Abraham Lincoln's Religious Views
by William Herndon
from Religious Views Of Our Presidents
by Franklin Steiner

The following letter appeared, in 1870, in the Index, a journal published in Toledo, Ohio, and edited by Francis E. Abbott:

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From private letters from Herndon to Mr. Remsburg, and published for the first time in Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian? in 1893.

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In his Life of Lincoln, pp. 445-446, Mr. Herndon said:

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What Was Washington's Belief?
by Franklin Steiner
the final section of Chapter I
"George Washington, The Vestryman Who Was Not A Communicant"
of his 1936 book
The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents
From Washington To F.D.R.
(Published by Haldemann-Julius;
reprint available from Prometheus)

It is said that some one asked of Lord Beaconsfield his religion. He replied, "The religion of wise men." Thereupon, his interlocutor again asked, "What religion is that," and my Lord answered, "Wise men never tell." Washington was a wise man and never told.

In classifying these Presidents, placing them in one Church or another, whenever they actually were believers in the doctrines of that Church, I have had no difficulty in securing indubitable evidence, except in the case of President Pierce, whose religious affiliations it required some effort to learn. The proofs have been culled when possible from the spoken or written words of the Presidents themselves, combined with their public attitudes, in which I could make no mistake.

Washington never made a statement of his belief, while his actions rather prove that if he was not a positive unbeliever, he was at best an indifferentist. We have seen that he was not a regular attendant at church services -- rather an irregular one. I have examined 14 years of his complete Diaries, 13 of them when he was at home, with two Episcopal churches within eight or 10 miles. One of these years, 1774, was his banner year for church attendance, when he went 18 times. Yet we find, in these 14 years, his average attendance to have been but six times a year -- not a very good record.

That Washington did not commune is established beyond all doubt by reputable witnesses. The evidence of Bishop White, the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie and the Rev. Dr. Wilson certainly outweighs the very shady assertion that he once took communion in a Presbyterian church, which rests upon questionable and anonymous evidence, to say nothing of its utter improbability.

Bishop White says Washington did not kneel in prayer. Nellie Custis says he stood during the devotional service. She also admits that she never saw him pray, but that someone long dead had told her that he had seen him praying many years before. The Valley Forge prayer is a myth of even a weaker type than the Presbyterian communion story. The "Prayer for the United States" is a demonstrated fabrication. These fictions would not be necessary were there true evidence that Washington was religious. During the Revolution, forged letters were published in London attacking his personal moral character. It has been said that letters written by Washington were in existence that cast reflections upon him, but no one has ever been able to produce them. Between the fictions, forgeries and falsehoods told to make Washington either a plaster saint or a rake, it is difficult to say which would have disgusted him the more.

Jared Sparks says:

If Dr. Sparks found from Washington's writings that he never had a "doubt of the Christian revelation," neither could he find among them anything proving his belief in the same. He may have thought about it, and it is likely that he did, but as to expressing his views, he surely was indifferent and unconcerned. The truth is that the majority of unbelievers, especially men of prominence in political or social life, make no statement of their unbelief. True, when Washington spoke of religion, he spoke with "seriousness and reverence," but he so spoke of all religions and not of any particular one. That an unbeliever is necessarily flippant, it is the prerogative of Mr. Sparks to assert. Scholarly Freethinkers consider religion an important subject, even though they reject its orthodox interpretation. While not necessarily reverent in their attitude, they discuss it seriously from the standpoint of science, logic and history.

Most important of all, there stands out the fact that while in Washington's writings there is nothing affirming or denying the truth of Christian revelation, there is also nothing inconsistent with Deism. Deists of the time believed in God and his Providence. They accepted all of moral value in the Christian Bible and in all other sacred books, holding it to be a part of natural religion. They held in high esteem the moral teachings and character of Jesus. Even the orthodox never tire of quoting complimentary things said about him by Paine and Rousseau. Many Deists prayed and believed in prayer.

Nor can Dr. Sparks find anything in the writings of Washington tending to prove that he believed in Jesus as the Christ and the son of God. Nor will he find anything which will prove that a future existence had any firm place in his calculations, though Deists, as a rule, hope for "happiness beyond this life." During Washington's sickness and death religion was not mentioned. No minister was called in, though three doctors were present.

Dr. Moncure D. Conway says:

He died like an ancient pagan Greek or Roman. This has puzzled many who have tried to fit Washington with orthodox garments.

In his letters to young people, particularly to his adopted children, he urges upon them truth, character, honesty, but in no case does he advise going to church, reading the Bible, belief in Christ, or any other item of religious faith or practice. Once he wanted mechanics for his estate. He did not demand that they be Christians, but he wrote to his agent, "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."

Except the legal phrase, "In the name of God, Amen," there are no religious references in Washington's will, something unusual in wills made at that time. While he liberally recognizes his relatives he leaves nothing to churches or for other religious purposes, but he does remember the cause of education.

We have already quoted Bishop White to the effect that when the vestry of Christ Church waited upon Washington with an address, he expressed gratification at some things he had heard from their pulpit, but said not a word that would indicate his own religious views. Just before he left the Presidency, all the ministers of Philadelphia waited upon him, also bearing an address. We will let Thomas Jefferson tell the story, as he wrote it in his Diary, for February 1, 1800, just six weeks after Washington's death:

Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the ablest physicians of his time and a patriot of the Revolution. The Asa Green spoken of was one of the most noted Presbyterian ministers of the day, and was the chaplain of Congress while the seat of the government was located in Philadelphia. The object of these ministers was to find, if possible, what Washington's religious views were, and to draw from him some sentiment they could use to combat the infidelity of Thomas Paine. The result was that orthodoxy received no more comfort than heterodoxy.

A glance at an entry in Washington's Diary for October 10, 1785, throws great light upon his attitude toward the Church and religion. It will speak for itself: "A Mr. John Lowe on his way to Bishop Seabury for ordination, called and dined here -- could not give him more than a general certificate founded on information, respecting his character -- having no acquaintance with him, nor any desire to open a correspondence with the new ordained bishop."

Washington for social and matrimonial reasons could attend church as little as possible -- an average of six times a year at home. He could be a vestryman because that was a political office from whence he went to the House of Burgesses and from whence his taxes were assessed. This was in his interest. He could meet and dine with clergymen and treat them with courtesy. When they addressed him he could say some nice things in reply, just enough to keep them from barking at his heels. But to be involved in a correspondence with a bishop over an ordination or to be mixed up in any of the church imbroglios of the time was more than he could stand and here he drew the line. He has been well called "the sly old fox," and nowhere did he demonstrate this quality better than when he was obliged to deal with the Church, the clergy and religion.

Theodore Parker says:

The Rev. Dr. Abercrombie said, "Washington was a Deist." The Rev. Dr. Wilson said, "I think any one who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more." Gouverneur Morris said he no more believed in the system of Christianity than Morris did himself. His intimate friend, Bishop White, who perhaps was the best qualified to judge, denies that Washington ever took communion to his knowledge, though he attended Dr. White's church more often than any other while he was President. He also admits that he never heard Washington utter a word which would indicate him to have been a believer; and what is more, he says he never saw him on his knees during prayer, an attitude all Episcopalians assume when performing that function of religion. The positive evidence, I admit, is meagre, but combined with the facts and circumstances to which I have called the reader's attention, it is strong. That he was an evangelical Christian has never been proved and is improbable. That he was a Deist is not inconsistent with any known fact.

Mr. Parker says that silence is a figure of speech. We may add that it is sometimes more eloquent and convincing than words.

The facts of the mythical character of Washington's alleged piety have been before the world for many years. Historians and biographers, not desiring to give offense to the religious public, taught to accept his religiosity as infallibly true, have either not mentioned them at all or spoken of them in whispers. But, as historians develop more courage and more of them speak the truth out loud, more of them admit his Deistic sentiments. William Roscoe Thayer, in his Life of Washington (published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co.), says: "I do not discover that he was in any sense an ardent believer. He preferred to say 'Providence,' rather than 'God,' probably because it was less definite." "For a considerable period at one time of his life he did not attend the communion." (p. 239.) "He believed in moral truths and belief with him was putting into practice what he professed." (Ibid.) "He had imbibed much of the deistic spirit of the 18th Century." (p. 240.)

Mr. Rupert Hughes has not yet completed his biography of Washington but three volumes so far having been published. From personal acquaintance with him, however, I know that his view of Washington's religious opinions is substantially in accord with the view of Mr. Thayer and others whom I have cited. Another recent writer, W. E. Woodward, speaks of them without hesitation in these words:

I think I have given in this chapter plenty of evidence to sustain these writers' opinions. When Messrs. Hughes' and Woodward's books were published, their critics did not deny the truth of their statements of fact, but denounced them for making them. Others, like Woodrow Wilson, in his Life of Washington, and Paul Haworth, in his Washington: The Country Gentlemen, thinking his religious opinions to be a dangerous subject, have said nothing about them. It is often dangerous to speak the truth.

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