Muckraking journalist Ida M Tarbell (1857-1944) spent many years exposing corruption in government and business. She was also an expert on the life of Abraham Lincoln. She talked to a lot of people who knew him personally, taking oral histories. This article from Red Cross Magazine in 1920 allows an informant to try answering the question a lot of them had about Lincoln's personal religious beliefs.
Most politicians of the time were eager to make pious public pronouncements. Lincoln confused them.
In Lincoln's Chair
by Ida M. Tarbell
Author of 'Life of Lincoln', 'Father Abraham', etc.
Illustrated by Blenden Campbell
'Yes, sir; he was what I call a godly man. Fact is, I never knew anybody I felt so sure would
walk straight into Heaven, everybody welcomin' him, nobody fussin' or fumin' about his bein' let in as Abraham Lincoln.'
It was Billy Brown talking. We were seated by his stove in his drug store on the public square of Springfield, Illinois, he tilted back in a worn high-back Windsor1, I seated properly in his famous 'Lincoln's chair,' a seat too revered for anybody to stand on two legs. It was a snowy blustery day and the talk had run on uninterruptedly from the weather to the campaign. (The year was 1896, and Billy, being a good Democrat, was gloomy over politics.) We had finally arrived. as we always did when we met to when Mr. Lincoln was alive, and Billy had been dwelling lovingly on his great friend's gentleness, goodness, honesty.
'You know I never knew anybody,' he went on, 'who seemed to me more interested in God, more curious about Him, more anxious to find out what he was drivin' at in the world than Mr. Lincoln. I reckon he was allus that way. There ain't any doubt that from the time he was a little shaver he grabbed on to everything that came his way – wouldn't let it go till he had it worked out, fixed it in his mind so he understood it, and could tell it the way he saw it. Same about religion as everything else. Of course he didn't get no religious teachin' like youngsters have now-a-days – Sunday Schools and church regular every Sunday – lessons
all worked out, and all kinds of books to explain 'em. Still I ain't sure but what they give so many helps now, the Bible don't get much show2'.
'It wan't so when Mr. Lincoln was a boy. No, sir. Bible was the whole thing, and there ain't any doubt he knew it pretty near by heart, knew it well before he ever could read, for Lincoln had a good mother, that's sure, the kind that wanted more than anything else in the world to have her boy grow up to be a good man, and she did all she knew how to teach him right.
'1 remember hearin' him say once how she used to tell him Bible stories, teach him verses – always quotin' 'em. I can see him now sprawlin' on the floor in front of the fire listenin' to Nancy Hanks tellin' him about Moses and Jacob and Noah and all those old fellows, tcllin' him about Jesus and his dyin' on the cross. I tell you that took hold of a little shaver, livin' like he did.
remote and not havin' many books or places to go3. Filled you chuck full of wonder and mystery, made you lie awake nights, and sometimes swelled you all up, wantin' to be good.
'Must have come mighty hard on him havin' her die. Think of a little codger like him seein' his mother lyin' dead in that shack of theirs, seein' Tom Lincoln holdin' his head and wonderin' what he'd do now. Poor little tad! He must have crept up and looked at her, and gone out and throwed himself on the ground and cried himself out. Hard thing for a boy of 9 to lose his mother, specially in such a place as they lived in.
'I don't see how he could get much comfort out of what they taught about her dyin', savin' it was God's will, and hintin' that if you'd been what you ought to be it wouldn't have happened, never told a man that if he let a woman work herself to death it was his doin's she died – not God's will at all. God's will she should live and be happy and make him happy4.
'But I must say Mr. Lincoln had luck in the stepmother he got. If there ever was a good woman, it was Sarah Johnston, and she certain did her duty by Tom Lincoln's children. 'Twan't so easy either; poor as he was, the kind that never really got a hold in anything, Sarah Johnston did her part – teachin' Mr. Lincoln just as his own mother would, and just as anxious as she'd been to have him grow up a good man. I tell you she was proud of him when he got to be President. I remember seein' her back in '62 or '63 on the farm Mr. Lincoln gave her little ways out of Charleston. One of the last things Mr. Lincoln did before he went to Washington was to go down there and see his step-mother. He knew better than anybody what she'd done for him.
'Yes, sir, the best religious teachin' Mr. Lincoln ever got was from Tom Lincoln's two wives. It was the kind that went deep and stuck, because he saw 'em livin' it every day, practicin' it on him and his sister and his father and the neighbors. Whatever else he might have seen and learnt, when he was a boy he knew what his two mothers thought religion meant, and he never got away from that.
'Of course he had other teachin', principally what he got from the preachers that came round, now and then. Ramblin' lot they was, men all het up over the sins of the world, and bent on doin' their part towards headin' off people from hell-fire. They traveled around alone, sometimes on horseback, sometimes afoot – poor as Job, not too much to wear or to eat, never thinkin'
of themselves, only about savin' souls; and it was natural that bein' alone so much, seein' so much misery and so much wickedness, for there was lots that was bad in that part of the world
in those times – natural enough meditatin' as they did that they preached pretty strong doctrine. Didn't have a chance often at a congregation, and felt they must scare it to repentance if
they couldn't do no other way. They'd work up people till they got 'em to shoutin' for mercy.
'I don't suppose they ever had anybody that listened better to 'em than Mr. Lincoln. I can just see him watchin' 'em and tryin' to understand what they meant. He was curious, rolled things over, kept at 'em and no amount of excitement they stirred up would ever have upset him. No, he
wan't that kind.
'But he remembered what they said, and the way they said it. Used to get the youngsters together and try it on them. I heard him talkin' in here one day about the early preachin' and I
remember his sayin': 'I got to be quite a preacher myself in those days. You know how those old fellows felt they hadn't done their duty if they didn't get everybody in church weepin' for their sins. We never set much store by a preacher that didn't draw tears and groans. Pretty strong doctrine, mostly hell-fire. There was a time when I preached myself to the children every week we didn't have a minister. I didn't think much of my sermon if I didn't make 'em cry. 1 reckon there was more oratory than religion in what I had to say.'
'I reckon he was right about that, allus' tryin' to see if he could do what other folks did, sort of measurin' himself.
'Yes sir, so far as preachin' was concerned it was a God of wrath that Abraham Lincoln was brought up on, and there ain't any denyin' that he had to go through a lot that carried out that idea. A boy can't grow up in a backwoods settlement like Gentryville, Indiana, without seein' a lot that's puzzlin', sort of scares you and makes you miserable. Things was harsh and things was skimpy. There wa'n't so much to eat. Sometimes there was fever and ague and rheumatiz and milk sick. Women died from too much work. No medicine – no care, like his mother did,
I expect there wan't any human crime or sorrow he didn't know about, didn't wonder about. Thing couldn't be so terrible he would keep away from it.
Why I heard him tell once how a boy he knew went mad, never got over it, use to sing to himself all night long, and Mr. Lincoln said that he couldn't keep away, but used to slip out nights and listen to that poor idiot croonin' to himself. He was like that, interested in strange things he didn't understand, in signs and dreams and mysteries.
'Still things have to be worse than they generally are anywhere to keep a boy down-hearted right along – specially a boy like Mr. Lincoln, with an investigatin' turn of mind like his, so many new things cornin' along to surprise you. Why it was almost like Robinson Crusoe out there – wild land, havin' to make everything for yourself – hunt your meat and row your cotton, mighty excitin' life for a boy – lots to do – lots of fun too, winter and summer. Somehow when you grow up in the country you can't make out that God ain't kind, if he is severe. I reckon that was the way Mr. Lincoln sized it up early, world might be a vale of tears, like they taught, but he saw it was mighty interestin' too, and a good deal of fun to be got along with the tears.
'Trouble was later to keep things balanced. The older he grew, the more he read, and he begun to run up against a kind of thinkin' along about the time he was twenty-one or twenty-two that was a good deal different from that he'd been used to, books that made out the Bible wa'n't so, that even said there wan't any God. We all took a turn at readin' Tom Paine and Voltaire out
here, and there was another book – somebody's 'Ruins' – I forget the name.'
'Yes, that's it. 'Volney's Ruins'5. '
'Do you know I think that book took an awful grip on Mr. Lincoln. I reckon it was the first time he ever realized how long the world's been runnin'; how many lots of men have lived and settled countries and built cities and how time and time again they've all been wiped out. Mr. Lincoln couldn't get over that. I've heard him talk about how old the world was time and time again, how nothing lasted – men – cities – – nations. One set on top of another – men cornin' along just as interested and busy as we arc, in doin' things, and then little by little all they done passin' away.
'He was always speculating 'bout that kind of thing. I remember in '40 when he came back from Congress he stopped to see Niagara Falls. Well, sir, when he got home he couldn't talk
about anything else for days, seemed to knock politics clean out of his mind. He'd sit there that winter in that chair you're in and talk and talk about it. Talk just like it's printed in those books
his secretary got up. I never cared myself for all those articles they wrote. Wrong, am I? Mebbe so, but there wa'n't enough of Mr. Lincoln in 'em to suit me. I wanted to know what he said about everything in his own words. But I tell you when I saw the books with the things he had said and wrote all brought together nice and neat and one after another I just took to that.
I've got 'em here in my desk, often read 'em and lots of it sounds just as natural, almost hear him sayin' it, just as if he was settin' here by the stove.
'Now what he tells about Niagara in the book is like that – just as if he was here. I can hear him sayin': 'Why Billy, when Columbus first landed here, when Christ suffered on the Cross, when Moses crossed dry-shod through the Red Sea, even when Adam was first made, Niagara was roarin' away.' He'd talk in here just as it is printed there; how the big beasts whose bones they've found in mounds must have seen the falls, how it's older than them and older than the first race of men. They're all dead and gone, not even bones of many of 'em left, and yet
there's Niagara boomin' away fresh as ever.
'He used to prove by the way the water had worn away the rocks that the world was at least fourteen thousand years old. A long spell, but folks tell me it ain't nothin' to what is bein' estimated now.
'Makes men seem pretty small, don't it? God seems to wipe 'em out as careless like as if he were cleanin' a slate. How could He care and do that? It made such a mite of a man no bettern'
a fly. That's what bothered Mr. Lincoln. I know how he felt. That's the way it hit me when I first began to understand all the stars were worlds like ours. What I couldn't see and can't now is how we can be so blame sure ours is the only world with men on. And if they're others and they're wiped out regular like ours, well, it knocked me all of a heap at first, 'peared to me mighty unlikely that God knew anything about me.
'I expect Mr. Lincoln felt something like that when he studied how old the world was and how one set of ruins was piled on top of another.
'Then there was another thing. Lots of those old cities and old nations weren't Christian at all, and yet accordin' to the ruins it looked as if the people was just as happy, knew just as much, had just as good laws as any Christian nation now, some of them a blamed sight better. Now how was a boy like Lincoln going to handle a problem like that? Well I guess for a lime he handled it like the man who wrote about the 'Ruins.' Never seemed queer to me he should have written a free-thinkin' book after that kind of readin'. I reckon he had to write something to get his head clear. Allus had to have things clear.
'You know that story, of course, about that book. First time I ever heard it was back in 1846 when him and Elder Cartwright was runnin' for Congress. You know about Cartwright? Well, sir, he made his campaign against Lincoln in ' 46, not on politics at all – made it on chargin' him with bein' infidel because he wa'n't a church member and because he said Mr. Lincoln had written a free thought book when he was a boy6. He kept it up, until along in the winter Mr. Lincoln shut him up good. He’d gone down to where Cartwright lived to make a political speech and some of us went
along. Cartwright was runnin’ a revival, and long in the evening before startin’ home we went in and set in the back, of the church. When it came time to ask sinners to come forward, the elder got pretty excited. ‘Where be you goin’?’ he shouted. 'To Hell if you don’t repent and come to this altar.' At last he began to call on Mr. Lincoln to come forward. Well, you know nobody likes to be called out like that right in meetin'. Mr. Lincoln didn't budge, just set there. The elder he kept it up. Finally he shouted, 'If Mr. Lincoln ain’t goin’ to repent and go to Heaven, where is he goin'?’ Intimatin' I suppose, that he was headed for Hell. ‘Where be you goin', Mr. Lincoln?’ he shouted.
'Well, sir, at that Mr. Lincoln rose up and said quiet like, 'I'm goin' to Congress.'
'For a minute you could have heard a pin drop and then – well, I just snorted – couldn't help it. Ma was awful ashamed when I told her, said I oughtin' to done it – right in meetin', but I couldn't help it – just set there and shook and shook. The elder didn't make any more observations to Mr. Lincoln that trip.
'Goin' home I said, 'Mr. Lincoln, you just served the elder right, shut him up, and I guess you're right; you be goin' to Congress.'
' 'Well Billy,' he said, smiling and lookin' serious. 'I've made up my mind that Brother Cartwright isn't goin' to make the religion of Jesus Christ a political issue in this district if I can
'Some of the elder's friends pretended to think Mr. Lincoln was mockin' at the Christian religion when he answered back like that. Not a bit. He was protectin' it according to my
way of thinkin'.
[There follows an unedifying anecdote by the narrator involving racially insensitive behaviour on his part on a railway car. We're leaving it out because it has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln. Old people can be garrulous and as personally unaware as anyone else, we suppose. We suspect Ida Tarbell left it in in order to be completely transparent about the nature of her historical informant. She didn't agree with people being rude to Pullman porters, either.]
'Well to go back to Cartwright and the free thought book he said Lincoln wrote when he was a boy. The elder didn't pretend he'd seen the book, said the reason he hadn't was that it was never printed, only written, and that not many people ever did see it because Sam Hill the storekeeper down to New Salem thinkin' it might hurt Lincoln had snatched it away and thrown it into the stove and burnt it up. Now what do you think of that?
'Well, Cartwright didn't get elected – got beaten – beaten bad and nobody around here ever talked about that book when Mr. Lincoln was runnin' for President that I heard of. It was after he was dead that somebody raked up that story again and printed it. It never made much difference to me. I allus thought it likely he did write something along the lines he'd
been readin' after. But sakes alive, you ought to seen the fur fly out here.
All the church people riz right up and proved it wa'n't so; and those that didn't profess lit in and proved it was so. They got all the old inhabitants of Sangamon County who knew Mr. Lincoln to writin' letters. Lot of them published in the papers.
One of the most interestin' accordin' to my way of thinkin' was a letter that came out from Mentor Graham, Lincoln's old schoolmaster. I don't remember it exact, but near as I can recall he said Lincoln asked him one day when he was livin' at his house going to school what he thought about the anger of the Lord, and then he went on to say that he had written something along that
line and wished Mr. Graham would read it. Well sir, Mr. Graham wrote in that letter that this thing Lincoln wrote proved God was too good to destroy the people he'd made, and that all the
misery Adam brought on us by his sin had been wiped out by the atonement of Christ. Now mind, that was a honest man writin' that letter, a man who'd been Lincoln's friend from the start. To be sure it was some time after the event – pretty near 40 years and I must say I always suspicion a man's remembering anything very exact after 40 years. But one thing is sure, Mentor Graham knew Lincoln in those days, and that's more than most of them that was arguin' this thing did.
'Always seemed to me about as reliable testimony as anybody offered.
I contended that most likely Lincoln did write just what Mentor Graham said he did, and that the brethren thought it was dangerous doctrine to make out God was that good, and so they called him an infidel. Nothin' riled those old fellows religiously like tryin' to make out God didn't damn everybody that didn't believe according to the way they read the Scriptures. Seemed to hate to think about Mr. Lincoln's God. I almost felt sometimes as if they'd rather a man would
say there wa'n't no God than to make him out a God of Mercy.
'But sakes alive, Mentor Graham's letter didn't settle it. The boys used to get to rowin' about it in here sometimes around the stove until I could hardly keep track of my prescriptions. The funniest thing you ever heard was one night when they were at it and an old fellow who used to live in New Salem dropped in, so they put it up to him, said he lived in New' Salem in '33 , said he knew' Lincoln. Wanted to know' if he ever heard of his writin' a book that Sam Hill burned up in the stove in his store. The old fellow listened all through without sayin' a word, and when they was finished he said, solemn like, 'Wa'n't no stove. Sam Hill never had one. Couldn't have happened.'
'Well, sir, you ought to seen their jaws drop. Just set starin' at him and I thought I die a laflin' to see 'em collapse. I wish Mr. Lincoln could have heard that old fellow', 'Wan't no stove.' How he'd enjoyed that – 'Wa'n't no stove.'
'But for all that I never regarded that witness over high. Of course Sam Hill must have had a stove, otherwise there wouldn't have been a place for folks to set around7.
'It ain't important to my mind what was in that book. What's important is that Abraham Lincoln was wrestlin' in those days to find out the truth, wa'n't content like I was to settle down smotherin'any reservations that I might a' had. He never did that, grappled hard with everything touchin' religion that came up no matter which side it was. He never shirked the church if he wa'n't a member, went regular, used to go to revivals and camp meetings too in those days when he was readin' the 'Ruins.' Most of the boys who didn't profess went to camp meetings for deviltry – hang around on the edges – playin' tricks – teasin' the girls – sometimes gettin' into regular fights. Mr. Lincoln never joined into any horse play like that. He took it solemn. I reckon he wouldn't ever hesitated a minute to go forward and ask prayers if he'd really believed that w'as the way for him to find God. He knew it wa'n't. The God he was searchin' for wa'n't the kind they was preaching. He was tryin' to find one that he could reconcile with what he was findin' out about the world – its ruins – its misery. Clear as day to me that that was what he was after from the start – some kind of plan in things that he could agree to.
He certainly did have a lot to discourage him – worst was when he lost his sweetheart. I've allus figured it out that if Ann Rutledge had lived8 and married him he'd been a different man – leastwise he'd been happier. We might have even got converted and jined the church, like I did after I courted Ma.
A good woman sort of carries a man along when he loves her. It's a mighty sight easier to believe in the goodness of the Lord and the happiness of man when you're in love like I've allus been, and like he was with that girl.
'There was no doubt she was a fine girl – no doubt he loved her. When she died he was all broke up for days. I've heard his old friends tell how he give up workin' and readin' – wandered off into the fields talkin' to himself. Seemed as if he couldn't bear to think
of her covered over with snow – beatin' on by rain – wastin' away – eat in' by worms. I tell you he was the kind that saw it all as it was. That's the hard part of bein' so honest you see things just as they are – don't pretend things are different – just as they are. He couldn't get over it. I believe it's the Lord's mercy he didn't kill himself those days. Everybody thought he was goin' crazy, but I rather think myself he was wrestlin' with himself, tryin' to make himself live. Men like him want to die pretty often. I reckon he must have cried out many a night like Job did. 'What is mine end that I should prolong my life? My soul chooseth strangling and death rather than life. I loathe it. I would not live alway'.
He pulled out, of course, but he A A never got over havin'spells of terrible gloom. I expect there was always a good many nights up to the end when he wondered if life was worth keepin.'
Black moods'd take him and he'd go days not hardly speakin' to people – come in here – set by the stove – not sayin' a word – get up – go out – hardly noticin' you. Boys understood, used to say 'Mr. Lincoln's got the blues.'
'Curious how quick things changed with him9. He'd be settin' here, laffin' and jokin' tellin' stories and somebody drop some little thing, nobody else would think about, and sudden his eyes would go sad and his face broodin' and he'd stop talkin' or like as not get up and go out. I don't mean to say this happened often. Of course that wa'n't so, as I've told you no end of times, he was the best company that ever was – the fullest of stories and jokes, and nobody could talk serious like him. You could listen forever when he'd get to arguin', but spite of all that you knew somehow he was a lonely man who had to fight hard to keep up his feelin' that life was worth goin' on with. Gave you queer feelin' about him – you knew he was different from the others, and it kept you from bein' over-familiar.
[Again we excise a long detour on the subjects of Lincoln's affability, the way local people admired him and held him in awe at the same time, and his opposition to slavery, and what he said to the narrator about it. Most of which makes the narrator sound rather important, but isn't all that revealing about Lincoln.]
'Think he prayed? Think Abraham Lincoln prayed?' Billy's eyes were stem, and his voice full of reproachful surprise.
'I know he did. You wouldn't ask that question if you could have heard him that night he left here for Washington sayin' good-bye to us in the rain, tellin' us that without God's help he could not succeed in what he was goin' into – that with it, he could not fail, tellin' us he was turning us over to God, and askin' us to remember him in our prayers. Why a man can't talk like
that that don't pray, leastwise an honest man like Abraham Lincoln.
'And he couldn't have stood it without God, sufferin' as he did, abused as he was, defeated again and again, and yet always hangin' on, always believin'. Don't you see from what I've been
tellin' you that Abraham Lincoln all through the war was seeking to work with God, struggling to find out His purpose, and make it prevail on earth. A man can't do that unless he gets close to God, talks with Him.
'How do you suppose a man – just a common man like Abraham Lincoln could ever have risen up to say anything like he did in '65 in his Inaugural if he hadn't known God:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right
as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphans – to do which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and
with all nations.
(Second Inaugural Address)
'That aint ordinary human nature – particularly when it's fightin' a war – that's God's nature. If that aint what Christ had in mind, then I don't read the Bible right.
'Yes sir, he prayed – that's what carried him on – and God heard him and helped him. Fact is, I never knew of a man I felt so sure God approved of as Abraham Lincoln.'