Lincoln’s free-thinking law partner, William Herndon, was not buying any
of it. In 1866 he began lecturing to let the world know the truth about
Lincoln’s religion, or lack of it. According to Herndon, Lincoln lived an
infidel and died an unbeliever.
Newspapers and magazines throughout the
country picked up the news. The fight was on, and the argument over
Lincoln’s Christianity has continued through the years with such vigor
that David Donald remarks, “Reminiscences on this point probably include
more nonsense than can be found anywhere else in the whole tiresome mass
of spurious Lincoln recollections.”
Lipscomb mentions the quarrel in the July 24, 1873, Gospel
Quite an interesting discussion is going on as to
whether Mr. Lincoln was a believer in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. One
of his biographers, an intimate, personal friend, pretty clearly proves
that he was an infidel and ridiculed the Bible and the claims of Jesus to
be the Christ until the end of his life. Others present pretty conclusive
evidence that he did acknowledge a change in his opinion about Christ,
before his death. He often, after the forms of public rulers, expressed a
reliance on God and Christ in his public proclamations &c.
They argue the matter with an earnestness that
indicates that they think a terrible disgrace to the Christian religion or
to Mr. Lincoln or both involved in the question.
tried to guide the nation according to Christian principles. Probably no
other President every prayed so devoutly or earnestly to God. But the case
for Christianity does not depend on whether or not Lincoln was a
Christian. David Lipscomb’s nephew, A. B. Lipscomb, reminded readers of
the February 23, 1922, Gospel Advocate, “When you and I stand in
the judgment before God, the questions will not be, ‘Did you follow
Abraham Lincoln?’ but, ‘Did you follow God?’”
heirs of the Restoration Movement (Churches of Christ, Christian Churches,
Disciples of Christ), like other religious groups, have wanted to call
Lincoln “one of us.”
Restoration Movement was a “back-to-the-Bible” unity movement aimed at
restoring the church, worship, and practice of the NT. Early in the 1800s
men like Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell began urging
people to leave the “sects and denominations” and unite as “Christians
only.” Early mottos were “No creed but Christ” and “Let us speak where the
Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.”
Known variously as “ Christians,”
“Disciples,” and “Churches of Christ” (and less affectionately as “New
Lights,” “Stoneites,” and “Campbellites”), they emphasized a literal
obedience to the Scriptures. This led, among other things, to an
understanding of believer’s baptism as essential for both church
membership and salvation.
So, if Lincoln was to be a Disciple, the
question was not only “Was Lincoln a Christian?” but “Was Lincoln
baptized?” Sure enough, a strong tradition within the Churches of Christ
suggests that he was.
historian James DeForrest Murch, in Christians Only: A History
of the Restoration Movement, discusses the belief:
There is a tradition among Illinois Disciples that
John O’Kane, when state evangelist, discussed the state of Lincoln’s soul
with him on several occasions; finally he was convicted and wished to be
immersed. He reportedly knew that his wife, who had strong Episcopal and
Presbyterian social obligations in Springfield, would be greatly
embarrassed if it were known that a “Campbellite” evangelist had baptized
him. But one night, Lincoln slipped away from the house with proper
garments for baptism, met O’Kane and was immersed in the waters of the
the April 1953 Discipliana states, “For more than fifty years there
have been published divergent stories about Abraham Lincoln having been
surreptitiously baptized by John 0. Kane [sic], a Disciple
The “divergent stories” as well as the
“tradition” can be traced to one man, G. M. Weimer, and letters he wrote
in 1942. In
the February 5, 1942, Christian Evangelist, the following letter
from Weimer was published:
I met Brother John O’Kane who was state evangelist
in Illinois. It was at a convention. We were together about all the time.
The Lincoln matter as to whether he [Lincoln] had ever been baptized came
up. Brother O’Kane told me one day, “Yes, Brother Weimer, I know all about
the affair. On the night before Lincoln was to be baptized his wife cried
all night. So the matter was deferred, as she thought. But soon after
Lincoln and I took extra clothing and took a buggy ride. I baptized him in
a creek near Springfield, Illinois. We changed to dry clothing and
returned to the city. And by his request, I placed his name on the church
book. He lived and died a member of the church of Christ.”
September that same year the Christian Review published a similar
letter Weimer had written July 27, 1942. Weimer stated that O’Kane, in the
presence of witnesses, said:
I took Lincoln’s confession one night at our
church services in Springfield, Illinois. Then when Lincoln told his wife,
she stormed the castle, and declared it with intense vehemence that she
would not permit such a thing.
Well, the result was a delay. Then one day Lincoln
and I went out to the creek to do some hunting. We had a change of clothes
under the buggy seat. I baptized him into Christ as the Bible demands. He
lived and died a member of the church of Christ.
would be expected, both Lincoln scholars and Disciple scholars were
skeptical. A typical reaction was that of Louis A. Warren, who happened to
be both a Disciple and Lincoln scholar. He devoted an issue of Lincoln
Lore to “Abraham Lincoln and the Disciples” and dismissed Weimer’s
letter: “Mrs. Lincoln on several occasions is said to have stated that her
husband never affiliated with any church and it is quite likely she knew
as much about it as anyone.”
if Lincoln was baptized secretly to avoid Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath, she would
not have known about it. And even though Warren’s assessment of the
situation echoed general sentiment, it was at least possible that Lincoln
had indeed been baptized. Short of calling Weimer a liar, there was no
real way to dispute his contention. The story was reprinted a number of
times, often embellished as Murch’s account shows,
and evidently believed by a large number of
people must have written Weimer asking for more details. Harley Patterson
records his quest for additional information in the Winter 1976
Discipliana. He wrote to Weimer in February of 1942, just a few
days after the original letter appeared. Weimer answered, repeating the
same basic facts published in the Christian Evangelist and the
however, another letter of Weimer’s has come to light. This one was
written to Clyde 0. Summers on October 5, 1942, eight months after the
Currently housed in the Freed-Hardeman
University Restoration Library, it reads as follows:
The statement I have about the incident of John
O’Kane baptizing Abe Lincoln is not something copied from a paper or
When I lived in Eureka, Illinois, so my 2 boys
could be in College, John O’Kane stayed with me and my family during a
State convention. I asked him since he knew Lincoln very well, if he knew
whether Abe Lincoln ever became a Christian. Then he said, “I am now going
to tell you folks (I and wife and her father) all about the matter. I have
kept it in my own memory because when he first had me to arrange to
baptize him, his wife assumed a bitter resentment—that it would ruin their
social status. So it was postponed for a while (10 days) till the ‘storm’
was over. Then he and I took a buggy ride one day with a change of
clothing under the seat. I then baptized him in a small river near
Springfield, Ill. Of course, he became a member of the Church of Christ.
But I have kept it a secret as far as humans are concerned on account of
his home condition. Now the possible people who might be hurt in their
feelings are all or near dead. So, Bro. Weimer, I’ll tell you three folks,
but keep it a secret for some years so no storm can be
We promised. Wife and her father lie in their
grave in Eureka Cemetery. I, as far as I know, am the only living
messenger of the noted incident.
Took into Church
My sun is
I am almost
years of age.
for historians (and perhaps unfortunately for G. M. Weimer) this letter
offers enough additional information that at last Weimer’s reliability as
a witness can be examined. (1) Weimer was eighty-five years old and at the
sunset of his life when the letters were written. (2) The state convention
where O’Kane supposedly revealed the secret information was in Eureka,
Illinois. (3) Weimer was living in Eureka at the time so his two sons
could attend college. (4) Even at the time of writing no one who could
collaborate the story was still alive.
O’Kane died January 5, 1881. Weimer, as a postscript to the Summers
letter, mentions that he was “almost 86 years of age.” He obviously, then,
was eighty-five at the time of writing in 1942; he would have been only
twenty-four years old at the time O’Kane died—hardly old enough to have
two boys in college! Furthermore, Weimer remembers the convention as being
held in Eureka, Illinois. Four conventions were held in Eureka between the
deaths of Abraham Lincoln and John O’Kane: 1866, 1874, 1876, and 1878.
Since the last state convention that O’Kane could have attended in Eureka
was in 1878, Weimer’s age at the time is pushed back three more years to
twenty-one, barely old enough to have finished college himself.
the Summers letter comes several months after Weimer’s original letter
(and presumably a fair amount of questioning), Weimer anticipates one
objection by stating that since his wife and her father are dead no one
can back up his story. But what about the two college boys? Weimer admits
his “sun is setting.” Obviously by confusing incidents and conversations
of his earlier days he has started a rumor that persists until
this does not settle the matter of Lincoln’s baptism. Both Warren, in
and Murch, in Christians
mention another story, having Lincoln
baptized in Virginia while he was President. Both are inclined, as would
be expected, to disbelieve it, and Warren spends several paragraphs
contrasting the account with that of Weimer’s. As Warren points
this story can be traced to the January 21,
1911, Christian Standard, in an item submitted by W. R.
W. H. Morris is one of the pioneers of the
Restoration movement. He now lives in Eureka Springs, Ark. He is unable to
do much work now, but his intellectual faculties seem to be unimpaired. He
was well acquainted with A. Campbell, Walter Scott, and many who were
associated with them in the beginning of our great work for restoration.
He has traveled and preached in most of the older States, from Maine to
California. He was a soldier in the Union Army from 1861 to 1865 and is a
very interesting person to converse with. He told me that in 1862, while
his regiment was in Washington, or just across the river in Arlington
Heights, he held a protracted meeting of about two weeks, during which he
baptized many of the soldiers of his regiment. Mr. Lincoln and his Cabinet
attended his meeting. Mr. Lincoln and Secretary Stanton attended nearly
every night and, near the close of the meeting, Mr. Lincoln came to him
and said, “Morris, do you think it necessary for every person to be
baptized?” He replied: “It is not a matter of think-so with me! It is a
matter of revelation. Jesus said, ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing
them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He
that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not
shall be damned.’ And Peter, by the Holy Spirit, said, ‘Repent, and be
baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of
your sins.’” When he had made these quotations from the old Book, Mr.
Lincoln said: “Well, Morris, I look at this matter just as you do, and I
intend to attend to it.” Bro. Morris says he thinks from what he saw that
Secretary Stanton and other members of his Cabinet persuaded him to defer
the matter for the time being, and he never had a favorable opportunity
after that, or, at least, he never attended to it.
and Warren seem to have misread this one. The account may or may not be
true, but Lowe does not claim that Lincoln was baptized— only that he
agreed with a preacher that he needed to be and that he planned to “attend
to it.” If the story is true, Lincoln was certainly not the first or the
last to offer that line to a gospel preacher after an appeal for
“almost baptism” does, however, have a bearing on Weimer’s contention.
After leaving Springfield for Washington, Lincoln never returned until his
funeral train pulled into the station. If he had already been baptized by
one Christian preacher, why would he feel a need to be baptized by another
one? Surely Lincoln would not have forgotten his own baptism.
Lipscomb was undoubtedly closer to the truth when, only seven years after
Lincoln’s death, he flatly declared in the Gospel Advocate, “Mr.
Lincoln never obeyed the Lord Jesus Christ or rendered that homage to him
which his position demanded—never acknowledged before the world his
allegiance to King Emmanuel.”
B. Lipscomb reflected the viewpoint of the early restorers in his 1922
editorial in that same paper:
Great as Lincoln was and great as his memory
promises to be, the Christian will never cease to regret that he did not
comply with all the simple conditions of the gospel plan of salvation as
revealed in the New Testament. “If a man love me,” Jesus said, “he will
keep my commandments.” This is not only the test of friendship with
Christ, but of Sonship of God . . . Abraham Lincoln . . . died without
ever being scripturally baptized.
is at least one other angle that should be explored. Lincoln, although
never baptized, did have some association with the Disciples. But more has
been made of this connection than the evidence warrants. Several
Restoration writers seem to exhibit the tendency mentioned by Richard N.
Current in The Lincoln Nobody Knows of “discovering in Lincoln the
beliefs that they themselves espouse. They are prone to exaggerate these
particular beliefs and to overlook or deny the rest.”
Examples range from the recurring theme
that “Many of Lincoln’s ideas concerning religion, including his aversion
to human creeds . . . appear to hark back directly to Campbell and Stone .
to the unsupported claim that “we can
scarcely doubt that young Lincoln had an opportunity to read many, if not
all, of its [Alexander Campbell’s Christian Baptist] issues.
Lincoln’s documented association with individual Disciples is often given
an exaggerated importance, perhaps to lean Lincoln toward the
father and stepmother were Disciples. Law partner Herndon stated that
Thomas Lincoln . . . united with the Christian —vulgarly called
Campbellite—church in which latter faith he is supposed to have
Goodwin, the minister who preached Thomas Lincoln’s funeral, said of the
President’s father, “He was a consistent member through life of the
Christian Church or Church of Christ, and was as far as I know always
truthful, conscientious and religious.”
considerations, however, must be noted. First, Thomas and Sarah Lincoln
became members of the Christian Church after moving to Coles County,
Young Abe did not accompany them to Coles
Second, Lincoln was not at all close to his
father. In his few written references to his father, Lincoln was both
brief and apologetic.
There must have been a real estrangement between
him and his father. He did not take the trouble to see the old man during
the latter’s last illness, though it was a trip of only seventy-odd miles
from his own home in Springfield to his father’s residence in Coles
County. Again and again Thomas’s stepson appealed to Abraham, saying in
one letter: “I hast to inform you that father is yet a Live & that is
all & he Craves to See you all the time & he wants you to Come if
you ar able to git hure. . . .” Abraham did not even bother to answer all
the letters. He finally wrote (1851) to explain that both his own business
and his wife’s sickness prevented him from visiting his father. “Say to
him,” he advised his stepbrother, “that if we could meet now, it is
doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant; but that if
it be his lot to go now, he will soon have a joyous meeting with many
loved ones gone before; and where the rest of us, through the help of God,
hope ere long to join them.” He did not attend the funeral.
Lincoln’s feelings were toward his father, they certainly were not likely
to draw him to his father’s religion.
has been made of Lincoln’s friendship with Edward D. Baker. Murch in
Christians Only and J. M. Powell, writing in the August 27,
1959, Gospel Advocate, boast that Baker was a member of the Church
of Christ and often preached.
Although for a time Baker and Lincoln were
political rivals, they became such close friends that Lincoln named his
second son after Baker.
It was Baker who introduced Lincoln on the
day of his inauguration as President.
Lincoln’s only written mention of the
Disciples concerned Baker. In 1843 Baker defeated Lincoln as Sangamon
County’s Whig nominee for Congress. Lincoln wrote,
There was too the strangest combination of church
influence against me. Baker is a Campbellite, and therefore as I suppose,
with few acceptions [sic] got all that church. My wife has some
relatives in the Presbyterian and some in the Episcopal Churches, and
therefore, wherever 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 go
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. . . .
was a dear friend of Lincoln and a Christian. But a closer look shows that
he was not the kind of Christian most people would want to brag about. It
seems that his primary interest in the church was the many opportunities
it gave him to speak extemporaneously.
“A compulsive card gambler, Baker favored
faro, especially when accompanied by champagne and oysters.”
Tremendous law fees were paid to Baker, but
he squandered them as fast as they came in.
It was widely rumored at the time that he
once received a $15,000 retainer which he lost playing faro the same night
he received it.
Concerning his religion, a highly favorable
biography written less than ten years after Baker was killed in the battle
of Ball’s Bluff discreetly stated:
Being naturally of an impulsive and enthusiastic
temperament, he was, for a time, prompt and zealous in the discharge of
his religious duties, became an able exhorter, and began to entertain
serious thoughts of entering upon the work of the ministry. But as years
glided by, his mind becoming occupied with politics, and feverish with the
gnawings of ambition, he gradually “slipped the anchor of faith,” and was
no longer seen in his accustomed place in the house of devotion.
other associations Lincoln had with the Disciples amount to even less. In
The Search for the Ancient Order church historian Earl I. West
mentions that on his way to Washington for the inauguration, Lincoln was
entertained by R.M. Bishop, mayor of Cincinnati and an elder in the
No doubt it was Bishop’s position as mayor
rather than elder that caused the incoming President to call.
DeWitt Jones, in Lincoln and the Preachers, mentions a law partner
of Edward D. Baker’s, Josephus Hewett. Hewett “organized the Christian
Church in Springfield in 1832. Lincoln knew and loved Hewett, and wrote
him from Congress in 1850 [sic] a letter couched in affectionate
One letter, however, out of the volumes
Lincoln wrote, even a highly complimentary one, hardly proves that Lincoln
leaned toward the Disciples.
includes another story that appeared in several church papers around 1890.
Lincoln reportedly ran upon one Benjamin B. Smith, a minister of Canton,
Missouri, in a railway station in Springfield. Having sat in his
congregation “often,” Lincoln took Smith into his office and begged from
the willing preacher a private sermon from “A to Izzard.” Behind locked
doors, Smith preached for a full hour, setting forth the plea the church
was making to the denominations to “return to the ancient order of
Like so many other Lincoln stories, there
is simply no supporting evidence that it ever took place. David Donald
dismisses the tale as “most improbable” in a chapter of Lincoln
Reconsidered he calls “The Folklore Lincoln.”
Probable or improbable, it is certain the
sermon did not convince Lincoln to join the Disciples.
appears then, that in spite of legends, speculations, and wishful
thinking, Abraham Lincoln was not extraordinarily close to the Restoration
Movement. In the only public document in which Lincoln ever gave personal
testimony about his religious views, he said simply, “That I am not a
member of any Christian church, is true; but I have never denied the truth
of the Sciptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of
religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in
It is perhaps fitting that his handbill
published in 1846 to refute the charge of “infidelity” also refutes
overzealous churchmen eager to bring Lincoln into the fold.