Abraham Lincoln's political career led to frequent association with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although he isn't often thought of as a consistent friend of the church, the final years of Lincoln's life did help foster a positive memory for many Mormons.
Michael K. Winder, who recently authored a new book, "Presidents and Prophets" (Covenant Communications, 2007), said Lincoln's towering character and enduring example continue to reverberate through the church today.
Winder presented a paper, "Abraham Lincoln and the Mormons," during a lecture at the Salt Lake City Library on Sept. 12, as part of the 56th annual Utah State History Conference.
Lincoln's upcoming 200th birthday on Feb. 12, 2009, makes new reflections on the 16th U.S. president very timely.
Winder said Lincoln's association with Mormons predated his presidency by a few decades. He was an Illinois Senator and may have had a connection with Joseph Smith, possibly knowing the Prophet quite well.
Winder said some have speculated that Joseph Smith may have attended a party for Lincoln. He also said Lincoln and Joseph Smith were in the Illinois State Capitol on several occasions at the same time.
Lincoln helped Mormons secure the Nauvoo Charter, but Winder said Lincoln didn't show any special favoritism toward the church and had initially referred to Mormonism as a "strange, new sect."
LDS Church President Brigham Young made unfavorable comments about Lincoln at times. For example, he once referred to Lincoln as "King Abraham."
As a Republican, Lincoln was committed to that party's 1856 platform of abolishing the "twin relics of barbarism polygamy and slavery." He also signed the nation's first anti-polygamy bill on July 8, 1862.
However, slavery and the Civil War occupied much of his efforts as president from 1861-65, and Lincoln's own policy was more of a "let the Mormons alone" stance.
In a letter to President Young dated June 7, 1863, Thomas B.H. Stenhouse, an LDS representative to Washington, wrote that Lincoln had said, "You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone."
History also shows that Lincoln checked out a copy of the Book of Mormon from a library on Nov. 18, 1861, and kept it for eight months. He had also checked out three other books on Mormons, though they were all unfavorable to the church.
Lincoln was also well-aware of Utah's great natural resources and once referred to the state as "the treasurehouse of the nation."
When Lincoln needed help to protect the telegraph line in Utah, he contacted President Young, not the territorial governor, for assistance.
"I always had a liking for Abe Lincoln," President Young once said. "And if he had come out here and known us, he would have understood us and liked us and I'd have told him 'another' story to match his every time and then we wouldn't have heard so much rot about our ways."
Mormons in Utah celebrated Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1865, not seeing him as an enemy, according to Winder. The church was greatly grieved when Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865. Some 3,000 people were in the Salt Lake Tabernacle to pay respects to the late leader on April 19. The next day was declared a day of mourning and all businesses in Salt Lake City were closed.
Elder Hyrum M. Smith, an apostle, said in April 1905 general conference, "I believe Abraham Lincoln was raised up to do God's will."
President Heber J. Grant also once referred to Lincoln as "that great and wonderful man."
Lincoln has also been the subject of some humorous LDS references. For example, President James E. Faust stated in a talk at Brigham Young University in 1996 that "even Abraham Lincoln couldn't qualify for admission to the J. Reuben Clark Law School." Then-BYU President Rex Lee quipped, "He showed up one day, but he had a beard."1 comment on this story
On Lincoln's 100th birthday in 1909, former apostle Matthias F. Cowley participated as proxy in a Salt Lake Temple sealing for President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd. Lincoln was then sealed to his former sweetheart, Ann Mayes Rutledge, too. Rutledge's untimely death from a typhoid fever in 1835 at age 22 broke Lincoln's heart.
Elder Cowley had resigned as apostle in 1905, about four years before he did Lincoln's sealing work in the temple. However, Elder Cowley's priesthood wasn't suspended until 1911. (He returned to full membership in the church in 1936.)Lincoln's other temple work was previously done in the St. George Temple during 1877, when it was performed for many other former U.S. presidents and leaders.