“The silencing of Lincoln’s faith by the secular and the exaggerating of Lincoln’s faith by the religious have given us a less accurate and a less an engaging Lincoln. We are poor for the distortions.”
Stephen Mansfield’s newest book Lincoln’s Battle With God: A President’s Struggle With Faith and What it Meant for American is, in my opinion, a book about two things: Abraham Lincoln’s struggle with a faith and about the place of faith in the writing of history. On both counts I find Mansfield’s work helpful and thought provoking.
Much of what I have read about Lincoln over the years has been about Lincoln the President. But Mansfield takes us back to his childhood and pulls out three threads that he weaves into the rest of the book about Lincoln and his struggle with faith: the stormy relationship with his father and his father’s faith; the intellectually, and spiritually, nurturing relationship with his mother; and his life long battle with what Lincoln called “hypo” or hypochondria that many believe was rooted in the childhood death of his mother.
Regarding the first thread, Mansfield takes us back to Kentucky and Indiana and a childhood that had a layer of what we would now call depression laid over the hardship of frontier life. Lincoln’s father, was a demanding man whose faith was shaped by the spiritual movements of the late 1700 and early 1800’s. His strict views and beliefs were rejected by Lincoln who had little tolerance for them and whose mind and vision were opened by his mother with her simple faith and love of books which Mansfield suggests counteracted the harsh paternal faith of his father . And it was her death that has led many to believe it set off Lincoln’s life-long battle with what we today would call depression, the third thread that has been and continues to be a subject of discussion in both articles such as Joshua Wolf Shenk’s October 2005’s article in The Atlantic, “Lincoln’s Great Depression” and in books such as Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy.
As Mansfield weaves the threads together a portrait of a young Lincoln, an ‘infidel,’ emerges in the days of his establishing young adult life in New Salem, Illinois. He mocks the faith of his father and the spokesmen (preachers) of it. He finds fault with the Bible. His reading becomes wider and more ‘liberal’ and he finds solace in authors such as historian Edward Gibbon who in his massive work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, says Mansfield, “blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome;” and the Scottish poet Robert Burns with whom, Mansfield believes, “played a greater role in Lincoln’s attitude toward religion than any other writer.”
But Mansfield probes deeper and suggests another reason for the “blast” Lincoln leveled at the established faith of the day:
“…Lincoln’s “blast” was not just a roar of grief over his sufferings but also a roar of rage against a God he thought had abandoned him. A close friend would later recall that Lincoln had written the booklet on infidelity “through the spirit of his misery, through the thought and the idea that God had forsaken him, and through the echoes of Lincoln’s mental condition, suffering, a burden of wild despair.” We shall see this resurface often in Lincoln’s life. For some uncertain reason, Lincoln began early in his life to feel that he was cursed, that “God had forsaken him.” (emphasis mine)
The collision, and perhaps the collusion, of these deeply spiritual forces within Lincoln leads Mansfield to conclude:
“…Lincoln’s story is, in part, that of a man who beat back the spirits that came for him in the night…he mined the valleys of depression for what riches he could find. He emerged to see life differently from other men, to understand and feel as though he were looking in from the outside of human existence…this ability to outlast the darkness was one more gift from his mother, and it too, would shape the brand of faith he eventually made his own.”
And from this point Mansfield takes us on a journey, into and around Lincoln before and then into the late 1850’s and the early 1860’s when he would assume the Presidency of a truly divided nation. His tempestuous relationship with his wife, Mary, the deaths of two of his boys, and the demands and issues of leading a nation at war with itself, all are essential in understanding what Mansfield finally suggests of Lincoln and his faith:
“Perhaps the most that can be said is what has already been written in these pages: John Wilkes Booth’s derringer ball interrupted a life in spiritual pursuit.”
The result then is a look at both Lincoln’s faith and the debate and discussion within the world of Lincoln studies (and really elsewhere) across the decades about what Abraham Lincoln did, and did not, believe about God. Mansfield draws on the primary resources of those who knew Lincoln best, while acknowledging the some of the challenges as to the accuracy and reliability of those sources, some of which were thoughts uttered decades after the time in question and after Lincoln’s own death, and thereby gives us, the reader, an interesting, thoughtful, and helpful discussion to the larger and on-going study of our 16th President and the nature and place of faith in the discipline of history.
I rate this book a ‘great’ read.
Lincoln’s Battle With God was published by Thomas Nelson.
Note: This review is based on a kindle ebook that I checked out via the Overdrive system at my local public library.
- Book Explores Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Battle With God’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Review: Complexities of Lincoln’s faith explored (utsandiego.com)