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Debate over Abraham Lincoln's faith resolved

The religious conviction of Abraham Lincoln has been a subject of debate for many years, the chosen sides often serving as mere proxy for one’s views on the Civil War. White Southerners who might charitably embrace even the most shallow testimony coughed up on TBN, provided the celebrity of the moment is famous enough, will take Lincoln’s words with a pillar of salt. Northern sympathizers whose own evangelical credentials may have been leeched of all orthodoxy in the too-forgiving waters of New England Unitarianism will, by contrast, beat the Lincoln tambourine with the enthusiasm of a camp-meeting Methodist. While the recent “Lincoln” movie has rekindled the debate, at long last, the truth about Lincoln’s faith may finally be emerging from the shackles of hidebound historical and regional prejudices.

Nowhere has this debate been more interesting to watch than in the Southern Presbyterian churches, where in the Nov. 19, 2012 Aquila Report, historian Mark Noll concludes that we do not have “a clear-cut profession of orthodox faith.”

Let the debate be joined. Leben is pleased to present what to us, and no doubt to many of our readers, will be a surprisingly new twist on the Lincoln debate. Presbyterian Doug Fox makes not only a plausible case, but also what some will conclude is a convincing one, that Lincoln may have begun as a scoffer, but ended as an “old school” Presbyterian. For those unfamiliar with the formal workings of Presbyterian practice, the route Fox takes may seem circuitous, if not arcane, but there is purpose to his method, so we encourage you to come along for the journey.

Check out an exclusive offer for readers of WND from the editors of Leben!

Ruling elders in a Presbyterian Church of America congregation are regularly called upon to make judgments about the authenticity of a person’s faith (or lack thereof) as they come before the elders of the church for membership in the local body. Now, when a person comes to our church seeking membership from another church in our denomination, or even from a sister church in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, the job in these meetings is considerably easier. When we receive new members by letter of transfer, we know that these persons have already been through a similar screening process by another body of elders in another church.

Our “Book of Church Order” in the PCA simply says: “57-6. Persons received from other churches by letters of dismissal as well as those being received by reaffirmation of faith should give a testimony of their Christian experience to the Session.”

So reception by letter of dismissal of those who testify to their Christian experience in the meeting with the elders is almost perfunctory. These members are just being transferred; they are not being admitted to the Christian church for the first time. So the body of elders in the receiving church is relying heavily upon the prior church to have done the major job of screening a believer for authentic Christian faith. Now if an elder has the letter of transfer in his hand when the person comes before the session, so much the better, and if the letter is signed by a well-known pastor in the Reformed and Presbyterian community, that really makes the job easy!

So let me suggest that in the case of Abraham Lincoln we have something equivalent to this letter in hand, signed by two outstanding leaders in the Old School Presbyterian tradition that Abraham Lincoln was indeed a solid believer and orthodox Christian in the great Reformed and Presbyterian tradition.

Let’s first distance ourselves from the “conservative preachers and broadcasters who bemoan the decline of Christian America by repeating moving stories of Lincoln’s deep piety.” We are not suggesting anything of the sort. Nor do we think that “it would amount to a great victory” if it could be proved that Lincoln was an orthodox Christian. We simply want to take a fresh look at some of the original sources on this question and see where they lead us. Let’s take a new look at this question, from a unique perspective, that of the two Old School Presbyterian ministers with whom Lincoln developed a deep, close and abiding friendship, two friendships that continued to the end of his life. But as we will see, there are many other Old School Presbyterian witnesses on this question as well.

The first of Lincoln’s pastors that we will consider is from his time in the nation’s capital, the Rev. Dr. Phineas Densmore Gurley, an Old School Presbyterian (read Conservative – Old Princeton Theology) who had been called in 1853 to pastor the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, or NYAPC.

Today the website of this church, now part of the Presbyterian Church USA, accurately describes the nature of some of the Old School/New School controversies in the Presbyterian Church at the time: “The New School was ardently evangelistic and revivalist, and abandoned strict Calvinism for a theology of free will; the Old School was more doctrinally rigid.”

Dr. Gurley had graduated from Old School Princeton in 1840, later served as a moderator for the Old School Presbyterians in their general assemblies in 1867 and 1868.

President Lincoln worshiped regularly at NYAPC during the American Civil War. Lincoln and Rev. Gurley developed a relationship in which they frequently discussed theology, and those discussions and Gurley’s sermons likely influenced Lincoln’s perception of the war and its meaning for the nation. Gurley presided over the funeral of Lincoln’s son, William Wallace Lincoln, in 1862, and then over the funeral of Lincoln himself in 1865.

So if Lincoln was an unbeliever, and a non-Christian, we would want to understand why he is found “regularly attending” the preaching and prayer meetings of an Old School Presbyterian Calvinist like Dr. Gurley. Surely he could have found something a little more generically Christian if he wished to give the world a false pretense while he and his family were in Washington. And why did he develop a deep and abiding friendship with this pastor? And why have him preach at the funeral of your son? And why would his own family allow this orthodox Calvinist to preach at their loved one’s funeral?

We gain some insight to the nature of their friendship when we discover that, “In February 1862, Mrs. Gurley helped the Lincoln family nurse, Rebecca Pomeroy, care for Tad Lincoln after Willie’s death.”

From this it appears that the Gurley’s and the Lincolns were trusted family friends.

Upon his death, Mrs. Lincoln arranged to have her late husband’s hat sent to Dr. Gurley. This is quite a gesture showing the close personal familiarity between these two families. These were not mere casual acquaintances; this is something you would do for your one of your deceased husband’s closest friends.

According to historian Allen C. Guelzo, Pastor Gurley’s “preaching was confined with remarkable closeness to the great central doctrines of the cross.”

Once when accosted as he left the White House after an early morning meeting, Dr. Gurley explained that he and the president had “been talking of the state of the soul after death. That is a subject of which Mr. Lincoln never tires. This morning, however, I was a listener. Mr. Lincoln did all the talking.”

So we must deduce from this that Dr. Gurley and Lincoln had spoken about the state of the soul after death on numerous occasions. What kind a minster, and graduate of Old Princeton, would Dr. Gurley be if he had not explained the gospel to Lincoln in these conversations relative to the state of the soul after death if he believed Lincoln to be lost and in need of salvation?

Pastor Gurley also said prayers at the Capitol and the Washington train station and again at the graveside in Springfield, Ill., after the assassination. He also composed an original funeral hymn, “Rest, Noble Martyr.”

Now we are compelled to ask, surely Dr. Gurley knows that a martyr is a deceased Christian believer? Why would he mislead the American people who would read his funeral hymn “Rest, Noble Martyr” if he judged that Lincoln was not a believer? And who, pray tell, would be in a better position to know the state of Lincoln’s soul than his pastor and one of his dearest friends? Would an Old School Calvinist, who preached the great central doctrines of the cross, knowingly mislead the American people and those who would come after them who would read his funeral hymn on this central question?

The second Old School Presbyterian minister who was an earlier influential force in the life of Abraham Lincoln from his time in Springfield, Ill., was the Scotsman Dr. James Smith, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield. He was a native of Glasgow and described himself as an “old light Presbyterian” ordained first in the Cumberland Presbyterian church in Kentucky in 1825; later he moved to Springfield to become the pastor of The First Presbyterian Church, this time as an Old School Presbyterian. He was noted as the author of an important and hefty apologetic work, “The Christian’s Defense,” in 1843. Lincoln requested a copy from the author after he had found it on the shelves of a family member during a trip to Kentucky.

When the Lincolns lost their child Eddie in Springfield in 1850, their usual Episcopal pastor was away, and they got connected with Dr. James Smith to conduct the burial services. This meeting started a lifelong friendship between the Lincolns and Dr. Smith.

Mary Lincoln was admitted to membership in Dr. Smith’s church on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 1852. Their son Thomas (Tad) was baptized there on Saturday, April 4, 1856. Abraham was circuit riding much of the time during this period and did not immediately become a member on the same occasion as his wife.

Havlik considers it “inconceivable” however, that Lincoln was not present when Tad was presented by his parents for baptism, as this was also Tad’s second birthday. The family continued to attend services, renting pew number 20 for $50 per year, until they left for Washington nine years later in February 1861.

According to one of the Elders in the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Thomas Lewis, “I have not known of Lincoln not occupying that pew every Sunday he was in the city, until he left [for Washington].”

On April 26, 1853, the session of the church made a motion to retain the services of Abraham Lincoln in a church legal proceeding in Presbytery.

For those unfamiliar with such practices, Presbyterians take seriously Paul’s admonition: “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?” (1 Corinthians 6:1-2)

The idea is that the church should be competent to try its own cases, and they should not do this in front of unbelievers. The case for which Lincoln was retained had to do with an alleged unpaid debt on the church organ purchased from another church in the presbytery. This dispute was not something to be paraded before unbelievers. So if Lincoln was judged an unbeliever by Dr. Smith or by his session, why would they retain Lincoln as their counsel for this action that was to be tried, not in civil court – in front of unbelievers – but in the Presbytery?

The elders of the church in Springfield clearly had a high regard for Lincoln. According to elder Lewis again, they invited him to deliver a lecture on the veracity of the Bible to the congregation, and this brought a packed house of church members and fellow townspeople.

Afterwards Lewis said, “It was the ablest defense of the Bible ever uttered in that pulpit.”

An important clue about when Lincoln’s thinking about Christianity changed came after the Lincolns returned to Springfield after their visit to Mary’s relatives in Kentucky in October 1849. Here Lincoln first encountered the important apologetical book, “The Christian’s Defense.”

According to Elder Lewis, Lincoln told him, “I read it about half through, and wanted to get hold of it to finish reading it.”

Upon returning to Springfield he “sought out Dr. Smith to talk over some of the religious doubts he had entertained,” according to the Times-Herald. “Dr. Smith tells us that as a result of these extensive talks, Lincoln’s doubts were shattered and from that time on he was a believer in the Christian faith. Thus began their close and lasting friendship.”

Dr. Smith had an associate who occasionally provided pulpit supply while he was on vacation. While away, the Rev. William Bishop, D.D. often preached for Dr. Smith in Springfield. Bishop says that he was a young minister at the time and “not a little intimidated” seeing Lincoln in attendance, as Lincoln was well known as a great man in the West at this time, after the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858, and this being just a year before he went to Washington as president. He and Lincoln struck up a bit of a friendship while he was in Springfield. Lincoln encouraged his preaching.

Bishop was very interested in the charismatic parishioner, and upon the return of Dr. Smith urged him to tell him more about the man and his spiritual state.

Dr. Smith explained to him how he provided Lincoln with a copy of his book and during this time Smith had been praying for a period of weeks that “the Spirit of Truth might lead him into the kingdom of Truth. And such was the result … Lincoln came forth from this examination … a believer in God, in His Providential government, in His Son, the way, the truth and the life. And from that time [nearly seven years] to this day, Lincoln’s life has proved the genuineness of his conversion to the Christian faith.”

For this great work of grace, Smith humbly ascribed the honor and the glory to his heavenly father.

Soon after Lincoln’s assassination a controversy broke out about the nature of Lincoln’s faith, when William H. Herndon, his old law partner, who frequently suffered from financial trouble, began lecturing and writing for publication allegations that the Lincoln whom he had known earlier was not a Christian believer, so he began claiming Lincoln’s Christian faith must not have been genuine.

Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s son, responded: “Mr. Wm. H. Herndon is making an ass of himself.”

Dr. Smith, now back in Scotland, wrote in a somewhat hostile tone, with barbs at the end, in reply to an inquiry from William Herndon in January 1867: “Your letter of the 20th of December was duly received, in which you ask me to answer several questions in relation to the illustrious President, Abraham Lincoln. With regard to your second question, I beg leave to say it is a very easy matter to prove that while I was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Mr. Lincoln did avow his belief in the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. And I hold that it is a matter of greatest importance, not only to the present but to all future generations of the great Republic and to all advocates of civil and religious liberty throughout the world, that this avowal on his part and the circumstances attending it, together with very interesting incidents illustrative of the excellence of his character in my possession should be made known to the public. My intercourse with Abraham Lincoln convinced me that he was not only an honest man, but preeminently an upright man, ever seeking, so far as was in his power, to render unto all their due. It was my honour to place before Mr. Lincoln’s arguments [in the form of his book discussed above] designed to prove the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, accompanied by arguments of infidel objectors in their own language. To the arguments on both sides, Mr. Lincoln gave a most patient and searching investigation. To use his own language, he examined the arguments as a lawyer who is anxious to reach the truth investigates testimony. The result was the announcement by himself that the argument in favour of the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures was unanswerable. I could say much more on the subject, but as you are the person addressed, for the present I decline. The assassin Booth, by his diabolical act, unwittingly sent the illustrious martyr to glory, honour, and immortality, but his false friend [i.e. Herndon] has attempted to send him down to posterity with infamy branded on his forehead, as a man who, notwithstanding all he suffered for his country’s good, was destitute to those feelings and affections without which there can be no excellency of character.”

From this letter, by another Old School Presbyterian minister, Dr. James Smith, we have a second testimony. Smith trusted Abraham Lincoln to represent his church as legal counsel in a Presbytery legal proceeding and to give lectures on the divine inspiration of the Scripture in his church. This wise old minister is now claiming that Lincoln had been persuaded by his apologetic book of the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. Then he proclaims, in no uncertain terms, that John Wilkes Booth “unwitting sent the illustrious martyr to glory, honor and immortality.” Again the word martyr is used and the language of glory, honor and immortality most certainly can only refer to the heavenly afterlife reserved only for the elect of God in the Old School Presbyterian understanding. So here is a second clear testimony, strong though implicit, from an Old School Presbyterian minister, one who was in a position to know, because he served as the family pastor for nine years in Springfield, that Abraham Lincoln was indeed a bona fide believer.

There seems no honest way to evaluate this evidence other than to conclude that these two friends of Lincoln, both of them Old School Presbyterian pastors, first in Springfield and then in Washington, both considered him saved.

To continue this column on the faith of Lincoln, please read the rest on Leben’s website.