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Lincoln's Battle with God: A President's Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America Hardcover – November 12, 2012
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About the Author
Stephen Mansfield is the New York Times bestselling author of Lincoln's Battle with God, The Faith of Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI, Searching for God and Guinness, and Never Give In: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Beverly.
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Top Customer Reviews
Based on contemporary accounts from the first part of his life I have no reason to doubt that he wasn't a Christian at that time. Neighbors in New Salem said he would read a Bible aloud for the sole purpose of showing it's error. And one neighbor heard him despair that he didn't think there was an afterlife after the death of his beloved Ann.
Now the picture painted by many current scholars goes something like this: in the desperation of Willie's death and the horror of the civil war Lincoln returned to the hyper-Calvinistic view of his childhood and admitted that God was controlling these events and he surrendered himself to this bleak reality and tried to make the best of it he could.
The major problem I've always had with this view is what I read in the writings and speeches of Lincoln himself during his White House years. I know that Lincoln was a politician and all politicians "play to the crowd" to some degree or another. But still something didn't seem to fit. I couldn't see how a man who wrote the Second Inaugural in which both Jesus and the Old Testament are quoted in the way that they are could at the same time not believe those words to be divinely inspired. What credence could you give to the words of Jesus if you believe he was foolishly claiming himself to be God in the flesh? How could you trust or admire anything else he said?
My only disappointment in the otherwise excellent "Team of Rivals" was this biased view of Lincoln's faith creeping in. Doris Kearns Goodwin maintains that Lincoln held to the view that he uttered to a neighbor in New Salem that he didn't think there was an afterlife for his entire life. Lincoln mentioned how unpleasant that thought was at the time. But I find it hard to believe that Lincoln's mind on that didn't change at all, especially from contemporary accounts and conversations he had during the White House years.
And while I immensely enjoyed the Spielberg film "Lincoln", I thought it out of character for Lincoln to use God's name in vain in moments of anger. Once again, I find it hard to swallow that the main who praised God's righteous judgments in the Second Inaugural address would also choose to use "God d--n!" behind closed doors. And I know you can only fit so much into a film but it would have been nice to allude to Lincoln's faith at this time. He stated often that he had many times of private prayer and we know he read from his big leather Bible along with Shakespeare and poetry.
This book confirmed my suspicions in many areas. There is evidence to confirm that the lofty theology in his Second Inaugural was the result of deep searching and changing beliefs in his own heart during the 1850's to some extent and during his White House years to a larger extent. I was shocked when I read what Mary said were ALL of Lincoln's last words were in Ford's Theater the night he was killed. I've been researching Lincoln's faith and never heard of this before.
The book also deals with the Herndon issue. After this book I've come to the conclusion that Herndon simply didn't want to admit that Lincoln would change his views on the Bible and God, and fortunately for Herndon he had many quotes from Lincoln's skeptical years to prove it. But as Herndon himself admitted Lincoln kept things to himself often. In some ways I find similarities between Lincoln's journey of faith and that of C.S. Lewis. Lewis was initially repelled by the Christian faith, which he saw as an appalling anti-intellectual worldview. Also interesting to note is that both Lincoln and Lewis lost their mother at a young age, so they had emotional reasons for rejecting the Christian faith as well. But the change came for Lewis very slowly, a little piece at a time. Lewis stated that he doesn't even remember the exact moment when it happened, but he came to believe in the God of the Bible. I think this book shows that Lincoln's change was, like Lewis', slow but sure. I think it's also worth noting that C.S. Lewis believed that much of the early Old Testament was myth meant to illustrate a deeper truth. From what I've read Lincoln believed that more of the Old Testament was literal than C.S. Lewis did! Now Lincoln didn't speak publicly about Christ much at all, but as Mansfield notes in this work, that's no indication that he didn't believe it.
I know scholars on the other side of the fence will scoff at the view presented in this book and maintain that those certain White House years accounts all have their own reasons for not being trusted. But Mansfield has an excellent commentary on this at the end of the book also. I also find it interesting that James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, himself a definite Lincoln egg head, gave this book such a glowing endorsement. It's nice to know that I'm not alone in believing that Lincoln was much further developed in his faith than what I've been lead to belief.
Lincoln seems to have been exposed to the best and worst in Christianity of his day by being strengthened in his faith through the writings of Presbyterian Pastor Reverend James D. Smith of Springfield, whose apologetic writings contained in The Christian's Defence, Lincoln is known to have read. At the same time Lincoln was likely exposed to some of the church pettiness of his day. As he attended Smith's church in Springfield, the Presbyterian session was charged at one point with investigating a church member for the sin of dancing. (Lincoln and his wife had met at a dance.) Even in death, Lincoln couldn't escape the cultural bias of his day. Pastors lamented the fact that his death took place in a theater. Or in the words of one Presbyterian Pastor, "the theater is one of last places to which a good man should go."
Despite many challenges, Lincoln's faith eventually took form. Perhaps its strongest statement is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Here Lincoln lays out an overwhelming case for God's sovereignty in history and the case against slavery, but he charges both the North and South with the collective crime of slavery that God must judge. Lincoln also lays out a Scriptural philosophy of history in which God is portrayed as allowing the crimes of humanity to go so far, but no further, until evil has reached its fullness and is judged.
This is a good book. It's made that much more enjoyable in that Mansfield is able to keep things complete, yet brief. And even while being brief provide several mini-histories of various topics. We see the sad picture for example of Mrs. Lincoln's interest in spiritualism after her son's death, even as her husband turns closer to his Christian faith as a way of coping with his grief. More examples could be mentioned. But it suffices to say that this is a book that is well worth it.
I largely resonated with "not rejecting God completely" but "rejecting the faith of his own father". One thing I found needling it's way through towards the end that I've personally dealt with is the idea that maybe he "wasn't questioning God...but questioning his own undestanding of God". Which is something that anyone who believes in God, will face.
I would urge anyone interested in Lincoln or American history to buy this. In the end, this book might appeal to Pastors, lay leaders, as well as skeptics.