Lincoln’s Battle with God- Book Review

Lincoln’s Battle With God: A President’s Struggle With Faith And What It Meant For America-  Stephen Mansfield. 279 pages.
I just finished this fascinating book on the faith of Abraham Lincoln. Before reading, I hadn’t known a lot about the President who usually tops the charts of “best presidents” polls. I had read a few of his speeches, as well as watched a few movies (the best of which was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer, which was not as historically reliable as some might think). From the little that I had read, I naively assumed that Lincoln was a committed, church-going Christian. The truth is, like many of us, Lincoln experienced deep spiritual distress and doubt for much of his life.
Stephen Mansfield brilliantly belabors to show the complexity of Lincoln’s relationship with God. The task is no easy one, as the author needs to track down everything Lincoln ever wrote or said about faith. One of the biggest problems is determining which sources are legitimate and which are embellished. After Lincoln’s death, some were motivated to portray him as more religious, while others reacted against the hiding of Lincoln’s doubts and (probably) overly highlighted his skepticism.
Abraham was raised in a “Christian” home; the family went to church, read the Bible, and talked about it. Nancy Lincoln, Abraham’s mother, frequently sang spiritual songs. Although she couldn’t’ read, she would often recite long sections of scripture and Shakespeare in the home. She loved her children and encouraged Lincoln to go to school and read. Sadly, she died when Abraham was 9, leaving him with his harsh, simplistic, and legalistic father (Thomas). Thomas Lincoln had no tolerance for reading and school, since there was work to be done. Much of what Abraham rejected religiously probably came from what he disdained in his father.
The death of his mother was probably the beginning of Lincoln’s bouts with depression. Mental illness ran in the Lincoln family. After moving away from his hometown, as a young man, Abraham was put on suicide watch, with friends hiding knives and razor blades. He also believed he contracted syphilis through his occasional visiting of prostitutes.
Not only did young Lincoln reject the faith morally and emotionally, but he also began to reject it rationally. Due to the influence of Thomas Paine, and friends in the city of New Salem, Lincoln gained a reputation as an “infidel,” or an “unbeliever.” His skepticism and venom towards traditional Christianity culminated writing a little book “disproving” Christianity. Lincoln tried to get the book published, but a close friend named Samuel Hill, worried about Lincoln’s political future should the book be made public, stole and burned it. One wonders how our country might look today had that little book been published. Upon entering politics, even honest Abe lied repeatedly about his (past?) problems with Christianity, including whether or not this book had existed.
In light of all this, historians of Lincoln tend to view his future references to religion and faith as mere political pandering. Mansfield disagrees with this assessment, arguing that while Lincoln was no “cookie-cutter” Christian, his relationship with God was vital for leading this nation through its darkest days. There was something so sobering about the position in which he found himself, that he seemed to be driven to God in profound ways. Examples abound, but two will suffice for this post.
When Abraham’s three-year old son Eddie tragically died of pulmonary tuberculosis, Reverend James Smith conducted the funeral service. After this, the Lincoln’s began attending Smith’s First Presbyterian Church. Lincoln and Smith frequently talked for hours about life and religion. Not only this, Reverend Smith became a spiritual adviser to the President, constantly visited the White House to converse with and console Lincoln.
Lastly, the weight of the war and country seemed to give Lincoln a new appreciation for Jesus that he hadn’t had in his younger years. It’s reported that while watching the play in Ford’s Theater during that fateful Friday night, Lincoln turned to his wife and whispered: “we will not return immediately to Springfield. We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest. . .we will visit the Holy Land and see those placed hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.” And then John Wilkes Booth killed him.
While some doubt if Mary Lincoln told the truth about her husband’s last words, many historians believe them to be authentic. Even if they are not, the amount of research done by Mansfield in trying to truthfully reconstruct Lincoln’s complex faith is commendable. There are countless other examples of Lincoln’s life situations and statements that seem to share that while conflicted, Abraham Lincoln deeply trusted God, and perhaps even Jesus Christ as well. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.