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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. Christine Cox

    Has any one else noticed the grammatical/spelling errors in this story? I'll bet you anything the person behind it had to have a bachelor's degree in order to be hired by CNN and here I sit with 25 years of office experience under my belt and 80% of the ads I read for employment state a bachelor's degree is required. Just saying....

    April 13, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  2. WasabiPotPie

    And as far as this Science vs. Religion debate goes... Science saves my body, religion saves my soul. Win-Win.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  3. WasabiPotPie

    I said this a post the other day and I will say it again... Thor has a hammer. Jesus was nailed to a cross. I think we have a winner.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  4. Devin

    I cannot prove that god doesn't exist, and you cannot prove that he does. It's really just that simple.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  5. longerview1

    If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
    C. S. Lewis

    April 13, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  6. CFONYc

    I am God...
    Please do not worship me.
    Please do not wage war in my name.
    I am the ultimate God!
    I sit on a rock...

    April 13, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  7. Steven

    This is why 24hr cable news has been horrible for electing presidents. If we didn't care about their religion, what clothes they wear, and every single off-the-cuff remark, we'd get better presidents.

    April 13, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  8. Bobbe503

    We all know what feels “right” and conversely what feels “wrong” or even evil. Religion at its best addresses and advances this. But what we have come to despise are the overbearing ways and excluding practices of today’s religions and so we are loath to call this seeking of knowledge as a search for God. We do not want to be associated with any of your religions that exist today.

    April 13, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • Bobbe503

      What if Religion like everything else, is evolving? That would explain how primitive the “rules” were in the Old Testament, how relatively refined Jesus’ teachings were to the people of his time and how those Religions all seem so ridiculous to a thoughtful person now.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Chris

      It is evolving, but the worshipers are to dumb to understand that their modern version of the religion is just the latest.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  9. MarkinFL

    Just a quick note. Lincoln was not a "founding father". Nor were Hoover or FDR! FDR?

    April 13, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  10. Cubist Tut

    Why is it for every opinion or belief someone may hold, there will be another party who just as strongly oppose that idea. Both sides usually claim to sit with the best arguments, the real facts, and the correct world view; and, ironically both sides regard the other as being indoctrinated, blind to the obvious, and outright stupid. Most people only expose themselves to information that matches their own worldview. I wonder if there is any real truth among men anymore?

    April 13, 2011 at 7:20 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Yes, its called science. The very point of which is to accept only independently verifiable objective information. Fantasy is just that, whether you dress it up as a religion and call it TRUTH or not. There is no more proof of gods then there is of ghosts and faeries, yet billions believe anyway. Its just human nature.
      Reality does not care what humans believe. We can believe in gods, heaven and hell and flying unicorns and reality will just go on being what it is.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:28 am |
    • albert

      Science is basically just a new religion. Science is responsible for many great achievements, but it is also divided and flawed. Not all scientist agree with the Big Bang theory or evolution for example. Neither can be proven beyond doubt. In order to prove the Big Bang ever happened, scientist would have to create something from nothing. This they cannot do. Then you have scientist that teach that their is life somewhere out in the universe. They say it is "mathematically feasible". Yet where is the proof. Wouldn't you say that takes a bit of faith to believe?

      Then of course their are the artist conceptions of how man evolved. The older the remains, the more hair they put on the specimen. Again, this is done without proof. Science has done nothing more than try to recreate what already exists in nature.

      Of course they "create" things but would have you believe that the things they attempt to replicate has no creator. This is flawed logic.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:39 am |
    • Chris

      @albert

      Science is basically just a new religion.
      Faith is required....Science proves without a question, it takes no faith and theres no deity...its not a religion.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • MarkinFL

      "Science has done nothing more than try to recreate what already exists in nature. "
      Ummm, that is pretty much the definition of science. Your statements merely shows that you have no idea what science is or its purpose. Science is just a method or process used to look at the world around, nothing more. Science is clearly not a religion since no one has to agree with what others have said and are actually encouraged to prove them wrong.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • Andrew

      albert
      To prove the big bang, well, not sure how to do that... however to provide evidence for the big bang, well, they might have a chance.

      First, they'd need to determine if the universe is static, so they need an accurate model of the universe. Lucky for physicists, Einstein's Theory of General Relativity provides just that, which states the universe is either expanding, contracting, or an unstable steady state. Then this guy... Hubble was his name, provided some evidence that the universe is expanding. So now we've got a model of the universe which says that over time the universe is getting larger. That means the universe was smaller in the past.

      Well, then if you want to prove the big bang you need to see if we can find markers of this. As it happens, if you were to track the universe back to the singularity, and let it expand, it'd start off very hot, and get colder and colder as total energy density decreases. Well under this, there should be a point where the universe cooled off enough for atomic hydrogen to form, meaning electrons are captured by free protons, releasing a photon. This is called the period of "recombination". Well, this makes a rather strong prediction, if this happened, there should have been a massive release of photons which continued to propagate throughout the universe in every direction isotropically and relatively h-mogeneously. After this prediction was made, two researchers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in the 1960s noticed a curious anomaly on their measurements. Discovering that this was not, in fact, bird poo, they found the Cosmic Microwave Background, that "light" I had mentioned from recombination.

      But wait, there's more! Not only did they discover this light, but this light should exhibit properties due to what would have been quantum flucuations when it was produced. Now, back in the 1960s, we had nothing that could measure the CMB like that, but we did have some models (Currently the ΛCDM model) which should fit with measurements of the CMB. Well, we launched a few satellites, most recent data coming from WMAP (I had a professor who worked on that project, was awesome) whose six parameter fit of the ΛCDM model on the CMB was so accurate I remember not being able to see error bars. Now, these things aren't "proof", however they're very very difficult to explain without a big bang having happened, and do serve as remarkably good evidence.

      My point being, science does not deal in proofs. It deals with evidence. You won't get "proof" for anything, but you'll have a whole lot of evidence for different theories. Big bang is fairly well supported. (I'm a physics major, so I felt I'm better off commenting on the big bang than on evolution, despite evolution being a much more intuitive and easy concept to explain. I am for example not even reasonably well versed on the math and physics behind constructing the ΛCDM model (Though I at least know what it says) and I highly oversimplified what recombination is... there are some... erm... details I omitted for the sake of ease. Evolution is a lot easier to explain and demonstrate, despite the evidence being quite strong for either.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • P

      @Albert – Nothing can be proved "beyond all doubt". Philosophically speaking you cannot prove that you even exist – or the world around you exists for that matter. All anyone can do is build up evidence for their case. The case for science is pretty damn good – if you notice, you are using science to post your ideas about science being "a religion". If they truly are the same, you should be able to pray and your message pop right up here just like the ones that science is making. They are both the same right??? So stop your typing on these newfangled scientific gadgets, and go to church. We'll let you know when your "prayer post" arrives.

      April 13, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  11. albert

    Lincoln would be correct in hi thoughts about the soul. The Bible does not teach that there is a "separate" soul that leaves the body when a person dies. Here is what the Bible teaches:

    Genesis 2:7 tells us: “God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” The account does not say that God implanted in man an immortal soul. It says that when God’s power energized Adam’s body, he “came to be a living soul.” So man is a soul. He does not have a soul.

    God created Adam to live on earth, not in heaven. Earth was not to be a mere testing ground to see if Adam qualified for heaven. God formed the earth “to be inhabited,” and Adam was its first human inhabitant. (Isaiah 45:18; 1 Corinthians 15:45) Later, when God created Eve as a wife for Adam, God’s purpose for them was that they should populate the earth and turn it into a paradise as humankind’s eternal home.—Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 37:29.

    Nowhere does the Bible say that part of Adam was immortal. On the contrary, his existence was conditional, based on obedience to God’s law. If he broke that law, what then? Eternal life in the spirit realm? Not at all. Instead, he would “positively die.” (Genesis 2:17) He would go back where he came from: “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 2:7; 3:19) Adam had no existence before he was created, and he would have none after he died. So he had only two choices: (1) obedience and life or (2) disobedience and death. If Adam had not sinned, he would have lived on earth forever. He would never have gone to heaven.

    Adam disobeyed, and he died. (Genesis 5:5) Death was his punishment. It was not a doorway to a “glorious adventure” but a doorway to nonexistence. Thus, death is not a friend but is what the Bible calls it, an “enemy.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) If Adam had had an immortal soul that would go to heaven if he was obedient, then death would have been a blessing. But it was not. It was a curse. And with Adam’s sin, the curse of death spread to all humans because all are his offspring.—Romans 5:12.

    Further, if Adam had been created with an immortal soul that would be tormented forever in a fiery hell if he sinned, why was he not warned about this? Why was he only told that he would die and return to dust? How unfair it would have been to condemn Adam to an eternity of torture for disobedience, yet not warn him about it!

    April 13, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • Andrew

      Quite unfair, despite that, it still seems a very popular theological position.

      Personally every time someone says it I just have to sit and think "wow, so you honestly and truly believe that your god is the biggest possible d!ck imaginable. A guy so vindictive he'll give these two eternal punishment for doing something before they had any concept of wrong in the first place".

      Seriously, the old testament god is a huge @ss.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • TB

      So Adam had no soul and died returning to dust. Later you quoted the bible saying that all men would die (just like Adam) because we are all his offspring. Well I guess that means that nobody has a soul then? Great argument for your beliefs.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  12. KB

    An enthusiastic, atheist AMEN! to that!

    April 13, 2011 at 7:03 am |
  13. The_Mick

    Abraham Lincoln himself said that if there was a religion that simply required one to behave well, he'd join it. Like MOST of the founding fathers, Lincoln believed there was some form of supernatural presence but rejected Christianity and other formal religions claiming to know all the answers. Of course, Texas and some other states are brainwashing their children into believing the founding fathers were all good Christians and based the nation on Christianity even though democracy was never part of Christianity!

    April 13, 2011 at 6:36 am |
  14. Joseph Mrzoniski

    God is real whether you community college pinhead atheists believe in Him or not. Rocks did not create themselves and then become life or whatever ridiculous fantasy you need to tell yourself to get thru the day without belief in God. Good luck retard atheists: you'll need it.

    April 13, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Laurence Ballard

      Continue believing, Mr. Mrzoniski. It is your right. Glad to read theological compassion is working out so well for you. "Ridiculous fantasy"? "Pinhead"? "Retard"? Well, those would be your words...

      April 13, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • Noodle

      Rocks did not create themselves? Then where did god come from? If you believe god has always been here, why not rocks? What did rocks ever do to you? I for one believe in rocks!

      April 13, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • albert

      Spoken like a true Christian (Not!). Self-righteous people like yourself are part of the problem. Calling someone a retard is not the Christian way. You may as well be an atheist.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Danno

      We know why rocks are here. There are different classifications of rocks based on how they were formed. Igneous, sedimentary, etc. You seriously need to take a biology class if you think atheists believe life came from rocks. And then you insult community college graduates? Were you home schooled or something? Stop believing in that which there is no evidence for.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:24 am |
    • loreeeebeeeeeee

      You are such a wonderful ambassador for your loving god.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • Brian

      Mr. Mrzoniski (please note the polite form of address), You have a right to your beliefs and others have the right to theirs, however it is not necessary that you make nasty remarks or call people names because they do not happen to believe as you do. I am a believer in God, however I actively shun organized religion and churches because these days they seem to be filled with people like you who think it is perfectly acceptable to be hateful in the name of God. I do not know for sure, but I think that Jesus would be very disappointed that many "Christians" have perverted his message and feel it is acceptable to revile other people who have different views. You obviously are very angry about something and should probably do something such as therapy or even maybe prayer to address your anger and hatred.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • Knucklehead61

      Now there's a Christian thought... you so exemplify his teachings... Didn't Jesus say, "Render undo the pinheads..."

      April 13, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      Ah, Joe, you're just filled with the love of Jesus, aren't you? Still upset over flunking science in middle school? I guess when you are left with an absolutist view of the world that leaves you unable to cope with any real challenges, insults are all that is left. Don't worry, the local community college will get you that GED you so desperately need so you can move out of your parents' basement.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Knucklehead61

      Unto, I mean...

      April 13, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Knucklehead61

      So God put those rocks in your head?

      April 13, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Stephen

      There is proof of how rocks are created. Can you show us proof of a God?

      There is a lot of hatred coming out of you for someone who is supposed to believe that love is God.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • larry c. lyons

      Such hostility. Afraid that an honest display of skepticism will destroy your faith so you have to attack.

      Listen sunshine if your faith is so fragile that it cannot handle others having some skepticism then you need to reexamine your faith and come to terms with it.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  15. justmeanddog

    “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion” Attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Not a bad summation as far as I am concerned.

    April 13, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • Allison

      I agree

      April 13, 2011 at 6:31 am |
    • Dan Durea

      René Descartes couldn't come up with this philosophical dogma!

      April 13, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • dave rable

      Not a bad thought – for normal people. But what about those people who have no conscience, like a sociopath? This philosophy would then permit anything!

      April 13, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • MarkinFL

      The sociopath is not going to care about religion either. And if he did it would only only be to subvert it for his own use. Kind of like a few evangelists that come to mind. hmmmmmm...

      April 13, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  16. Sherry

    Thank you, thank you. I was beginning to think that I was a minority. I was raised in the Baptist Church, and met a lot of good folk there, but I base that on how they treated me. I see what some so called "good Christians" do in the name of Jesus and know that if he were here, he would say "Oh HELL no!". I am not sure what happens after death, but I for one, am not afraid. Guess that what comes of being a non believer. So many "saved" people are scared to death of dying. Why? I try to be honest, fair, accepting and loving. After that, I am not religious at all. And I am proud of that fact.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:55 am |
    • Luke

      You aren't sure what happens after death? What makes you think it will be different than what it was like before you were conceived and bore into this world?

      April 13, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  17. GianCarlo

    Oh, well, you can't be president if you are anything other than a Christian. This just shows the hypocrisy of this country. We are supposed to be so advanced then any other country, yet we are so backwards; if we really stop and take a close look at ourselves. That is the problem when we let loonies like the Christian right take over a party. Yea, like as if Jesus is favoring the RepubliKKKans over the Democrates. Come on you religious loonies, wake and smell the coffee and find out how really stupid you really are.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:20 am |
    • Andrew

      Sure currently you can't, but Jefferson certainly wasn't a Christian in any normal sense.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • Twif

      JFK was catholic not Christian.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • NMoline

      Why do people think that Catholics are not Christian? Catholicism is a sect of Christianity. Christianity is defined as believing that Christ is the savior/messiah.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I've met Catholics that are so confused that they do not identify themselves as Christians. Now THAT is bizarre to me. Just how divorced from understanding your own religion do you have to be to become so confused?

      April 13, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Maybe

      @Mark,
      "I've met Catholics that are so confused that they do not identify themselves as Christians."

      Catholics do consider themselves Christian... they just stopped using that identifier because it became synonymous with Protestant, and they wanted to distance themselves from "those people'. Catholics consider themselves born again (baptism), but they don't use that pop term either.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  18. Matt

    because they base their opinions on their religion and public policy on their opinions

    April 13, 2011 at 4:19 am |
  19. Jared

    i wonder if this is such a free country why do people care what faith others are, i mean seriously its nice to know but why do we form opinions of others based on there faith? even look at the obama muslim rumor who cares weather he is or isnt one?

    April 13, 2011 at 4:13 am |
    • Dan Durea

      Another embarrassing comment.

      April 13, 2011 at 6:52 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I wonder why people seem to believe that freedom of speech or religion or anything else would also be freedom from consequences? Humans judge each other constantly based upon their perceptions of good and bad, right and wrong, etc.. All these "freedoms" people get hung up on are strictly about freedom from government interference, not freedom from peer judgement.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:17 am |
  20. Dave

    i wonder if this is such a free country why do people care what faith others are, i mean seriously its nice to know but why do we form opinions of others based on there faith

    April 13, 2011 at 4:11 am |
    • Jesus

      Many of our founding fathers (e.g. Adams & Jefferson), Hoover, FDR, Lincoln have written letters which identify them as either atheists or deists, but NOT Christians in the sense of believing the Jesus myth in the Bible. It speaks well for a leader in my opinion when the dogma and the musings of a bronze age people are not accepted at face value. Faith IS important! How significant it is in one's life says a lot about a person's ability to make rational decisions. The more "faith" a candidate has in the supernatural, the less faith I have in that person!

      April 13, 2011 at 4:36 am |
    • Dan Durea

      I am sure It degrades CNN when people reading the first comment see multiple spelling and grammatical errors in one sentence that has no substance at all - only that the commentator is just "wandering why..."

      April 13, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • Chris

      Because believers force their religion on those around them. If they would just keep it to themselves and stop being so insane about it there wouldn't be a problem.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • Mark

      Just as people are judged by their use or misuse of grammar as a proxy for intellegence, people are judged by their adherence to supernatural forces.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • JaC

      Chris, I totally agree that believers of all stripes force their opinions on others...but this goes for atheists too...

      its' interesting that CNN seems to ratchet up these non-traditional religion articles around Easter...it's like clockwork...but I'm sure they're not trying to influence belief...that's for the fundamentalists, right?

      April 13, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • CN

      jac–really? which atheist group spent $8 million to pass proposition 8?

      April 13, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • saresudog

      Dave, it's because the faith based people are trying to dictate the reality of everyone else. They base their decisions on emotion, not logical thinking. I don't care what people what to believe. It's when they try to espouse those mythical beliefs on the rest of us that I have a huge problem. They are not the moral police.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • saresudog

      JaC, the atheists are only pushing back against a group of people who think that they should be the ones to dictate how we all live our lives. If the faith based nuts would stop, the atheists would stop, and we'd all live in harmony once again. By the way, I am not an atheist, but I do appreciate the fact that they choose to stand up against the faith based bullies.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:10 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.