by Bill Nugent
According to Billy Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s last law partner, Lincoln came across a book by Constantin Francois Volney that challenged his faith in God. The book was the famous “Volney’s Ruins,” more properly titled “The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: And the Law of Nature.” The book attacked Christianity and blamed religion for revolutions and the fall of empires. It promoted secularism and natural law.
Lincoln was first elected to the Illinois legislature at age 25 in 1834. Around that time Lincoln read Volney’s Ruins and he also read Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason.” Paine’s book is an attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular. Like Volney, Paine promoted Enlightenment philosophy, hyper-rationalism, neglect of the human spirit and implicit denial of the supernatural.
The Enlightenment, which influenced Volney and Paine, is the misnamed eighteenth century philosophical era in which philosophers made a tragic turn toward rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is the claim that absolute truth can be discovered by human reason apart from any dependence on biblical revelation. Empiricism is the claim that reality and truth must be perceived by the senses in order to be real. Empiricism also rejects revelation and the supernatural.
Thomas Paine’s farmhouse is near where I live in Westchester County, NY. It’s preserved for public viewing. I toured it once and found it interesting, though some of the displays carried explanations that were factually in error. The farm had been confiscated from a loyalist and was given to Paine after the War of American Independence.
Paine died in 1809, the same year Lincoln was born. Not long after that, a man raided Paine’s grave and stole his bones. It reminds me of some instances in the Bible where people who boldly opposed God had their bodies desecrated after death.
In the 1840s Lincoln read “The Vestiges of Creation” by Robert Chambers which is a pre-Darwinian book about evolution. This cemented Lincoln’s skepticism. The books by Volney, Paine and Chambers reduced Lincoln’s faith to a smoldering ruin but God had a plan to restore Lincoln’s faith and God’s plan also involved books.
Not long after that, Lincoln read a book by a minister, named James Smith, whom he personally knew and respected. The book was “The Christian’s Defence.” It was, as its title suggests, a defense of Christianity and it refuted the Enlightenment secular view. This had a strong impact on Lincoln. Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards said that Lincoln told him that the book converted him to Christianity. Yet others who knew Lincoln claimed he continued to make statements that were reflective of skepticism.
Biographers of Lincoln detail a battle between faith and skepticism for the remainder of Lincoln’s life. There is evidence that in the very last year or two of his life he made a solid conversion to the Christian faith. His best friend, Joshua Speed relates an incident in 1864 when he found Lincoln reading a Bible. Lincoln made a statement to Speed exhorting him to accept the Bible by reason in some of its teachings and what he can’t accept by reason, he should accept by faith.
Lincoln’s second inaugural address, given on March 4th, 1865 reads like a sermon. It contains several allusions to the scriptures in the themes of God’s chastisement and restoration. Lincoln was influenced by what he saw as divine providences (dare I say, miracles) of God’s intervention during the US Civil War. Lincoln became a believer because he saw miracles.
I see Lincoln’s life as a kind of parable, depicting of the course of American society as a whole.
Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published in 1859 and had a profound effect of promoting skepticism among the upper classes of American society. Darwin’s book did to America what Volney’s Ruins did to Lincoln.
In the 1880s only about 4 percent of American students went on to high school. There were whole counties that didn’t even have one high school. A tiny percentage of American students went to college. They were the elite of the elite. At first, evolution was taught only in the higher levels of education.
As the decades progressed, more and more people were exposed to the Darwinian claim that humans are mere products of nature and have no souls and no future existence after death. America’s faith was being ruined just like the ruination of Abraham Lincoln’s faith. The US became the “ape society” in which people believed they were mere primates. However, people still continued to live as humans with civilized values. This social phenomenon of people living with a degree of human decency even though they were taught that they’re animals is a form of “cultural lag.”
As still more decades went by, cultural lag became cultural breakdown. This is best typified by the 1973 decision of the US Supreme court to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right. The exploding crime rate and sexual deviancy of recent decades indicate that people are finally starting to live like apes and not just academically believe that they are descended from apes. This societal embrace of secularism parallels the depths of Lincoln’s skepticism and the sardonic statements of blasphemy Lincoln made during his years of unbelief.
However, American society is entering a time when skepticism has run its course and people are reaching the end of hedonism and are fearful of death. People begin to ponder the evidence furnished by the Bible in terms of fulfilled prophecies. Secular people are also hearing about miracles that occur in Christian meetings in the name of Christ. The miraculous healings that have occurred in the ministries of Christians such as David Herzog, John Kilpatrick, Joan Hunter and many others are well attested and documented. Christianity is a faith but not a blind faith.
In spite of the dominance of secularism as America enters the twenty first century, there is a strong pull to return to the biblical Christian faith. As Lincoln was apprehended by Christ in his final years, so our society is also being embraced by Christ in these latter days.
Jesus Christ came in fulfillment of over 300 messianic prophecies written in the Old Testament hundreds of years before His birth. No other figure in all of world history can make that claim. The prophecies foretold that Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, would come to suffer and die, taking upon Himself the penalty of the sins of all humanity and rise from the dead. Call upon the name of Jesus Christ today to receive forgiveness of sins!
Some information in this article is from the article ” ‘I shall Never Get to the Resting Place’ The religious skepticism of Abraham Lincoln” by Richard Lawrence Miller, published by the Council for Secular Humanism.