From Chaplain Alan Farley
(Hon Chaplain, 290 Foundation
THE CIVIL WAR PRESIDENTS AND RELIGION
James 1:27, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
1 Peter 1:4, “To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,”
American politicians have turned repeatedly through the years to that “common faith diversely expressed” in order to touch the sensibilities of their constituency. Especially from their presidents, and especially in times of war, Americans have expected public speeches that affirm a deep and abiding national faith in God and an acceptance of a divine role for the nation.
During the War Between the States, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis appealed to the religious sentiments of their citizens, even though neither man entered the highest office of their respective countries as church members. Both are reported to have had profound experiences during their tenures in office.
As president of the United States of America, Lincoln presented the preservation of the Union as a sacred cause. As president of the Confederate States of America, Davis asserted that the Southern cause was a high and holy one. Both presidents drew on a common religious heritage that combined evangelical Christian themes with the rhetoric of liberty. As had been the case during the American Revolution, it proved to be a potent mixture.
Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born into similar circumstances in some ways. Born less than a year apart and less than a hundred miles apart in rural Kentucky, both Lincoln and Davis had Baptist parents.
Abraham Lincoln rejected the Baptist faith of his parents and especially the Calvinistic views of his mother. He preferred to call it “Necessity” instead of believing in God’s directing hand. Jefferson Davis also rejected the Baptist faith of his parents. After several years in a Catholic school and then under the influence of a retired Boston Unitarian minister, now university president, Davis grew to approve many of the criticisms voiced concerning the Evangelical Christian religion. However after entering West Point he was deeply moved by the conversation of a classmate, Leonidas Polk, and the revival that swept West point after his acceptance of Christ as personal Saviour. He was also moved by the Episcopal chaplain there and favored that denomination for the rest of his life. After leaving West Point in 1828, he served in the army for 7 years primarily in the northwestern frontier. During these years he showed an interest in religion and especially an interest to evangelize the Indians of the region.
Neither man joined with a church before taking the oath of office of president of their respective countries. This caused Lincoln to be labelled an infidel by congressional rival and Methodist Circuit riding preacher, Peter Cartwright. The sheer magnitude of their respective responsibilities and the personal tragedy that both men experienced changed them in some profound ways. Both men lost young sons to death while in office. In 1862 Davis was baptized into the Episcopal Church. Letters that he wrote to his wife in the summer of 1862 and the time he spent as a prisoner of the United States after the war display a deep personal Christian faith.
Lincoln on the other hand never joined a church because his life was cut short by his assassination. The New York Avenue Presbyterian pastor, the denomination of his wife, Mary Todd, stated Lincoln had contacted him just before his death to inquire about church membership. Lincoln is reported to have had his spiritual conversion after his famous Gettysburg Address and inspection of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania two years before his death.