Much has been said and written, since Mr. Lincoln
's death, in regard to his religious experience and character.
Two or three stories have been published, bearing upon this point, which I have never been able to trace to a reliable source; and I feel impelled to state my belief that the facts in the case — if there were such — have received in some way an unwarranted embellishment.
Of all men in the world, the late President
was the most unaffected and truthful.
He rarely or never used language loosely or carelessly, or for the sake of compliment.
He was the most indifferent to the effect he was producing, either upon official representatives or the common people, of any man ever in public position.
In the ordinary acceptation of the term, I would scarcely have called Mr. Lincoln
man,--and yet I believe him to have been a sincere Christian
. A constitutional tendency to dwell upon sacred things, an emotional nature which finds ready expression in religious conversation and revival meetings, the culture and development of the devotional element till the expression of such thought and experience becomes habitual, were not among his characteristics.
Doubtless he felt as deeply upon the great questions of the soul and eternity as any other thoughtful man; but the very tenderness and humility of his nature would not permit the exposure of his inmost convictions, except upon the rarest occasions, and to his most intimate friends.
And yet, aside from emotional expression, I believe no man had a more abiding sense of his dependence upon God, or faith in the Divine government, and in the power and ultimate triumph of Truth and Right in the world.
The Rev. J. P. Thompson
, of New York, in an admirable discourse upon the life and character of the departed President
, very justly observed: “It is not necessary to appeal to apocryphal stories -which illustrate as much the assurance of his visitors as the simplicity of his faith — for proof of Mr. Lincoln
's Christian character.”
If his daily life and various public addresses and writings do not show this, surely nothing can demonstrate it.
Fortunately there is sufficient material before the public, upon which to form a judgment in this respect, without resorting to apocryphal resources.
The Rev. Mr. Willets
, of Brooklyn
, gave me an account of a conversation with Mr. Lincoln
, on the part of a lady of his acquaintance, connected with the “Christian Commission,” who in the prosecution of her duties had several interviews with him. The President, it seemed, had been much impressed with the devotion and earnestness of purpose manifested by the lady, and on one occasion, after she had discharged the object of her visit, he said to her: “Mrs.
-, I have formed a high opinion of your Christian character, and now, as we are alone, I have a mind to ask you to give me, in brief, your idea of what constitutes a true religious experience.”
The lady replied at some length, stating that, in her judgment, it consisted of a conviction of one's own sinfulness and weakness, and personal need of the Saviour for strength and support; that views of mere doctrine might and would differ, but when one was really brought to feel his need of Divine help, and to seek the aid of the Holy Spirit
for strength and guidance, it was satisfactory evidence of his having been born again.
This was the substance of her reply.
When she had concluded, Mr. Lincoln
was very thoughtful for a few moments.
He at length said, very earnestly, “If what you have told me is really a correct view of this great subject, I think I can say with sincerity, that I hope I am a Christian.
I had lived,” he continued, “until my boy Willie died, without realizing fully these things.
blow overwhelmed me. It showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before, and if I can take what you have stated as a test, I think I can safely say that I know something of that change of which you speak; and I will further add, that it has been my intention for some time, at a suitable opportunity, to make a public religious profession.”
Mr. Noah Brooks
, in some “reminiscences,” already quoted from in these pages, gives the following upon this subject:--
“Just after the last Presidential election he said, ‘Being only mortal, after all, I should have been a little mortified if I had been beaten in this canvass; but that sting would have been more than compensated by the thought that the people had notified me that all my official responsibilities were soon to be lifted off my back.’
In reply to the remark that he might remember that in all these cares he was daily remembered by those who prayed, not to be heard of men, as no man had ever before been remembered, he caught at the homely phrase, and said, ‘Yes, I like that phrase, “not to be heard of men,” and guess it is generally true, as you say; at least, I have been told so, and I have been a good deal helped by just that thought.’
Then he solemnly and slowly added: ‘I should be the most presumptuous blockhead upon this footstool, if I for one day thought that I could discharge the duties which have come upon me since I came into this place, without the aid and enlightenment
of One who is stronger and wiser than all others.’
“At another time he said cheerfully, ‘I am very sure that if I do not go away from here a wiser man, I shall go away a better man, for having learned here what a very poor sort of a man I am.’
Afterwards, referring to what he called a change of heart, he said he did not remember any precise time when he passed through any special change of purpose, or of heart; but he would say, that his own election to office, and the crisis immediately following, influentially determined him in what he called ‘a process of crystallization,’ then going on in his mind.
Reticent as he was, and shy of discoursing much of his own mental exercises, these few utterances now have a value with those who knew him, which his dying words would scarcely have possessed.”
“On Thursday of a certain week, two ladies, from Tennessee
, came before the President
, asking the release of their husbands, held as prisoners of war at Johnson's Island
They were put off until Friday, when they came again, and were again put off until Saturday.
At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On Saturday, when the President
ordered the release of the prisoner, he said to this lady,-- ‘You say your husband is a religious man; tell him, when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that in my opinion the
religion which sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some
men to eat their bread in the sweat of other
men's faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.’
“On an occasion I shall never forget,” says the Hon. H. C. Deming
, of Connecticut
, “the conversation turned upon religious subjects, and Mr. Lincoln
made this impressive remark: ‘I have never united myself to any church, because I have found difficulty in giving my assent, without mental reservation, to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their Articles of Belief and Confessions of Faith.
When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership,’ he continued, ‘the Saviour
's condensed statement of the substance of both Law and Gospel, “Thou shalt love the Lord
thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,” that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.’
At a dinner-party in Washington
, composed mainly of opponents of the war and the administration, Mr. Lincoln
's course and policy was, as usual with this class, the subject of vehement denunciation.
This had gone on for some time, when one of the company, who had taken no part in the discussion, asked the privilege of saying a few words.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “you may talk as you please about Mr. Lincoln
's capacity; I don't believe him to be the ablest statesman in America
, by any means, and I voted against him on both occasions of his candidacy.
But I happened to see, or, rather, to hear something, the other day, that convinced me that, however deficient he may be in the head, he is all right in the heart.
I was up at the White House
, having called to see the President
I was shown into the office of his private secretary, and told that Mr. Lincoln
was busy just then, but would be disengaged in a short time.
While waiting, I heard a very earnest prayer being uttered in a loud female voice in the adjoining room.
I inquired what it meant, and was told that an old Quaker
lady, a friend of the President
's, had called that afternoon and taken tea at the White House
, and that she was then praying with Mr. Lincoln
After the lapse of a few minutes the prayer ceased, and the President
, accompanied by a Quakeress not less than eighty years old, entered the room where I was sitting.
I made up my mind then, gentlemen, that Mr. Lincoln
was not a bad man; and I don't think it will be easy to efface the impression that the scene I witnessed and the voice I heard made on my mind!”
Nothing has been given to the public since Mr. Lincoln
's death, more interesting and valuable than the following, from the pen of Dr. Holland
At the time of the nominations at Chicago, Mr. Newton Bateman, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Illinois, occupied a room adjoining and opening into the Executive Chamber at Springfield.
Frequently this door was open during Mr. Lincoln's receptions, and throughout the seven months or more of his occupation, he saw him nearly every day. Often when Mr. Lincoln was tired, he closed the door against all intruders, and called Mr. Bateman into his room for a quiet talk.
On one of these occasions Mr. Lincoln took up a book containing a careful canvass of the city of Springfield in which he lived, showing the candidate for whom each citizen had declared it his intention to vote in the approaching election.
Mr. Lincoln's friends had, doubtless at his own request, placed the result of the canvass in his hands.
This was towards the close of October, and only a few days before election.
Calling Mr. Bateman to a seat by his side, having previously locked all the doors, he said: “Let us look over this book; I wish particularly to see how the ministers of Springfield are going to vote.”
The leaves were turned, one by one, and as the names were examined Mr. Lincoln frequently asked if this one and that were not a minister, or an elder, or a member of such or such church, and sadly expressed his surprise on receiving an affirmative answer.
In that manner they went through the book, and then he closed it and sat silently for some minutes, regarding a memorandum
in pencil which lay before him. At length he turned to Mr. Bateman, with a face full of sadness, and said: “Here are twenty-three ministers, of different denominations, and all of them are against me but three; and here are a great many prominent members of the churches, a very large majority are against me. Mr. Bateman, I am not a Christian,--God knows I would be one,--but I have carefully read the Bible, and I do not so understand this book;” and he drew forth a pocket New Testament.
“These men well know,” he continued, “that I am for freedom in the Territories, freedom everywhere as free as the Constitution and the laws will permit, and that my opponents are for slavery.
They know this, and yet, with this book in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me; I do not understand it at all.”
Here Mr. Lincoln paused,--paused for long minutes,--his features surcharged with emotion.
Then he rose and walked up and down the reception-room in the effort to retain or regain his selfpossession.
Stopping at last, he said, with a trembling voice and his cheeks wet with tears: “I know there is a God, and that He hates injustice and slavery.
I see the storm coming, and I know that his hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me — and I think He has — I believe I am ready.
I am nothing, but Truth is everything.
I know I am right, because I know that liberty is right, for
Christ teaches it, and Christ is God.
I have told them that a house divided against itself cannot stand; and Christ and Reason say the same; and they will find it so.”
“Douglas don't care whether slavery is voted up or down, but God cares, and humanity cares, and I care; and with God's help I shall not fail.
I may not see the end; but it will come, and I shall be vindicated; and these men will find that they have not read their Bibles right.”
Much of this was uttered as if he was speaking to himself, and with a sad, earnest solemnity of manner impossible to be described.
After a pause, he resumed: “Doesn't it appear strange that men can ignore the moral aspect of this contest?
A revelation could not make it plainer to me that slavery or the Government must be destroyed.
The future would be something awful, as I look at it, but for this rock on which I stand,” (alluding to the Testament which he still held in his hand,) “especially with the knowledge of how these ministers are going to vote.
It seems as if God had borne with this thing [slavery] until the very teachers of religion had come to defend it from the Bible, and to claim for it a divine character and sanction; and now the cup of iniquity is full, and the vials of wrath will be poured out.”
After this the conversation was continued for a long time.
Everything he said was of a peculiarly deep, tender, and relig ious tone, and all was tinged with a touching melancholy.
He repeatedly referred to his conviction that the day of wrath was at hand, and that he was to be an actor in the terrible struggle which would issue in the overthrow of slavery, though he might not live to see the end.
After further reference to a belief in Divine Providence, and the fact of God in history, the conversation turned upon prayer.
He freely stated his belief in the duty, privilege, and efficacy of prayer, and intimated, in no unmistakable terms, that he had sought in that way the Divine guidance and favor.
The effect of this conversation upon the mind of Mr. Bateman, a Christian gentleman whom Mr. Lincoln profoundly respected, was to convince him that Mr. Lincoln had, in his quiet way, found a path to the Christian standpoint — that he had found God, and rested on the eternal truth of God.
As the two men were about to separate, Mr. Bateman remarked: “I have not supposed that you were accustomed to think so much upon this class of subjects; certainly your friends generally are ignorant of the sentiments you have expressed to me.”
He replied quickly: “I know they are, but I think more on these subjects than upon all others, and I have done so for years; and I am willing you should know it.”
once said to me that “Mr. Lincoln
had two ruling ideas, or principles, which governed his life.
The first was hatred of slavery, which he inherited in part from his parents; the
other was sympathy with the lowly born and humble, and the desire to lift them up.”
I know of no better epitaph for his tombstone than this, save that suggested by Theodore Tilton
, the editor of the New York Independent, --“He bound the nation, and unbound the slave.”