Book Review of
by Michael Burkhimer
Yardley, Pa.: Westholme, 2007
by Bernard von Bothmer
Review published in The Journal of Southern History (2009, February 1, Vol. 75 Issue 1, 154)
The life of Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate, and recent years have shown no stoppage to books devoted to the nation’s sixteenth president.
Michael Burkhimer’s Lincoln’s Christianity is a thoroughly researched and well written analysis of the evolution of Lincoln’s religious beliefs from boyhood until death. Burkhimer weaves in and out of his riveting study Biblical history and the history of American religion, adding texture and nuance without straying from his focus on Lincoln’s religion. I strongly recommend this book for both specialists and general readers alike.
Burkhimer, who teaches American history in the Haverford Township School District and is the author of 100 Essential Lincoln Books, is widely read in all the important sources regarding Lincoln’s religion. While his book contains no original archival research, Burkhimer skillfully navigates the treacherous waters of Lincoln historiography and offers a well balanced study, never overshadowed by the author’s strong religious beliefs.
“Lincoln was hardly silent on the subject or religion, yet his views are difficult to classify,” Burkhimer writes. The author’s goal is to “look at what Lincoln believed and also how it may have affected the way he lived” (ix). Burkhimer examines the books Lincoln read, the letters he wrote, the political speeches he gave, and interviews and recollections from those who knew Lincoln.
Lincoln’s religious views were ever-forming, Burkhimer argues, and he agrees that Lincoln was “an experimental Christian” (p. 75). As a young man, Lincoln was a non believer. But after encountering in 1843 The Christian’s Defense by Reverend James D. Smith, an Illinois minister, Lincoln embarked upon a life-long quest to understand the nature of God, a journey that accelerated as he aged.
In the final third of Burkhimer’s book, on Lincoln’s presidency, he shows how Lincoln’s rhetoric during the Civil War became increasingly infused with religious rhetoric. Burkhimer’s discussion of the role of religion in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is especially informative.
Lincoln’s Christianity examines Lincoln’s religion “as a way to explore an individual’s dialogue with religion over the course of a lifetime,” Burkhimer concludes. “Beyond its intrinsic appeal, this inquiry demonstrates that decisions about good government based on a fixed idea of a person’s religious faith are not relevant to who does or does not possess the skills to be a leader, even a great leader” (p. 155).
The intersection of religion and politics continue to dominate the American political landscape, and Burkhimer’s demonstrates that this debate is as old as the Republic. Much thought has been devoted to the question of what would have happened to the nation had Lincoln lived. Burkhimer’s thoughtful study reminds us that an equally compelling issue is what would have happened to Lincoln’s religious beliefs had he lived.