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. g

    @Mark 3rd from the bottom. Completely agree. CNN is being weird.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:08 am |
  2. Andrew

    Lincoln had seances in the white house...

    April 13, 2011 at 3:33 am |
  3. Mark

    Why is half the content on CNN about religion now? You guys seem to be dedicating all your resources to marginalizing belief in God rather then actually reporting on the damn events taking place in the world.
    I always took refuge here because it seemed that CNN still managed to show a little integrity in your work and refused to stoop to FOX's level. 10 years ago someone would've had a difficult time proving CNN was a liberal propoganda machine but now you're down in the trenches shovelling **** with the rest of them!

    I JUST WANT TO SEE NEWS! I don't want to hear about gay cavemen and rewritten bibles with all the God stuff removed.
    People weren't getting their heads lopped off in Afghanistan last month because of some nobody redneck pastor in Florida burning a Quran. It was because CNN turned it in to worldwide news to promote their new theme "religion is ignorant" (unless your Muslim because apparently CNN feels that the poor Muslims have every right to demand respect from the rest of the world)

    April 13, 2011 at 3:23 am |
    • stacy

      You hit the nail on the head, my friend.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:54 am |
    • gregory

      Great point. People must be PC and respect everyones beliefs but your own. Somehow some of us are to be ashamed of who we are.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:33 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Your myopia is showing. I see some fairly equal opportunity offending here. I read MANY articles here that are quite pro-Christian. I also see articles that question just about everything including atheism and evolution. I think you just key in on the ones that do not agree with your world view. I pretty much disagree with 90% of the stuff I read here. 🙂
      To me CNN seems to be going way out of their way to give voice to various religious points of view. Maybe it is the pluralism of it that is bothering you. Since it is not all Christian then it is against Christianity? By that logic it is against ALL points of view. Sounds fair to me.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Mark


      I appreciate your point of view but completely disagree. I have never seen an article here that "respects" christianity. I have seen many articles on CNN that APPEAR to be complimenting christianity but if you read closely it's actually a veiled insult. They enjoy reporting on the christian views and practices that they know will cause ahteists eyes to roll.
      They compliment social, or traditional aspects of religion as a misdirection while they attack the actual belief in the God of the Bible. Every article they write which appears to be favourable has a subtext that is anything but.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  4. random ntrygg

    No one over a hundred years ago was religion in any meaning of the word these days.

    there were fewer religions, no mega churches no broadcast ministries – and there were a lot more deists around – and the god of that day was not the personal god with the santa claus overtones of today

    and I expect that more people who state a belief in the bible had actually read the bible

    nina http://ntrygg.wordpress.com

    April 13, 2011 at 3:06 am |
  5. TRuther

    CNN = Hamas

    April 13, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  6. Atheist

    so what?

    April 13, 2011 at 3:01 am |
  7. J

    See? Even in the dark ages they knew your magical sky fairies are retarded. Faith is not a virtue. Voluntary ignorance is self-defeating. Faith is not a virtue. Faith is not a virtue. Voluntary ignorance is self-defeating.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:57 am |
    • Dan


      April 13, 2011 at 3:30 am |
  8. Questioner

    What about Lincoln's famous ghost?

    April 13, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  9. the wind

    Oh, and are christians still arguing how many people back then believed in God? Doesn't it say enough that we founded this country on freedom to (or not to) believe? Looks like someone skipped history class to hump a bible.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  10. the wind

    Laughing at the argument comparing, "if you don't like abortions, don't have one" to "if you don't like slaves, don't have one." I'd say something inside of someone and a human forced to do labor solely because of their race are two radically different things. If you can't justify an opinion, don't have one. I wouldn't expect a christian mind to "get it."

    April 13, 2011 at 2:55 am |
    • Alex

      How can you say slavery and abortion are not the same battle? Fundamentally they're the same thing–disregarding human rights. Now the thing is, I understand slavery and abortion from an economic perspective, and the problem is the exponential rise in Capitalism from America is fueling this massive debate between a Free Market and a Religion-fueled economy, so I'm just interested in where this is going. I can see the argument that Lincoln was a rational thinker, since he was basically the moderator for the "discussion" we know as the Civil War of the United States.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:12 am |
    • Steve T.

      @ Alex, what the F are you talking about. It's a disgrace to even consider comparing slavery to abortion. That is the stupidest point I've heard, even looking at Foxnews comments.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:15 am |
    • Alex

      It's all about fundamentals, you either respect ALL human life or you don't and accept it. That's where the far right is so messed up right now, because they hail from a pro-slave economy, where slavery made sense for financial reasons, but are now in a pro-abortion economy, which tries to legitimize our power over human "life," regardless of the definition of life. You either support both or you support neither, they're fundamentally the same thing. "All Men are created equal" has a variety of meanings, but it's black and white, no grey area. The far left is the same as the far right, the real America lies in the 50-75% in the middle. The problem is, they're least likely to be commenting on this site because they're views aren't as "radical" as those on the edges of the spectrum. If you believe in America, and you believe in what our country was founded on, you believe in fundamental rights of either ALL men/women/races or a select few, you can't pick and choose based on controversial social issues fueled by the media and the radicals of each party.

      April 13, 2011 at 6:02 am |
  11. Greig smith

    Oh good, a second hand account that went around post mortem. because people don't ALWAYS BULLSHI* after a death, oh sure "hes in a better place" is what you tell to people dying from grief, but it doesn't become true because of it.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:55 am |
    • jimtanker

      Sort of like any and all reports dealing with a person that may or may not have gone by the name of Jesus.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  12. Steve T.

    Uh, anyone who thought Abe Lincoln wasn't religious is a complete idiot. This is not a breaking story for any historian, which I am NOT.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:48 am |
  13. Dynamo

    Lincoln believed in Joe Pesci!

    April 13, 2011 at 2:42 am |
    • Hellotiki

      More important he didn't laugh at Joe Pesci.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:26 am |
  14. Erica

    fake letters exist about people..just read some of the tabloids which have been sued and beaten in court for printing false information. its pretty strange this guy wrote this after Lincoln died when he wouldn't be available to correct him should he be wrong.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:39 am |
    • Pete

      So I guess it's pretty strange that there are thousands of posthumous biographies in existence. We should just burn them all.
      Seriously, it's ok to have an opinion, but please, oh please, just use at least the smallest semblance of logic when trying to make that point.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • Ancient Curse

      Hmm... So you're saying that people could pretty much write anything down regardless of whether or not it's true. That's really interesting, don't you think?

      April 13, 2011 at 3:01 am |
    • Erica

      yeah Pete....no need to beg now. It's a bit ridiculous. just try thinking about what i'm saying. let me try to explain. a faker or liar or money grubber would love to write a book about a person once they passed because it's harder to disprove what's in the book. a person who truly admired or respected an individual and supposedly worked closely with this person for 17 years might want to write this book during his lifetime and even get his approval on the info to most accurately represent him in the book. if you want to burn books thats up to you.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:12 am |
  15. All religions are one big pile of dung

    We all have ideas of what a pile of dung could be useful for!

    April 13, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  16. MP

    Who gives a rat's ass what Lincoln believed. No proof? No thank you.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:36 am |
  17. Dave

    Yes, of course it would be God's will for brothers and sisters in Christ to kill one another.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:32 am |
    • Dan

      Haha. Conveniently, paradoxes like this are left out of the god discussions! I wonder why?

      April 13, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  18. Cassarit

    And another thing. He viewed black people like the humane society views animals.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:28 am |
  19. waytagojoe

    What is being left out here is that Lincoln is also known to have struggled with severe depression issues...couldn't it be that those who do apply religion in their life find their lives enriched and find themselves happier for the manner after which they live? I believe that Lincoln whether in this life or the next probably had a testimony of God's influence on mankind. I bet that he knew that winning the Civil War was the will of God.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:25 am |
    • guy

      Great point. It's almost like he came, defeated an evil, and left.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:27 am |
    • K.

      Well that doesn't explain how Sweden and Norway, some of the least religious countries in the world, also have some the highest rated average scores of personal well-being.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Hayworth

      Yeah, like Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred Phelps, the BTK killer, Osama bin Laden... Awww, the list is too long. Just a waste of time. If you haven't figured out already that being religious does not necessarily equal being happy, well then I guess you never will. Where does guilt come from?

      April 13, 2011 at 2:55 am |
    • Dan

      Unbelievable that you can ramble on about something which you know nothing about. You think your life is so fantastic and an athiests life isn't? Where do you get off making such idiotic statements? The statement about Sweden/Norway above is correct. They're very happy with their lives there and very unreligious! Don't go projecting your negative views onto athiests. It's simply false. And somehow I think you know better.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:27 am |
    • MarkinFL

      How about not being able to completely shake the Calvinist fatalism of his upbringing. Talk about depression inducing! That would be more than enough.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • ED

      Hi Everyone,

      Your friendly neighborhood Christian with some thoughts:

      K., careful not equate causality with correlation. Just because Sweden and Norway are irreligious doesn't mean that causes them to be happy. They just happen to be irreligious and happy at the same time. I would say their happiness is due not to their religion or lack there of but to their standard of living. Both of these countries are wealthly, have few if any immigrants, and are small population-wise. If either of these countries had a per capita GDP of Haiti or some other Third World country, I am fairly certain they wouldn't be so happy.

      Hayworth, I agree that being religious does not equate to happiness. There's a lot of sin, pain and suffering in the world. God never promises to provide a life of bliss once we put our faith in him but he does promise us the strength to endure these things, bless others financially, spiritually and emotionally and have a hope of an eternal home in heaven with Him. You asked where guilt comes from...it comes from our consciences and is another example of that divine imprint upon the human race. No other species, chimp or jellyfish, exhibits these qualities.

      Dan, tsk tsk. Alot of name-calling, which usually means you really don't have a lot to contribute. Again, no one is saying an atheist can't have a pretty good life. But deep down, I think alot of atheists struggle with questions like "why am I here?" and "is there a purpose to all of this" and "am I really the moral equivalent of a tadpole". I don't know...why are atheists good? Just for the sake of being good? If I were an atheist, I'd be as selfish and self-aggrandizing as possible within the limits of the law. Why not? I'm not accountable in the afterlife and there's no overarching purpose for doing good, is there?

      MarkinFL, it's me again. Before I comment, I would like to know how much you've studied Calvinism so you can rattle off a comment like that? It's interesting how atheists wade knee deep in topics that they have no clue about.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  20. tom

    I think Lincoln was a Ninja.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:24 am |
    • A Well Groomed Tanning Salon

      The dark attire... those shifty eyes... oh god he was shot by a flintlock too! You know who uses flintlocks, right?? PIRATES!!!


      April 13, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
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