Belief  /  Book Review

Abe’s Ambitious Religious Creed

Through the tragedies and uncertainties of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln may have found a deepened connection to his religious faith.

Admiring biographers have always tended to assign their own metaphysical views to their subjects, and this is especially so with Abraham Lincoln. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and later his biographer, portrayed him as indifferent to Christian belief until the day he died—about as indifferent as Herndon himself was. Most modern biographers, similarly agnostic on religious questions, have taken Herndon’s view.

Joshua Zeitz, in “Lincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation,” thinks the 16th president’s religious thought evolved in crucial ways after war broke out in 1861. Mr. Zeitz arrives at this conclusion mainly by interpreting Lincoln’s God-filled wartime rhetoric as expressions of conviction rather than conventional blather. This sort of reassessment of Lincoln’s religious commitments isn’t entirely new, but it is welcome all the same. I don’t know how many lives I’ve read in which otherwise fair and capable biographers dismiss or minimize their subject’s expressions of faith for no obvious reason. The great statesman or philosopher or composer may have said that he trusted in God or that he found solace in a scriptural text—so goes this interpretive habit—but we know he didn’t mean it.

“Lincoln’s God” is partly a religious biography, partly a history of 19th-century American evangelicalism. Mr. Zeitz, who writes on political topics for Politico and holds a doctorate in American history from Brown, chronicles Lincoln’s early years in the home of his Calvinist father, his rejection of the faith in which he was raised, and various attempts to sidestep questions of religious commitment during his rise to political prominence. At the same time, Mr. Zeitz contends, evangelical Protestantism in the 1840s and ’50s was transforming into the sort of outward, revivalist and robustly moralistic faith that made more sense to Lincoln than the severe and doctrinally scrupulous faith of his upbringing.

Northern evangelicalism and Abe Lincoln came together, Mr. Zeitz asserts, on the question of slavery. In late 1862, with the Union’s survival appearing unlikely, the president embraced abolition as the only way out of the morass in which the nation found itself. Many evangelical clergymen, too, moved from simply opposing slavery to preaching the necessity of armed conflict and abolitionism. Northern Christians of all denominations remained divided on political allegiances and war policy, Mr. Zeitz points out, but the coming of war prompted evangelical leaders to take up abolitionism the way Protestant liberals would take up civil rights a century later. The destruction of slavery became the overriding goal of evangelical religion; indeed some clergymen, writes Mr. Zeitz, “entirely blurred the line between their clerical and political commitments.”