Letter from close friend offers rare glimpse into President Lincoln's 'theist' beliefs
The Raab Collection is offering the letter by William Herndon on President Lincoln's religious views for $35,000.
April 12th, 2011
09:06 PM ET

Letter from close friend offers rare glimpse into President Lincoln's 'theist' beliefs

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

(CNN) - President Abraham Lincoln was a "theist and a rationalist" who doubted "the immortality of the soul," a close friend said in a letter that provides a rare, intimate glimpse into the Civil War president's religious views.

"Mr. Lincoln’s religion is too well known to me to allow of even a shadow of a doubt; he is or was a Theist - a Rationalist, denying all extraordinary -– supernatural inspiration or revelation," William H. Herndon wrote in a letter dated February 11, 1866, to Edward McPherson, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Herndon was one of Lincoln's closest friends. The two met in Springfield, Illinois, and practiced law together for 17 years before Lincoln became president in 1861. After Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, he authored "Herndon's Lincoln," a biography based on contributions from Lincoln's friends and contemporaries  considered among the most authoritative for its proximity to the elusive president.

The three-page letter, which is being offered for sale by the Raab Collection for $35,000, offers a rare account from someone close to Lincoln on the subject of his religious beliefs - a topic that has eluded historians. Lincoln did not discuss his religious beliefs and he did not belong to a church.

"Lincoln was reticent to discuss religion, particularly after his election, which has fueled the ongoing debate about whether he believed in God or if he was Christian in the way we would explain it today," said Nathan Raab of the Raab Collection. "These are subjects still being debated."

His early religious outlook was colored by the evangelical Baptist faith of his parents and a Calvinist theology of predestination - the belief that the fate of all men and women had been predetermined by God, PBS.org said of Lincoln in its "God in America" series. Lincoln rejected this Calvinist view later in life and shunned emotional excess, but the Calvinism of his youth left him with a sense of fatalism that endured throughout his life.

How the Bible was used to justify slavery, abolition

Lincoln's views on providence and God's will in the context of the Civil War have been the source of great scrutiny over the years.

In his letter, written less than a year after Lincoln's death, Herndon wrote that the president was "the purest politician."

"At one time in his life, to say the least, he was an elevated Pantheist, doubting the immortality of the soul as the Christian world understands that term. He believed that the soul lost its identity and was immortal as a force. Subsequent to this he rose to the belief of a God, and this is all the change he ever underwent. I speak knowing what I say. He was a noble man - a good great man for all this," he wrote.

"I love Mr. Lincoln dearly, almost worship him, but that can’t blind me. He’s the purest politician I ever saw, and the justest man. I am scribbling - that’s the word - away on a life of Mr. Lincoln - gathering known-authentic - true facts of him."

- egrinberg

Filed under: History • Politics

soundoff (336 Responses)
  1. Covering Letter

    Yeah i agree with you Holly. The language which you speak should be understood to everyone and the HOLY BIBLE tells us to live the life in a good and peaceful way.
    Covering Letter

    July 2, 2011 at 4:57 am |
  2. Arnold Kunst

    I refer to Minoa who asserts that "Herndon was overstating what he knew about Lincoln's beliefs. He had, after all, a motive to overstate, as he was hawking his own book. I myself have very close friends, and we discuss religion, but I would not presume to guess if they have unspoken religious beliefs. I can only go by what they specifically tell me, and I especially rely on what they take the trouble to commit to writing."
    Amen! Billy Herndon has always struck me as a faithful friend and good at research but otherwise was a garrulous mediocrity with a drinking problem who on a pure fluke stumbled on a relationship with a famous man. That famous man took him on as a junior partner, a relationship that lasted the 17 years up to Lincoln's election as president. Admittedly, those were crucial years, and Herndon was as up close and personal to Lincoln as Lincoln ever allowed anyone to get, but Herndon did not know his friend nearly as well as he claimed, especially after the assassination. The fact that Herndon pontificates on Lincoln's religious views is no surprise; the actual perimeters of those religious views are, according to the vast majority of Lincoln scholars, are far more elusive than Herndon would fondly wish us to believe.
    Whatever else one might say about Lincoln's religious views, it is true that he was most convincing when he set out to be; he utilized language to elucidate any number of subjects. On other subjects – his true feelings toward his own father in particular, virtually the entirety of his youth in general as well as his genuine feelings regarding religion – he could be, and was, tighter than a clam. Those were subjects, it seems, that he didn’t want us to know; perhaps we should display a little more respect for the great man than Herndon did.

    Arnold Kunst

    April 17, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  3. Flip


    April 14, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  4. Logan

    Christianity – The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree...


    April 14, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  5. Gnarly Erik

    Most religions like Christianity are based on fear and the ‘faith’ in a heavenly reward for believing, and punishment, sometimes including even the killing of non-believers. Historically, these irrationally dangerous fantasies have produced more death, grief and desolation than any other single cause on Earth. In reality, the differences between Christians and the Taliban are matters of mere degree and flavor of religion. No amount of religious piety nor quoting ‘scripture’ can ever validate religious myths.

    April 14, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  6. Observer

    "America's goodness is always distictively Christian, nothing else."

    Nonsense. Thinking people have been able to establish similar morality in most civilizations. The "Golden Rule", for instance, existed long before Christianity. Wishful thinking does not equate to FACTS.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Adelina

      Christianity is much more than Golden Rules. I guess you Americans can neither recite Golden Rules or tell where it is located in the Bible without googling.
      illiteracy with unrelated bits of information = illiterates making unwise decisions = secular Americans

      April 14, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • Observer

      "Christianity is much more than Golden Rules". Yes, it is, but, as the Bible says "This is what the Law and the Prophets are all about.”

      That kind of makes it look REALLY important. I'm sure you know where that passage is from without looking it up.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • Adelina

      Observer, the verse starts with "so." Golden Rules has a context regarding summing up. Read Matthew chapter 7 and also the entire Gospel. I think Simpleton Americans should stop pretending knowing anything about Christianity or American heritage because you guys have become thoroughly pagan and Bible-illiterate.

      April 14, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  7. Adelina

    Mr. Lincoln lived by Christian principles; that's the only reason he was able to do what he did in liberating slaves. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" also played a big role then. America's goodness is always distictively Christian, nothing else. Theism is never good enough. It's the God of the Bible who moves men and women to civilize the world.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  8. Paul

    Nice post Reality. Gets you thinking. P

    April 13, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  9. desunees shining

    Christ knew. Most Christians don't. ....no such thing as the real world...just a lie you've got to rise above

    April 13, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  10. humanist92

    Quoting from literature that many consider divine doesn't make me a believer of the faith. So, it may be the same for Lincoln. I'm so glad to know that Lincoln might have been a rationalist. Truly, he is one of the greatest presidents in American History.

    April 13, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  11. John Richardson

    Another American icon that the Christians can't claim as their own, despite all their "Christian nation" rantings. This isn't really news in Lincoln's case, though the memos never seem to reach those of dimmer wits who drag their knuckles to church every week. So not a bad reminder.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • ED

      Hey John,

      One of those knuckle-draggers here...just wanted to comment that we don't believe that the U.S. is a Christian nation. Wish it was but realize very clearly that it's not. We'll keep praying for revival in this land and that thousand's if not millions come to faith in Jesus Christ!

      April 13, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Adelina

      America became a great nation under Judeo-Christian values deeply rooted in her society, doing many good and great things for the entire world, although she is becoming polluted more and more by hedonists and God-haters in recent years.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • tom

      A "Christian-nation" is exactly what Jesus said he was NOT about. "My kingdom is not of this earth" What did Jesus say about the heathen Romans - "Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's"

      April 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  12. TJeff1776

    Mr. Beck did poorly in High School and dropped his college altogether. He hopes to make up for this by offering news exaggerations to an ever increasing gullible conservative base. BUT his silver-tonguism is losing favor- his star is dimming.

    April 13, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Reality

      If the well-read, rational Lincoln were alive today, this would be his favorite prayer:

      The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians during the past 200 years)

      I might believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven.

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


      April 13, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Lycidas

      Ah//the pre-ordained copy/pasting of reality.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Spencer

      "Ah//the pre-ordained copy/pasting of reality."

      LOL! Yet you keep saying the same thing over and over again too! I know a word that comes to mind and it starts with Hyp.....

      April 13, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Reality

      Reiteration is good for the learning process. Then there is the scrool bar!!

      April 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Reality

      Oops, make that the scroll bar 🙂

      April 13, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  13. MarkinFL

    As noted, Lincoln was a consummate politician. Any serious national level politician of the time (or now) has to at least give lip service to some flavor of deity palatable to the majority Christians if they expect to get elected. He was well versed in Christianity given his upbringing and whatever doubts he had would hardly mean he would forget how to quote scripture.

    April 13, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • MarkinFL

      This was supposed to be a reply to the above post. My bad.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  14. MKS

    Did Lincoln quote the Bible in his speeches? Yes, as an intelligent politician he understood that you have to address your audience in a manner to which it would respond. Does that mean that he himself ascribed to the teachings of the Bible? No, it does not. Stop using quotes from his public speeches as proof that he was a Christian.

    April 13, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Holly

      Agreed. Anyone who has studied 15 minutes of American sociology knows our society is Bible based. The like or dislike of it by individuals isn't going to change that. However if you want to speak and be understood by the masses, you must speak in terms that are understandable by the masses. Lincoln simply spoke to the masses in terms they would understand. Speak to the audience, because what good is free speech if no one will listen/understand you (that's in the Bible too, when Paul addresses those who speak in foreign 'tongues'.)

      April 13, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Minoa

      Given the fact that Herndon wrote that "Subsequent to this he rose to the belief of a God, and this is all the change he ever underwent," it is quite reasonable to use Lincoln's own religious references to get an idea of his beliefs. It is reasonable to do that even without Herndon.

      Also, Herndon was overstating what he knew about Lincoln's beliefs. He had, after all, a motive to overstate, as he was hawking his own book. I myself have very close friends, and we discuss religion, but I would not presume to guess if they have unspoken religious beliefs. I can only go by what they specifically tell me, and I especially rely on what they take the trouble to commit to writing. It is not reasonable to ask scholars and admirers of Lincoln's thinking to "stop using" what Lincoln wrote.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • mick63

      Lincoln did not believe in the immortality of the soul, but his is probably floating down one or all of the 5 rivers of Hades:
      1.Acheron – the river of woe;
      2.Cocytus – the river of lamentation;
      3.Phlegethon – the river of fire;
      4.Lethe – the river of forgetfulness;
      5.Styx – the river of hate.

      April 14, 2011 at 10:44 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.