Episode 6.2: “Did Lincoln ever go to church?”

Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.

Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.

For this episode, we’re talking about a question we often get from visitors with a strong faith practice. On the way we talk about Mrs. Lincoln’s Sunday best, the intersection of religion and politics re: slavery, and definitions of Christian nationalism. Come along with us!

In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify /  Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode.


Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.

Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.

JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.

Callie: I’m Callie Hawkins.

JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!

CH: Let’s take that half hour now. For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Did Lincoln ever go to church?”

JC: We’ve been asked this many times on tours, in particular by folks who have a deep faith practice themselves. People want to know what Lincoln believed, and how he practiced those beliefs. They’re looking to understand him more fully, which can be a challenging task.

Richard Carwardine: You could say, that, as one commentator did at the time that Lincoln was assassinated, “it will be impossible hereafter to speak the truth of Abraham Lincoln.” He will be mythologized and we won’t get to know, really get to know the inner man.

CH: That’s Richard Carwardine, a former professor at Oxford College who studies American religion and politics in the 19th century. We’ll hear more from him later.

JC: We also spoke with John O’Brien, the historian at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church here in DC, who had one of the more straightforward answers to this question – did Lincoln go to church?

John O’Brien: The nature of his church attendance seems to have started the first Sunday after he became president, March 10, 1861. He and his whole family came to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and listened to Reverend Dr. Phineas Gurley, the pastor at that time. The way the churches were financed was by pew rents. You rented your pew, and that was yours, and it was available to you whenever you came, provided you were there at least 10 minutes before the service started. Now, people could rent pews without being a member, as the Lincolns did. But the Lincolns never joined New York Avenue Church. They did rent a pew from the, from the very beginning. Now, there are newspaper reports that occasionally talk about his attendance. It seems strange to us today that the reporters didn’t follow the president incessantly as we do today, so it is unusual to see personal accounts of what they were doing on a daily basis in the newspaper, but fortunately we have many diary entries that we have access to that report seeing the president here and there, particularly in church during this period.  He is quoted as saying that he liked to go to church. He liked Pastor Gurley.

JC: I think it’s interesting that Lincoln definitely went to church at New York Ave, but that he and his family weren’t quite ready to be members.

CH: John shared an example of one of the newspaper write-ups that places Lincoln at the church in this period.

JO: So this is a report that was in the New York Times on June 11, 1861, before the Battle of Bull Run and things got serious. “Sunday is a peculiar day in this city. Going to church a half day is rather a necessity, as it does not seem that there is any other place to go. 2,000 people came to view the morning drill of the New York 12th Regiment in Franklin Square. The next stop is to run to Dr. Pine’s church, St. John’s on Lafayette Square, and see General Scott get out of his carriage and go in, and also to greet Mr. Seward and Lady. This done, the rush next is to Dr. Gurley’s church to see the president and family. Mrs. Lincoln was in her pew. She was right tastefully dressed. She wore a white straw bonnet with a bunch of purple flowers on the outside, a black shawl dotted with golden stars, and a water silk of ash colored striped, and a costly feathered fan.”

CH: It’s pretty clear this particular reporter thought the details of Mrs. Lincoln’s outfit were essential information to share here…

JC: It very much feels like “society pages” to me! Do we know how much the Lincolns were at New York Ave for the social aspect of church community?

JO: The people who would attend New York Avenue tended to be the upper crust, the elite of Washington DC who would live around the White House, not so much on Capitol Hill. When Lincoln joined, several of his cabinet officers also joined. So, this created this social elite clientele that the New York Times obviously got wind of and began to follow when they sent a reporter. It was definitely a social strata experience. I don’t think that Abe and Mary did much other social interaction around the church. They treated the pastor and his family as the custom expected at that time, you invited them to your home. In fact, the Lincolns went to the Gurley’s home at least twice. So, that sort of social interaction occurred.

JC: So, the Lincolns attended church regularly in Washington, DC. Had that been true earlier in his life as well?

CH: Richard told us that actually, Lincoln’s approach to religion was very different as a young person.

RC: We start, I think, with Lincoln the boy. His family were members of strict Calvinist Baptist churches in Kentucky and then in Indiana, the Little Pigeon Baptist Church. His father was a church member. His mother, who died, of course, when he was seven, also a member. And then his stepmother worshiped the same Baptist church. So, they gave the young Abraham his first experience of, of religion. He was a natural mimic. He entertained other children by his mimicking the hellfire sermons, almost word for word, of the Baptist preachers. He would wave his arms around, and he’s reported as saying, “when I hear a man preach I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” [laughter]

CH: That feels like a classic wry Lincoln joke to me! And, it tells me that Lincoln didn’t have a great deal of respect for the religion of his youth.

JC: In fact, we know that as he got older, Lincoln began to explore other avenues – including some major periods of questioning.

RC: The young man, Lincoln, when he left home in Illinois and made for New Salem, freeing himself from the hyper Calvinism of his parents, he’s attracted to the writings of Tom Paine and other rationalist Enlightenment writers. If you were to classify him at this time, you’d say he was a deist, believer in an Almighty, a creator God, but a God who has put the world in motion and stepped back to let it run along its natural clockwork progress. He certainly entertained his friends with his discussions of the Bible and how it could not be an entirely divinely inspired book because of its internal contradictions, he questioned the divinity of Christ. I don’t think you can really call him an atheist, but he’s certainly not a conventional believer. And when people talk about him as an infidel at this point, they don’t mean that he has no faith. They mean really that the faith that he holds is not a Christian Trinitarian faith. But in Springfield, for the first time in his life he’s in the company, at times, of preachers, of ministers, who have been well trained, are capable of engaging with his unorthodox views. And then as a family man, after marrying Mary, he worships, occasionally at least, in the Episcopal church.

CH: In this way we can see that Lincoln’s faith evolved as he experienced some major life changes—moving to his new home in Springfield, starting his law practice, getting married…

RC: And then the death of Eddie in 1850, the first of his four sons to lose his life in youth. Eddie’s death was a desperately tragic occasion, and the grieving family find a lot of comfort from James Smith, the Old School pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, and so they switched their membership from the Episcopal Church. And that changes, all of this changes, really during the presidency, understandably, you know, here you are with a strong sense of the personal responsibility for a war of massive grief, massive bloodshed, unimagined savagery. He has trials much closer to home. He has the death of friends and close colleagues, and then the loss through typhoid of his son–favorite son–Willie, in February of 1862. He’s certainly now regularly attending public worship at the Old School Presbyterian Church in Washington, New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Many conversations with the pastor Phineas Gurley.

CH: It absolutely makes sense to me that grief shaped every part of Lincoln’s life moving forward, and especially his faith.

JC: And that brings us back around to what we heard earlier about Lincoln living in DC. If the question is simply, “did Lincoln ever go to church,” the answer is “yes.” It’s not so much his physical presence in the building that draws people to this question, though. People want to know what he believed in, what he valued, and whether his faith was the same as their own.

CH: How can we begin to understand this bigger picture?

JO: There are two aspects, what he demonstrated and what he believed. Obviously, we guess at what he believed, but what he demonstrated in Washington was a very different approach to faith and piety than he demonstrated previously. The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church at the time of the Civil War was Old School Presbyterian, and that wasn’t just a generic term, that was a, that meant a lot. It meant that you were conservative. You were, as a secular matter, devoted to the preservation of the Union, but weren’t so fussy about slavery. That was something that God was going to take care of over time, in His own time. Right now it exists, and therefore we accept it, but protecting the Union, the great secular miracle that God has worked which was the source of all our earthly benefits, that was important. So, when Lincoln first came to Washington, his number one concern was preventing any further states from seceding.

JC: This was important for me to remember – if by “did Lincoln go to church” we’re asking “was Lincoln Christian?” there’s a secondary part – “what kind of Christian?” that’s even more complex. There’s of course a very long history of differences of opinion about what constitutes correct doctrine. John said:

JO: And this was an era in which doctrines were very important, whether you were an Old School Presbyterian, a New School Presbyterian, a Methodist, their doctrine was fundamental to how you lived your life. One congressman quoted Lincoln having said at one time that, when asked about his faith beliefs, why haven’t you subscribed to any particular doctrine? Lincoln, this congressman quoted said, “when any church shall inscribe over its altar as the sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and gospel, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself, that Church, I will join with all my heart.”  Now, there’s a lot of suspicion as to whether or not he actually said this, but my sense is that this accurately reflects his concern with accepting any particular doctrine.

CH: That seems backed up by the famous—or infamous—quote, where Lincoln says, “When I do good, I feel good; and when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.” This is one of the quintessential Lincoln quotes that has always particularly stuck with me, and as Joan can note, I brought this up with every interview we did.

JC: That’s true! In the absence of a diary, or similar, to share Lincoln’s inner thoughts, we have to look to what the people around him reported. As Richard explained, though, this seemed to confound them as much as it confounds us today.

RC: I think Lincoln kept his soul more veiled than most. At the same time, you’ve got those who knew him personally on the one hand saying that, as did Noah Brooks, who knew Lincoln well and would have been Lincoln’s secretary in his second term, he said he was certain that Lincoln had a saving knowledge of Christ and that he was always talking of Christ and the cross and the atonement. The first biography of Lincoln by, it was Josiah Holland, wasn’t it, again presented him as a true-hearted Christian, but on the other hand, there were those who thought it was preposterous that Lincoln should be considered in this way, particularly, of course his previous law partners, notably Billy Herndon. Mary said that Lincoln was not a technical Christian. James Matheny, who was Lincoln’s groomsman, best man at his, his wedding, said that Lincoln was often, if not wholly, an atheist.

CH: How much was Lincoln’s approach to religion an outlier in his time?

JC: We talked to Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, Dean of the Wake Forest School of Divinity, about what the general landscape of worship looked like in the 1800s.

Corey D.B. Walker: Most people did not attend church. Most folks did not attend organized religious services. So, you really have a vernacular religious culture in America at that time that was as diverse as the landscape of America itself, of a growing nation. So, religion in the 19th century is dynamic, it’s ever-changing, doesn’t have what we may think of today as those normal institutional bases. So, we know most folks are not literate. We don’t have wide dissemination of broad print culture, so the idea that we have now of everyone reading a Bible for him or herself–in isolation, silent reading–that isn’t what we’re looking at. We’re looking at really a communal experience of religion, and it is really dependent upon those individuals who have the prerequisites of literacy. Even though it was personal, you still had individuals connected to larger ways of thinking about religion, whether it’s the family, thinking through the historical connections with religion, the ways in which popular culture and periodical culture helps to inform religious understanding and religious interpretation, and of course, you have, you still have those roving evangelical preachers that are moving across  the United States  that are galvanizing communities and that are planting churches.

CH: As Richard mentioned, and as other historians have noted, Lincoln is thought to have experienced periods of profound doubt and questioning of God and religious doctrine. What does that tell us about Lincoln? Would that have also made him an outlier?

CW: When we understand that there are always questions around God, whether they’re publicly expressed or privately entertained, we recognize that there’s a long tradition of questioning God, there’s a long tradition of questioning God even in biblical narratives. So, what Lincoln experiences is nothing unusual, it is about the very nature of how we understand religion in the human experience. So, for Lincoln to engage in this conversation demonstrates the very humanity of Lincoln. It is not something extraordinary that Lincoln is doing. He’s doing something very ordinary. Doubt is part of it. How does one maintain the same type of faith throughout the entirety of one’s life? It just wouldn’t make sense. Lincoln was human. Yes, Lincoln wrestled with God. Lincoln was very much a person of the 19th century looking to fashion meaning out of sometimes an absurd existence. This is something that connects Lincoln not only to other 19th century citizens, subjects, and actors, it also connects us to Lincoln today. How does Lincoln believe? Well, he believes like most individuals. How do you believe?

JC: We’ve been talking thus far about Lincoln’s experience with church, which is very much based in the white communities that he was a part of. How were people who weren’t white experiencing religion?

CW: You find plenty of examples of African Americans utilizing the language, the concepts, and the ideas of Christianity to begin the combat of virulent and vicious slavery in the US. So, the ways in which both enslaved and free African Americans experience religion is in many ways the same ways Americans are doing it, but articulating the ways in which religion provides a basis for freedom, a basis for national belonging, and a basis for developing alternative conceptions of the nation.

CH: Both people who were anti-slavery and people who were pro-slavery used scripture to support their position. Did Lincoln ever do this?

RC: He said in that famous letter that he wrote to Albert Hodges in April of 1864, “I have never known a time when I did not think that slavery was a wrong. Slavery is a moral evil.” So, we can state absolutely, categorically that Lincoln is a natural anti-slaveryite. He has never seen the good in slavery. It’s partly that he sees the economic injustice, but there’s also a scriptural morality at work. He refers in his speeches in the 1850s to Gene – to the book of Genesis: “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread.” The person who does the sweating deserves to eat the bread that is earned thereby.

JC:  It isn’t uncommon to hear—from experts or from visitors to the Cottage—that one major reason Lincoln talked about God or mentioned the Bible was because his audiences would have been expecting it.

CH: To help us understand the historical intersections between faith and politics, we consulted Holly Hollman, the General Counsel and Associate Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom.

Holly Hollman: Politicians, of course, are trying to appeal to broad swaths of their, of the population. Politicians, by definition, need to be elected, so they need to connect to their audiences. And religion is a powerful force in our society. And so to the extent that someone who is running for office or someone who is an elected leader wants to keep people together, and believes that those people are religious, it’s common to use religious language. I think there’s always been these appeals to  religious values by people who themselves are not overtly religious.

JC: Corey suggested that the way Lincoln communicated with the American public was very similar to preaching.

CW: I think of St. Augustine delivering all of these sermons, and these sermons serving as really, schools of instruction. Lincoln is doing that as well, and how best to instruct a population, but by delivering those ideas, those anecdotes, those images that individuals can readily connect with, readily understand. So, when you look at the ways in which Lincoln is utilizing and deploying religious ideas and religious imagery, it’s not just responding to the ways in which he wants individuals to understand him, he’s also trying to shape the ways in which they understand what he’s trying to say. He’s also trying to begin to mold new ways of understanding.

CH: Not everyone was swayed by Lincoln’s sermon-like approach to public address, though. In fact, it seems like some of Lincoln’s detractors used it as an excuse to throw further doubt on not only his individual politics, but also the aims and methods of the Republican Party as a whole.

RC: If you think about the United States in the mid-19th century, overwhelmingly an evangelical Protestant country, probably 4 out of every 10 people were either church members or church goers. Evangelical Protestants of a highly, kind of, what you might call a progressive, radical kind based in New England–that band of settlement is politically very important, and it’s strongly Whig, and then strongly Republican. Those Republicans, borrowing from Whigs the mantle of the Christian party in politics, are looking to the government to create, either to create laws that themselves legislate morality, or nonetheless create through the law the context within which moral behavior can be prosecuted. So, temperance, education, Sabbath observance, these are all kind of issues that matter to Whigs and then, then Republicans. And Whigs, and then Republicans, are challenged by the Democrats—small state, states’ rights Democrats—on the grounds that what they’re trying to do is to Puritanize the nation and are in fact engaging in priestcraft. In other words, they are engaging in a form of politics which may not be the same thing as creating a church establishment forbidden by the federal Constitution, but nonetheless creates a sort of church establishment by stealth, by cultural stealth. And the charge of priestcraft continues to be used during the Civil War.

JC: So in general, much of the public assumed Lincoln’s politics and his faith were intertwined. I’ve definitely seen this kind of political action in contemporary situations as well, where policy proposals are based in religious values without explicitly breaking that church-state barrier.

CH: But why would it matter to people today what Lincoln’s faith was, since they won’t directly experience his politics? How come so many people want to know the answer to this question?

CW: I mean, when you look at the imprint of those early religious experiences on an individual, Lincoln or anyone else, they do inform and shape one’s own subjectivity and one’s own orientation. I mean, I think there’s just a renaissance on Lincoln and religion at a time when we’re wrestling with the very fundamental meanings of American democracy. We’re wrestling with the emergence of a very prominent and very potent religion in the public square in our nation that has the power to divide. So, our interest in Lincoln and how religion shaped him can serve as a refraction, or a reflection, of our own preoccupation with the role of religion in our contemporary moment.

JC: Holly added:

HH: Well, I think the religious views of our presidents, to the extent that they can be discerned, give us some kind of insight into them. And we want to know who they are. We want to feel good about our leaders. And to the extent that individuals themselves have important moral and sometimes specifically religious traditions and values, they would love to have a leader that mirrors that. So I think it’s kind of a, a self-serving interest that citizens have, to say this leader is like me, if I’m a religious person. On the other hand, some people might actually think that America is special in a way that is particularly blessed by God, and if they think that, then it’s much easier to carry on with that feeling, thinking if your president is a devout person who seems to be in line with that view of America.

CH: This idea—that religion, and a very specific expression of it—was and continues to be fundamental to American national identity kept coming up in our conversations. I think at least partially because Lincoln’s presence is so iconic in our understanding of what America is. Richard explained, from a historian’s point of view, why it would be essential to have religion as part of the discussion.

RC: Without understanding Lincoln’s faith, we do not understand two absolutely central elements of the American Civil War: emancipation and nationalism. Lincoln molded the emancipation policy, and he furthered the policy of nationalism and restoring the nation with the enormous support of communities of faith, and he reached out to those communities of faith.

JC: And then, Holly helped us make the connection between the historical context Richard gave us and how Christianity manifests in American politics today.

HH: Well I think the problem of religious nationalism is something that has always existed, and as you note, there are different examples of it throughout history and around the world. So the specific phenomenon of Christian nationalism, which is the kind of religious nationalism that occurs in this country, is also something that has risen and been less prominent at different times in our country’s history. And recently we’ve been very concerned about a rise in Christian nationalism, particularly a kind of rhetoric that calls on religion in a way that confuses America’s tradition of religious freedom for all with the idea that a lot of people in America are Christian or identify as Christian. As we noted, the numbers are changing, there is a lot of religious diversity, and that’s not something that should scare Christians, it’s just an example of how our religious freedom tradition works.

CH: Holly and her team have done considerable work to understand this phenomenon. Here’s their compiled definition:

HH: We define Christian nationalism as the merging of one’s religious identity and their identity as an American citizen. So not separating these, these kind of understandings of oneself. And it’s a problem because it’s directly at odds with the idea that we are a country devoted to religious freedom for all, and so that being a good Christian is not the same as being a good American, and being a good American does not require you to be a Christian, much less one that adheres to a very narrow set of particular issues or beliefs. It often involves a certain strict identity of who is a Christian and, you know, wrapping these ideas, these religious ideas and political ideas all together, and really relies heavily on a kind of us versus them mentality. We also can see that some people might perceive, some people might describe a president as Christian when they see him or her on their side.

JC:  Holly explained that this “us vs. them” mentality, in addition to causing someone to describe a president as “Christian” because their political views align – rather than based on the candidate’s actual religious practice –  often also causes people to draw strict categories around other races, classes, or ideologies and place them firmly in the “them” or “not one of us” category.

CH: Like so many of the things we’ve talked about for the show, this reaction seems rooted in fear. It’s such a strong emotional foundation for action – is there anything we can do about it?

HH: While we recognize that Christian nationalism is having an effect on our elections and having an effect on the population as a whole, it still is only something that a small part of the population adheres to. Most Americans who learn about Christian nationalism don’t endorse it. Most Americans, as they think more about it, they want to root it out of them, because it is at odds with the kind of religious freedom values and broader values that America likes to claim and hold itself out as supporting. So while Christian nationalism certainly has, is having great influence, I would say that recognition of the strength of America’s diversity, concerns about justice and our need to grapple with the complexity of history, and the great wisdom of religious liberty for all are also very powerful forces that we should hold up as something that can hold our country together. What we’ve tried to do in our work at BJC and particularly our project on Christians Against Christian Nationalism, is to get people to stop and think about who they are as individuals, what makes them a person with regard to religion, what their religious practices are, how they identify, what that means to them, and at the same time to recognize who they are as parts of the political community and how they are not the same thing. And so that when they talk to their other friends and neighbors in that political community, they can all live and work together, because they are joined by this, in this civic community, this political community that does not rely on anyone’s particular religious affiliation or beliefs and practices.

CH: This whole conversation with Holly was sort of an epiphany for me, as someone with strong personal Christian roots, and made me feel a lot better about my own faith and what I can do with it.

JC: And it made me rethink how much I had assumed, because of these valued principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state, that politics and religion had nothing to do with each other. For Lincoln and for many, many others, that’s just not true.

CH: We want to encourage you to think about: what are your values, and how are they reflected in your politics? What can you do to make space for and celebrate all the different traditions that Americans belong to?

JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins, Haley Bryant, and additional support from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted, by Clancy Newman.

CH: Q&Abe is made possible by listeners like you. You can support the show by joining Team Lincoln at lincolncottage.org, where you can also check out our other online and in person programming. If you’re enjoying yourself, please tell a friend about the show!

JC: To all the visitors who’ve had this question, thanks for giving us a chance to dig into another Lincoln mystery, and to think deeply about how we think about ourselves.

CH: Comments? Questions?  Write to us at [email protected].

JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!