The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XXII. Lincoln
§ 4. Religion
Though born in a family of Baptists, he never became a member of the Baptist or of any church. Except for one amazing fragment he has left no writings that are not more or less obscure where they touch on religious themes. It is a curious fact that in the index to the voluminous official Life the word religion does not occur. As against this singular negative evidence there are anecdotes of a religious attitude. But the historian learns to question the value of all anecdotes. Nevertheless the tradition of Lincoln’s piety—of his essentially religious nature—will not down. A rooted tradition, almost contemporary, is more significant than anecdotes, less susceptible of that constant dramatic heightening which makes the anecdote in retelling more and more positive. Now, the traditional Lincoln is a man overshadowed, a man of infinite gentleness whose pity seems to be more than mere friendliness or generosity. His own world, though uninformed as to his specific beliefs, persistently conceived of him as a mystic, as a walker apart with God. For evidence to support this impression we naturally look to his intimate letters. If we may judge by the surviving correspondence, this man, of whose friendliness ten thousand authentic instances testify, seems none the less to have lived and died solitary. The one mitigating experience appears in his early friendship for Joshua F. Speed. Cordial, trustful, sympathetic he was with many friends. The group of letters written to Speed in 1842 are in a vein that sets them apart. Both men had suffered through their emotions, and each in an analytical, self-torturing way. Upon Lincoln the sudden death of Ann Rutledge, with whom he thought himself in love at twenty-three, is supposed to have had, for the time at least, a deeply saddening effect. A second love affair was lukewarm and ended happily in divergence. The serious matter, his engagement to Miss Mary Todd, led to such acute questioning of himself, such painful analysis of his feeling, such doubt of his ability to make her happy, that the engagement was broken off. Within a month he had written: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.” (23 January, 1841.) Two years were to elapse before the harm was repaired and Lincoln and Miss Todd married. Meanwhile Speed, becoming engaged, suffered a similar ordeal of introspection, of pitiless self-analysis. He too doubted the reality of his feeling, feared that he would be wronging the woman he loved by marrying her. Lincoln’s letters to his unhappy friend are the most intimate utterances he has left. Sane, cheerful,—except for passing references to his own misfortune,—thoughtful, they helped to pull Speed out of the Slough of Despond.
As nothing in these letters has the least hint of the perfunctory their reverent phrases must be accepted at face value. That a belief in God, even in God’s personal direction of human affairs, lies back of these letters, is not to be doubted. Nevertheless the subject remains vague. Lincoln’s approach to it is almost timid. There is no hint of dogma. But the fact that he here calls himself superstitious sends us back to his earliest days, to his formative environment, seeking for clues to the religious life he may have inherited.