The Preachers: James Smith (1807-1874)

From 1849 to 1856 Dr. James Smith was minister of First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, where the Lincolns sometimes attended church. Mr. Lincoln first heard Rev. Smith preach at age 16 when he spoke at a revival in Rockford, Indiana. Smith later became a good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. According to Mary’s cousin, John Todd Stuart, the relationship between the Lincolns and Dr. Smith was formed after Dr. Smith performed the funeral for Edward Baker Lincoln on February 1, 1850. Episcopal minister Charles Dresser, who had married the Lincolns, was out of town when Eddie Lincoln died. Stuart said:

“Dr. Smith, then pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, at the suggestion of a lady friend of theirs, called upon Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln and that first visit resulted in great intimacy and friendship between them, lasting until the death of Mr. Lincoln and continuing with Mrs. Lincoln until the death of Dr. Smith…I stated however that it was certainly true that up to that time Mr. Lincoln had never regularly attended any place of religious worship, but that after he rented a pew in the First Presbyterian Church, and that his family constantly attended the worship in that church until he went to Washington as president. This much I said at that time and can now add that the Hon Ninian Edwards, the brother-in-law of Mr. Lincoln, had within a few days informed me that when Mr. Lincoln commenced attending the Presbyterian Church, he admitted to him that his views had undergone the change claimed by Dr. Smith. I would further say that Dr. Smith was a man of very great ability and that on theological and metaphysical subjects, had few superiors and not many equals. Truthfullness was a prominent trait in Mr. Lincoln’s character and it would be impossible for any intimate friend of his to believe that he ever aimed to deceive either by his words or conduct.”1

Mr. Lincoln “was not a church-going man. I always considered him somewhat skeptical, yet never thought him a believer of the Tom Paine or Robert Ingersoll school,” reported Springfield businessman Thomas Lewis who was an elder and treasurer of First Presbyterian Church. “In the ‘fifties he went with his wife to Kentucky to visit her uncle. On his return I paid him a social call. In the meantime he said: ‘Lewis, while at my wife’s uncle’s I got hold of a book entitled ‘Smith on Infidelity’ by your Dr. (James) Smith. It gave me views on the Bible that I never had before. I read it about half through, and want to get hold of it to finish reading it.’ I told him I could doubtless secure a copy, for though I heard the doctor say recently that he had sold his last book, I supposed that some who had read it would perhaps be glad to give it up for the five dollars paid for their copy.

Mr. Lincoln said: “I wish you would see the doctor, for, as long as he has been here, I have never had an introduction to him. I wish you would bring him around and give me an introduction.” The following day, Dr. Smith visited Mr. Lincoln at his office. On leaving, Dr. Smith invited Mr. Lincoln to his church and Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln attended the Presbyterian church both of the following Sundays.2

“James Smith had developed a reputation for learned preaching,” noted religious historian Ronald C. White, Jr. “The theme of Smith’s ministry was his commitment to a reasonable faith. In 1843, he wrote The Christian’s Defence, Containing a Fair Statement, and Impartial examination of the Leading Objections Urged by Infidels Against the Antiquity, Genuineness, Credibility, and Inspiration of the Holy Scripture.” According to Dr. White: “In The Christian’s Defence, Smith aimed to defend above all the authority and truthfulness of the Old and New Testaments.” White argued that Smith’s logical approach appealed to Mr. Lincoln, who was “put off by the emotionalism he witnessed in the revivalistic religion of his youth.”3

Dr. Smith later said that if “[n]o other effect was ever produced by it than the influence it exerted upon the mind of that man whose name thrills the heart of every patriotic American, I thank God that I was induced to undertake the work.” He said “Mr. Lincoln placed himself and family under my pastoral Care, and when at home he was a regular attendant upon my ministry. I was always treated by him with high Consideration, and he Conferred upon me and mine, disinterested acts of Kindness.”4 Others like John T. Stuart thought that Dr. Smith overstated Mr. Lincoln’s religious conversion. “The Revd Doct Smith,” wrote Stuart, “tried to Convert Lincoln from Infidelity so late as 1858 and Couldn’t do it.”5 According to historian Wayne C. Temple, “Once the Lincolns were in his audience, Dr. Smith immediately struck up a social as well as pastoral relationship with Lawyer Lincoln’s vivacious wife and restless children. ‘Scarcely two weeks ever passed,’ recalled Smith, ‘during which I did not spend a pleasant evening the midst of that family circle…”6

“That Lincoln held the Springfield pastor in high esteem is shown by the fact that their friendship continued to the end,” wrote Elton Trueblood in Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish. “There is much evidence of the impact of Smith’s book on Lincoln’s mind. Witnesses to this were John T. Stuart, the early law partner, and Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Ninian W. Edwards. ‘I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of Christianity,’ Lincoln told Edwards, ‘and have heard him preach and converse on the subject and am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.’ Lincoln admitted that his views had been modified, and even went so far as to declare that Smith’s argument was ‘unanswerable.’”7

Mr. Lincoln asked Lewis about renting a pew at the church. “I replied that he could, as a desirable one had just been vacated by a family about to leave the city, and that the rent would be fifty dollars a year, payable quarterly. He paid twelve dollars and fifty cents then, and a like sum each quarter until he went to Washington.” Although Mrs. Lincoln joined the church, Mr. Lincoln did not. Lewis remembered President-elect Lincoln telling Dr. Smith when he left for Washington in February 1861: “Doctor, I wish to be remembered in the prayers of you and our church members.”8

Dr. Smith had problems living with the $1600 salary of the Springfield church, however, and had resigned in 1856. “Dr Smith is talent & beloved, & says he would stay if they would increase his salary, yet notwithstanding the wealthy in the church, as usual, there are many very close,” Mary Lincoln wrote her half-sister in November 1856.9 He was replaced by Dr. John Howe Brown, who was willing to accept even less money because of his own personal resources.

According to Wayne C. Temple, “It was not unusual for Abraham Lincoln to take an active part in the extracurricular affairs of the Presbyterian Church, even though he never added his name to the select membership list. On the evening of January 23,1863, when Dr. James Smith delivered a lecture on temperance, Lincoln was in the audience. And when Rev. Smith found himself confronted with a law suit in Presbytery, the Board of Trustees for First Church, on April 26, 1853, appointed ‘Abram’ Lincoln, Henry Van Hoff and Thomas Lewis as a committee to aid the Minister.”10

After President Lincoln’s inauguration, Dr. Smith pressed his case in writing to become a consul in Scotland – both to Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln Rev. Smith once told Mr. Lincoln that he was “a rising man. You will be Presdt yet.” In reply, Mr. Lincoln said if was ever elected President, ‘I’ll banish you to Scotland.”11 He supported meetings at the church supporting temperance and colonization and helped represent the church in a legal suit. He was as good as his word. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley wrote: “Mrs. Lincoln and I took the President by storm, one morning, with the demand for an appointment, which so surprised him that he could only hold up his hands and exclaim ‘Et tu Brute’. Our persistence became so great that surprise was changed to laughter, amid which he said, ‘Well! But you have not told me what you want, or the merits of the case.’ ‘Nothing less than the consulship at Dundee for our old Scotch Minister of Springfield, the Rev. Dr. James Smith, to whom we were all very much attached. An intellectual, powerful man, a perfect ‘Boanerges’, who could thunder out ‘the terrors of the law as well as proclaim the love of the gospel, but who had passed the line, and given way to a younger man.’ Mr. Lincoln hesitated; ‘He who hesitates is lost’; we press the matter. ‘The old Doctor was a warm personal friend, had been with us in joy and sorrow, was well-fitted for the post, which was one not much in demand, was an ardent Republican, and he wanted to spend his last days on his ‘native heather’”, and many words to like effect. He rose, laughing and said ‘You know Clarissa married Peter to get rid of him, send your preacher to the Cabinet Room,’ from whence he emerged a happy man, and Mr. Lincoln well pleased that he could confer the consulship on him. But he exacted a promise from us that it should be the last time we would ‘corner’ him. My private opinion is he had already settled the whole thing in his own mind but wanted to see the extent of our interest in this old friend.”12

In June 1861, Dr. Smith came to Washington in person and became a guest at the White House. According to historian Temple, “Both Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Grimsley lobbied the President to appointed Smith to some post. They reminded him that Dr. Smith was an ‘ardent Republican.” In order to avoid appointing another Illinoisan to a diplomatic post, President Lincoln named Smith’s son Hugh, a resident of Kentucky. Both Smiths went to Scotland where Hugh fell ill. After some confusion – where a Pennsylvania Democrat was named to succeed Hugh — Dr. Smith was duly appointed to succeed his son as Consul to Dundee in February 1863.13 Rev. Smith had once told Mr. Lincoln that he was “a rising man. You will be Presdt yet.” In reply, Mr. Lincoln said if he was ever elected President, ‘I’ll banish you to Scotland.”14

Robert Todd Lincoln prevailed upon the administrations of Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant to keep Smith in that post. From his retirement in Scotland, Dr. Smith was called on to attest to the “Christianity” of Lincoln, which was denied by William H. Herndon. As historian Paul M. Angle observed: “When Smith, already greatly disturbed by an extract from the Ann Rutledge lecture [given by Herndon] in the Dundee Advertiser, received an impertinent letter from Herndon asking him to relate first as a gentleman and then as a Christian the particulars of Lincoln’s alleged conversion, he eagerly complied with the request. In a widely published letter he denied that the law office was the place to judge character and implied that in the performance of his pastoral duties his own opportunities had been incomparably superior to those which Herndon had enjoyed.”15

In 1868, the widowed Mrs. Lincoln wrote a friend of her intention to visit Scotland: “Our old Minister a very good and intellectual man, resides there & has been always writing that I should visit Scotland…”16 In his letter to Herndon, Dr. Smith had returned Mrs. Lincoln’s loyalty, refusing to cooperate further with William Herndon because of his lecture maintaining that Ann Rutledge was Mr. Lincoln’s one true love.17

Dr. Smith wrote to William Herndon in January 1867: “Your letter of the 20th of December was duly received, in which you ask me to answer several questions in relation to the illustrious President, Abraham Lincoln. With regard to your second question, I beg leave to say it is a very easy matter to prove that while I was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Mr. Lincoln did avow his belief in the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. And I hold that it is a matter of greatest importance, not only to the present but to all future generations of the great Republic and to all advocates of civil and religious liberty throughout the world, that this avowal on his part and the circumstances attending it, together with very interesting incidents illustrative of the excellence of his character in my possession should be made known to the public. My intercourse with Abraham Lincoln convinced me that he was not only an honest man, but preeminently an upright man, ever seeking, so far as was in his power, to render unto all their due. It was my honour to place before Mr. Lincoln arguments designed to prove the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, accompanied by arguments of infidel objectors in their own language. To the arguments on both sides, Mr. Lincoln gave a most patient and searching investigation. To use his own language, he examined the arguments as a lawyer who is anxious to reach the truth investigates testimony. The result was the announcement by himself that the argument in favour of the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures was unanswerable. I could say much more on the subject, but as you are the person addressed, for the present I decline. The assassin Booth, by his diabolical act, unwittingly sent the illustrious martyr to glory, honour, and immortality, but his false friend has attempted to send him down to posterity with infamy branded on his forehead, as a man who, notwithstanding all he suffered for his country’s good, was destitute to those feelings and affections without which there can be no excellency of character.”18


  1. Katherine Helm, Mary Wife of Lincoln, p. 117-118 (Letter from John Todd Stuart to the Reverend J.A. Reed).
  2. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 129-130 (Thomas Lewis).
  3. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 130-131.
  4. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 549-550 (Letter from James Smith to William H. Herndon, January 24, 1867).
  5. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 576 (William H. Herndon interview with John T. Stuart, March 2, 1870).
  6. Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 55.
  7. Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish, p. 59-60.
  8. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 130,132 (Thomas Lewis).
  9. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 47-48 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Emilie Todd Helm, November 23, 1856).
  10. Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 57.
  11. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p.484 (Interview with Peter Van Bergen).
  12. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, ‘Six Months in The White House, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. XIX, October 1926, January 1927), p. 64.
  13. Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 159-160.
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 484 (Interview with Peter Van Bergen, ca 1865-1866).
  15. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxix (Paul M. Angle).
  16. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 47-48 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Rhoda White, May 2, 1868).
  17. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 549-550 (Letter from James Smith to William H. Herndon, January 24, 1867).
  18. John Wesley Hill, Abraham Lincoln – Man of God, p. 291-292 (Letter from Dr. James Smith to William Herndon, January 24, 1867).