The Faith of Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln

Apr 8th, 2011 | By | Category: Christian Life
  • The Faith of President Thomas Jefferson:  This coming November, the Smithsonian Institution?s Museum of American History will exhibit a cut-and-paste Bible of 86 pages?the work of Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was a child of the European Enlightenment and was certainly one of its more passionate advocates.  Jefferson adopted the antisupernaturalism of the Enlightenment and used that bias when he reached his conclusions about Jesus.  He revered Jesus as ?the first of human Sages? and regarded His ethical system articulated in the Sermon on the Mount as superior to all others.  Jefferson actually produced two Bibles.  The first was produced in 1804.  As Professor of Religion at Boston University, Stephen Prothero writes, ?He sat down in the White House with two Bibles and one razor, intent on dividing the true words of Jesus from those put into his mouth by the ?corruptions of schismatising followers.??  The result was entitled, ?The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth,? a completely abridged account of Jesus? life using his sayings.  It is now lost.  In this work, which Jefferson refers to some of his letters, Jesus prayed to God and affirmed life after death, but He was not born in a manger and did not atone for sin on the cross.  In 1820, after Jefferson had retired from public service, he produced a second book, ?The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,? in which he sought to excise passages ?of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.?  He arranged the material chronologically and included both the sayings and the actions of Jesus.  He likewise included passages in English, French, Latin and Greek.  Jefferson begins his book with the Roman decree to tax the world and ends the book with this verse:  ?There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.?  There is no virgin birth, substitutionary death and no resurrection in Jefferson?s? account of Jesus!  In other writings and letters, Jefferson adamantly rejected the Nicene Creed of AD 325, which defended the deity and humanity of Jesus.  He also outrightly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, calling it ?mere Abracadabra? and ?hocus-pocus phantasm.?  For Jefferson, the sum of all religion is ?fear God and love thy neighbor.?  The tragedy of Thomas Jefferson is that he understood the moral and ethical implications of Christianity but rejected its theological foundation.  By that definition, Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian.  All evidence indicates that he died a Unitarian in his convictions.
  • The Faith of President Abraham Lincoln:  Lincoln was born into a Baptist family and his early life was surrounded by Baptist leanings.  However, what evidence there is about his faith indicates that he was deistic in his thinking.  For Lincoln, God was not personal.  One could not speak of Him in an intimate, loving manner.  Lincoln read works of authors who challenged his traditional Baptist upbringing.  He would basically reject those Baptist teachings.  After he became president, the realities of the Civil War had a profound effect on his religious thinking.  Lincoln was impatient with those who believed they knew with certainty what God was doing in the Civil War and whose side He was on!  However, it was the death of his son, Willie, on 20 February 1862 that seems to have been a turning point.  Phineas Densmore Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, gave the eulogy.  Lincoln was so moved by Gurley?s eulogy that he asked for a written copy.  Gurley spoke of the ?mystery? of God?s will.  It is ?comforting on such an occasion as this, to get a clear and scriptural view of the providence of God.?  Lincoln begins to change his view about God.  God is personal and loving, even in times of extreme sorrow and grief.  The events surrounding Willie?s death indicate a weighty change in Lincoln?s thinking.  The following manifest this change:
    • The Emancipation Proclamation?there was more to this War than simply preserving the Union.
    • The Gettysburg Address, delivered in the fall of 1963.
    • The influence of Pastor Gurley seems to have been profound.  Gurley was a graduate of Princeton Seminary and studied under Charles Hodge.  Gurley?s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church was where Lincoln and Mary went to church.  The language of Gurley?s sermons, which reflected Hodge?s theology, began working its way into Lincoln?s speeches.  Especially important is the undated, ?Meditation on the Divine Will?:  This was apparently a set of musings Lincoln placed into writing on a small piece of paper.  God is personal, Lincoln concludes, but He does not take sides.  His ways are above ours.  Both sides in this War pray to the same God, read His Word and argue that He is on their respective sides.  But God is above all this, judging the nation for the sin of slavery.  We are the ?human instrumentalities? God uses as He accomplishes His purposes.
    • We see these themes powerfully in his Second Inaugural Address.  God is purifying the nation, Lincoln argued, but there is no time table or date when He will complete His work.  Therefore, we must bind up the nation?s wounds.  ?With malice toward none, with charity for all,? we must forgive!
    • In many ways, the ?Battle Hymn of the Republic? signified that there was a divine purpose to the War.
    • Lincoln?s assassination was placed in the context of redemption.  His death was a cleansing death, an atoning death for the nation.

See Ronald C. White, A. Lincoln: A Biography, pp. 35-36, 54-55, 180-84, 606-608, 622-27, 662-66 and Stephen Prothero in the Wall Street Journal (25 March 2011).

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One Comment to “The Faith of Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln”

  1. Each person searches for why they live, I search deeper with the death of my mom age 94, She had 4th stage cancer for 13 days. Why is cancer so prevalent.? We as a nation are directed to God almighty for the up right, honest government we need. Such waste in April 2014. Pray for our next election