The Enigmatic Faith of Washington and Lincoln

Did you know that there is officially no such thing as “Presidents’ Day”? From the federal government’s perspective, the holiday is still Washington’s birthday. In the 1960s, Congress changed the observance from the date of Washington’s actual birthday, February 22, to the third Monday of February, under the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” Holidays deemed to have less-than-critical dates were placed on Mondays so federal employees could have a three-day weekend. Then in the 1980s, marketers began unilaterally calling the holiday “Presidents’ Day,” ostensibly to bring Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) into the fold for advertisements. Now the date mainly serves as the first big post-Christmas sales event.

The Reserved Episcopalian and the Lapsed Calvinist

But for Americans who view the holiday as more than another day to shop or sleep in, the observance still honors Washington, and to a lesser extent, Lincoln, two presidents who show up on most people’s “greatest presidents” lists. For what do we honor them? Their integrity, courage in the face of adversity, and strong adherence to America’s founding principles, to be sure. Some evangelicals are also quick to assert that these were also men of strong Christian faith. But the personal faiths of Lincoln and Washington were actually quite enigmatic.

I believe that Washington, an Episcopalian, was a serious but moderate Christian, but there are reasons to wonder. Whether from personal scruples concerning his worthiness, or some other concern, he never took communion. And he displayed a remarkable aversion to using the name of Jesus in his voluminous correspondence. As Edward G. Lengel’s delightful Inventing George Washington has shown, 19th-century biographers eagerly recalled shadowy memories of Washington being discovered praying privately, to the extent that you’d think the man did little else besides kneeling in the woods. He almost certainly did pray privately, but as a proper Virginia gentleman, he did not wear his faith on his sleeve.

There are graver doubts about Lincoln’s faith, especially early in his life. He developed a reputation as a skeptic as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and Mary Todd Lincoln concluded that he was not a “technical Christian.” He struggled to put his faith in Christ even as the events of later years took the edge off his religious infidelity. Lincoln grew up in a strongly Calvinist Baptist family, and though he did not embrace all his parents’ beliefs, he became ever-more convinced of the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereign rule over human affairs. Richard Carwardine, one of Lincoln’s finest biographers, says that Lincoln presented “his deterministic faith in a religious language that invoked an all-controlling God.”

Does Their Faith Matter?

Evangelical history buffs spend a lot of time speculating about the personal faith of great historical figures such as Washington and Lincoln. This is an important topic, but there’s a sense in which, for historical purposes, it doesn’t really matter if these presidents were serious Christians. When you broaden the scope of the question, it is easy to demonstrate that religion was very important to both of them. Both endorsed a public role for religion in America, and Lincoln particularly employed religious rhetoric, and the words of the Bible itself, to the greatest effect of any political leader in American history. For Lincoln and Washington, a secularized public square was inconceivable.

Washington believed that religion was essential because faith was the primary engine of virtue, that public-spiritedness and integrity needed to preserve the new nation. His Farewell Address of 1796 famously asserted that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports.” Washington, like Lincoln, proclaimed national days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving for “humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations.” Washington also made a point to reach out to minority religious groups, from Baptists to Catholics and Jews, to assure them that they would share in the new republic’s blessings of religious liberty.

Lincoln, likewise, knew that he led a nation that was overwhelmingly religious, and he found the grievous toll taken by the Civil War explicable only in the language of faith. As the war increasingly became not just one to preserve the Union, but also to abolish slavery, Lincoln turned to the Bible to express hope that the carnage of war would be redeemed by a “new birth of freedom.”

Then, in the Second Inaugural Address of 1865, Lincoln’s greatest speech, he used the rhetoric of faith to summon Americans to humility as the war ended. He reminded the nation that both sides in the war “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.” He reckoned that the war somehow represented the judgment of God on both sides for their indulgence of slavery. If God willed that the war continue, he concluded, “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'”[Psalm 19:9]

So yes, I would love to know exactly what Washington and Lincoln believed personally about Jesus. But there’s no question that, in a public sense, faith mattered to them a great deal, and featured centrally in their concept of a thriving American nation. Their reverence for faith’s vital role in the republic helps account for Washington and Lincoln’s greatness.

  • Tom Harmon

    Regarding these two wonderful president’s faith, I recommend two excellent books, the Sacred fire of George Washington (Peter Lillback), and, the inspired wisdom of Abraham Lincoln (Ostergard). They were of great help to determining the validity of their true Christian faith. Washington, was abiding over his lifetime, with a quiet manner exemplified by his creed “deeds, not words”. Lincoln’s faith evolved, and became stronger in his latter years, where he put it all together, and spoke and wrote scripture abundantly.

    • David L.

      I would agree with Tom’s recommendation of “Sacred Fire”. There is much documentary evidence to contradict the statement that Washington “never took communion”.

    • Joe Carter

      While I really appreciate Peter Lillback, his scholarship on Washington isn’t the strongest. His case is essentially that Washington was an orthodox Christian because he was a Episcopalian. That’s a rather weak argument considering all the evidence to the contrary.

      For example, Lillback says Washington was “an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ.” But there is no evidence that Washington ever affirmed the Trinity and he went out of his way to avoid invoking the name of Christ.

    • Tony Byrne

      One can hear Dr. Lillback lecture on the faith of George Washington here (click), and hear the primary source quotes he provides for yourself.

    • danny

      joe carter is correct here. the book “sacred fire” purports dubious proofs. there is overwhelming evidence that book ignores that points to washington being a deist, and far more concerned with “gentlemanism” and masonry than Jesus. i just wonder why Christians need so badly for the man to have been a Christian. does an affirmation of faith on his part add to Christ?

  • Andrew

    I’m sorry for my ignorance regarding both Washington and Lincoln. However, does “great Lord and Ruler of Nations” sound Masonic to anyone else? My understanding was that Lincoln was a Deist; hence determinism without personal salvific action.

    The key issue is not faith, but the object of faith.
    Let us not make men the idols of our minds. (Rom 1:18-23)

    • Tim

      Well, I suppose that that statement could be Masonic, but from a Christian perspective it strikes me as very Calvinistic. The Masons took that sort of language from us, not the other way around.

      As to what religion Lincoln was, that is the subject of debate here. The author of this article states that Lincoln and Washington’s faith might not have been as strong or as orthodox as many christian biographers would like to portray. Some will agree some will disagree. They’re dead now, we don’t know. But regardless of whether they were true Christians or not, they did some good things and were not all around bad presidents.

      • Andrew

        Tim, I apologise for perhaps being too circumspect. I confess a history of offending my North American brethren.
        I meant to say that the object of our faith is actually what determines the outcome of our actions – whether they look good in the short-term or not. Paul says that all men have some kind of faith and that those who deny the truth about God are condemned as perverters of the truth.

        I have nothing against respecting upright or wise men, even pagans, but am shy of shaping my hopes around any man other than Jesus. For all the rest of us: our works are but filthy rags.

        • Tim

          No offense taken, I believe everyone should be able to voice their oppinion, but I was just wary of saying that language as solely being appropriated by free masons, although Washington and Lincoln did both have a few Masonic ties, and that is suspect in my book. Not necessarily enough for me to question someone’s faith in God, but it is suspect.

          I sometimes think that we North Americans do venerate our founding fathers a little too much myself. There were some things they got wrong and we should only place faith in Christ.

          • danny

            im surprised you use the word “few” in regards to washington. he didnt just have ties, he was a mason through and through. his inauguration was basically a masonic ceremony. if you see the art work from the ceremony he is even decked out in masonic attire for the event.

  • Paul

    Based on history and action, the faith of both these great men could never be in doubt. As for their “religion”, I look more to their spirituality born from the Bible than from religion, which is mostly doctrine born from man. Washington’s writings include volumes about God and His “Providence”…he sought God’s will and prayed often for direction. As modern era Believers we cannot judge in the rearview based on our standards or language simply because definitions of both have changed significantly in two hundred plus years. If Washington never said “Jesus” in his writings does that indicate anything? Not to me. One quote from 1789 says a lot, “I was but a humble agent of a favoring Heaven, whose benign interference was so often manifested in our behalf, and to whom the praise of victory alone is due.” Washington made so many of these statements that one could easily infer a strong personal faith in God based in humility…he wasn’t showy about it, so ours in not to judge otherwise.

    • Joe Carter

      If Washington never said “Jesus” in his writings does that indicate anything? Not to me.

      But what should we make of the fact that Washington used over two dozen terms to describe God and yet actively avoided using the name of Christ?

      Also, what should we make of the fact that Washington’s own pastor, Dr. James Abercrombie, had doubts about his orthodoxy? As Abercrombie said, “That Washington was a professing Christian, is evident from his regular attendance in our church; but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace.”

      • Tony Byrne

        Lillback touches on that issue (and seeks to answer it) in his audio lecture that I linked to above. He mentions the historical context that would have been a problem for Washington. Consider what he says, whether you end up agreeing with it or not.

      • Paul

        [Joe, not picking on you here…just clarifying my point.]That quote from Abercrombe is interesting, and a little suspect in motive. Think of it this way: What’s a real Christian today? (to use Abercrombie’s own words) Reformed? Evangelical? Catholic? Non-Denominational? Arguments abound within the Christian community as who is the better “more right” Believer? And on it goes…with theological parcing going around in circles. It’s curious that Abercrombie’s words are the opposite of Washington’s. So do we then believe Abercrombe without question because he’s a pastor? No. Yet some will determine because Washington did not use the name “Jesus” that he wasn’t a true believer. Pretty thin argument considering Washington’s actions and own words speak volumes of his conviction. Even Mother Teresa was conflicted in her faith…who would have thought that? Do we then re-judge her because of it? I think not. To what end is there in judging the use of “proper or improper” terminology (and theology) used by one man two centuries after the fact when there is simply no ability to fully know the truth of the matter, especially when his life showed deference to a strong and humble faith in the Almighty? How many of us invoke God so openly in our writings and speeches without equivocation as did Washington? And what do we know of the nature of the relationship between Washington and his pastor? Consider at that time there were many, including his equals and some superiors (but interestingly not those under his command), who were actively denigrating Washington, calling him incompetent. Sounds like Paul and the Corinthians here. So maybe Abercrombe had another reason to question Washington’s faith other than those being assumed by position as pastor. Maybe it’s simpler that that? Maybe Washington did not invoke Jesus by name because of habit. Who knows. But, again, does it truly matter what we think? By all accounts it appears Washington was a Christian in more than name only.

        • danny

          paul, what do you mean “by all accounts”? ive read extensively on washington and most accounts have him as a deist and a mason, who simply believed the Bible was a great source of spiritual insight and law making.

          his life showed morals, character and virtue. any platonist can show the same thing and not be committed to the gospel, wouldnt you agree?

    • danny

      again im with joe here. there were many people then who used Jesus’ name authoritatively for the time, avoiding it says a lot. washington believed in heaven, and god, and even loved the Bible, but was never convinced that the god of the Bible was the one true god. because he says things about god, and things about the Bible, we assume a lateral connection of belief, but there is evidence to suggest such assumptions are misplaced.

  • Don Helton

    I have always struggled with how most of the Founding Fathers and early Presidents are called Christians. While I have read many speeches and papers from these great leaders, I have generally not been convinced of their belief in the Gospel. I have read many statements about God, Providence, the Creator, and the Almighty. I have read many quotations of and allusions to Scripture. But these do not a Christian make.

    No doubt, some of these great men were truly born-again. Also, it is without doubt that a Judeo-Christian ethic derived from the Old and New Testaments is the judicial foundation of this country. Still, I am concerned that many church attenders so easily accept the nebulous God-talk of past and present politicians as a sign of true conversation. I need more information. Is there a resource that details what each of these great men:

    1.) believed about the person and work of Jesus Christ,
    2.) said publicly about the human-divine person and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ,
    3.) demonstrated through repentance, good works, holiness and fellowship with believers, and
    4.) did to demonstrate perseverance in this faith till death?

    It is one thing to believe that the Bible contains principles for a moral, free and prosperous society. It is another thing to believe in an all-powerful, eternal God. It is another thing to be a church member yet still another thing to believe in the general truthfulness of Scripture. But none of these are the same thing as believing the Gospel.

    • danny

      don, ive studied this a ton, and it seems to me that we Christians are the most revisionistic and opportunistic people on earth. many founders were believers, but when it comes to the key founders, almost NONE of them were. the major players were mostly deist, or had some Christian root but never took a hold of faith. i believe hamilton was probably saved, but despite a life of church going he seems to have only truly crossed the line of faith at the end of his life. the reason we want to believe these guys were all saved is the reason moderate celebrities who get saved are asked to speak at conferences. we want to believe someone that people have heard of is “on our side”. its silly really.

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  • Steve Martin

    Excellent comments here.

    I don’t think any of us could really know if they had a genuine faith , or not. To know their confession is not to know their heart.

    But the Lord knows. And I pray that they are with Him right now in eternal joy and peace.

  • John S

    An equally important issue, imho, was mentioned but not focused on in the article but addressed by Mr. Helton in the comments:

    “Also, it is without doubt that a Judeo-Christian ethic derived from the Old and New Testaments is the judicial foundation of this country”.

    To me it’s not just about ‘faith’ but about the Bible. And sadly I don’t agree that ‘it is without a doubt’ in most people’s thinking. The disparaging of the faith of the founding father’s is also being used to claim that there was no real or significant influence of the Bible and it’s principles on the founding of our country. I agree it is without a doubt, sadly the liberal elites who dominate our educational system from cradle to grave do not. At least as far as I can tell.

  • tokniffin

    I agree with this article.

    I think it’s important to note you could say almost the exact same things about Obama & Reagan. Both had (have) odd theologies but show sincere faith.

  • Jeff

    Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln Redeemer President,is the best source for studying Lincoln’s moral and religious beliefs.

  • chuck shanks

    I think certainly that in that early and mid periods of our country,If they were not christian to some degree our country would have been like europe or modern day America today. That has gone from 3-4 worship assemblys a week and missions a priority to 1-2 services,with entertainment and fellowship without biblical guidelines so much a priority.

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