Neither Infidel Nor Orthodox Christian: A Review of ‘Lincoln’s Battle’ with God by Stephen Mansifeld

 Stephen Mansfield, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012). $22.99, 272 pages.

Lincoln’s Battle with God will disappoint two kinds of readers: secularists and Christian nationalists, both of whom want to claim America’s sixteenth president as wholly their own. He is neither, however. As Stephen Mansfield writes, “The silencing of Lincoln’s faith by the secular and the exaggerating of Lincoln’s faith by the religious have given us a less accurate and a less engaging Lincoln. We are poorer for the distortions.” Indeed we are, which is all the more reason to appreciate the accomplishment of Mansfield’s book.

That accomplishment is the mapping of Abraham Lincoln’s religious journey. The journey began in 1809 in Kentucky, whose frontier religion was shaped by the camp-meeting revivalism of Cane Ridge (1801). Lincoln’s parents, Thomas and Nancy, were Hard Shell Baptists. Their religion was primitive, emotional, and fervent. Lincoln loved his mother, who died when he was 10. Whatever spiritual sensitivity he had seems to have come from her. But when he was emancipated from his father at age 21, Lincoln disavowed both the man and his God.

As Lincoln struck out on his own in New Salem, Illinois, he fell in with a group of freethinkers, devotees of Paine, Volney, and Burns. He was known as an “infidel” who referred to Jesus Christ as a “bastard” and delighted to point out the Bible’s seeming contradictions in public debate. He went so far as to write a “little book on Infidelity” that his freethinking friends had the foresight to burn. This is the Lincoln secularists love and the religious loathe.

But infidelity was not Lincoln’s final take on religion. A change of view began when Lincoln moved to Springfield, the capital of Illinois. In 1846, in a hotly contested race against Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright for Illinois’s 7th Congressional District, Lincoln published a handbill dishonestly disavowing his earlier infidelity. “I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular,” he wrote, when in fact he had done precisely those things. His infidelity was softening, if for no other reason than political necessity. (Incidentally, he won the race.)

There may have been more going on, however. In 1849, having served his term in Congress, Lincoln moved briefly to Lexington, Kentucky, to settle the estate of his father-in-law, Robert Smith Todd. There, he came across The Christian’s Defence, a work of apologetics by Rev. James D. Smith, who happened to be the pastor of Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church. Upon returning to Springfield, Lincoln sought out Smith for conversation, and the Lincoln family began attending his church and supporting its ministries. When Thomas Lincoln lay dying, Lincoln wrote his stepbrother these words of comfort to convey to his father: “He [God] will not forget the dying man, who puts his trust in Him…but that if it be his lot to go now, he will soon have a joyous [meeting] with many loved ones gone before; and where [the rest] of us, through the help of God, hope ere-long [to join] them.” Whether this is a heartfelt, orthodox Christian faith is uncertain. That it is not infidelity is quite clear, however. Lincoln was on a journey.

That journey took him physically to Washington DC. Spiritually, however, it took him into uncharted territory. The Civil War did not bring out the best in America’s theologians, whose theologies predictably lined up with their respective political sympathies, whether Northern or Southern. Lincoln, of course, was for the Union, but his theology transcended his politics. In September 1862, Lincoln wrote himself this note:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

What was God’s will? Lincoln came to believe that God’s purpose for him was to expand his war aims beyond merely preserving the Union (the cause Lincoln articulated in his First Inaugural Address). Now the additional purpose was freeing the slaves. According to Salmon Chase, secretary of the Treasury, Lincoln told his Cabinet, “I determined, as soon as it [the Confederate army] should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself and (hesitating a little)—to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.” In short, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation was the fulfillment of a religious vow, as much as it was a military strategy or a war aim.

After Lincoln had been re-elected but before the Confederacy had been defeated, Lincoln declared his theological understanding of the war to the broadest possible audience in his Second Inaugural Address:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” [Matthew 18:7] If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether” [Psalm 19:9].

An infidel doesn’t speak this way. Were he to mask his politics behind civil religion, he would speak the argot of his supporters and fellow partisans. He would not transcend their politicized religion with a critique aimed at both sides equally. Nor would he promise “malice toward none…charity for all” as government policy. But Abraham Lincoln did. He was no infidel. Then again, an orthodox Christian wouldn’t be caught dead in a theater on Good Friday, as Abraham Lincoln was on April 14, 1865, when felled by a single bullet to the back of his head. Lincoln was no orthodox Christian either.

This, then, is the outline of Abraham Lincoln’s religious journey that Stephen Mansfield traces in Lincoln’s Battle with God. There is much more, of course, especially regarding how religion soothed Lincoln’s lifelong melancholy and helped him grieve the death of two sons. But the journey is there: from infidelity to something short of orthodox Christianity. Mansfield’s book will disappoint secular and religious partisans. Those less interested in partisan (mis)uses of history will delight in the honesty and ambiguity of the story it tells.

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