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. Eric Alan Isaacson

    Does the letter say Lincoln "was a Theist," or that Lincoln "was atheist." Full context suggests the latter.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  2. Heretic

    Holy cow, guys. Everyone, including the writers of the article and the "close friend" of Lincoln, seems to not know the difference betwen "theist" and "deist." Maybe I'm wrong, but every single mention of theism here has been used incorrectly. The term you're all looking for is deism. Look it up.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  3. brad1001

    That he did right by his fellow man, that's enough for me. I really don't care what his religious leanings were. I have mine, you have yours. Peace.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  4. John Sharp

    I absolutely love this. I was not aware that Lincoln like Thomas Jefferson shared this view point. The view point of rational and intelligent people.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  5. C

    No human being has ever reached the level of physiological sophstication to read mind's. If Lincoln had not considered slavery he probably would have lived a little longer. Perhaps Lincoln understood the dark forces around southern & northern slave owners who were incapable of understanding the paradox between demanding their freedoms and demanding they be allowed to prevent the freedom of other human beings. What ever Lincoln's thoughts were is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:43 am |

    Although Lincoln was twice the politician as Thomas Jefferson both shared similar beliefs and both had major impacts on America. It is apparent that by rejecting the Evangelical and Christian movement taking place in Victorian America, Lincoln formulated throughout the war a forgiving and highly open approach to the South that (had he not been assassinated) would have resulted in the renewal of the South after the war. Fairness, having a forgiving nature, and taking measured and considered decisions clearly showed his "theist" tendencies. These were nothing like Andrew Johnson who was a devout Christian and who all but destroyed the south and practically reenslaved blacks after the war.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  7. P

    Too bad politicians can't say what they really believe. You can't get into office in the US without saying "Praise Jebus!"

    April 13, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  8. icu

    Just think about it, over 150 years later and it's almost impossible in this country to become president without everyone quizzing you on what religion you are and if you believe in God. Why is it such an issue in the 21st century?? And I'm not just talking about Obama. Mitch Romney, Mike Huckabee, etc. etc. Everyone has been questioned on their religious views. Take religion out of politics.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  9. Tdogg

    So far the best post is from Coach P. If one is comfortable with their spiritual beliefs, why is there such a need to justify those beliefs by trying to conform history and historical figures (other than their deity) to those beliefs. This country was not founded on Christianity, but on a freedom of – and from – religion. To each his own.

    As a LGBT person, religion's post makes no sense. Rather, anti-gay Christians pull that stunt. Again, if one is comfortable with their own faith, there would be no need to oppress others to try and fit them into that belief. The USA was founded on equality and freedom, and ultimately it does not matter what religious or spiritual beliefs Lincoln had. Although the article is interesting, energy would be better spent on debating renewable energy sources, climate change, nuclear power, hungry children, elder care, etc.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  10. rizzo

    Intelligent man rejects concepts that make no sense, news at 11.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • WilmaWonka


      April 13, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • John Sharp

      Well said.....

      April 13, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  11. EZRA

    I wish that modern politicians would emulate Lincoln keep any religious views they have to themselves also. I am SOoo tired of politicians wearing their supossed religion on thier sleeve. If you believe in Gods, fine. If you don't , fine. I don't care to or need to know about it.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  12. guitarharry

    This just shows that all the Christian fundamentalist politicians/pundits like Huckabee, Palin, Beck, and others are full of it when they start talking about how our government was founded on "Judeo-Christian' principals. Lincoln, like Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin before him, was a rationalist who did not want relgion to influence political decisions at all. We could use more people like that in office today.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Trisha


      April 13, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • P


      April 13, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • ED

      Of course it was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. On what principles do you think they were based – Hinduism, Islam, their own ideas??? Madison, Jefferson et al may or may not have been Christians but they were certainly influenced and the principles laid out for our government were certainly influenced by the prevailing Judeo-Christian culture of the day.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      The word of the day is "influenced". Not solely based upon them.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • ED

      MarkinFL, you're splitting hairs. +1 ED

      April 13, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  13. Tony

    commander-in-chief of an army that is fighting his own country. I would question the existence of god, too. Or at best keep it to myself as to avoid arguments of religious morality vs.political necessity.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  14. WilmaWonka

    Theist or not, he was a good human being and a good president. It does no good to question or doubt or judge at this point. Although, I would be happy to find that he did not believe in the divine. It would be concrete proof to judgemental religious folk that you CAN be good and NOT religious.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Dave

      The only time I've ever been in a church was when the local Episcopal Church's preachers wife asked me to sing in their church choir for a year so that they could raise the funds for a new pipe organ. I was asked to interact with many of the flock, and when they would ask me my opinion of something religious I would say that I would talk to them later about it at the local coffee shop. When they had raised the $ million + and installed the new organ I quit, I remain good friends with the reverend and his wife and many of the members.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • ED

      I totally disagree. "Good" or "bad" can only be defined against an Absolute Standard or Truth. Otherwise it's a subjective statement and can be interpreted any way the user of the terms chooses.

      For example, according to Nazi idealogy, what Hitler and his followers did during WWII was "good" in that they were ridding the world of "undesirables", and expanding the economic and political power of the German nation. Only because countries like the U.S. and U.K., influenced by a different moral/religiious framework, took a stand that Nazi Germany's programs and aggressions were "evil" and eventually defeated the Nazis can we sit here in the 21st century and claim that the Allies did a "good" thing and the Nazi's were "evil". If the Nazi's would have won and defeated countries like the U.S. and U.K., and their ideology triumphed, there would be no (official) mention of the evils of their ideology.

      All this to say that Lincoln may not have been a Christian, but the reason we can even call him "good" or claim that he did "good" things is because our culture is saturated with a Judeo-Christian ethical framework. It was also likely that the "good" that Lincoln did, including the emancipation of slaves, was heavily influenced by his Christian upbringing and the religious instruction he received as a child.

      Atheists simply cannot use the word "good" or "evil" – there's no absolute standard to measure those terms against and even a watered down version of what defines those words would be completely influenced by the Judeo-Christian environment we live in. Fish are the last to realize they're swimming in water.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Ed, we are quite able to use "good" and "bad" without using the bible. The bible is definitely not the sole source as a guide for good living. Frankly, a simple "golden rule" test can suffice for most important moral decisions. And no, the "golden rule" did not originate in the bible. It has been found by many cultures quite independently.
      Frankly, the bible is just one of many attempts to codify morality and freeze it in place. It is still just people trying to pretend there is no relativism in morality. Hover, there is. I feel quite morally superior to most bible thumpers.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Edit error, I was not attempting any reference to hovering. 😀

      April 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • ED

      OK MarkinFL...answer these three questions:

      1) Is it "good" or "bad" to offer human sacrifices to a deity?
      2) Is it "good" or "bad" to strap explosives on a child and have that child walk into a crowded marketplace and blow him/herself up?
      3) Is it "good" or "bad" to exterminate a whole race of peopel?

      April 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • ED

      MarkinFL...as an aside, just because some basic level of morality can be found in a number of cultures and religions doesn't necessarily prove your point. It can also confirm that humanity has been endowed by our Creator with a moral framework which has been corrupted by sin.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  15. M. B. A.

    Yes ,our minds are big enough to deny what the majority think.
    Religion has many aspects of telling what is or not moral.
    So do Atheists ,we may have all been created not by a God
    but something we will never understand ,that to takes the same
    faith as those that believe in God ,after all who created God?
    It all had to start somewhere ,in any event the whateveritis that
    invented the mosquito deserves punishment.lol

    April 13, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  16. Lin

    this is so much bs and propaganda to deceive everybody. Abraham Lincoln used to start all his letters with the words "in the day of the Lord". As exhibits in public libraries can show.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Kyle

      Everyone did that, Lin. That's what AD means (anno domini). There was no BCE and CE designations then. This doesn't mean a damn thing about someone's religious views. It means they understood how calendars worked.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Ben

      Doesn't "Day of our lord" just mean AD? As in "In the day of our lord February, 13 2011 I am reading CNN articles"

      April 13, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Stephen

      As an autograph collector for thirty years I can tell you that I've seen a lot of Lincoln letters but none that start that way.

      His proclaimations as president might start with that or something similar, but that was because it was part of the official decorum.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Lin honestly labeled her post right from the start. And I quote:

      "this is so much bs and propaganda to deceive everybody."

      April 13, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • johnnyleen

      Anno Domini means "year of the Lord", not "day of the Lord".

      April 13, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Talgrath

      Lin understands historical facts.


      April 13, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  17. KeithC

    Why is Theist in quotes in this article heading? Are you simulating air quotes to sort of "discredit" or "minimize" the word. This isn't even news. Jefferson and Franklin were also Theists (if they spent much thought on the divine at all), and to argue anything else is simply revisionist history. Or should I say "Revisionism"?

    April 13, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • jlp

      Probably because it's quoting the letter.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • RoboCarrot

      Because this is "CNN" and these are "facts" and the "editor" thought the words should be in "quotes" so "readers" would understand that this is what someone "said."

      April 13, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Ryan

      Keith: No, it's because Theist has a different meaning today than it did back then. Don't look for conspiracy where none exists.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  18. pcmacha

    All this talk of Christianity. Lets not forget that there is a strong possibility that Lincoln was Jewish!

    April 13, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • JonathanL

      I want to see his birth certificate.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • RoboCarrot

      There were talks that Tom Lincoln wasn't Abe's father – after all, look at Tom – how could Tom be the father of such a great man? There' a book called The Sorrows of Nancy is based on this theory...

      April 13, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  19. StevieBoy

    If Lincoln truly didn't embrace religion and let it muddy his thinking then he's higher up on the pedestal than before!

    April 13, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  20. L. Elliott

    Herndon was hardly a credible source of information for all that he was Lincoln'c law partner in Springfield. His Lincoln biography was more of a money-making crutch against Mary Lincoln than a well researched and crafted font of information. After years of reading about the 16th president, it's doubtful, in my view, that a man reputed to be as shut mouthed as Lincoln supposedly was would have spouted his personal views on religion and his love life to a business partner.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • KennyG

      L. Elliott's response really makes sense. I agree...

      April 13, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • LincolnLover

      Herndon and Lincoln were close friends. Of course they would share their deep thoughts with each other. Being a "business partner" does not mean they were not intimate friends.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • religion

      It may make sense, but their are compelling views to the contrary. And, as the article notes, they worked together for 17 years.

      Modern Christians remind me of modern GLBTQ folks, going back in history to look for something that matches the present in the present context. Neither are exactly accurate because the context is different. Washington would not take communion which was a bold statement for his day. Alexander the Great had a boy to sleep with while on the battlefield. These are contextual life stories that are not easilty translated to 2010, as much as believers and activists want to.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Elizabeth

      Thank you for saying this. The academic community has always viewed Herndon with a skeptical eye and likely always will, despite Douglas Wilson's recent great work. I would therefore take the content of this letter with a huge grain of salt.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Coach P

      Theologically, Lincoln was as messed up as one can get. He quoted the Bible, but also held seances in the White House. I am a committed Christian (as a matter of fact, a pastor), but I get so tired of people trying to make icons like Lincoln into something they were not. Abraham Lincoln was NOT a Christian. He may have had thoughts about God, about a creator, about eternity, about "I wonder what happens after we die", etc. But, please stop pronouncing him a Christian.

      Christians often act like we desperately need heroes or we need important people to validate our beliefs. Gee, I thought that's what Jesus was. I am comfortable with putting my trust in Him. I don't need to convince you that Christianity is the way to go because Abraham Lincoln was a Christian. If he was or wasn't (the latter is true), it doesn't change anything. It doesn't matter.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • P

      @Coach P – Jesus was Jewish.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Mario

      JESUS is alive right now. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. If you are Jewish or not, you may like the letter to the Hebrews, in the Bible, NT.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Talgrath

      @Coach P

      Thank you for the comment, it is nice to see someone that believes in God but doesn't need to justify it by trying to make everything about Christianity.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:14 am |
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