Did Lincoln Die
A Committed Atheist?
A. W. Furches

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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.

Rhoda Sneller
ALO Editor

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "A.W. Furches"
Subject: Re: Lincoln
Date: January 09, 2002 4:38 PM

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:

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We wish our Christian brothers would be honest and permit us our heroes. We do not deny them theirs.
     -- Madalyn Murray O'Hair, "Rewriting of History by Christians" (February 17, 1969)

 

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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.

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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.

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What we do know about Lincoln is this:

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!

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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.

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

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