“I don’t know anything about Lincoln’s religion,” a longtime friend, David Davis, remarked after Lincoln’s death, “and I don’t believe anybody knows anything about it.” Though Davis’ skepticism should give pause to more historians than it has, he overstated the case. We will never know for sure whether Lincoln held orthodox Christian beliefs, whether he believed in the Trinity, the divinity of Christ or his resurrection, the life everlasting, the forgiveness of sins, the inerrant word of God as revealed in the Old Testament or the New.
But perhaps the country has benefited from not knowing. The uncertainty has made Lincoln our common property, whoever we are, from Robert Ingersoll to Cardinal Mundelein to Nettie Maynard. It may be indeed that Lincoln’s is the only kind of religious expression that will travel in a free country like ours. His religion has lasted a century and a half and has appealed to believers of all kinds, and to skeptics too, exactly because of its generality. Yet it still means something definable and concrete: The country, Lincoln believed, is the carrier of a precious cargo, a proposition that is the timeless human truth, and the survival of this principle will always be of providential importance. We assent to Lincoln’s creed, wide open as it is, when we think of ourselves as Americans.