Did President Lincoln Believe in God?

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The letter offers a rare view of Lincoln's inner life, from someone who knew him before he went to Washington.
Library of Congress

THE GIST

- A newly resurfaced letter raises questions about Abraham Lincoln's views on religion, faith and God.

- Lincoln was not religious for most of his life, but his faith seems to have evolved and progressed during his presidency.

- The letter went up for sale this week for $35,000.

Abraham Lincoln is known for many things. He led the nation through the Civil War, emancipated the slaves and delivered eloquent speeches about democracy and liberty. But Lincoln's religious views have long been a matter of debate.

Now, a newly resurfaced letter from the 19th century is raising questions once again about the 16th president's relationship with God. The three-page letter, which was written by Lincoln's old law partner, William Herndon, and just went up for sale for a price of $35,000, claims that Honest Abe was driven not by faith, but by politics.

Lincoln's attitude toward religion was clearly complex, and the discussion is far from over, as some evidence suggests that Lincoln's sense of faith evolved and deepened throughout the war and his presidency. Still, the letter offers a rare view of Lincoln's inner life from someone who knew him before he went to Washington.

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"Mr. Lincoln's religion is too well known to me to allow of even a shadow of a doubt; he is or was a Theist & a Rationalist, denying all extraordinary -- supernatural inspiration or revelation," Herndon wrote in the letter, signed Feb. 4, 1866, a year after Lincoln's assassination.

"At one time in his life, to say the least, he was an elevated Pantheist, doubting the immortality of the soul as the Christian world understands that term," continued the letter, addressed to Edward McPherson, Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. "I love Mr. Lincoln dearly, almost worship him, but that can't blind me. He's the purest politician I ever saw, and the justest man."

Born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln was raised as a Baptist but rejected organized religion and never joined a congregation as an adult. After trying out a variety of careers, including postmaster and surveyor, he taught himself to be a lawyer and moved to Illinois, where he eventually partnered with Herndon in 1844. The two remained close until 1861, when Lincoln left to begin his presidency.

Twenty years later, immediately after Lincoln's death in 1865, a flurry of biographies emerged, many of them attempting to Christianize Lincoln, said historian Ronald White, author of A. Lincoln: A Biography. Herndon wanted to set the record straight.

So, he embarked on a journey to collect oral histories about the real Lincoln, which would eventually lead to another biography, published years later with help from a collaborator. Herndon's letter to Congress was part of that effort.

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