DL Fowler's Blog

Abraham Lincoln’s Faith

Posted in Faith, faith, Lincoln, Lincoln Raw, Religion, religion, Research, Themes by DLFowler on April 14, 2014

Abraham Lincoln’s faith is best summarized by his response Connecticut Congressman H.C. Deming during the Civil War, just a few years before his death. The congressman asked Lincoln why he had never joined a church. Lincoln answered, “When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Savior’s condensed statement of both the Law and the Gospel, ‘Thou shall love the Lord with all thy heart, with all thy souls and with all they mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.”

The scripture Lincoln quoted was Jesus’ response when asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” The question was posed by a group of synagogue leaders who had become vested in defending a culture that grew out of their religion. To understand Lincoln’s mind on the matter of faith, it helps to understand that he viewed the churches of his time as defenders of cultural values with which he disagreed, not messengers of the Gospel.

Many churches of the north were centers of abolitionist activism, while southern churches generally were defenders of the “slave system”—or as they called it, “our way of life.” Both groups of 19th century American churches focused on their own brand of christian culture, and Lincoln rejected each. Both groups sought to gain power by building constituencies based on loyalty to their cultural values. Those values were built on a foundation of Mosaic Law with slavery as its cornerstone. Northern church culture insisted the Law demanded the abolition of slavery, while southern church culture almost always promoted the notion that slavery was ordained by God.

Lincoln intuitively recognized a great conflict between the Gospel of Grace, which is God’s prescription for redemption, and christian cultures, which existed for their own purposes and used the stringent demands of Mosaic Law to make people dependent on them for access to redemption. This conflict of cultures brought about Lincoln’s declaration that we should not say “God is on our side,” but we should ask “are we on God’ side?”

The Gospel of Luke contains a parable Jesus told in response to his disciples’ plea for him to increase their faith, a frequent objective of people who are caught up in christian culture. First, Jesus pointed out they had asked the wrong question. He did so using a hyperbole showing how much excess power they could wield with only a small amount of faith (the faith of a mustard seed). He went on to ask the question, “But whose needs are you concerned about, yours or your Master’s?”

Though Lincoln never expressed the notion directly, he seems to have understood that the Gospel of Grace focuses us on God, while christian culture is self serving. Examine the following chart.

 

Gospel of Grace focuses on:

christian culture focuses on:

God’s sovereignty

my inheritance

God’s trusteeship

my belief

God’s loyalty

my faith (loyalty)

God’s mercy

my repentance

God’s forgiveness

my obedience

God’s provision

my offerings

God’s blessing

my rewards

God’s justice

my satisfaction

   

Our response to the Gospel of Grace is to love God and others, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Christian culture often produces pride, self-indulgence, and lust for power.

Lincoln’s faith did not come easily. He often complained that the Bible made little sense to him. In early adulthood, he openly declared himself a skeptic, said prayer could not change the course of events, and declared that forgiveness was impossible. Some of his closest companions were either deists or atheists. He often saw incongruities in between Christian teachings and the way religious people lived. His father’s profession of Christian faith often seemed at odds with his actions. Church-going neighbors were often unjust or abusive. Frontier preachers were too often illiterate and illogical. When Lincoln ran for President in 1860, 23 of 26 clergymen in his hometown of Springfield voted against him and had encouraged their congregations to do likewise.

Lincoln’s faith evolved over a lifetime of tragedy including the deaths of his infant brother, mother, sister, sweetheart, two of his sons, two mentors, and numerous friends; at least half-a-dozen scrapes with near death; a difficult marriage; a bloody war for which may people held him responsible; and the disintegration of the Union he loved and had sworn to defend. All these challenges he faced while fighting a life-long battle with depression.

In the final analysis, though, he understood the heart of the Gospel of Grace better than most clergyman of his day.

I’d love to read your thoughts. Leave a comment.

 

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