As president, Abraham Lincoln often made reference to God and the Bible in private and in public, but historians have concluded that while he evolved into a religious man, he never professed to be Christian and remained skeptical of organized religion.
In advance of Steven Speilburg's new movie "Lincoln," a few religion websites are examining the faith of the nation's 16th president and one of its greatest leaders.
"Lincoln's religion has been debated almost from the moment of his assassination 130 years ago. Even today, conservative preachers and broadcasters who bemoan the decline of Christian America repeat moving stories of Lincoln's deep piety, while populist naysayers deny such claims," wrote historian Mark Noll in a 1998 piece highlighted from the archives of Christianity Today. "Both groups seem to feel that if only Lincoln could be enlisted on their side — whether of evangelical faith or naturalistic rationalism — it would amount to a great victory for them."
Noll lists several documented facts and myths about Lincoln's life that show while the president did pray, read the Bible and turn to Presbyterian ministers for comfort, he shunned organized religion and didn't live the "Christian lifestyle."
"So, what was Lincoln's religion? When the solid have been separated from the spurious, the stories show Lincoln's respect for God, his own personal sense of living under the authority of divine providence, and his eagerness to commit the Civil War to divine rule," Noll wrote.
Lincoln was just the second president to quote from the Bible when he delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, some 41 days before he was assassinated, wrote Ronald C. White, in another repurposed piece published by Christianity Today.
White calls a speech the model for melding faith and politics.
"In a total of 701 words, Lincoln mentioned God 14 times, quoted scripture four times, and invoked prayer three times," White wrote. "Lincoln's address provides a model for how Christians can speak of faith and politics together. First, he began by expressing respect for the positions of each side, even those whom his audience would deem the enemy. Second, he grounded his thinking in the Bible, using the Bible not simply as an illustration but as a foundation for his political arguments. Third, he affirmed that God acts in history."
Best-selling author Stephen Mansfield called Lincoln's second inaugural address "the greatest of American political sermons."
But it came after a lifetime of trials had purged from Lincoln a resentment toward religion that he had harbored from his youth, Mansfield wrote in the Huffington Post.
Mansfield wrote that Lincoln was repulsed by the religious fervor that swept across the American frontier while he was a boy, openly criticized the Bible and Christianity as a young man and believed God had it out for him. But the untimely deaths of two sons and the carnage of the Civil War caused him to reflect on the purposes of God.
"Though he never joined a church and seldom spoke of Jesus Christ publicly," Mansfield wrote, "he became our most spiritual chief executive, sometimes more prophet than president."