by William Herndon
from Religious Views Of Our Presidents
by Franklin Steiner
The following letter appeared, in 1870, in the Index, a journal published in Toledo, Ohio, and edited by Francis E. Abbott:
Some time since I promised you that I would send you a letter in relation to Mr. Lincoln's religion. I do so now. Before entering on that question, one or two preliminary remarks will help us to understand why he disagreed with the Christian world in its principles as well as in its theology. In the first place, Mr. Lincoln's mind was a purely logical mind; secondly, Mr. Lincoln's was a purely practical mind. He had no fancy or imagination, and not much emotion. He was a realist as opposed to an idealist. As a rule, it is true that a purely logical mind has not much hope, if it ever has faith, in the unseen and unknown. Mr. Lincoln had not much hope and no faith in the unseen and unknown. Mr. Lincoln had not much hope and no faith in things that lie outside of the domain of demonstration; he was so constituted, so organized that he could believe nothing unless his senses or logic could reach it. I have often read to him a law point, a decision, or something I fancied. He could not understand it until he took the book out of my hand, and read the thing for himself. He was terribly, vexatiously skeptical. He could scarcely understand anything, unless he had time and place fixed in his mind.
I became acquainted with Mr. Lincoln in 1834, and I think I knew him well to the day of his death. His mind, when a boy in Kentucky, showed a certain gloom, an unsocial nature, a peculiar abstractness, a bold and daring skepticism. In Indiana, from 1817 to 1830, it manifested the same qualities or attributes as in Kentucky; it only intensified, developed itself, along those lines in Indiana. He came to Illinois in 1830, and, after some little roving, settled in New Salem, now in Menard County and State of Illinois. This village lies about 20 miles north-west of this city. It was here that Mr. Lincoln became acquainted with a class of men the world never saw the like of before or since. They were large men -- large in body and large in mind; hard to whip and never to be fooled. They were a bold, daring, and reckless sort of men; they were men of their own minds -- believed what was demonstrable; were men of great common sense. With these men Mr. Lincoln was thrown; with them he lived, and with them he moved and almost had his being. They were skeptics all -- scoffers some. These scoffers were good men, and their scoffs were protests against theology -- loud protests against the follies of Christianity. They had never heard of Theism and the newer and better religious thoughts of this age. Hence, being natural skeptics, and being bold, brave men, they uttered their thoughts freely. They declared that Jesus was an illegitimate child. They were on all occasions, when an opportunity offered, debating the various questions of Christianity among themselves. They took their stand on common sense and on their own souls; and though their arguments were rude and rough, no man could overthrow their homely logic. They riddled all divines, and not unfrequently made them skeptics, unbelievers as bad as themselves. They were a jovial, healthful, generous, social, true, and manly set of people.
It was here and among these people that Mr. Lincoln was thrown. About the year 1834 he chanced to come across Volney's Ruins and some of Paine's theological works. He at once seized hold of them, and assimilated them into his own being. Volney and Paine became a part of Lincoln from 1834 to the end of his life.
In 1835 he wrote out a small work on Infidelity, and intended to have it published. This book was an attack upon the whole grounds of Christianity, and especially was it an attack upon the idea that Jesus was the Christ, the true and only-begotten son of God, as the Christian world contends. Mr. Lincoln was at that time in New Salem, keeping store for Mr. Samuel Hill, a merchant and postmaster of that place. Lincoln and Hill were very friendly. Hill, I think, was a skeptic at the time. Lincoln, one day after the book was finished, read it to Mr. Hill, his good friend. Hill tried to persuade him not to make it public, not to publish it. Hill, at that time, saw in Lincoln a rising man, and wished him success. Lincoln refused to destroy it -- said it should be published. Hill swore it should never see the light of day. He had an eye on Lincoln's popularity -- his present and future success; and believing that if the book was published it would kill Lincoln forever, he snatched it from Lincoln's hand when Lincoln was not expecting it, and ran it into an old-fashioned tin plate stove, heated as hot as a furnace; and so Lincoln's book went up to the clouds in smoke. It is confessed by all who heard parts of it that it was at once able and eloquent; and, if I may judge it from Mr. Lincoln's subsequent ideas and opinions, often expressed to me and to others in my presence, it was able, strong, plain and fair. His argument was grounded on the internal mistakes of the Old and New Testaments, and on reason and on the experiences and observations of men. The criticisms from internal defects were sharp, strong, and manly.
Mr. Lincoln moved to this city in 1837, and here became acquainted with various men of his own way of thinking. At that time they called themselves Freethinkers, or Freethinking men. I remember all these things distinctly; for I was with them, heard them and was one of them. Mr. Lincoln here found other works -- Hume, Gibbon, and others -- and drank them in. He made no secret of his views; no concealment of his religion. He boldly avowed himself an Infidel.
When Mr. Lincoln was a candidate for our legislature, he was accused of being an Infidel and of having said that Jesus was an illegitimate child. He never denied his opinions nor flinched from his religious views. He was a true man, and yet it may be truthfully said that in 1837 his religion was low indeed. In his moments of gloom he would doubt, if he did not sometimes deny, God.
Mr. Lincoln ran for Congress against the Rev. Peter Cartwright in the year 1846. In that contest he was accused of being an Infidel, if not an Atheist. He never denied the charge -- would not -- "would die first." In the first place, because it could and would be proved on him; and in the second place, he was too true to his own convictions, to his own soul, to deny it.
When Mr. Lincoln left this city for Washington, I knew he had undergone no change in his religious opinions or views. He held many of the Christian ideas in abhorrence, and among them this one, namely, that God would forgive the sinner for a violation of his laws. Lincoln maintained that God could not forgive; that Christianity was wrong in teaching forgiveness.
From what I know of Mr. Lincoln, and from what I have heard and verily believe, I can say, first, that he did not believe in special creation, his idea being that all creation was an evolution under law; secondly, that he did not believe that the Bible was a special revelation from God, as the Christian world contends; thirdly, he did not believe in miracles as understood by Christians; fourthly, he believed in universal inspiration and miracles under law; fifthly, he did not believe that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, as the Christian church contends; sixthly, he believed that all things, both matter and mind, were governed by laws, universal, absolute and eternal. All his speeches and remarks in Washington conclusively prove this. Law was to Lincoln everything, and special interferences, shams and delusions.
From private letters from Herndon to Mr. Remsburg, and published for the first time in Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian? in 1893.
I was the personal friend of Lincoln from 1834 to the day of his death. In 1843 we entered into a partnership which was never formally dissolved. When he became unpopular in this Congressional district because of his speeches on the Mexican War, I was faithful to him. When he espoused the anti-slavery cause and in the eyes of most men had hopelessly ruined his political prospects, I stood by him, and through the press defended his course. In those dark hours, by our unity of sentiment and by political ostracism, we were driven to a close and enduring friendship. You should take it for granted, then, that I knew Mr. Lincoln well. During all this time, from 1834 to 1862, when I last saw him, he never intimated to me, either directly or indirectly, that he had changed his religious opinions. Had he done so had -- he let drop one word or look in that direction, I should have detected it.
I had an excellent private library, probably the best in the city for admired books. To this library Mr. Lincoln had, as a matter of course, full and free access at all times. I purchased such books as Locke, Kant, Fichte, Lewes; Sir William Hamilton's Discussions on Philosophy; Spencer's First Principles, Social Statics, etc.; Buckle's History of Civilization, and Lecky's History of Rationalism. I also possessed the works of Paine, Parker, Emerson and Strauss; Gregg's Creed of Christendom, McNaught on Inspiration, Volney's Ruins, Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, and other works on Infidelity. Mr. Lincoln read some of these works. About the year 1843 he borrowed The Vestiges of Creation of Mr. James W. Keyes, of this city, and read it carefully. He subsequently read the sixth edition of this work, which I loaned him. Mr. Lincoln had always denied special creation, but from his want of education he did not know just what to believe. He adopted the progressive and development theory as taught more or less directly in that work. He despised speculation, especially in the metaphysical world. He was purely a practical man. He adopted Locke's notions as to his system of mental philosophy, with some modifications to suit his own views. He held that reason drew her references as to law, etc., from observations, experience and reflection on the facts and phenomena of Nature. He was a pure sensationalist, except as above. He was a materialist in his philosophy. He denied dualism, and at times immortality in any sense.
Before I wrote my Abbott letter, I diligently searched through Lincoln's letters, speeches, state papers, etc., to find the word immortality, and I could not find it anywhere except in his letter to his father. The word immortality appears but once in his writings.
If he had been asked the plain question, "Do you know that a God exists?" he would have said: "I do not know that a God exists."
At one moment of his life I know that he was an Atheist. I was preparing a speech on Kansas, and in it, like nearly all reformers, I invoked God. He made me wipe out that word and substitute the word Maker, affirming that said Maker was a principle of the universe. When he went to Washington he did the same to a friend there.
Mr. Lincoln told me, over and over, that man has no freedom of the will, or, as he termed it, "No man has a freedom of mind." He was in one sense a fatalist, and so he died. He believed that he was under the thumb of Providence (which to him was but another name for fate). The longer he lived, the more firmly he believed it, and hence his oft invocation of God. But these invocations are no evidence to a rational mind that he adopted the blasphemy that God seduced his own daughter, begat a son on purpose to have mankind kill him, in order that he, God, might become reconciled to his own mistakes, according to the Christian view.
Lincoln would wait patiently on the flow and logic of events. He believed that conditions make the man and not man the conditions. Under his own hand he says: "I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." He believed in the supreme reign of law. This law fated things, as he would express it. Now, how could a man be a Christian -- could believe that Jesus Christ was God -- could believe in the efficacy of prayer -- and entertain such a belief?
He did not believe in the efficacy of prayer, although he used that conventional language. He said in Washington, "God has his own purposes." If God has his own purposes, then prayer will not change God's purposes.
I have often said to you, and now repeat it, that Lincoln was a scientific materialist, i.e., that this was his tendency as opposed to the Spiritualistic idea. Lincoln always contended that general and universal laws ruled the Universe -- always did -- do now -- and ever will. He was an Agnostic generally, sometimes an Atheist.
That Mr. Lincoln was an Infidel from 1834 to 1661, I know, and that he remained one to the day of his death, I honestly believe. I always understood that he was an Infidel, sometimes bordering on Atheism. I never saw any change in the man, and the change could not have escaped my observation had it happened.
Lincoln's task was a terrible one. When he took the oath of office his soul was bent on securing harmony among all the people of the North, and so he chose for his cabinet officers his Opponents for the Presidential candidacy in order and as a means of creating a united North. He let all parties, professions, and callings have their way where their wishes did not cut across his own. He was apparently pliant and supple. He ruled men when men thought they were ruling him. He often said to me that the Christian religion was a dangerous element to deal with when aroused. He saw in the Kansas affairs -- in the whole history of slavery, in fact -- its rigor and encroachments, that Christianity was aroused. It must be controlled, and that in the right direction. Hence he bent to it, fed it, and kept it within bounds, well knowing that it would crush his administration to atoms unless appeased. His oft and oft invocations of God, his conversations with Christians, his apparent respect for Christianity, etc., were all means to an end. And yet sometimes he showed that he hated its nasal whines.
A gentleman of veracity in Washington told me this story and vouched for its truthfulness: "A tall saddle-faced man," he said, "came to Washington to pray with Lincoln, having declared this to be his intention at the hotel. About 10 o'clock a.m. the bloodless man, dressed in black, with white cravat, went to the White House, sent in his card, and was admitted. Lincoln glanced at the man and knew his motives in an instant. He said to him, angrily: 'What, have you, too, come to torment me with your prayers?' The man was squelched and said, 'No, Mr. Lincoln' -- lied out and out. Lincoln spoiled those prayers."
Mr. Lincoln was thought to be understood by the mob. But what a delusion! He was one of the most reticent men that ever lived. All of us -- Stuart, Speed, Logan, Matheny, myself and others, had to guess at much of the man. He was a mystery to the world -- a sphinx to most men. One peculiarity of Mr. Lincoln was his irritability when anyone tried to peep into his own mind's laboratory. Considering all this, what can be thought of the stories about what he is said to have confided to strangers in regard to his religion?
I see frequently quoted a supposed speech made by Mr. Lincoln to the colored people of Baltimore, on the presentation of a Bible to him. This supposed speech contains the following: "All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book." This idea is false and foolish. What becomes of nine-tenths of the life of Jesus of which we have no history -- nine-tenths of the great facts of this grand man's life not recorded in this book? Mr. Lincoln was full and exact in his language. He never used the word Saviour, unless in a conventional sense; in fact, he never used the word at all. Again, he is made to say: "But for this book, we could not know right from wrong." The lowest organized life, I was about to say, knows right from wrong in its particular sphere. Every good dog that comes in possession of a bone, knows that the bone belongs to him, and he knows that it is wrong for another dog to rob him of it. He protests with bristling hair and glistening teeth against such dog robbery. It requires no revelation to teach him right from wrong in the dog world; yet it requires a special revelation from God to teach us right from wrong in the human world. According to this speech, the dog has the advantage. But Mr. Lincoln never uttered such nonsense.
I do think that anyone who knew Mr. Lincoln -- his history -- his philosophy -- his opinions -- and still asserts that he was a Christian, is an unbounded falsifier. I hate to speak thus plainly, but I cannot respect an untruthful man.
Let me ask the Christian claimant a few questions. Do you mean to say, when you assert that Mr. Lincoln was a Christian, that he believed that Jesus was the Christ of God, as the evangelical world contends? If so, where did you get this information? Do you mean to say that Mr. Lincoln was a converted man and that he so declared? If so, where, when, and before whom did he declare or reveal it? Do you mean to say that Mr. Lincoln joined a Church? If so, what Church did he join, and when did he join it? Do you mean to say that Mr. Lincoln was a secret Christian, acting under the cloak of the devil to advance Christianity? If so, what is your authority? If you will tell me when it was that the Creator caught in his almighty arms, Abraham, and held him fast while he poured the oil of grace on his rebellious soul, then I will know when it was that he was converted from Infidel views to Christianity.
The best evidence this side of Lincoln's own written statement that he was an Infidel, if not an Atheist, as claimed by some, is the fact that he never mentions the name of Jesus. If he was a Christian, it could be proved by his letters and speeches. That man is a poor defender of a principle, of a person, or a thing, who never mentions that principle, person or thing. I have never seen the name of Jesus mentioned by Mr. Lincoln.
Mr. Lincoln never mentioned the name of Christ in his letters and speeches as a Christian. I have searched for such evidence, but could not find it. I have had others search, but they could not find it. This dead silence on the part of Mr. Lincoln is overwhelming proof that he was an unbeliever.
While Lincoln frequently, in a conventional way, appeals to God, he never appeals to Christ nor mentions him. I know that he at first maintained that Jesus was a bastard, and later that he was the son of Joseph and not of God.
Lincoln was not a Christian in any sense other than that he lived a good life and was a noble man. If a good life constitutes one a Christian, then Mill and a million other men who repudiated and denied Christianity were Christians, for they lived good and noble lives.
If Mr. Lincoln changed his religious views, he owed it to me to warn me, as he above all other men caused me to become an unbeliever. He said nothing to me, intimated nothing to me, either directly or indirectly. He owed this debt to many young men whom he had led astray, if astray the Christian calls it. I know of two young men of promise, now dead and gone -- gone into endless misery, according to the evangelical creed -- caused by Lincoln's teachings. I know some of the living here, men in prominent positions of life, who were made unbelievers by him.
One by one, these apocryphal stories go by the board. Courageous and remorseless criticism will wipe out all these things. There will not be a vestige of them in 50 years to laugh at or to weep at.
In his Life of Lincoln, pp. 445-446, Mr. Herndon said:
No man had a stronger or firmer faith in Providence -- God -- than Mr. Lincoln, but the continued use by him late in life of the word God must not be interpreted to mean that he believed in a personal God. In 1854, he asked me to erase the word God from a speech I had written and read to him for criticism, because my language indicated a personal God, whereas he insisted that no such personality ever existed.