Abraham Lincoln and the ‘bastard’ Jesus Christ

Abraham Lincoln and the ‘bastard’ Jesus Christ December 15, 2012
Lincoln's Battle with God
Stephen Mansfield’s ‘Lincoln’s Battle with God’

Abraham Lincoln’s early years were marked by a rabid antagonism toward Christianity, but he ended his life as a believer.

As my friend Stephen Mansfield details in his new book Lincoln’s Battle with God (published by Thomas Nelson), he was an iconoclast, a gadfly, and an intellectual bully. Well versed in the contradictions and problems with Christian scripture and doctrine, he was more than happy to bat believers around the head with these things.

Lincoln even published an incendiary tract arguing against the basic tenets of the faith. His anti-Christian sentiments were so strong that locals referred to him as an “infidel” and friends worried his reputation would cost him socially and politically. But Lincoln kept it up.

Among the many doctrines with which he took issue was the virgin birth. Friends reported that Lincoln referred to Jesus as a “bastard.” His own mother was an illegitimate child, and Mansfield argues that this fact offers insight into Lincoln’s psychology. Being a bastard was something both negative and very close to home.

It’s not that Lincoln did not believe in God. He felt cursed by him.

“Lincoln truly suffered in life,” Mansfield said in a recent interview. His mother died when he was young. His father was abusive. He battled near-suicidal depression. He married an unbearable woman. And then his boys died. The first, Eddie, died before his presidency; the second, Willie, died amid the war that rent his heart along with the nation. The events of life bludgeoned his confidence, driving him to place his faith somewhere other than his own capacities and strength.

“I think his suffering drove him to faith and deepened his faith once he got to it,” said Mansfield.

Through a critical and nuanced look at the evidence, Mansfield chronicles the difficult spiritual journey undertaken by Lincoln, the challenging occupation at which his troubled soul labored until his untimely death. It’s impossible to say the extent of Lincoln’s belief, how far he went, what hopes he ultimately held. But what is impossible to miss is that Lincoln did move from a skeptical anger at God to an appreciation of his maker, even a certain reliance.

It’s intriguing to contemplate one of the last conversations Lincoln had before dying. “We will visit the Holy Land,” he said, speaking to his wife, “and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior.”

From bastard to savior.

There are probably more questions about Lincoln’s faith than answers, but Lincoln’s Battle with God does a compelling job of mapping the grooves cut in Lincoln’s heart by faith and tragedy and the many impressions they left in his policy and in his public pronouncements.

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  • A couple thoughts. First, it is “tenets” of the faith, not “tenants” (I’m sure you know that and your spell check just didn’t catch it!). Second, you mention “contradictions” in Christian Scripture. There are things that appear contradictory, but aren’t. If you validate that there are true contradictions, then you are–purposely or inadvertently–negating the veracity of the Bible.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Dr. Paterno, thanks for catching that embarrassing typo. It’s fixed now.

      As to the question of contradictions, though perhaps a better word is discrepancies, I do not think that mentioning them negates the veracity of Scripture. One example I was just thinking of yesterday: In Ephesians 4.8 Paul misquotes Psalm 68.18, reversing for rhetorical reasons who is giving the gifts. Another one: In Isaiah 7.14, it says that the woman (“she”) will name the child, but when Matthew quotes the passage, he says that both Mary and Joseph (“they”) will name the child; meanwhile, the Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 7 says King Ahaz (“you”) will do the naming. Which reading is correct? My assumption is that if the church receives the texts, then all the readings are correct. That affirms the veracity of Scripture; it doesn’t undermine it.

      • Paul quotes the Septuagint not the Masoretic text, that’s why the quotes don’t always match.

        • Joel J. Miller

          Thanks, Dr. Eric. That’s usually true. But in the Ps 68/Eph 4 situation the mismatch is because Paul changed the quoted text. Both the Masoretic and the Septuagint say that God received gifts from men, while Paul’s quote says that he gave gifts.

          Matthew, as I mention, similarly alters the abovecited Isaiah quote, saying “they,” rather than following the Masoretic (“she”) or the Septuagint (“you”).

          Of course, it’s not like we’re discovering these discrepancies for the first time. The church has known about them as long as it has studied the Scripture. It accepts them nonetheless. There are either contradictions here or we are asking Scripture to do something that the church does not, because the church receives all of these readings as true.

      • Yes, I agree that “discrepancy” is a much more accurate term than “contradiction”. I hope I didn’t come across as picky, but I think it’s an important distinction.

        • Joel J. Miller

          Nothing wrong with being picky. You can’t read my mind. Thanks for the discussion.