Book Review: Lincoln’s Christianity

Lincoln’s Christianity, by Michael Burkhimer

Towards the beginning of this book, the author makes a plea for mercy when he states that he is a liberal Catholic, something he amply demonstrates, and that he hopes he is not judged for a frank admission of his own religious background.  The author also notes several times in the book that many writers who deal with the complicated and controversial subject of whether or not Lincoln was a Christian tend to make Lincoln correspond to their own religious views.  Unfortunately, the author tends to do the same thing himself.  This particular book is a rare case [1] of a writer who expresses an awareness of the trickiness of his task before falling prey to the exact tendencies he warns against.  One does not know whether to be sympathetic to a writer who is simply not up to the challenge he has set for himself or whether to be angry at someone for making such a mockery of their own goals and ideals.  Is it best to honor noble if ambitious failures or mock and insult someone for being a rank hypocrite?  Like Lincoln, I will strive to judge not lest I be judged myself, since being self-aware and simultaneously incompetent and blundering is by no means something I am unaware of in my own life, as others no doubt can attest to if they wish.

This short book of about 150 pages or so is generally divided in a chronological fashion, but the chronology jumps around a bit.  To be sure, the story is a fascinating one and well told, and the author has clearly done his homework in looking at what other Lincoln scholars had to say about Lincoln’s religious beliefs in order to bolster his own conclusions.  The author begins by talking about frontier religion and its lack of intellectual appeal for the cerebral young Lincoln.  The author then moves into Lincoln as a young and very fierce skeptic, who made some pretty abusive comments about Christianity and the credulity of believers that came back to haunt him later in life, forcing him on the defensive.  After that the author looks at the importance of the book of one Reverent Smith, whose intellectual approach to Christianity and his lawyerly arguments appealed to Lincoln’s own approach and appears to have caused him to move closer to Christianity.  Then the author looks at Lincoln’s rhetoric and his use of early Christian sources, where the author tips his own hand about his belief in imaginary documents like “Q” and makes some unwarranted statements about the biblical text himself, especially with regards to chronology and authorship.  After this comes a discussion of the influence of the war and death of the Civil War on Lincoln’s own religious beliefs, as well as a discussion of the religious language of the Second Inauguration and its remarkable evenhandedness.  After this comes a brief conclusion along with notes, a bibliography, index, and acknowledgements.

Ultimately, this author is not an entirely trustworthy guide to the religious thought of Abraham Lincoln.  Despite my lack of trust in the author himself and in his own misinterpretation of the doctrinal content of early Christianity, I can nevertheless at least partially agree with him that while Lincoln was certainly not an Orthodox believer who had been baptized or accepted the Nicene Creed, he certainly was not particularly far from some of the slightly heretical belief systems in vogue during the more chaotic part of early Christianity.  If he would not have passed muster as a technical Christian in the eyes of his own time, nor in the time of the Apostles, he certainly was not hostile to Christianity late in life and may have been similar to Agrippa in seeking to be viewed as having been almost persuaded to Christianity over the course of his own study and interaction with believers.  Of course, it should be noted as a non-Trinitarian I would not be considered a technical Christian despite my own belief in the authority of scripture and my own attempts to live according to God’s ways as best as I am able with as much humility as possible.  We all stand in the dark alone, seeking to love justice and walk humbly with our God, and this is especially true when thinking about the religious beliefs of Abraham Lincoln or the early Church of God.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: Lincoln’s Christianity

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Lincoln And The Jews: A History | Edge Induced Cohesion

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