Did Lincoln Die
A Committed Atheist?
A. W. Furches
I was just goofing off on the internet and found your page of Abraham Lincoln quotes; I thought you might be interested in some info the Abraham Lincoln Org. sent me a while back. I am a Christian, and I myself have also been sore tempted to claim Lincoln as "one of us." He's such a great guy, I think even a Hindu might feel the same to a degree.
The truth is, nobody knows what Lincoln's religious beliefs were the day he died. I wrote the Abraham Lincoln organization a while back about this, and I saved their response. I thought you might enjoy reading what they wrote (it's the paragraph below). It is certain that Lincoln was an atheist for the great majority of his life, there's no doubt about that, but I think we do history a great disservice by trying to paint him up as we want him to appear; that is, your page of evidence leads one to believe that Lincoln died a committed atheist.
There is some striking evidence for a change of heart at the end of his life, just as much as there is evidence that he didn't change; it is a gray area, and I don't think it is our place to judge this man. So here's what the ALO wrote to me.
Lincoln did have a close friend who was, like Lincoln, a skeptic when both were young men. His name was Joshua Speed. Speed later published a small volume called Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln (available at the restored Speed home called "Farmington" in Louisville, Kentucky). Here's a story Speed relates from 1864 when he visited Lincoln in Washington:
"I have often been asked what were Mr. Lincoln's religious opinions. When I knew him, in early life, he was a skeptic. He had tried hard to be a believer, but his reason could not grasp and solve the great problem of redemption as taught. He was very cautious never to give expression to any thought or sentiment that would grate harshly upon a Christian's ear. For a sincere Christian he had great respect. He often said that the most ambitious man might live to see every hope fail; but, no Christian could live to see his fail, because fulfillment could only come when life ended. But this was a subject we never discussed.
"The only evidence I have of any change, was in the summer before he was killed. I was invited out to the Soldier's Home to spend the night. As I entered the room, near night, he was sitting near a window intently reading his Bible.
"Approaching him I said, 'I am glad to see you so profitably engaged.'
"'Yes,' said he, 'I am profitably engaged.'
"'Well,' said I, 'If you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.'
"Looking me earnestly in the face, and placing his hand on my shoulder, he said, 'You are wrong Speed, take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.'"
Lincoln's faith is still a matter of controversy among scholars, but this incident is about as revealing as the notoriously private Lincoln would allow.
Hope it is of some help to you.
One thing they didn't include: according to Mary Todd, among his last words were "I have always wanted to see Jerusalem." So who knows? I suppose the scholars and historians are right on this matter; we should reserve judgement in areas which are extremely uncertain. It's only fair to Lincoln to provide unbiased accounts of his life and faith -- however unsatisfying that may be to you or I!
Happy new year, and all the best.
From: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "A.W. Furches"
Subject: Re: Lincoln
Date: January 09, 2002 4:38 PM
your page of evidence leads one to believe that Lincoln died a committed atheist
I am only trying to counter the extremely popular myth that Lincoln was a devout and pious Christian. That's all. It is a very common ploy on the part of apologists for the Christian religion to claim that the heroes of humankind were pious Christians when, indeed, they were not Christians at all. This has happened many times with numerous individuals; much productive time on the part of non-Christian scholars and advocates has been wasted trying to track down the truths behind these lies, in the hope of trying to present a more truthful picture to the public by countering these lies.
I never represented Lincoln's religion other than to quote Herndon as having called him "at times, an atheist."
Madalyn Murray O'Hair poignantly echoes my sentiments on this whole matter:
We wish our Christian brothers would be honest and permit us our heroes. We do not deny them theirs.
I don't think "committed atheist" describes Lincoln at any time of his life. Of course, the word atheist had different shades of meaning, then, than it does today, including, unfortunately, an element of lawlessness or disregard for authority ("wickedness"). Also, we must distinguish between "strong" atheism (asserting that no gods exist) and "weak" atheism (lacking a god-belief for whatever reason -- including "strong" atheism!). Both etymological issues belong in any discussion of whether or not a person is or was "an atheist." As an eye-opening example of where this could lead, I excerpted a passage from George H. Smith's, Why Atheism? suggesting three different ways the question "Was Spinoza an atheist?" might be answered: one who never employs theistic terminology; one who explicitly disbelieves in any personal, transcendent, or supernatural God; one who views himself as an atheist.
Even granting (for the sake of discussion) both the Speed account and that Lincoln did have a religious conversion experience in Washington, the truth is that we do not have enough evidence to justify the vehemence with which many claim the piety of Abraham Lincoln. I openly admit that I cannot justify vehemently calling him an atheist -- at any time in his life, and apart from whoever at American Atheists edited (botched) the Joseph Lewis reprints, I don't know of any atheists who have.
Had Lincoln been a pious Christian, he would most certainly have shared this information with his wife, don't you think? Is this not one of the central commandments and tenets of the Christian faith? to "confess," that is, to share with others that one has had a Christian conversion experience? But after Lincoln died, she was asked this question directly, and she said that he had not been a Christian. I must concur with that, as I have no better information than what she told the interviewer who asked this specific question.
Also, I fail to see any importance as to what a person believed at the moment of death. At the moment of Lincoln's death, he had been unconscious for many hours, so I think we can say he didn't believe anything at all.
However, some people become ill and lose track of what they had worked out, logically, as adults, and subsequently, because of the illness, revert to the structure that was given to them during childhood. Corrie ten Boom, during the final years of her life, lost the ability to speak English and could only speak her Native Dutch. Stress can wreak havoc on a person's opinions as well. I am undergoing tremendous stress right now, and some of the things that were once important to me mean nothing at this moment, and may never again mean very much (and in some cases, this could prove to be a very good thing!). Nevertheless, what is happening to me right now is insignificant compared to what Lincoln went through during the Civil War, which had only very recently ended by the time he died. What is occurring at the moment of death, then, would tell me less than nothing about an individual's thoughts as a healthy human.
What we do know about Lincoln is this:
1. During the productive years of his life, starting from when he began to form his opinions and values and going through his departure to Washington, Lincoln was well-known to be someone who was not a pious Christian (or a Christian of any sort). He was variously described by those who knew him as a Deist, a Freethinker, and "at times, an atheist" (Herndon). The story of his anti-Bible manuscript being thrown in the fire is remembered by several who claim either to have been there when it happened or to have been told about it by someone who was there.
2. Several contradictory claims were made (including Speed's) that he had converted to Christianity while in Washington. These all cannot be true simultaneously. Not one of them can be shown to be trustworthy but are (a) anecdotal, at best, and (b) contradicted by other, much more reliable reports (such as that of Mary Todd Lincoln). Some of them are shown to be untrustworthy.
3. Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, when asked if Lincoln had been a Christian, said no, he was not a Christian. This interview took place after he had died.
I have investigated the claims for his piety that were known about fifty years ago, but I have not checked into any works that are younger than fifty years. However, if any "newer evidence" comes forth, it would need to be falsifiable (unlike much of this anecdotal evidence alleging the piety of various heroes). Further, in this particular case, it would need to be compared with the reply of Mary Todd Lincoln that he had not been a Christian.
Reports of his reading the Bible mean nothing to me, as he was always an avid reader of that book (and so am I, believe it or not, an avid reader of that enigma). So, if reading or even recommending the Bible makes one a Christian, then sign me up on the roster of the nearest Church: I am a Christian without even knowing it!
But what he was when he died, or even during the final months of his life (after he had undergone tremendous stress) doesn't mean as much to me: it is what made the man that means the most to me. And part of what made Lincoln, intellectually, was an avid interest in the works of Thomas Paine and several Deists and Freethinkers of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment era, combined, in part, with a willingness to, like Paine and others, criticize the book which others called the infallible Word of God.
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