Lincoln's Devotional: The Writings That Inspired Lincoln's Personal Spiritual Life
  • Lincoln's Devotional: The Writings That Inspired Lincoln's Personal Spiritual Life
  • Lincoln's Devotional: The Writings That Inspired Lincoln's Personal Spiritual Life

Lincoln's Devotional: The Writings That Inspired Lincoln's Personal Spiritual Life

by Religious Tract Society, The, Allen C. Guelzo

Follow in the footsteps of one of the most influential presidents of the United States by reading Lincoln’s Devotional. Part of Abraham Lincoln’s personal library, this Christian inspiration book was originally published in 1852 as The Believer’s Daily Treasure. It features Scripture and an illustrative poem for eachSee more details below


Follow in the footsteps of one of the most influential presidents of the United States by reading Lincoln’s Devotional. Part of Abraham Lincoln’s personal library, this Christian inspiration book was originally published in 1852 as The Believer’s Daily Treasure. It features Scripture and an illustrative poem for each day of the year, divided by month into such lessons as Privileges of the Believer, Sorrows of the Believer, and Blessedness of the Believer. Surely, it will encourage and grow the reader through all seasons of life, as well as illuminate the Biblical principles at the core of President Lincoln’s abolitionist beliefs.

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One of the most appealing aspects of the character of Abraham Lincoln, and one that has kept him constantly at the forefront of public interest a century-and-a-half after his death, was his openness, his affability, his sheer accessibility to even the commonest of people. Yet, those who knew Lincoln personally knew that his openness had limits, and that around his personal life and thoughts he drew an impenetrable shield. “I Know the man so well,” wrote Illinois Judge David Davis, who presided over the circuit courts where Lincoln practiced law in the 1850s and later managed the campaign that won Lincoln the Republican presidential nomination in 1860; and Davis described Lincoln as “the most reticent--Secretive man I Ever Saw--or Expect to See.” William Henry Herndon, who practiced law as Lincoln’s junior partner for fourteen years, scoffed at the tell-all claims of people who professed to have known what Lincoln was “really” like or what he “really” thought. “That man who thinks Lincoln calmly sat down and gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln.”[1]

On no point was Lincoln’s mysterious unwillingness to reveal himself more mysterious than on the subject of religion. Although born into a household of strict and devout frontier Baptists, Lincoln never joined the Baptist church--or any other church, for that matter--never was baptized or made any formal profession of religious faith, and in the process left his family and friends at a loss when later inquirers came asking questions. “I don't Know anything about Lincoln's Religion,” wrote David Davis, and in fact, he added, “don't think anybody Knew.” His beloved stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, admitted, “Abe had no particular religion.” He “didnt think of that question at that time, if he ever did,” and above all, “He never talked about it.” Herndon ran into the same featureless wall: Lincoln “never let me know much about his religious aspirations.” [2]

If anything, Lincoln in early adulthood “always appeared different” from the strongly Protestant and evangelical culture of pre-Civil War America by “scorning all Christian views” outright. John Todd Stuart, Lincoln’s first law partner and political mentor, thought that “Mr Lincolns Religion as I understand was of a low order--he was an Infidel,” a nonbeliever in any religion, “especially when young--Say from 1834 to 1840.” Leonard Swett, Lincoln’s legal associate and political ally, thought that “Whether

he went to Church once a month or once a year troubled him but very little. He failed to observe the Sabath very scrupulously.” He tended to read joke books “as much as he did the Bible.” Herndon even uncovered evidence that in 1834, “Lincoln wrote a work on infidelity, denying the divinity of the Scriptures and was persuaded by his Friends . . . to burn it.”[3]

At the same time, however, Lincoln was no simple village atheist. From the time he settled in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837, he “was Called by some an infidel.” But no one thought that Lincoln simply laughed at religion. To the contrary, questions about religion and morality preoccupied Lincoln. “He used to talk to me on morals,” one remembered, “Lincoln was a moral man.”[4] Lincoln might have had “little faith in the popular religion of the times,” wrote John B. Alley, who served in Congress during the Civil War, but “he reflected a great deal upon religious subjects.”[5] So, if Lincoln was a nonbeliever, it was not without a profound amount of soul-searching and inquiry. When he was challenged in 1846 by a political rival to admit that he was an “infidel,” Lincoln shot back in reply, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.” This was not exactly an affirmation of things believed, but it certainly distanced Lincoln from his youthful reputation for being “an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”[6]

And during the tormented years of his presidency, dominated by the slaughter of civil war and the virulence of wartime politics, Lincoln seemed to draw down more deeply for a religious meaning to his sufferings, and the nation’s. His closest friend, the Kentuckian Joshua Speed, wrote that “when I first knew Mr L he was skeptical as to the great truths of the Christian Religion.” But “after he was elected President,” Speed was convinced that “he sought to become a believer--and to make the Bible a preceptor to his faith and a guide for his conduct.” Leonard Swett, who could not quite credit the report that Lincoln was interested in becoming a “believer” or even much of a Bible reader, still admitted that the heavier Lincoln’s presidential responsibilities weighed on him, the more Lincoln tried to understand those responsibilities in religious terms. “As he became involved in matters of the gravest importance, full of great responsibility and great doubt, a feeling of religious reverence, and belief in God--his justice and overruling power--increased upon him.”[7]

The question which bedeviled Lincoln’s admirers and (after 1865) biographers was how close this tormented searching may have brought Lincoln to Christianity, or to any other organized religious belief. Herndon was convinced that it never did. “Lincoln in his younger days tended toward scientific materialism,” Herndon wrote. True, he also “believed that behind all these phenomenal manifestations of the universe there was a power that worked for righteousness,” and from the 1850s onward, “he used the familiar language of the day, and called it God.” But Lincoln “did not use the word God in any religious sense.” God was merely a convenient shorthand for whatever force--history, gravity, natural selection--moved things along, and in reality Lincoln remained “most emphatically an Infidel.” The most that could be said about Lincoln’s religion was what Herndon claimed to have heard from Lincoln himself, that “it was like that of an old man named Glenn in Indiana, whom he heard speak at a church meeting and who said: ‘When I do good I feel good; when I do bad I feel bad, and that's my religion.’”[8]

But as strenuously as skeptics like Herndon cast doubt on Lincoln’s embrace of religion, other Lincoln associates just as strenuously insisted that Lincoln had undergone a genuine religious rebirth. After all, Lincoln took more public opportunities than any other president in his generation to appeal to God or Christianity as a source of inspiration or direction. His eloquent (and unrehearsed) farewell address to the town of Springfield as he departed for his inauguration in 1861 affirmed that "without the assistance of the Divine Being” who had always guided American affairs, “I cannot succeed." And in his first inaugural address, Lincoln appealed to "intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land" as the best resources for avoiding civil war. During the war, Lincoln sanctioned a broad expansion of the military chaplaincy--which even then was regarded dubiously by political thinkers eager to separate church and state--invited religious organizations to meet with him in the White House or authorized their use of public buildings in Washington, and in 1864 came close to endorsing a proposal to amend the preamble to the Constitution to include an explicit reference to God. Above all, his second inaugural address in 1865 was almost a theological meditation on the purposes of God in the war and the need to exercise charity “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”[9] He might never have joined a church, but he often paid tribute to “the effective and almost unanimous support which the Christian communities are so zealously giving to the country, and to liberty,” and they returned the favor by swinging their energies behind his administration. One religious newspaper remarked after Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, "There probably never was an election in all our history into which the religion element entered so largely, and nearly all on one side."[10]

On a more personal level, Newton Bateman, who had run alongside Lincoln in Lincoln’s failed bid to win the Illinois U.S. Senate seat in 1858, told Lincoln biographer Josiah Holland that Lincoln had confessed to him in 1860 that he believed that “Christ is God,” but was compelled for political reasons to conceal that belief.[11] Charles Maltby, a little more tentatively, claimed that Lincoln “held in reverence the Christian religion, and men of earnest piety and true devotion were held by him in much respect and esteem. The name of his Creator was only mentioned with reverence; habits of dissipation he never acquired in any form; dissimulation and falsehood to him seemed abhorrent and were never employed.”[12] And Noah Brooks, the journalist whom Lincoln was ready to tap as his next personal secretary in 1865, reported that Lincoln had described to him “what he called ‘a process of crystallization’” on religion just after the election of 1860.[13]

Crystallization, however, can mean many things. What it may most likely have meant in Lincoln’s case was not exactly a thorough-going religious experience, but a cautious recognition that the world was a much more complicated and unpredictable place than a confident young skeptic in the 1830s had thought it was. Lincoln was always too private a man by temperament to be much of a joiner of things, including churches. He told Connecticut congressman Henry Deming, “he had never united himself to any church because he found difficulty in giving his assent, without mental reservation, to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their articles of belief and confessions of faith.”[14] So, while he may never have undergone an actual religious conversion, he did come to think of himself as a seeker who “often wished that I was a more devout man than I am,” and confessed that “probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did.”[15]

All of which would have made a gift of this book very agreeable to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Devotional was originally published in 1852 as The Believer’s Daily Treasure, or, Texts of Scripture Arranged for Every Day of the Year by the Religious Tract Society, a London-based evangelical publishing house which had specialized since 1799 in producing small books to guide personal spiritual development. The Society carefully avoided material which promoted one or another denomination, and concentrated on offering tools for understanding and memorizing the Bible (their perennial best seller was Robert Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible) and encouraging prayer. The Believer’s Daily Treasure simply arranged selections from the Bible along with lines of non-dogmatic spiritual poetry in a daily rotation of readings through the year.

There is no way to be certain how this small book (the original copy is only two and five-eighths inches by two and one-eighth inches, with gilt edges, and worn from use) came into Lincoln’s hands, but it is one of the very few books in which Lincoln signed his name (on the front endpaper, A. Lincoln). It may actually be the “pocket New Testament” which Newton Bateman claimed Lincoln pulled from his vest in the winter of 1860–61 in order to prove that he “carefully read the Bible,” or the “pocket edition of the New Testament” which John Jay told Francis Carpenter, the author of Six Months at the White House With Abraham Lincoln (1866), he had seen Lincoln reading.[16] What is certain is that The Believer’s Daily Treasure disappeared from view after Lincoln’s death, and only resurfaced in 1956, when it was purchased by Carl Haverlin (1899–1985), the president of Broadcast Music, Inc. Haverlin, an avid Lincoln collector, was convinced that The Believer’s Daily Treasure represented a landmark in understanding Lincoln’s religious thinking. Haverlin enlisted Frederick R. Goff of the Library of Congress and Ralph G. Newman of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop to authenticate the signature, and arranged for a reprinting of the book under the title Lincoln’s Devotional by Channel Press in 1957. Finally, Haverlin persuaded a somewhat reluctant Carl Sandburg, the poet and Lincoln biographer (and a personal friend of Haverlin’s), to write a brief introduction on Lincoln’s religion for the Channel edition.[17]

Lincoln’s Devotional is a marker for two things: First, it is a sample of the vast religious literature that filled the cultural horizons of Lincoln’s America. Although we tend to focus on the great mountain peaks of American writing—Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson—for most Americans in Lincoln’s day it was the humble devotion of books like The Believer’s Daily Treasure which were the mainstays of ordinary reading. “The Bible was still an essential resource for this generation of Americans,” wrote the literary critic Alfred Kazin. “Never again in American history would there be so much honest, deeply felt invocation of God’s purpose.”[18] Second, Lincoln’s Devotional is a marker of the complexity of Abraham Lincoln. Torn by the secularism of the Enlightenment, the tug of the evangelical Protestantism he was born into, and by the mysterious purposes that brought the Civil War upon the nation, Lincoln was a man who (like Melville) could neither believe nor rest easy in his unbelief. To the mother of a soldier whom he had pardoned, who blessed Licoln and spoke of meeting him in heaven, Lincoln could only say, “With all that I have to cross me here, I am afraid that I will never get there; but your wish that you will meet me there has fully paid for all I have done for you.”[19]

For such a man, so great in his loneliness, The Believer’s Daily Treasure was his gentlest guide for “getting there.”

Acknowledgements: Special thanks are due from me in the preparation of this introduction to Michael Burlingame, Clark Evans (Library of Congress), Barbara Hughett, Steven Carson, Charles Hubbard (Lincoln Memorial University), Scott Sandage (Carnegie Mellon University), and Iris Snyder (University of Delaware) -- ACG

Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.

[1] David Davis to William Henry Herndon (September 20, 1866), Herndon’s Informant: Letters, Interviews & Statements about Abraham Lincoln, eds. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 348; Herndon in The Hidden Lincoln: From The Letters & Papers of William H. Herndon, ed. Emanuel Hertz (New York: The Viking Press, 1938), p. 88.

[2] Sarah Bush Lincoln to Herndon (September 8, 1865), Herndon’s Informants, p. 107; Herndon, in The Hidden Lincoln, p. 77

[3] John T. Stuart to Herndon (December 20, 1866), Leonard Swett to Herndon (January 17, 1866), and Hardin Bale to Herndon (May 29, 1865), Herndon’s Informants, pp. 13, 167, 519.

[4] John B. Weber to Herndon (c. November 1, 1866), Herndon’s Informants, p. 390.

[5] John B. Alley, in Allen Thorndike Rice, ed., Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time (New York: North American Publishing, 1886), p. 590.

[6] Lincoln, “Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity” (July 31, 1846), in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), volume one, p. 382; Donald, 49

[7] Joshua F. Speed to Herndon (January 12, 1866) and Leonard Swett to Herndon (January 17, 1866), Herndon’s Informants 156, 167.

[8] Herndon to Jesse K. Weik (February 6, 1887), The Hidden Lincoln, p. 168; Herndon, in Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, eds. Don E. Fehrenbacher & Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 245.

[9] Lincoln, “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois” (February 11, 1861), “First Inaugural Address” (March 4, 1861), “Second Inaugural Address” (March 4, 1865), volume four, pp. 190, 271, and volume eight, p. 333.

[10] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 542

[11] Josiah Gilbert Holland, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield: Gurdon Bill, 1866), p. 237.

[12] Maltby, The Life And Public Services Of Abraham Lincoln (Los Angeles: Gilchrist Printing House, 1884), p. 42-43

[13] Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” in Michael Burlingame, ed., Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 211.

[14] Henry Champion Deming, Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln…before the General Assembly of Connecticut at Allyn Hall, Hartford, Thursday, June 8th, 1865 (Hartford: Clark & Co., 1865), p. 42

[15] Lincoln, “Remarks to Baltimore Presbyterian Synod” (October 24, 1863), Collected Works, volume six, p. 535; Aminda Rogers Rankin, in Recollected Words, p. 373.

[16] Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 237.

[17] Ralph G. Newman to Frederick R. Goff (December 28, 1956), Carl Haverlin to Carl Sandburg (February 14, 1957 and November 27, 1957), Carl Haverlin Papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE. The original of Lincoln’s Devotional remains in a private collection.

[18] Alfred Kazin, God and the American Writer (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 132.

[19] Joshua Speed, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln and Notes of a Visit to California (Louisville, KY: Bradley & Gilbert, 1896), p. 28.

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