Saturday, May 6, 2023

Lincoln's faith

From Barton Swaim's review of Lincoln's God:
.... Since his early 20s—that is, after he left home in 1831 and was no longer under his father’s care—Lincoln had committed to memory many passages of the King James Bible. Not until the trial of his presidency, though, did he begin to treat scriptural language as a source of hope and moral guidance in the way a believer would. The Civil War was going badly, Lincoln’s critics were growing more numerous and more vicious, and in February 1862 his son Willie drank contaminated water and died an excruciating death.

Now, Mr. Zeitz argues, Lincoln began to embrace a quiet but genuine form of Christian belief. Of course, this isn’t strictly knowable, inasmuch as the president, a reticent man at all times, never made any explicit attestation of faith. His widow, Mary, recalled to Herndon that “he read the Bible a good deal in 1864. He felt religious more than ever about the time he went to Gettysburg”—that is, in November 1863. The president more often accompanied his wife to church in last three years of his life.

The content of Lincoln’s late public addresses, Mr. Zeitz observes furthermore, is so richly biblical that the supposition of a newfound acknowledgment of God is impossible to ignore. “Neither before nor since,” Mr. Zeitz writes of the Second Inaugural Address, “has a United States president so openly infused a public speech with religious sentiment and phrasing.” ....
But Swaim also writes:
Appealing thesis aside, Lincoln’s God is not a good book. It bears the marks of haphazard research, hasty writing and sloppy editing.

This material is new to Mr. Zeitz, and it shows. One problem is terminological. Again and again he uses the word “mainline” to describe mid-19th century evangelical churches, but that term dates from the middle of the 20th century and typically means the opposite of evangelical. He defines a “deist” as one who believes “vaguely in a controlling influence that guided human events,” literally the opposite of what a deist is. .... [and the review notes many more similar errors]

Mr. Zeitz would have been better advised to spend another year or two on research before he began writing this book. ....
Barton Swaim, "Lincoln’s God Review: Abe’s Ambitious Religious Creed," Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2023.

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