deistical Controversy in the West) Volume XVI, Number 4, October, 1844, pp. 498-507 Dr. Alexander considers the work to be an act of God's mercy that He "raised up men" like Dr. Smith to "detect...by solid learning and sound reasoning ....to refute the dangerous systems of infidelity and heresy." He is amazed at the kind of scholarship has suddenly appeared from the great American "West" (i.e. Louisiana, Illinois and Indiana) and he especially likes the idea of Dr. Smith taking this work on the road in series of lectures. He is gratified that "theological learning appears to be cultivated with so much diligence" by the author.
This apologetic work of Dr. Smith, Abraham Lincoln later testified was used of God to convert him. It is well described as a "600-page tome and worthy of careful study ....a technical book on theology."
Lincoln found this book refreshing by a former doubter, like himself, that was addressed to those sharing his frame of mind. He told Ninian Edwards, his brother-in-law, "I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of Christianity and have heard him preach and converse on the subject and I am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion."James Reed, "The Religious Sentiments of Abraham Lincoln," Scribner's Monthly, July 1873, 336. Reed, who followed Smith as pastor of that Springfield church, obtained this information from a letter about Lincoln's religion that John Stuart, Lincoln's first law partner, wrote him on 17 Dec. 1872. Smith's logical approach appealed to Mr. Lincoln, who was "put off by the emotionalism he witnessed in the revivalistic religion of his youth."Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 130-131.
The Lincolns' friendship with Smith was built on many visits to the Lincoln home during their time in Springfield and continued even after Smith retired to Scotland. Smith was described by his friend Bishop as "quite a raconteur, somewhat like his friend Lincoln, always ready with a story to illustrate his opinions."William Eleazar Baron, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 160. On June 11th, 1861 Smith was invited to visit the White House.Lincoln Day by Day, III, 47. Cited in Havlik, "Lincoln and Dr. Smith" p. 16. Even though a Democrat, Lincoln described him to Seward as "an intimate personal friend." Lincoln appointed him to succeed Smith's son, another Lincoln appointee, who had died while serving as United States consul in Dundee. Before Pastor Smith's death in 1871, he guided Mary Lincoln on a tour of Scotland.
Mary Lincoln wrote to Dr. Smith on June 8th 1870 complaining about the "the fearful ideas" and "falsehoods" that Herndon had put in play. She described her husband, as a man who:
"...never took the Lord's name in vain, who always read his bible diligently, who never failed to rely to God's promises and looked upon Him for protection, .... when Willie was called away from us to his heavenly home, with God's chastening hand upon us, he turned his heart to Christ."Turner, Justin G. and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln, p. 567-8. Cited in Havlik, "Lincoln and Dr. Smith". p. 3 Found at: http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-1999autumn/ishs-1999autumn222.pdf p. 14.
Isn't it best to look at Lincoln's Christian faith through the eyes of his two Old School ministers? Wouldn't they be in the best position to judge the state of Lincoln's soul, much better than any modern day historians? Like other great questions of history, it finally comes down to, "Who do you believe?" Facts can be interpreted in different ways. But it is similar to the question of whether or not the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John. Irenaeus said that the Apostle John did. But how did he know? He heard it from Polycarp. But how did Polycarp know? He heard it from the Apostle John himself. So who should we believe, a modern scholar writing nearly two thousand years after the fact? Or should we trust the person with real proximity? Similarly should we believe Lincoln's law partner who knew him at an earlier period in his career or should we trust the judgment of a pair of learned, trustworthy, Old School Presbyterian Pastors who had close and intimate friendship with Lincoln until the end of this life?
We have indicated that these pastors were bright, well-educated, orthodox, Old School Presbyterian ministers who knew Lincoln intimately. They knew the signs of regeneration. Pastor Smith was under obligation to follow the Presbyterian Book of Order when he admitting new members such as Mary Lincoln and with regard to baptizing their son Tad. When he allowed Abraham Lincoln to represent the church in a dispute before the Presbytery, or when he had him teach the congregation and the public on the topic of veracity of the Bible, he is revealing his understanding of Lincoln's faith. Now someone might object that often ministers don't follow their own Book of Order, but this would not be the case for someone like Pastor James Smith, who had served for six consecutive sessions as stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.In addition we have cited several other Old School Presbyterians who confirm the testimony of Lincoln's Pastors. There is Thomas Lewis, the elder in Springfield, who sat behind the Lincoln's, who were in pew number 20, that Lincoln was faithful in attendance upon the worship and the skillful preaching of Dr. James Smith. And then there is the testimony of Dr. Smith's pulpit supply, the Rev. William Bishop, D.D. who tells us that Dr. Smith had explained to him in great detail how God answered Smith's prayers offered in behalf of Abraham Lincoln's conversion, while Lincoln was examining his book. There is also a Presbyterian elder in Washington, cited by Charles Hodge, the Hon. Schuyler Colfax, who was "one of the most intimate of Mr. Lincoln's personal friends, who gave public sanction to the report, which was extensively circulated, of his avowal of his personal faith in Christ, and love for the divine Redeemer."These are the words of Charles Hodge in a masterful essay simply entitled: President Lincoln which appeared just a few months after the assassination in The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review Volume XXXVII, Number 3, July 1865 pp: 435-458. Interestingly, the Presbyterian Elder that Hodge refers to here, the Hon. Schuyler Colfax, was then the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was one of the last men to speak to Lincoln on the night he went to Ford's Theater. Later he served as Vice President under President Ulysses S. Grant. Charles Hodge, the great Old School Presbyterian theologian, wrote an eloquence articleIbid. on the significance of Abraham Lincoln for the nation and the world which reveals that Hodge is fully persuaded of Lincoln's authentic and sincere Christian faith.
The evidence for Lincoln becoming a convert in the Old School Presbyterian tradition is, as Lincoln said after studying Smith's 600 page tomb on the Bible, "the arguments... are unanswerable."