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UNM history professors author book about Lincoln’s religion

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — So many books have been written about Abraham Lincoln – almost 16,000 – that it’s hard to imagine there could be room for one more.

But a husband-and-wife team of University of New Mexico history professors has written a concise and persuasive book about the nation’s 16th president and his spiritual beliefs that gets tantalizingly close to the bottom of a question that has long intrigued many Americans: What were Lincoln’s beliefs?

The late Ferenc “Frank” Szasz and his wife, both UNM history professors, are the authors of a book that looks at whether or not President Abraham Lincoln was a religious believer. (Courtesy of Carolyn Gonzalez/UNM Communications and Marketing)

The late Ferenc “Frank” Szasz and his wife, both UNM history professors, are the authors of a book that looks at whether or not President Abraham Lincoln was a religious believer. (Courtesy of Carolyn Gonzalez/UNM Communications and Marketing)

“Lincoln and Religion” was the final manuscript of Ferenc “Frank” Morton Szasz before his death from leukemia four years ago. The initial draft was handwritten in the hospital while Szasz was undergoing chemotherapy. After his death, his widow, Margaret Connell-Szasz, picked up the pieces and, seeing a need for expansion, “added bits here and bits there,” she said.

By and large, however, “Lincoln and Religion” is a reflection of Frank Szasz’ thoughts, his wife said. It was published earlier this year.

She said a few things stand out in the book. One is how well Lincoln knew the Bible, his keen memory of biblical passages. Indeed, Sarah Bush Johnston, Lincoln’s stepmother, would later reflect that the future president “probably did not read the scriptures as much as he should (but) his wonderful gift of recall allowed him to commit extensive passages to memory,” the Szaszes write.

The controversy about Lincoln’s religious views started a few years after his death when a pastor, writing in Scribner’s Monthly, audaciously suggested that Lincoln was a Christian. “This public claim brought (Lincoln’s) former law partner William Herndon off his chair,” the book states, “and Herndon spent the rest of his life trying to prove Lincoln was a nonbeliever.”

But another confidant, journalist Noah Brooks, noted that Lincoln memorized most of the Book of Isaiah, many of the Psalms, scores of Proverbs and numerous passages from the New Testament, including the most famous passages of Jesus, the Szaszes write.

Lincoln issued his only formal statement on religion in 1846, long before he became president. In that statement, he “insisted that he would never support for office an open scoffer of religion. Moreover, he noted that his belief on the ‘doctrine of necessity,’ which he had defended for years, was also a position held by several churches.”

Bks_j24Aug_Szasz2_CMYKThe authors trace the Lincoln ancestry from New England to Pennsylvania to Kentucky – where he was born – through Indiana to Illinois. Along the way they note the various religious influences – Quaker, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist.

There is little doubt that Lincoln, as a young man, developed a deist streak that questioned – and doubted – any formal religious beliefs beyond what could be attributed to pure reason. A modern-day deist might be called an agnostic or skeptic, a Unitarian or even an atheist.

In the 1830s, in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln reportedly drafted a deist-like critique of Christian scripture that he planned to publish. A supporter, recognizing the damage the so-called “infidel book” could do to Lincoln’s political career, snatched it from his hands and tossed it into a stove.

The authors also recognize how profoundly great events affected Lincoln, particularly the Civil War and the issue of slavery and emancipation that defined his entire presidency, and the premature deaths of two of his sons, Eddie and Willie.

Mary Lincoln, his widow, later observed that following Willie’s death, her husband “reflected more intently on the ways of God.” Especially during his presidency, Lincoln evoked an evolving “faith perspective,” the authors write.

There is no doubt that throughout his life he had a strong sense of right and wrong, something that may have reflected a flame – or ember – of Christian thought. More than once he said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

But even if Lincoln did believe in God, the question remains: Was he a Christian?

“Every faith claims Lincoln as ‘theirs,'” according to “Lincoln and Religion.” “Today even American atheists declare Lincoln to one of their own, as do the Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Episcopalians, Spiritualists and even the Jews.” All sides provide support for their claims.

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