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The Faith of Two Presidents

 

Presidents’ Day, which falls on the third Monday of February each year, celebrates the birthdays of two of our most celebrated statesmen: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington was born on February 22 and Lincoln on February 12. Their birthdays were combined into the observance of Presidents’ Day in 1971 by executive order of Richard M. Nixon.

Much has been written about the faith of Washington and Lincoln. Some historians believe that “The Father of our Country” was a deist, and others have called Lincoln’s Christianity into question because he would not make a public profession. Generalizations such as these aren’t very helpful, as both men were complicated, including their faith.

ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS

George Washington was a man of deep passion who managed to hide behind a mask of cool composure. He didn’t talk much about personal matters, and that included his faith. He preferred to let religious actions speak louder than words, which many people observed firsthand. According to biographer Ron Chernow, Washington was an active church member for most of his life, though rarely referred to Jesus Christ, preferring such vague terms as “Providence,” the “Author of our being” or simply “Heaven.” He seemed to be more interested in the general principles of biblical religion than the specific doctrines of Christianity.

Our first president was often seen kneeling in prayer. When General Robert Porterfield delivered an urgent message to him during the Revolutionary War, he “found him on his knees, engaged in his morning’s devotions.” Alexander Hamilton, serving as Washington’s aide at that time, told Porterfield that this humble posture was “his constant habit.” The president’s adopted granddaughter remarked that he hated religious showmanship: “He was not one of those who act or pray ‘That they may be seen of men.'”

Washington was also a charitable man. He and his wife, Martha, never rejected anyone who came to Mount Vernon in need of food. Just before he took charge of the Continental Army, he directed the manager of his estate, “Let the hospitality of the house with respect to the poor be kept up.” He took great pains to avoid trumpeting his good works in public, which were many. Washington’s secretary reported that he gave generously to hundreds of individuals, churches and charities, as well as paid for the education of several needy students. In all of this, he was living out the principles of Proverbs 22:9: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.”

JUDGE OF NATIONS

Like Washington, Abraham Lincoln’s faith was hard to nail down. Though he grew up in a devout household, Lincoln held unorthodox religious views in his young adult years that led some to believe he was a deist, others a universalist. According to History.com, Lincoln began to throttle back on public religious pronouncements in his  30s, realizing they could harm his budding political career. In 1846, he published a handbill that read, in part, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”

In middle age, Lincoln’s religious views began to become more reflective, undoubtedly the result of the Civil War and the death of two of his sons. He saw God in primarily Old Testament terms, as the judge and ruler of nations. He confessed that the divine will was very difficult to ascertain in certain cases, but he firmly believed that God would not honor the Union cause if slavery were to continue. In his Second Inaugural Address, the President speculated on why God allowed the war to break out and assume the horrific dimensions it did. His conclusion? God was judging the United States for its practice of slavery: “Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

WRAPPING IT UP

What conclusions can we draw from the faith of our two most popular presidents? Some might assert that Washington and Lincoln were not true Christians, but I think it is not our place to make such judgments. They were products of their times, just as we are. Washington was a typical Anglican of his day, which had not come under the sway of the evangelicalism of frontier America. Lincoln’s faith seemed to deepen through the course of the Civil War, believing that God was not on one particular side, but that we should be on the side of God when dealing with matters of justice and goodness.

It’s interesting to note that both of these men grew up in religious households, and did not completely abandon faith in their later years. A Duke University study discovered that people who grew up in a faith tradition are more likely to practice their religion as they grow older, while those who did not are unlikely to acquire faith in their senior years.

Still, the Bible clearly teaches that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). No matter your age, upbringing or station in life, God’s love is freely accessible – and has the power to shape anyone into a “new creation.”

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