Lincoln grew up in a Baptist family, but while he was still young, he grew frustrated with organized religion when he saw how excessive emotion and bitter quarrels were common in yearly camps and among traveling ministers of various denominations. Growing up, Lincoln did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, the Atonement, the infallibility of the Bible, miracles, or heaven and hell. However, he did believe in a Supreme Being.
William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, stated that Lincoln admired deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. Also, James Adams labeled Lincoln "a deist."
Even early on, Lincoln believed in a God, though not the God of Christianity. One aspect of Lincoln's Calvinist background that he wholeheartedly embraced throughout his life was the Doctrine of Necessity, which is more commonly known as Predestination, or Determinism.
During this time, Lincoln is reported to have said, "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." Quotes like this one have led to the belief among some that he was an atheist, but even early on, that was simply not true.
While in office, dealing with the Civil War, among other issues, religion began to play a greater role in Lincoln's life and there is evidence that he began to accept Christian doctrine.
On Thursday, February 20, 1862, at 5:00 P.M. Lincoln's eleven year old son, William Wallace Lincoln (Willie), died in the White House. Historians suggest that this may have been the most difficult personal crisis in his life. After the funeral, Lincoln attempted a return to his routine, but he was unable. One week after the funeral, he isolated himself in his office and wept all day. Lincoln reportedly said, "My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven."
At the same time, the War was not going well for the Union. Lincoln said, "I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." Later, as he was preparing to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said, "I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Maryland I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves."
Later, while trying to put into words, from a divine perspective, the necessity of the Civil War, he wrote:
"The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln issued the first Federally mandated Thanksgiving Day to be kept on the last Thursday in November. Reflecting on the successes of the past year, Lincoln said:
"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."In 1864, some former slaves in Maryland presented Lincoln with a gift of a Bible. Lincoln replied:
"In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it."In September 1864, Lincoln, placing the Civil War squarely within a divine province, wrote in a letter to a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers),
"The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail accurately to perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise...we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay."
Rev. James Armstrong Reed, in preparing his 1873 lectures on the religion of Lincoln, asked a number of people if there was any evidence of Lincoln being an infidel in his later life. The reply from Phineas Gurley, pastor of the same New York Avenue Presbyterian Church while Lincoln was an attender, to Reed's question was:
"I do not believe a word of it. It could not have been true of him while here, for I have had frequent and intimate conversations with him on the subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teaching. And more than that: in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battle-field of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believed his heart was changed, and that he loved the Saviour, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion"
Regarding his intention to join a church, according to an affidavit signed under oath in Essex County, New Jersey, February 15, 1928, by Mrs. Sidney I. Lauck, then a very old woman, Mrs. Lauck said:
"After Mr. Lincoln's death, Dr. Gurley told me that Mr. Lincoln had made all the necessary arrangements with him and the Session of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church to be received into the membership of the said church, by confession of his faith in Christ, on the Easter Sunday following the Friday night when Mr. Lincoln was assassinated."
Noah Brooks, a newspaperman, and a friend and biographer of Lincoln's, in reply to Reed's inquiry if there was any truth to claims that Lincoln was an infidel, stated:
"In addition to what has appeared from my pen, I will state that I have had many conversations with Mr. Lincoln, which were more or less of a religious character, and while I never tried to draw anything like a statement of his views from him, yet he freely expressed himself to me as having 'a hope of blessed immortality through Jesus Christ.' His views seemed to settle so naturally around that statement, that I considered no other necessary. His language seemed not that of an inquirer, but of one who had a prior settled belief in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion. Once or twice, speaking to me of the change which had come upon him, he said, while he could not fix any definite time, yet it was after he came here, and I am very positive that in his own mind he identified it with about the time of Willie's death. He said, too, that after he went to the White House he kept up the habit of daily prayer. Sometimes he said it was only ten words, but those ten words he had. There is no possible reason to suppose that Mr. Lincoln would ever deceive me as to his religious sentiments. In many conversations with him, I absorbed the firm conviction that Mr. Lincoln was at heart a Christian man, believed in the Savior, and was seriously considering the step which would formally connect him with the visible church on earth. Certainly, any suggestion as to Mr. Lincoln's skepticism or Infidelity, to me who knew him intimately from 1862 till the time of his death, is a monstrous fiction -- a shocking perversion."
Of Lincoln's increasing religious views during this time, Lincoln's widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, said,
"A man, who never took the name of the Maker in vain, who always read his Bible diligently, who never failed to rely on God's promises & looked upon Him for protection, surely such a man as this, could not have been a disbeliever, or any other than what he was, a true Christian gentleman....From the time of the death of our little Edward, I believe my husband's heart was directed towards religion & as time passed on - when Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office...then indeed to my knowledge - did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God - for his sustaining power. When too - the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with God's chastising hand upon us - he turned his heart to Christ —"