The Preachers

Springfield printer Gilbert J. Greene recalled accompanying Mr. Lincoln in the late 1850s into the country to help a dying woman write her will. Greene remarked on the sympathy and compassion and religious comfort Mr. Lincoln brought the woman – including reading the 23rd Psalm and a portion of the Gospel of John to her. He concluded with a recitation of the words of “Rock of Ages.” Greene said that “While Lincoln was reciting the last stanza a look of peace and resignation lit up the countenance of the dying woman. In a few minutes more she passed away.” On the somber way back to Springfield, Greene said: “Mr. Lincoln, I have been thinking that is very extraordinary that you should so perfectly have acted as pastor as well as attorney.” Mr. Lincoln paused and replied: “God, and Eternity, and Heaven were very near to me to-day.”1 Mr. Lincoln and the preachers of his acquaintance spoke a common language – the language of the Scriptures. It did not make their relationships easy.

Springfield attorney Newton Bateman, not always considered the most reliable of observers, recalled a conversation he had with Mr. Lincoln in late October 1860. “Mr. B. here are 23 ministers of different denominations, and all of them are against me but 3 & here are a great many prominent members of the churches, a very large majority of whom are against me. Mr. B, I am not a Christian, God knows I would be one, but I have carefully read the Bible & I do not so understand this book‘ (drawing from his bosom a pocket testament). ‘These men well know that I am for freedom in the territories – freedom everywhere as far as the Constitution & laws will permit, and that my opponents are for slavery. They know this & yet with this book in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me. I do not understand it all.”2 Presidential aide John G. Nicolay later wrote:

The opposition of the Springfield clergy to his election was chiefly due to remarks about them. One careless remark I remember was widely quoted. An eminent clergyman was delivering a series of doctrinal discourses which had attracted considerable local attention. Although Lincoln was frequently invited, he would not be induced to attend them. He remarked that he wouldn’t trust Brother ____ to construe the statutes of Illinois and much less the laws of God; that people who knew him wouldn’t trust his advice on an ordinary business transaction because they didn’t consider him competent; hence he didn’t see why they did so in the most important of all human affairs, the salvation of their souls. These remarks were quoted widely and misrepresented, to Lincoln’s injury. In those days people were not so liberal as now and anyone who criticized a parson was considered a skeptic.3

But Nicolay also noted some letters written to Mr. Lincoln by Albert Hale, pastor of the Second Presbyterian church of Springfield to a fellow clergyman in New Jersey. In one missive after Mr. Lincoln was nominated in May 1860, Rev. Hale wrote favorably: “Mr. Lincoln is not an attendant on my preaching. His wife is a member of the First Presbyterian Church, and when he is in the city he pretty regularly attends there on the Sabbath. It has been whispered of late that he does not attend so frequently because the pastor is afflicted with Douglas proclivities. I do not credit this report for the reason that Mr. Lincoln is not in the habit of showing his resentment every time an opportunity offers.” Hay added:”He may be regarded as a regular attendant on the preaching of the Gospel, but with western and not puritan views of the method of Sabbath observance.”4

It wasn’t the first time that Mr. Lincoln suffered from the opposition of religious leaders. In the spring of 1843, Mr. Lincoln faced off against John J. Hardin and Edwin Baker for the Whig congressional nomination. “There was too, the strangest combination of Church influence against me,” wrote Mr. Lincoln. Baker was a Campbellite preacher which gave him a religious base which Mr. Lincoln lacked. Mr. Lincoln wrote friend Martin Morris: “My wife has some relatives in the Presbyterian and some in the Episcopal Churches, and therefore, whereever it would tell, I was set down as either the one or the other, whilst it was every where contended that no ch[r]istian ought to do for me, because I belonged to no church, was suspected of being a deist, and had talked about fighting a duel. With all these things Baker, of course had nothing to do. Nor do I complain of them. As to his own church going for him. I think that was right enough, and as to the influences I have spoken of in the other, though they were very strong, it would be grossly untrue and unjust to charge that they acted upon them in a body or even very nearly so. I only mean that those influences levied a tax of a considerable per cent. upon my strength throughout the religious community.”5

Mr. Lincoln came across many Protestant denominations early in his adult life in the small town of New Salem. “Although one of the founders of New Salem was a preacher of the Cumberland Presbyterian faith, and the coming of the Bale family brought two Baptist preachers, Abraham and Jacob Bale, as residents of the town, and although Peter Cartwright and other Methodist preachers came frequently and preached in the schoolhouse or in the Rutledge tavern, there was in New Salem a rather strong tendency toward what was called infidelity,” wrote Lincoln biographer William E. Barton, himself a minister. “Paine’s Age of Reason and Volney’s Ruins were in active circulation. Lincoln read them, and they were not without their influence upon his thinking.”6

However, Barton observed: “One of Lincoln’s best friends in New Salem, and one of the strongest forces for righteousness, was Doctor John Allen, who came to New Salem from Vermont before August 28, 181, ” wrote Barton. “Doctor Allen practised his profession on Sunday, but gave his fees for that day to religion and charity. He organized the first Sunday-school in New Salem, and was its superintendent. He organized a Temperance Society, which was looked upon with disfavor.”7

Dr. Allen was one of many clergy with whom Mr. Lincoln made friends in the 180s. In February 1848, Congressman Lincoln wrote the Rev. Josephus Hewett, who once had organized a Campbellite Presbyterian church in Springfield but had moved to Natchez, Mississippi: “For old acquaintance’s sake, if for nothing else, be sure to write me on receiving this. I was very near forgetting to tell you that on my being introduced to General [John A.] Quitman and telling I was from Springfield, Illinois, he at once remarked, ‘Then you know my valued friend, Hewett of Natchez,’ and being assured that I did, he said just such things about you as I like to hear said about my own valued friends.”8 Abner Ellis later recalled that Mr. Lincoln was at one time very much “taken with Josephus Hewetts preaching.”9

Mr. Lincoln had a long habit of doing favors for preachers. He wrote John J. Hardin in May 1846 asking his help in getting Dr. F.A. McNeil an army appointment as a surgeon in the Mexican-American war. Mr. Lincoln’s wonderful memory could come into play where preachers were concerned. Indiana Senator Henry S. Lane brought Mr. Lincoln the case of a midwestern preacher. He was accompanied by the preacher’s daughter and son-in-law.

“Lane, what did you say this man’s name was?’

‘Luckett,’ answered the Senator

“Not Henry M. Luckett?’ quickly queried the President.

‘Yes,’ interposed Mrs. Bullitt; ‘my father’s name is Henry M. Luckett.’

‘Why, he preached in Springfield years ago, didn’t he?’ said Mr. Lincoln, now all animation and interest.

‘Yes, my father used to preach in Springfield,’ replied the daughter.

‘Well, this is wonderful!’ Mr. Lincoln remarked; and turning to the party in front of him he continued: ‘I knew this man well; I have heard him preach; he was a tall, angular man like I am, and I have been mistaken for him on the streets. Did you say he was to be shot day after to-morrow? No, no! There will be no shooting nor hanging in this case. Henry M. Luckett!

There must be something wrong with him, or he wouldn’t be in such a scrape as this. I don’t know what more I can do for him, but you can rest assured, my child,’ turning to Mrs. Bullitt, ‘that your father’s life is safe.’ 10

There was always an ambivalence in Mr. Lincoln’s relationships with preachers, whom he was in the habit of imitating as a young boy. “I don’t like to hear cut-and-dried sermons,” Mr. Lincoln told sculptor Henry Volk. “No – when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!”11 Preachers were among the favorite protagonists of Mr. Lincoln’s stories. The ambivalence was reflected in his speech in 1842 on Temperance. Mr. Lincoln said that the cause of temperance was making progress in spits of its champions which “for the most part, have been Preachers, Lawyers, and hired agents. Between these and the mass of mankind, there is a want of approachability, if the term be admissible, partially at least, fatal to their success. They are supposed to have no sympathy of feeling or interest, with those very persons whom it is their object to convince and persuade.”12

Mr. Lincoln was not “a man to pay much attention to or care much about the thin walls of separation between different dominations,” according to journalist Noah Brooks. Mr. Lincoln’s collection of preacher friends ran the gamut of denominations. “The preachers whom Lincoln numbered among his friends represented practically all the denominations of his day, namely, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Disciples, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Unitarians and Quakers,” wrote Edgar Dewitt Jones in Lincoln and the Preachers.13

Robert Brewster Stanton recalled that in the spring of 1864, his father, the Rev. Robert Livingston Stanton, came to Washington and paid one of his occasional visits to the White House. Rev. Stanton brought with his a letter from the Dr. Robert J. Breckrinridge, a Unionist minister from Kentucky. He sent in his card with the notation: “With a letter from Doctor R. J. Breckinridge on the political situation in Kentucky.” Rev. Stanton was speedily admitted and President Lincoln speedily read Breckinridge’s letter. “I have never seen a letter from the old Kentucky patriarch, and I wish to see how he writes,” commented Mr. Lincoln. He instructed Rev. Stanton: “Tell the old doctor that each of his suggestions shall be remembered and complied with as far as possible; and especially tell him that when he comes to the [Union-Republican] convention he must call and see me.”14

“Clergymen were always welcomed by Mr. Lincoln at the White House with the respectful courtesy due to their sacred calling. During the progress of the war, and especially in its earlier stages, he was visited almost daily by reverend gentlemen, sometimes as single visitors, but more frequently in delegations,” observed Ward Hill Lamon. “He was a patient listener to the words of congratulation, counsel, admonition, exhortation, and sometimes reproof, which fell from the lips of his pious callers, and generally these interviews were entertaining and agreeable on both sides. It sometimes happened, however, that these visits were painfully embarrassing to the President. One delegation, for example, would urge with importunate zeal a strict observance of the Sabbath day by the army; others would insist upon a speedy proclamation of emancipation; while some recounted the manifold errors of commanding generals, complained of the tardy action of the government in critical emergencies, and proposed sweeping changes of policy in the conduct of the war.”15

President Lincoln had a low tolerance for clergy who pretended to have a more direct pipeline to God than he had. Congressman William D. Kelly wrote a “Quaker Preacher” who came to see President Lincoln about a slave and proceeded to give him a sermon. “Has the Friend finished? Said the President as she ceased to speak. Having received an affirmative answer, he said: ‘I have neither time nor disposition to enter into discussion with the Friend, and end this occasion by suggesting for her consideration the question whether, if it be true that the Lord has appointed me to do the work she has indicated, it is not probable that He would have communicated knowledge of the fact to me as well as to her.”16

Although frequently annoyed by ministerial delegations, but Mr. Lincoln remained open to them, telling Ward Hill Lamon, “The latch-string is out and they have a right to come here and preach to me if they’ll go about it with some gentleness and moderation.”17 ‘Throughout the rebellion, Mr. Lincoln was the recipient of many attentions from the various bodies which constitute the Christian church of America,” wrote early biographer Joseph G. Holland. “There was hardly a denomination that did not take occasion to express itself upon the war, and the great questions of humanity which it involved. They visited Mr. Lincoln at the White House; they approached him with addresses and resolutions; and the majority of them called forth from him either spoken or written responses.”18

“When a number of clergymen wrote to him admonishing him of the weighty cares and duties that rested upon him and begging him to be more temperate in his habits, he wrote a letter in answer to them and made it ready for the mail,” said Interior Secretary John P. Usher more than two decades later. “At that point he concluded that he would not mail it until the next day; that he would think of the subject until then. By that time he determined not to send it and took the letter from his drawer and threw it in the fire.”19

When representatives of the Baltimore Presbyterian Synod came to se him in October 1863, President Lincoln told them: “I can only say that in this case, as in many others, I am profoundly grateful for the support given me in every field of labor in which it can be given, and which has ever been extended to me by the religious community of the country. I saw before taking my position here that I was to have an administration, if it could be called such, of extraordinary difficulty, and it seems to me that it was ever present with as an extraordinary matter that in the time of the greatest difficulty that this country had ever experienced, or was likely to experience, the man who, at the least of it, gave poor promise of ability, was brought out for duty at that time.”20

The need for emancipation was often the focus of such religious delegations. On September 15, 1862, Mr. Lincoln was visited by an interdenominational group of Chicago Christians who pressed him for immediate emancipation. Although it was only a week before Mr. Lincoln issued the draft Emancipation Proclamation, he lectured his visitors on the limits of his power to end slavery: “What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet!” Mr. Lincoln said:

The subject presented in the memorial is one upon which I have thought much for weeks past, and I may even say for months. I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect for a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree. For instance, the other day four gentlemen of standing and intelligence (naming one or two of the number) from New York called, as a delegation, on business connected with the war; but, before leaving, two of them earnestly beset me to proclaim general emancipation, upon which the other two at once attacked them.

A few days later, the delegates presented a report of their meeting, which concluded: “In bringing our interview to a close, after an hour of earnest and frank discussion, of which the foregoing is a specimen, Mr. Lincoln remarked: “Do not misunderstood me, because I have mentioned these objections. They indicate the difficulties that have thus far prevented my action in some such way as you desire. I have not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves, but hold the matter under advisement. And I can assure you that the subject is on my mind, by day and night, more than any other. Whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do. I trust that, in the freedom with which I have canvassed your views, I have not in any respect injured your feelings.”21

Although Mr. Lincoln welcomed these delegations, he did not welcome any suggestions that the clerical visitors had a special line to heaven. According to House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, one Chicago minister said to Mr. Lincoln in departing from the meeting: “What you have said to us, Mr. President, compels me to say to you in reply, that it is a message to you from our Divine Master, through me, commanding you, sir, to open the doors of bondage that the slave may go free!” The President’s reply was direct and sharp: “That may be sire, for I have studied this question, by night and by day, for weeks and for months, but if it is, as you say, a message from your Divine Master, is it not odd that the only channel he could send it by was that roundabout route by that awfully wicked city of Chicago?”22

“To a clergyman who visited him one evening at the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln explained his refusal to immediately emancipate slaves of Confederates – or approve any drastic punishment of southern landowners – until he had exhausted all other options. Slavery, the president observed, ‘has shaped nearly everything that enters into what we call government. It is as much northern as it is southern…It is wrong, a great evil indeed, but the South is no more responsible for the wrong done to the African race than is the North.’

Lincoln then walked over to his visitor and put his hand on the back of the minister’s head. ‘Here is a tumor,’ he said, ‘drawing upon the vitality of your body.’

You must be rid of it or it will destroy your life. Now we bring in three physicans to have a consultation over this tumor. All agree at once that it must be removed, but each one has his own opinion of the proper course to be pursued. One wants to poultice it and sweat it and so evaporate it. Another is positive that it should be taken out at once, that it should be cut and pulled out, even at the risk of the patient’s life. But the third doctor says, ‘Gentlemen, I differ from you both as to the treatment proposed. My advice is to prepare the patient for the operation before venturing on it. He must be depleted and amount of his blood diminished.’ Now, my opinion is that the third doctor is about right.23

The President was supported by many northern preachers, especially those in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Presbyterians were among those who sent delegations to press their support for emancipation on the President. On July 17, 1862, President Lincoln received a delegation from the Reformed Presbyterian Synod, who presented their resolutions against slavery. Mr. Lincoln agreed with their basic thrust and then used a variation on his “tumor” story:

“Had Slavery no existence among us, and were the question asked shall we adopt such an institution? We should agree as to the reply which should be made. If there be any diversity in our views it is not as to whether we should receive Slavery when free from it, but as to how we may best get rid of it already amongst us. Were an individual asked whether he would wish to have a wen on his neck, he could not hesitate as to the reply; but were it asked whether a man who has such a wen should at once be relieved of it by the application of the surgeon’s knife, there might be diversity of opinion, perhaps the man might bleed to death, as the result of such an operation.

“Feeling deeply my responsibility, to my country and to that God to whom we all owe allegiance, I assure you I will try to do my best, and so may God help me.”24

Just as many preachers sought to use President Lincoln, he sought to use them for his purposes. “Lincoln worked hard to keep open two-way channels with the leaders of this influential constituency, and to deal sensitively and respectfully with them, aware not only of their power but also of the deep reservoir of goodwill on which he could draw,’ wrote historian Richard Carwardine. “It is not clear how far Lincoln’s cultivation of the company of religious leaders, especially evangelicals, had to do with his own spiritual quest, but there is no doubt that those contacts provided him with a way of both reading and reaching potent opinion-formers.”25

The Catholic Church was a more difficult case. Many Catholics were Irish or German. Irish-Americans had long strongly supported the Democratic Party and German-Americans had been less fervent Democratic supporters whom Republicans sought to attract. President Lincoln was not above using members of the clergy for his purposes and the purposes of preserving the Union. Roman Catholic Archbishop John J. Hughes was requested by President Lincoln to serve as an envoy to France to plead the Union’s cause. The New York City archbishop dutifully visited France, Italy and Ireland because of the President’s personal intervention:

“It was proposed by the cabinet that I should accept a special mission to England and France in connection with very important national questions between the United States and these powers. I declined until it was made known to me that the President of the United States made it a special request that I accept, and if possible render some service to the United States in the present condition of public affairs. I could not refuse this request, and at the same time I imagined if any success should attend my mission, it would redound to the benefit of the Catholics, and to the promotion of the interests of the church.”26

The President was not close to Archbishop Hughes, but Secretary of State William H. Seward had friendly relations with the Catholic Church dating back to Seward’s years as governor of New York. “I am sure you will pardon me if in my ignorance I do not address you with technical correctness,” Mr. Lincoln began a letter to New York Archbishop John Hughes in October 1861. He requested that the New York archbishop submit to him names of “one or more suitable persons of the Catholic Church” who could be appointed as hospital chaplains. He closed the letter by giving “thanks for your kind, and judicious letters to Gov. Seward…which he regularly allows me both the pleasure and the profit of perusing.”27 A year and a half later, President Lincoln submitted a list of appointments for West Point – one of which had been recommended by “Bishop Hughes.”28

Historian Richard Carwardine wrote: “The president’s overtures to religious men and women took a variety of forms. His private conversations with informal visitors to the White House extended across the full gamut of denomination affiliation; Lincoln with his lifelong aversion to sectarian narrowness, offered an inclusive welcome. Some came to lecture, some to deliver homilies, some to seek appointments, others merely to pay respects or renew acquaintance. They included the strategically placed, such as editors of mass-circulation papers, denomination leaders, and distinguished abolitionists. There were representatives of the chief wartime philanthropic agencies, particularly the United States Sanitary Commission, which bound thousand of local groups into a national soldiers’ relief organization. At other times, Lincoln met more formally with delegations from particular denominations (Friends, Presbyterians, Baptists and others), from particular localities (notably the visit of leading Chicago clergy in September 1862), and from particular causes (including temperance advocates and the US Christian Commission). Lincoln clearly knew how to squeeze political benefit out of these occasions, commonly responding to their formal addresses with his own carefully crafted words.”29

When the U.S. Christian Commission visited the East Room of the White House on January 27, 1863, George H. Stuart explained “the debt the country had owed him.” Mr. Lincoln responded: “My Friends: you owe me no gratitude for what I have done; I’ – and here he hesitated a moment – and the long arm came through the air, awkwardly, as if he might be misunderstood in what he was going to say – ‘and I, I may say, owe you no gratitude for what you have done; just as, in a sense, we owe none to the men who have fought in battle for us: I trust that this has all been for us a work of duty‘ – and at the mention of that word, the homely sad-looking face seemed thrilled and enlightened – like a cloud some wind has borne into the sunlight – on a summer’s eve. He seemed to look around for encouragement – and then he told us all in simple words – how our gratitude was due to the Blessed Giver.”30

“At a time of general despondency, when even the best men were disposed to doubt and judge, and Mr. Lincoln was subjected to much ungenerous complaint and criticism, several members and friends of the Ch[ristian] Commission called to give him an expression of sympathy and confidence,” wrote J. T. Duryea. “He showed by moist eyes and trembling lip, how the carping spirit had hurt him and how refreshing kindly sympathy was to his tender sensibilities. I was desired to say to him in a familiar informal way, what were our views and feelings.”31

Mr. Lincoln’s friendship was not so much on length of acquaintance as on depth of acquaintance. Many ministers visited the White House in search of appointments or favors – or to dispense political advice on heavenly authority. For them, President Lincoln did not have much patience. But he seemed to have infinite patience for those who came on genuinely spiritual errands. On October 26, 1862, President Lincoln “was visited by Eliza Gurney and a few others who sought to share with the President in the bearing of his burdens. What was originally understood by Lincoln as an ordinary interview turned out to be a genuine time of worship,” wrote Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood.

Gurney was the widow of an English Quaker leader. She “was deeply wounded by the sorrows of the Civil War and felt especial sympathy for President Lincoln in his position of awesome responsibility. Accordingly, she was led…to try to pay what she called a ‘religious visit’ to the President, being accompanied on this visit by three other Friends, John M. Whitall, Hannah B. Mott, and James Carey,” wrote Trueblood. “Not one of these sought anything for himself or herself, and none came either to criticize or to offer unasked advice. Because they came only to give spiritual support to one who sorely needed it, the President responded with unusual warmth. Consequently, he encouraged his visitors to stay much longer than the fifteen minutes.”32

“After preaching a sermon about the need to seek divine guidance,” wrote religious historian Ronald C. White, Jr., “Mrs. Gurney knelt and offered a prayer ‘that light and wisdom might be shed down from on high, to guide our President.'”33 In response to Gurney’s brief homily and prayer for the President, Mr. Lincoln replied: “If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; if I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of His own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it.”34 Ronald White noted that President “Lincoln, who was usually closemouthed about his deepest feelings, was remarkably open in revealing his thoughts and feelings to Eliza Gurney.”35

Although they apparently only met once, President Lincoln encouraged a correspondence with Mrs. Gurney and wrote her on September 4, 1864: “I have not forgotten – probably never shall forget the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, ever been forgotten. In all, it has been your purpose to strengthen my reliance on God. I am much indebted to the good christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations; and to no one of them, more than to yourself. The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance.” After sympathizing with the trials of conscience which Quaker opposition to War presented in the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln closed his letter “Your sincere friend.”36

Not all Quakers were so welcome at the Executive Mansion. Presidential aide John G. Nicolay wrote his fiancée: “The President is subjected to all sorts of annoyances. Going into his room this morning to announce the Secretary of War, I found a little party of Quakers holding a prayer-meeting around him, and he was compelled to bear the infliction until the ‘spirit’ moved them to stop. Isn’t it strange that so many and such intelligent people often have so little common sense?”37

President Lincoln was careful not to impinge on church prerogatives – even when his generals did. When a controversy arose about a St. Louis preacher who had been forbidden by Union provost-marshal to preach, Mr. Lincoln wrote General Curtis that the government must not “undertake to run the churches.” When the controversy continued, he wrote St. Louis citizens in December 1863: “I will not have control of any church on any side.”38 The President’s own pastor, Dr. Phineas Gurley, sometimes acted as advocate for such pastors. “Pardon me, Mr. President, for saying that I think the business of suppressing churches with pastors, which the War Department seems disposed to undertake, will not only be difficult and troublesome, but rather injurious than beneficial to the Government,” Dr. Gurley wrote President Lincoln on March 30, 1864.39

Methodists constituted a particular problem in this regard. President Lincoln had a particular sensitivity to this denomination. But he was also sensitive to the growing battle over control over Methodist churches in areas formerly under Confederate control. Bishops Edward Ames and Simpson tried to take over properties in Memphis and New Orleans – even when the President questioned the legality of such takeovers. “Still playing for Lincoln’s favor, the general conference of 1864 passed a series of resolutions and detailed a committee under the chairmanship of Bishop Ames to present them to Lincoln in person,” wrote Simpson biographer Robert D. Clark. “The resolutions affirming the duty of Christian ministers and citizens to do all in their power ‘to sustain the Government,’ and asserting the loyalty and devotion of the church ‘to the best interests of the country, pledge remembrance of the President and his chief officers in ‘never-ceasing prayer,’ called upon the government to prosecute the war ‘until this wicked rebellion be subdued,’ and demanded the outlawing of slavery by constitutional amendment.”40

After the Methodist message was read to him on May 18, Mr. Lincoln himself read his reply – which betrayed the fact that he had been given a copy of the presentation the previous day by secretary John G. Nicolay: “Nobly sustained as the government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might, in the least, appear invidious against any. Yet, without this, it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the best, is, by it’s [sic] greater numbers, the most important of all. It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to Heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church – bless all the churches – and blessed be God, Who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches.”41 Lincoln did not however, commit to turn over to these northern Methodists churches which had been controlled previously by southern Methodists. Methodist historian Robert Clark wrote: “Thwarted in their desire to gain some advantage in the property question, the members of the committee were none the less generally pleased with th result of their mission. As they took their leave, one of them said, ‘Mr. President, we all hope the country will rest in Abraham’s bosom for the next four years.'”42

The Methodists were initially upset with President Lincoln’s poor record in making major appointments for members of their denomination – especially after Methodist Joseph Wright was replaced as Minister in Berlin. Biographer Robert D. Clark wrote that Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson “did not hesitate to confront the President himself with the claims of the Methodists when he had the opportunity. Such an occasion arose in the fall of 1861, and Secretary of War Simon Cameron presented him to the President. Briefly and pointedly, he contrasted the unfavorable attitude toward appointments from among the numerically strong Methodists as compared with members of smaller denominations. To Simpson’s astonishment Lincoln, through Cameron, promptly invited him to name the minister to Honduras!”43 Methodists were successful in getting Illinoisan John Evans appointed territorial governor of Colorado. Evans was subsequently ousted because of an Indian massacre committed by a fellow Methodist, the U.S. Marshal in Colorado.

Bishop Simpson was also close to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had been brought up as a Methodist. At the conclusion of Simpson’s visits, Stanton usually ordered up a prayer. In the fall of 1864, Simpson urged Stanton’s appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. “If you will find me another Secretary of War like him, I will gladly appoint him.”44

In one religious area, Mr. Lincoln’s hands-off policy did not apply. In May 1861, Mr. Lincoln had approved General Orders Numbers 15 and 16 which called for the appointment of chaplains for every army regiment. President Lincoln also backed the appointment of hospital chaplains through congressional action the following year. Biographer Carl Sandburg printed this exchange of correspondence between President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

Dear Stanton:
Appoint this man chaplain in the army.
A. Lincoln

Dear Mr. Lincoln:
He is not a preacher.
E. M. Stanton

Dear Mr. Stanton:
He is now.
A. Lincoln

Dear Mr. Lincoln:
But there is no vacancy.
E.M. Stanton

Dear Stanton:
Appoint him chaplain-at-large.
A. Lincoln

Dear Mr. Lincoln:
There is no warrant in law for that.
E.M. Stanton

Dear Stanton
Appoint him anyhow.
A. Lincoln

Dear Mr. Lincoln:
I will not
E. M. Stanton45

Presidential assistant William O. Stoddard complained about the quality of the preachers who volunteered to be chaplains – many “long since out of the ministry for incompetency or other cause, men who could not induce any respectable church to place itself under their charge, crowded forward, clamorous to be entrusted with the spiritual interests of the grandest of all congregations, men going out to die.” Stoddard said President Lincoln once said to him: I do believe that our army chaplains, take them as a class, are the very worst men we have in the service.”46

President “Lincoln himself, who took an intense interest in the chaplaincy, expressed dismay that so many of the chaplains seemed to be more interested in their own rank, privileges, and prestige than in the souls of their men. Yet the view he got from Washington was probably jaundiced by the fact that those who made themselves heard in the capital city were generally the ones who had complaints. Lincoln would have heard little or nothing of the faithful, diligent chaplain who was successfully ministering to his regiment or hospital,” wrote historian Steven E. Woodworth.47


  1. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 143-144 (Gilbert J. Greene, Christian Herald).
  2. Edgar DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 181.
  3. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 95 (Letter of Albert Hale to Theron Baldwin, May 31, 1860).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 320 (Letter to Martin S. Morris, March 26, 1843).
  5. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 195.
  6. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 196.
  7. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 26-27 (Letter of Joshua F. Speed to Josiah G. Holland, June 22, 1865).
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 450 (February 13, 1848).
  9. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 175 (Statement by Abner Y. Ellis, January 23, 1866).
  10. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 359-360 (Daniel V.Voorhees).
  11. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 243 (Leonard Wells Volk, Century Magazine, December 1881).
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 272 (Temperance Address, February 22, 1842).
  13. Edgar DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 182.
  14. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 347-348 (Robert Brewster Stanton, Century Magazine, February 1920).
  15. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 91-92.
  16. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 284-285.
  17. Lloyd Lewis, Myths After Lincoln, p. 91.
  18. Joseph G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 454.
  19. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 374 (John P. Usher speech on June 20, 1887 in Wyandotte, Kansas).
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 535-536 (October 24, 1863).
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 419-425.
  22. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 335 (Schuyler Colfax).
  23. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 368 (William K. Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865, New York: Viking, 2001, p. 151-152).
  24. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 327 (Remarks to Committee of Reformed Presbyterian Synod, July 17, 1862).
  25. Susan-Mary Grant and Brian Holden Reid, editor, Richard Carwardine, “Abraham Lincoln, the Presidency, and the Mobilization of Union Sentiment”, The American Civil War: Explorations and Reconsiderations, p. 87-88.
  26. Edgar DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 80-81.
  27. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 559 (Letter to John J. Hughes, October 21, 1861).
  28. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 185.
  29. Susan-Mary Grant and Brian Holden Reid, editor, Richard Carwardine, “Abraham Lincoln, the Presidency, and the Mobilization of Union Sentiment”, The American Civil War: Explorations and Reconsiderations, p. 88.
  30. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 41 (Letter from George H. Stuart to Josiah G. Holland, July 13, 1865).
  31. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 50 (Letter from J. T. Duryea to Josiah G. Holland, undated).
  32. Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man, p. 23-24.
  33. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 141.
  34. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 478.
  35. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 142.
  36. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 535 (Letter to Eliza P. Gurney, September 4, 1864).
  37. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 90 (Letter to Therena Bates, October 26, 1862).
  38. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, (December 23, 1863).
  39. David Rankin Barbee, “President Lincoln and Doctor Gurley”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume V, March, 1948, No. 1, .
  40. Robert D. Clark, The Life of Matthew Simpson, p. 234.
  41. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 350 (Response to Methodists, May 18, 1864).
  42. Robert D. Clark, The Life of Matthew Simpson, p. 235.
  43. Robert D. Clark, The Life of Matthew Simpson, p. 225.
  44. George Congdpm Gorham, Life and Public Services of Edwin M. Stanton, Volume II, p. 470.
  45. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 59.
  46. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 178 (New York Citizen, Sketch 8).
  47. Steven E. Woodworth, While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers, p. 152-153.