Book Review: ‘Lincoln’s God,’ by Joshua Zeitz – The New York Times

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In “Lincoln’s God,” Joshua Zeitz examines the 16th president’s personal and idiosyncratic brand of Christianity.

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LINCOLN’S GOD: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation, by Joshua Zeitz
Anyone who has enjoyed the privilege of examining the Lincoln Bible — on which three presidents to date have taken their oaths of office, including Abraham Lincoln — will know that the pages are immaculate, as if never opened and read. In fact, Lincoln borrowed the book from a Supreme Court clerk for his 1861 swearing-in at the last minute, and the detail is telling, in keeping with Lincoln’s considerable distance from organized religion.
As a young man, Lincoln was barely a Christian in the conventional sense. He was skeptical of the Bible’s miracles, read freethinkers like Thomas Paine and may even have been the author of a tract attacking religion. (We don’t exactly know, because if it did exist, a friend burned it.) Had it surfaced in 1860, when Lincoln was first running for president, we might be living in two nations. As it was, he lost the vote of one constituency — only three of Springfield’s 23 ministers voted for him.
But a different Lincoln occupied the White House. If not a doctrinaire believer (he never joined a church), he clearly felt a deep connection to the Bible, which he read carefully. He spoke about God, and to God, and his greatest speeches and writings are enriched by a sense that we are listening in on a special conversation between a man and his maker.
His second Inaugural Address remains a towering achievement. Lincoln’s attempt to comprehend divine purpose in the tragedy of “American Slavery” and the war that ended it remains a work of bracing spiritual honesty, all the more surprising for the fact that its author had once had to print a handbill assuring the public that he was not an “open scoffer” at religion.
Tackling this paradox is the challenge before Joshua Zeitz, a biographer of Lincoln’s two secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, who now turns his lens on the president himself.
Lincoln’s religion has been treated before, in the hagiographies that followed his assassination, when “Americans needed to memorialize Lincoln as a Christian martyr,” as Zeitz puts it, and in the writings of his former law partner, William Herndon, who set out to define him as an “un-believer.” Zeitz weaves between the dogmas, revealing a complex thinker who deftly merged religious language with political goals and underwent a “spiritual renewal” during the Civil War, especially after the death of his son Willie in 1862.
Zeitz adds meaningful context to the story, examining the ways in which soldiers experienced religion in the field; both sides held revival meetings. Above and below the Mason-Dixon line, religious leaders leaned into the conflict and found reasons to believe they enjoyed a special relationship with the Almighty. The Confederacy claimed God’s support in its Constitution and motto (“Deo vindice”). Southern leaders denounced Northerners as “infidels,” a word that was sometimes applied to Lincoln, and claimed that the Bible justified slavery.
Lincoln, of course, disagreed with that selective reading, and as he moved decisively against slavery in the final years of the war, he often claimed a spiritual justification. His speeches drew heavily on Scripture, including, in 1858, the “house divided” (Matthew 12:25); then, at Gettysburg, “four score and seven years ago” (paraphrasing Psalm 90); the second Inaugural Address, with its readings from Matthew 18:7 (“woe unto the world because of offenses …”); and Psalm 19 (“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”). Frederick Douglass, who was present at the second inauguration, called it “more like a sermon than a state paper.” One scholar estimated that “266 of its 702 words were quoted verbatim from the word of God.”
Importantly, Zeitz includes the perspective of Black Americans, who held views of their own that were often at odds with the tendency to see the United States as a promised land, or Canaan. Instead, they likened it to Egypt. A moving story recounted elsewhere tells of an African American delegation presenting a Bible to the president in 1864 and his response: “All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book.”
Zeitz is on less sure ground when he labors to argue that Lincoln was acting out an Oedipal drama because he “resented” his father’s rules and his old-school Baptist faith. It feels heavy-handed to call the elder Lincoln a “hyper-Calvinist” when we know so little about his thinking. And there were ways in which Lincoln absorbed lessons from his father (and surely his mother as well). Indeed, one of the reasons the Lincolns moved from Kentucky to Indiana, as Lincoln himself wrote, was that his father opposed slavery, along with his fellow members of the Little Mount Baptist Church. This would have been a fertile ground to examine further.
Zeitz’s forays into earlier religious history, including that of the Puritans, also feel rushed, with terms like “evangelical” and “Calvinist” thrown around casually. While many denominations are mentioned, others, like Unitarians, are almost entirely left out. That is a missed opportunity; one of Lincoln’s friends, Jesse Fell, wrote that Lincoln resembled the abolitionist Unitarian clergyman Theodore Parker in his thinking. (Parker wrote about democracy in ways that prefigured the Gettysburg Address.)
But Zeitz has chosen an important element of Lincoln’s life to explore, especially in an age when the virus of religious certainty drives so much autocratic thinking, at home and abroad. Lincoln’s philosophy was anything but certain; he hoped that he was right with God, and that was enough. As he put it, citing Matthew, “let us judge not, that we be not judged.”
His faith will never be simple to decipher, and that’s as it should be; it was, as the founders intended, a private matter. When he was once asked to define his religious beliefs, Lincoln quoted an old man he had heard say, “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”
In an age when the adjective “godless” is hurled about to score political points, it is a healthy restorative to remember just how deeply this former “infidel” thought about his place in Creation. For that reason, he continues to speak to all of us.
Ted Widmer is distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and the author of “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.”
LINCOLN’S GOD: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation | By Joshua Zeitz | 313 pp. | Viking | $30


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