Lincoln's Gettysburg 'Under God':
Another Case Of 'Retrofitting'?
Emanuele Oriano

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We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth -- Abraham Lincoln

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <>
To: "Emanuele Oriano"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: September 11, 2002 9:25 AM

Abe Lincoln is everybody's hero. Anybody may rejoice in what he accomplished during his life and anybody can learn from his mistakes, which were legion. (He was never "bigger than life.") Anybody can learn effective leadership from his example and may, from the same example, learn how to become the shrewdest of politicians -- all the while being openly and repeatedly respected as a man both of stern justice and of great mercy.

I don't have to be Italian to be proud of what Angelo, Bruno, Galileo, Raphael, and Michaelangelo did for humankind. I don't have to be Indian to consider myself Gandhian. And you don't have to be American to fully appreciate Lincoln: based solely upon your humanity, you may include yourself when you call him "our" President Lincoln; you may claim him with great pride, regardless of your citizenship.

This is a tough one to pin down exactly because as history is not an exact science. Make sure this is understood by both parties in any discussion such as this (or else walk away, is my advice). In addition, do what you can to keep this in the forefront of the audience's awareness: history is not an exact science!! We don't know; we can only make educated guesses.

We cannot speak in terms of did and was but only in terms of what we can hold in our hands (a book by William Herndon; a clipping from a Springfield, Illinois, newspaper), that is, in terms of observations that we can make today (since we cannot go "back then" and make observations). The rest we can speak only in terms of probabilities and likelihoods: what is the likelihood that a man who converted to the Christian faith during the final years of his life would keep this from his wife, with whom he had an open and trusting relationship?

How about this one: A man spends 95 percent of his adult life reading the Bible just about every day, carrying it around with him, studying it often (although very few who know him could tell you why he does this). At one point, he pens a work à la Paine's Age of Reason, only to watch it kindle into smoke after his more reasoned friends tossed it into a stove. He is said to have rebuked a secretary for writing his speeches with wording that could cause someone to speculate that he was a Christian, insisting, instead, that it be changed to more generalized language (or so said that secretary, at one point). He is said to have laughed at an event organized by his staff (Seward) that had a biblical theme. Many claimed that he uttered not just a few choice words against the Christian religion, but, for the most part, he kept his views very silent. So silent was he that even his closest associates could not figure him out either on the matter of religion or anything else!0

 -- until --

Until the final year or so of his life.

After most of the battles he waged have been won for him through whatever system of philosophy he held throughout most of his adulthood, this man suddenly, almost secretly, as if on a whim, becomes an Evangelical Christian. Then, in complete contradiction to the tenets and spirit of Evangelical Christianity (of almost all Christianity, in fact) he remains completely silent about his conversion! So quiet us he that we have no written account from him even hinting that he had converted (particularly, his language regarding religious matters remains unchanged; that is, decidedly deistic). So silent was he that we only know about it because many years later, after the controversy of his alleged atheism had caused no small stir within the press, someone who knew the preacher who was allegedly involved tells us that the preacher told him that he personally led Lincoln to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.


To further exacerbate the mystery, we have not one but five different people all alleging either to have led him to Christ or to have known who led him to Christ. The preachers in question all differ from account to account. The dates and locations likewise do not match up.

Now tell me:

What is the probability that, during what he didn't yet know would be the final year of his life, this man would suddenly and without resistance convert to the Christian religion during a brief visit with a preacher he'd never met and whose name has for years evaded even the advocates of this claim.

And what is the probability that any of the several other stories are valid wherein Lincoln, after moving to Washington, suddenly did a 180 from where his ideas had appeared to have been up until that moment? It is plainly impossible for all of these tales to be true, but it is easy for all of them to be falsehood! In fact, owing to the sheer number of them, all different, plus owing to their all being utterly without merit, too watery for scrutiny to form against them to begin with! They're all just so convenient! I would suggest the latter.

I will insert an excerpt from Ingersoll's "The Religious Belief of Abraham Lincoln" and then return to your question. These remarks are in response to several claims made in an article by a Mr. Seip, none of which contained the names of the individuals making the claims.

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I believe that I am familiar with the material facts bearing upon the religious belief of Mr. Lincoln, and that I know what he thought of orthodox Christianity. I was somewhat acquainted with him and well acquainted with many of his associates and friends, and I am familiar with Mr. Lincoln's public utterances. Orthodox Christians have the habit of claiming all great men, all men who have held important positions, men of reputation, men of wealth. As soon as the funeral is over clergymen begin to relate imaginary conversations with the deceased, and in a very little while the great man is changed to a Christian -- possibly to a saint.

All this happened in Mr. Lincoln's case. Many pious falsehoods were told, conversations were manufactured, and suddenly the church claimed that the great President was an orthodox Christian. The truth is that Lincoln in his religious views agreed with Franklin, Jefferson, and Voltaire. He did not believe in the inspiration of the Bible or the divinity of Christ or the scheme of salvation, and he utterly repudiated the dogma of eternal pain.

In making up my mind as to what Mr. Lincoln really believed, I do not take into consideration the evidence of unnamed persons or the contents of anonymous letters; I take the testimony of those who knew and loved him, of those to whom he opened his heart and to whom he spoke in the freedom of perfect confidence.

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At this point, he begins to quote numerous people who either wrote in works that we can examine in any library or spoke directly to Colonel Ingersoll (who fought in the Civil War). I strongly recommend that you check out our collection of essays advocating the opinion that Lincoln was not by any stretch a pious orthodox Christian (although he was, for the most part, what many non-Fundamentalists would consider quite religious).

Back to your question: The evidence overwhelmingly suggests against the inclusion of "under God" in the version of the speech that he read at Gettysburg, but there is no way of proving yea or nay on this.

1. I suggest that the first draft, the one he took with him to Gettysburg, was to be his notes for giving the speech.

2. I suggest that the second draft is Lincoln's best recollection of how the speech actually went off. The two differ significantly, as you saw when you compared them. One he brought with him and the other he wrote down after quickly hurrying away to a private place to accommodate this task.

Being myself a writer who often sees his own writings as his favorite works of writing, I can picture Lincoln, before the speech, fine tuning the speech in between greetings and other acts of politesse, going over it again and again, grooming it like a cat does her fur before settling down for a nap. As a trained announcer, I can also see him having made a few changes "on the fly."

Most importantly (and to this one only a writer or a reader can fully relate) I can literally "feel," in my memory, while sitting here at my desk, what it's like to suddenly realize that the speech (or poem or whatever) just took over for a moment and "started reading itself," as it were, almost as if the poem itself had control not only of my lips in enunciating the words but of my very emotions in relating the imagery. Ask any poet or poetry afficionado à la Carroll, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Lamantia, McClure, Rexroth, Snyder, and Whalen: when I stand up and read from any of these, it happens, even if I've never seen the work before!

But reading the work of another is essentially scripted, written in stone, and only the performance of it can change, not the words. When speaking, though, I've had the experience of knowing what I was to say and even having written it out with the notes in front or me -- only to find myself having substituted, without consciously thinking, a far superior turn of phrase right there at the podium.

As a writer, I can see him treating his own speeches (as opposed to those his secretaries wrote for him) as literally the best writing he has encountered. I've known too many writers and have been a writer and an artist for too long not to suggest this of the President: I'd bet that Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg fully aware that in his pocket was a slip of paper upon which was written the most astonishingly moving literary work he had ever encountered.

I have uttered things "on the fly" (usually doing comedy) only to discover later I'd unwittingly pulled a stunt that people would be talking about for a long time afterward. I promise you that this was not Lincoln's experience with the Gettysburg Address: I propose that he was fully aware not just of its import but likewise of its subtle beauty and profound turn of phrase.

Lincoln was not one to talk of "God" in any way that would suggest that he believed in a personal, sentient deity. Although his views fluctuated (as with most non-Fundamentalists), there is overwhelmingly strong evidence backing the suggestion that he spent most of his adult life as a Deist. In addition, he was strongly convinced of the doctrine of Providence: everything that is, was to be.

William Herndon, his closest associate (his former law partner), said, in his Biography, that Lincoln was "at times an atheist." What little faith he had may have, "at times," brought him over the edge to atheism. Many people fluctuate in this manner: it is not at all uncommon. This is quite a harrowing experience, as well: When all you know is faith, when faith comprises your entire experience as a human, when you've never heard good things about the absence of faith, then to lose your faith can be devastating. I lost my faith not only in the Christian scheme (a devout and sincere faith, indeed), but I lost my faith in other things that I had unquestioningly trusted as being real. Thus, to speak of someone as having been "at times an atheist" speaks volumes to the deep, brutal pondering of reality, of the universe, and of human existence that Lincoln must have gone through during the course of his life.

It is told that he almost always had a Bible with him. We don't know why. To tell that story without telling the following, though, is irresponsible:

An incident noted in Herndon's biography was early on, when, after reading Thomas Paine's monumental book, The Age of Reason, young Lincoln drafted the rough version of a similar book refuting the Holy Bible, which he thought would help many overcome the chilling problems that religious faith can bring. His associates asked him which he wanted: to publish this book or a career in politics? Lincoln clearly wanted politics and said so that day, whereupon Lincoln's friend snatched it all away from him and threw it in the fire.

Finally, keep in mind that during the last half of the eighteenth century, a plethora of literature emerged containing alleged quotations from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Often this material was purely inspirational, something you'd post on the wall of a school room. Much of it was deliberately designed to make Lincoln out to be a pious orthodox Christian. Almost immediately after his death, various authors began to investigate his life with the intent of writing his biography. When it kept turning up that Lincoln was not a pious Christian,as people would just naturally expect of someone who is a hero in real life. For somebody to do good works such as what he wrought, what the whole list of non-Christian and even nonreligious people have done, is, to this day, unthinkable in most parts.

That's why I'm here! Perhaps a few of us can become just a tad more comfortable with proclaiming, "I am of the same religious persuasion as Thomas Alva Edison (Edison even belonged to an atheist group). If we can even say the word atheist in a positive light, I perhaps doing so can take the edge off of what it means to others when they hear the word and become enraged: this technique appears to be working for the homosexuals, and theirs is perhaps as close as you'll come to having a struggle that's parallel to ours.

(This is why I am so careful to cover the homosexuals' rights and dignity movements. Our struggle as atheists is unique and unprecedented, to be sure, and because of that we will probably have to reinvent the wheel and just about everything else in our struggle. However, if we can learn anything from anybody my bet is that we will end up having learned most of it from the homosexuals!)

Under God (finally!)

Ah, finally I get to your main question!

The best I can come up with for the inclusion of "under God" was that he is said to have written out a script of the speech for somebody (I don't have my library fully unpacked to provide the name) and honored that individual's request to make it say "this nation under God..."

Grammatically, the inclusion of "under God" renders the sentence quite clumsy. Read the sentence aloud, both ways, several times, alternating back and forth. I'd be interested in your opinion, but to me it just doesn't "feel right." This is not due to a life-long aversion to the insertion of religion into places where it does not belong, but rather one that a retired English teacher might feel.

The subject, "this nation," performs the act of the verb phrase, "shall have." To insert the parenthetical modifier, "under God," severely diminishes the statement that "this nation shall have a new birth of freedom." In addition, it seems almost a slight to relegate God to the position of a parenthetical aside. Keep in mind that when the phrase is enclosed with a pair of commas, it is parenthetical to the point where it could be omitted without changing the point of the sentence: grammatically speaking, the "under God," here, is a throw-away at best -- an afterthought. This seems almost condescending both to the subject, "this nation," as well as to the subject of the parenthesis, "God."

At best, one could say that the writer who placed this phrase where it is has done so for the purpose of giving lip-service to God. And this is precisely what I propose the (alleged) forgers were trying to place into Lincoln's mouth: lip-service to God!

Either that, or the phrase "(this) nation under God" had a precedent similar to what it has to us today, and placing the "under God" after the words "this nation" would make that precedent ring forth. Indeed, those who initially proposed that the Pledge of Allegiance contain the phrase "under God" argued that the phrase harkens directly from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address! I have absolutely no evidence for the above-mentioned precedence. Worse, this was neither the first nor the last incident of a Congressman arguing a case based upon the forged quotation of an American hero. (Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, I believe, who co-sponsored the bill, argued along these lines; the man who proposed it to him did indeed use this argument. Check the Phony Quotes segment of the James Madison page in our Big List of Quotations for other examples of Capitol Hill riff-raff committing this very act of dishonesty -- at least one very likely doing so knowingly.)

To make this mean what I would hope the (alleged) forgers would have wanted it to mean, the wording would need to be, "that under God, this nation shall have a new birth of freedom." Still technically a parenthesis (the first comma being absorbed in the beginning of the clause), "under God" takes on an entirely different meaning. Placed here, it seems almost to subordinate the very sentence to which it is parenthetical!

Some might note that the very next phrase also contains a parenthesis between subject and verb. No, it does not. The word "government" and the phrase "of the people," which begins a list necessarily containing commas to separate the elements of the list, are not themselves separated with a comma and are thus an integral part of the subject itself. Indeed, he is not saying that "government ... shall not perish"! What is that!? No, he is saying that "government of the people (etc.) ... shall not perish."

The other arguments that I've heard are the same ones you mentioned, but can carry only limited weight until one presents a thorough examination of Lincoln's likely religious views.

As for arguing the case, keep in mind that it matters nought what Lincoln's religious views were. His endorsement of a particular stance is not what determines that stance's truthfulness or even how useful it is. In these instances, an ideology speaks for itself, and must always stand or fall solely upon its own merits.

In Lincoln's case especially, and in any case where the individual in question is said to have converted either moments or even weeks before death, you cannot say much about the ideology to which he eventually converted. That was not the philosophy which inspired his great works, which prompted him to sacrifice all, if need be, to accomplish what needed to be done and what could only be done at great personal cost to the one doing it.

If ideology means anything at all, then the ideology which had inspired one's actions during the most productive seasons of his or her life is the only ideology worthy of consideration. Thus, since Lincoln was a Deist for most of his adult life (and this fact is not disputed by any but the most radical of revisionists), and if he was a Christian for perhaps as long as a year, I credit his Deism, if anything, with inspiring him to do what he did and to life the life that he led. When considering this, we always tend to look to the set of values which appear to have inspired a person's actions and formed the basis for his or her actions. Seldom if ever do we consider the philosophy to which one has turned only after the productive seasons of life have passed, during the idle times of retirement.

And although this is not the case with Lincoln, Christians have manufactured dozens if not hundreds of "death-bed conversion testimonials -- and all for nought! Think about it: never do we hear people crediting one achievements to the religion to which our achiever has turned during the throes of death! Can you imagine!? But indeed, they have done this to so many heroes that nineteenth century atheistic activist G. W. Foote wrote an entire book called, Infidel Death-Beds with the intent of refuting, one by one, each of the lies had encountered during his work with the Secularists in London. But some people just don't learn, do they? A. D. McLaren wrote a sequel, a "Part Two" of this book, which almost ironically (but not quite) addresses a death-bed lie about the original author of the book, G. W. Foote!

But can you imagine trying to make a convincing argument with the following scenario: With health and life already gone, awareness -- and even time itself -- begins to flicker like the solitary lamp illuminating a drafty shack on a foreboding December night. Indeed, as awareness drifts, first this way, then that way, and finally back again, the loved ones who stand around the bed flash -- just for a moment -- into the imagery of angels, demons, and other hallucinatory beings. Then, as our hero's consciousness once again fades back into view, rolling a few times and then locking back onto reality, the loved ones around the bed -- why, they're not these beings after all! Those who stand close by are they who've come to be with our hero during those loneliest and most harrowing moments of anybody's life.

The rest have agreed to allow the religious member of the crew try to comfort our hero by reminding him of his childhood exploits in the Boy's Choir. A hulk of his former self, abandoned, burned-out, no longer aware of his adult life or even that he had, during his prime, accomplished great and noble things, our hero grasps what he can. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he discovers himself clutching on to the very first things he ever learned: those rhymes that once made him giggle with abandon, sitting upon the security of his Mama's knee, absorbing every bit of information to reach his young, impressionable senses.

Real death-bed conversions are made of this, although many if not most of the stories that Foote and McLaren address are pure fabrication. But even if a scene such as this actually did occur, the "successful" death-bed conversion brings absolutely no credibility to the religion which his well-meaning but misguided mother struggled in vain to impress upon her son.

Again, this was never alleged of President Lincoln. We all have read or heard the accounts of his final hours, lying unconscious, too tall even to fit on the hotel bed upon which he was laid. I brought this up only because it is not much of an exaggeration to liken the death-bed conversion to that occurring during the final years of life. In either case, the religion to which our hero ultimately converted cannot rightly be credited with inspiring any of our hero's accomplishments. The only logic that can even remotely apply is that which says, "Well, So-and-So ended up converting to X-Y-Z faith, and I respect his opinion: what was good enough for him is good enough for me!"

And even at that, we are back merely to the place where we started: endorsements of any kind prove nothing: an idea or ideology must stand or fall upon its own merits.

As a final aside, I'm often asked why I'm so interested in documenting those heroes who were atheists. Besides the mere point of studying our heritage, I do this mainly to refute the Christian lies claiming that Such-and-So had been a pious Christian. If Christians can satisfy themselves with endorsements as proof of the validity of their religion, so be it. However, I feel it is immoral for me to remain silent when such Christians boldly and publicly lie about somebody having been Chrisitan: when I know this is falsehood, I will at least speak out about it!

Assuming, for a moment, that he did convert to Christianity (which I seriously doubt), did Abraham Lincoln, then, learn something as President which ultimately vindicates the Christian religion? Perhaps he did (assuming, again, that he converted). Then again, that would not be the only possible explanation for such a conversion, so we're not stuck with that possibility as the only one going.

I speak as a man who has been profoundly changed by acute emotional trauma on several occasions throughout my life (two of which occurred within the past twelve months -- three, if you wish to include the events of September 11, 2001, which shook me to the core of my being). These begin at the very beginning: I have had no rest from it -- ever. I was adopted at birth and suffered very painful infections as an infant. (I later found pediatric Codeine in the family closet, prescribed to me at age two; the song "Comfortably Numb" describes these experiences with haunting precision.) During those years I was molested. Then we adopted my little brother at birth, and he became very ill due to the monumentally irresponsible mistake made by the State agency which oversees adoptions. The State eventually took him from us and placed him in the ward of a medical university so that we might not have to experience his painful death (and most likely so that he wouldn't have to experience it either).

School was no fun: I just deleted two paragraphs and will merely say, along with the old bumper stickers, that shit just kept on happening. Stuff happened to me and nothing out of the ordinary seemed to happen to most others. Worse, things happened to me that not even the most creative writers would have been able to invent. I'm sure that any number of onlookers just shook their heads and tried not to laugh -- because it really wasn't very funny! Only recently have I come to grips with the fact that most Americans don't have to endure in their entire lives even a fraction of what I went through just as a kid.

Based upon my experiences, I think I can state authoritatively that just about everybody who undergoes a harrowing experience or even a series of them is changed by those experiences, and not always for the better. Even when unusually and extremely good things happen to you, you don't often walk away unscathed by the trauma of mere change. If the Parable of the Sower and the Dogma of Chaste Karma were valid concepts, then yes, you might say that a person came out of these experiences for the better, even if she or he did not realize this at first. However, until one shows the validity of Karma and the Sower, I will suggest that it's equally valid (and perhaps even commonplace) to see someone endure repeated emotional trauma only to end up barely recognizable as a human at all, much less the same person who entered the battle. It is just as easy (perhaps even easier) to suggest this latter possibility as it is to suggest the former.

If such is the case, then Lincoln easily qualifies as having served the most traumatic term of American Presidency ever. Even if you look only at the good parts, I think he took the wildest ride of any president we've had thus far. Even if you looked at only the desirable points, the things you'd think you'd want to experience, those alone, I think, would be enough to traumatize just about anybody.

In any event, what any President goes through is enough to make profound changes upon anybody (the notable exceptions being those of of Reagan and Eisenhower, whose terms, according to British journalist Simon Hoggart, served mainly as "a means of filling up a few of the otherwise blank days of retirement"). It's a tough job: almost every time we've watched one leave office, my Mother has commented on how much the job appears to have aged its holder.

Thanks for your question, and let me know what you think. Again I invite you to consult our Historical Section's Biography Index, which contains a half-dozen works about Lincoln, all of which defend the notion that Lincoln was a Deist and a Freethinker (the other views being amply represented on two-bit Christian web sites scattered throughout the web. Internet Infidels has a few others that we don't have (we try not to mirror one another's work, and I'll mirror works they have posted if and only if I think it needs vast improvement in the form of a complete revision and I think it is an important enough work to justify the work and expense involved in creating such a revision).

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Seven years of service to people
    with no reason to believe

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.