I have been on yet another biography kick in the past few months. Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve digested two fantastic biographies of characters who are at once very different and yet in at least one way not entirely dissimilar—Queen Elizabeth II and Abraham Lincoln. As I read these two books I came to see that each pointed me to the same question. I had not set out asking this question, rather, it naturally arose from the story of a life. It is this: Has this person placed his faith in Jesus Christ?
Abraham Lincoln has long fascinated me and I have read several of the most notable accounts of his life. What has always perplexed me is the question of whether or not Lincoln was a Christian—a true Christian who truly believed in Christ as Savior. While it is obvious that Lincoln believed in a higher power and that he knew and treasured the Bible, the nature of his religious beliefs has long been in dispute. Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln: A Biography is a brilliant account of Lincoln’s life and brings a measure of clarity to my thinking.
I am increasingly convinced that Lincoln truly did come to understand the gospel at some point in life, though seemingly not until near the end. White shows that Lincoln’s understanding of God, gospel and providence were shaped at least in part by Phineas Densmore Gurley, the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Gurley’s chief mentor was the great theologian Charles Hodge. Thus there was much of Hodge—much of Presbyterian Calvinism—in Lincoln. As he wrestled with understanding the presence of God in the Civil War, as he sought to understand the purpose of this conflict, he drew from this theological stream and found great comfort in the God who is sovereign.
There is much we can learn from the life of Lincoln, many lessons that can be applied. He is endlessly fascinating. But when I look at Lincoln, I am more and more comfortable in seeing a man who at some point grew from understanding God as an impersonal force to a man who encountered a living, active God whose hand was visible even, or perhaps especially, in the nation’s darkest hour.
Rather on a whim I also picked up a copy of Sally Bedell Smith’s new biography of Queen Elizabeth II: Elizabeth the Queen. While I have no great love for the monarchy as an institution, I’ve long respected the Queen. She is in a near-impossible position, reigning as a monarch in a country and a world that has moved away from monarchial forms of government. Yet she understands that it is her role to serve her country and her commonwealth and she has done so very well over the years.