The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words


Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, in honor of which, according to the custom of my blog, I re-post this post about Lincoln’s religious beliefs, such as they were. Enjoy!

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In 1920, William E. Barton published The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, a now classic study of the development of Lincoln’s faith. “Lincoln’s religious was an evolution,” Barton wrote, “both in its intellectual and spiritual qualities.”

Lincoln’s religious identity seems to have moved through three stages: (1) a Calvinist Baptist in childhood; (2) a skeptical, freethinker in young adulthood; and (3) and a not-altogether-orthodox Christian in mature adulthood.

“Too much of the effort to prove that Abraham Lincoln was a Christian,” Barton wrote, “has begun and ended in the effort to show that on certain theological opinions he cherished correct opinions.” Lincoln didn’t. For example, he evidently believe in evolution and universal salvation, and he had doubts about Christ’s virgin birth.

“Abraham Lincoln was not a theologian,” Barton went on to say, “and several of his theological opinions may have been incorrect; but there is good reason to believe that he was a true Christian.” By this, Barton meant that Lincoln had “a right attitude toward spiritual realities and practical duties.” (In my opinion, Lincoln was neither an infidel nor an orthodox Christian, but something in between.)

Barton concluded his study with “a series of short quotations [of Lincoln’s] from documents, letters, and addresses, certified authentic and touching directly upon points of Christian doctrine.” He organized these quotations into what he called “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words.”

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday—he was born on February 12, 1809—I’ve posted that creed below, adding footnotes that link individual phrases to their sources in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. This is the online version of Roy P. Bassler’s authoritative series of the same name.

The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words[1]

I believe in God, the Almighty Ruler of Nations,[2] our great and good and merciful Maker,[3] our Father in Heaven, who notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads.[4]

I believe in His eternal truth and justice.[5]

I recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blest whose God is the Lord.[6]

I believe that it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.[7]

I believe that it is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father equally in our triumphs and in those sorrows[8] which we may justly fear are a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our reformation.[9]

I believe that the Bible is the best gift which God has ever given to men. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book.[10]

I believe the will of God prevails.[11] Without Him all human reliance is vain.[12] Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.[13]

Being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, I desire that all my works and acts may be according to His will; and that it may be so, I give thanks to the Almighty, and seek His aid.[14]

I have a solemn oath registered in heaven[15] to finish the work I am in,[16] in full view of my responsibility to my God,[17] with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives me to see the right.[18] Commending those who love me to His care, as I hope in their prayers they will commend me,[19] I look through the help of God to a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before.[20]

 

Notes

[1] William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 300. This book is a reprint of the 1920 first edition published by George H. Doran Co. Chapter XXIII is titled, “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln.”

[2] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” March 4, 1861.

[3] “To John D. Johnston,” January 12, 1851.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “First Inaugural Address.”

[6] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day,” March 30, 1863.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” July 15, 1863.

[9] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day.”

[10] “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible,” September 7, 1864.

[11] “Meditation on the Divine Will,” [September 2, 1862?].

[12] “To the Friends of Union and Liberty,” May 9, 1864.

[13] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” February 11, 1861.

[14] “Reply to Eliza P. Gurney,” October 26, 1862.

[15] “First Inaugural Address.”

[16] “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865.

[17] “Message to Congress,” March 6, 1862.

[18] “Second Inaugural Address.”

[19] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois.”

[20] “To John D. Johnston.”

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Benjamin Franklin | Book Review


In 1787, the Constitutional Convention found itself bogged down over the issue of representation. Small states wanted equal representation in the national legislature. Large states wanted proportional representation. The dispute seemed irresolvable, and if it could not be resolved, the young American nation itself might not survive.

Benjamin Franklin — America’s gray eminence, Pennsylvania’s delegate — proposed to solve the impasse by means of daily prayer, reasoning this way:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages.

Franklin’s proposal was defeated handily. “The Convention,” Franklin wrote, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

This episode, from near the end of Franklin’s life, reveals several things about Franklin’s mature religious beliefs, not to mention the influence of religion on the American founding. Like other Founding Fathers — George Washington especially comes to mind — Franklin believed that God providentially ordered world events, particularly the formation of the United States of America. His public rhetoric was shot through with biblical imagery. And he believed in the social usefulness of religion for republican government; hence, the call to prayer.

And yet, these mature religious beliefs, though sincere, were neither orthodox nor evangelical, a fact demonstrated in depth by Thomas S. Kidd in his recently published Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston to devout Puritans who raised him and his siblings in the doctrines of evangelical Calvinism. In his teenage years, under the influence of skeptical writings by Lord Shaftesbury and Anthony Collins, he left that faith and became, in his own words, “a thorough deist.”

Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

Unfortunately, the word deist conjures up the image of a clockmaker god who winds up the universe then leaves it alone. That does not accurately describe Franklin’s mature belief, however. Deists of that stripe, to point out the obvious, do not issue the kind of plea for prayers Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention.

“The key to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent religion,” Kidd writes, “is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint of his childhood Calvinism.” To be sure, Franklin was skeptical of orthodox Christology (i.e., the Incarnation) and evangelical soteriology (i.e., justification by faith). He was consistent on these points throughout his adult life, though he expressed the scope and intensity of his skepticism at different times and in various ways. What mattered to him more than what one believed was how one lived.

This moralism was not atheism, however. Five weeks before he died, in a letter dated March 9, 1790, Franklin described his creed to Yale’s Ezra Stiles, an evangelical Christian, this way:

I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.

Not nothing, religiously speaking, but not fully Christian either.

Franklin’s Calvinist rearing no doubt influenced his religious beliefs. Most obviously, it gave him a biblical idiom in which to express himself. Less obviously, warm relationships with evangelical Christians such as his sister Jane Mecom, evangelist George Whitefield, and others moderated his skeptical tone and made him appreciative of evangelicals’ good works. Throughout his life, these evangelicals pleaded with him to put his faith in Jesus, but at the end, all he would say is this: “I think the system of morals and his religion as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see.” Again, not nothing, but not Christianity.

Franklin’s ambivalent religion points to an important truth about the role of religion in America’s founding. Many evangelical Christians think of America as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. This is not a new belief, and it is not entirely wrong. From the start of the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay and all the way to the present day, America has been a nation of self-professed Christians. Protestant political theology exercised tremendous influence on the American colonists; the Bible suffused their public rhetoric, and established churches shaped their public piety. In the 19th century, due to waves of revival, evangelical Christianity became the de facto established religion of the new nation.

And yet, alongside this Christianity sits something less than Christian. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, we might call it non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism. It is a peculiarly American faith. Shaped by Christianity, but not Christian. Sounding like the Bible, but not biblical. This was Franklin’s faith, and the faith of other Founders too, such as Thomas Jefferson. When we query the role of religion in the American founding, we must take this non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism into account, for it was present and it was influential. This was the reason why, for example, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson described God in generic terms — “Nature’s God”— rather than specifically biblical ones.

This truth about the role of religion in America’s founding generates two points of application for evangelical Christians, in my opinion. First, we must recognize that the American experiment is a joint venture, not a sole proprietorship. Yes, orthodox and evangelical Christians played an important role in the establishment of America. They did not play the only role, however.  Alongside them and sometimes in conflict with them, theists of a non-Christian variety exercised influence on the development of our nation. Benjamin Franklin is proof of that

(In fairness, the same reminder needs to be issued to skeptical Americans today who deny Christians a role in the Founding. Not only were they present and influential, but atheists played no role. Even the radically skeptical Thomas Paine argued for the necessity of belief in God, after all.)

Second, given the foregoing point, it behooves orthodox and evangelical Christians to be more mindful of political rhetoric. Invocations of God — whether in American history or at the present time — are not necessarily invocations of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Too often, we read our Christian convictions into the theological pronouncements of the Founders, which means we misread them. By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

 

Book Reviewed:
Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Thursday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Chris Colvin helps pastors think more clearly about office hours. His bottom line? “You must give your staff — and yourself — space to be relational and permission to set their own schedules. At the same time, you need to be consistent and available.”
  • Clay Scroggins is my guest for the Influence Podcast. He is lead pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, and author of How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, which Zondervan publishes on August 22nd. It’s an excellent book!
  • I review Thomas S. Kidd’s newest book, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Here’s my concluding sentence: “By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.”

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Faith and the Founding Fathers | Influence Podcast


This past Monday, I had a fascinating conversation with Baylor historian Thomas S. Kidd about the religious life of Ben Franklin and other Founding Fathers. Take a listen!

The Power of Life and Death | Influence Magazine


Over at Influence Magazine, I offer some opinions about hateful words and violent deeds in the wake of yesterday’s shooting of Rep. Steve Scales (R-LA) and GOP congressional staffers. The article is posted here with permission:

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“The tongue has the power of life and death,” Proverbs 18:21 says, “and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

This proverb came to my mind yesterday when I learned that a gunman had shot and wounded Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La., 1st District) and four congressional staff members in the early morning near Washington D.C. The shooter later died from wounds sustained in a gun battle with Capitol Police, who were protecting Rep. Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives.

The shooter evidently supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Sen. Sanders immediately denounced the violent act. Regardless, some right-wing pundits quickly tied the incident to anti-Trump and anti-Republican rhetoric by some left-wing pundits and Democratic politicians. They claimed that rhetoric had created the “climate of hate” in which the shooter acted.

This is not the first time partisans blamed violence against them on the other side’s rhetoric. Democrats, for example, pointed to Republicans’ “climate of hate” in 2011 when a gunman shot then-Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords (D-Ariz., 13th District) and 17 others. Giffords suffered brain injuries, and six people died.

I’m not interested in assessing whether the Left’s rhetoric is more hateful than the Right’s or whether the Right’s actions are more violent than the Left’s. As far as I have seen, the answer to those questions generally lines up with the respondent’s ideology. A person on the Right thinks the Left bears the blame, and vice versa. This suggests that we’re not coming at the answer from an objective, statistical point of view.

Instead of assessing blame, I want to make an obvious point and a less obvious point and then offer an explanation and several suggestions:

Points Obvious and Less Obvious
The obvious point is this: Both sides think climates of hate are capable of producing violent action. Nobody thinks there’s zero connection between words and deeds. Everybody acknowledges some connection.

The less obvious point is this: Regardless of that acknowledgment, neither side changes its rhetoric in a significant or enduring way. Oh sure, after a tragedy, right-wingers and left-wingers will come together, pray for the victims, sing “Kumbaya” and pledge to work together. A few days later, however, they’re back at each other’s throats, using the same nasty rhetoric they used before the violence that temporarily brought them together.

Explaining Why Our Rhetoric Doesn’t Change
Why? How can people who acknowledge the connection between words and deeds go on to think their hateful rhetoric doesn’t generate violence on their side? The explanation, it seems to me, is that they think their rhetoric is true. Partisans and ideologues don’t merely disagree with the policies of the other side; in other words, they think the other side and its policies are objectively evil. That’s why both sides in political debates are tempted — and too often succumb to the temptation — to compare the other side to Hitler and the Nazis, which all sides agree to be symbols of perfect evil.

But here’s the deal: In American politics today, if you really think that people on the other side are like Hitler and their policies are like the Nazis’, then the obvious response is to go to war — to engage in more violence, not less.

Nobody in their right mind thinks that way, though. After a tragedy like yesterday’s shooting, we all get together and pledge to talk kindlier and work together more constructively. That implies — and you need to pay attention to this point! — that the other side in current American politics doesn’t deserve the hateful rhetoric your own side sometimes throws its way.

Three Practical Suggestions
Once you and I realize this point, several suggestions come quickly to mind.

First, repent! We constantly tell people on the other side of an issue from us to cease and desist from their climate of hate, but Jesus told us to take our own advice first: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3,5).

Applied to political rhetoric, this means we need to police our own words — and the words of those on our own side — first.

Second, follow the Golden Rule! How do we know which of our words are hateful? The answer to that question is as simple as the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

If you want people to ascribe good motives to your actions, ascribe good motives to their actions. If you want people to characterize your statements accurately and in context, do the same for them. If you want people to acknowledge your right to speak and act, acknowledge their similar right.

Third, don’t retaliate! In my experience, I practice self-criticism and the Golden Rule as long as the other side does so. The moment they deviate from those two standards, though, I am tempted to ditch those standards and start throwing mud. That’s a bad idea, for as some wag once pointed out, when you wrestle with a pig in the mud, you both get dirty … and the pig likes it. Responding to bad rhetoric with more bad rhetoric creates a vicious cycle of bad rhetoric.

Once again, Jesus points the way: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39).

The best way to stop a vicious cycle is to stop being vicious, and turning the other cheek does that. It stings, of course, but it also stops things from escalating to violence.

What I’ve written here applies to politicians and citizens, to leaders and followers. It applies most of all to Christians, however, and especially Christians leaders. We lead our congregations, and we represent them in the public square. It is incumbent on us especially — as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ — to do what He said to do.

As our nation wrestles with a vicious cycle of hateful words and violent deeds, let’s make sure we model a better way. Our tongue has power. Let’s use it in a way that brings life, not death, to ourselves, our churches and our communities.