In the 135 years since his death from an assassin'sbullet, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is Feb. 12, has inspired thousands of scholarly books and studies, reportedly more than any other American. Still, historian Allen Guelzo believes there was need for one more.

"None of these books have directed themselves to understanding theman as a thinker, and his connections as a thinker to the larger contextof ideas in the 19th century," says Guelzo, author of "Abraham Lincoln:Redeemer President" (Eerdmans).

In part, that's because history has largely portrayed Lincoln as arough-hewn Victorian-era version of gaffe-prone Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

"During his own day, many people viewed Lincoln as an uncouthbarbarian in a coonskin cap who was ignorant, incompetent, or both,"says Guelzo, a professor at Eastern College in St. David's, Pa. Today,many scholars continue to subscribe to "the myth that there was nointellectual life there to worry about."

But Guelzo, who has written for both Christianity Today and theJournal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, sees Lincoln as animportant intellectual figure, and his exploration of the 18thpresident's inner world includes a thorough examination of Lincoln'sreligious faith--a subject that has been intensely debated ever sincethe days after his death, when the slain president was compared to bothWashington and Jesus Christ.

Killed by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, Lincoln's role as a nationaldeliverer was eulogized in hundreds of "Black Easter" sermons heard inchurches all across the land. One preacher pointed out "the fitness ofthe slaying of the second Father of our Republic on the anniversary ofthe day on which (Jesus) was slain. Jesus Christ died for the world,Abraham Lincoln died for this country."

Many Americans believed Lincoln to be the "redeemer president" poetWalt Whitman had cried out for a decade earlier. So deep was clergymen'srespect for Lincoln that they overlooked that fact that he had spentGood Friday in a theater, a place one Presbyterian preacher of the day described as "the very gates of Hell."

Understanding Lincoln's own views on religion is harder to deduce,and over the years he has been portrayed as a Bible-believing Christian,a Unitarian, and an atheist.

Guelzo portrays Lincoln as a complex and private man whose youth waslargely shaped by Christian fundamentalism, but whose adulthood andpolitical theories were more powerfully guided by Enlightenment ideals.

"Historians are dealing always in cases of probability,approximations, and assessments," says Guelzo, who says that questionsconcerning Lincoln's faith can't be answered with certainty.

"Lincoln was very reluctant to talk about his religion," he says.

"In part, that was because he was an exceptionally private man. Even hisclosest associates and friends remarked at how reticent and shut-mouthedthis man was. In addition, he was aware of the possible consequences oftalking about whatever religion he had, particularly if whateverreligion he had was not orthodox."

According to Guelzo, Lincoln's inner world revolved around threemain components: the strict Calvinism of his youth, the Enlightenmentthinking he embraced in his early adult years and the classical liberalpolitical theory that guided his presidency.

"Both of Lincoln's parents were members of an ultra-predestinarianCalvinist sect that believed so strongly in the sovereignty of God thatthey didn't believe in sending out missionaries," Guelzo says. "Theybelieved that human beings don't make decisions about their future, butGod makes those decisions and people submit to them."

Then in his early 20s, Lincoln devoured the works of Thomas Paineand some of the Enlightenment's most skeptical thinkers. After thispoint, Lincoln no longer considered himself to be formally religious,but he was still haunted by his upbringing.

Lincoln's political and economic thought stressed individualism,rationalism, capitalism and social mobility--all important componentsof Enlightenment liberalism.

"As president, Lincoln had great respect for the importance ofcultural issues that were of importance to religious people, and he wentout of his way to stress his commonality with evangelicals and supporttheir issues," Guelzo says. "But like many present-day politicians, hefelt the necessity of treading very carefully when questions of religionwere raised."

Guelzo calls Lincoln "a typical Victorian doubter" like "Moby Dick"author Herman Melville. According to fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne,Melville could "neither believe or be comfortable in his unbelief."

Lincoln described himself as a doubting Thomas, an allusion to thedisciple who could not believe in the resurrection of Christ "unless Isee the nail marks in his hands.


Mary Todd Lincoln said that just before her husband was shot at theFord Theater, he told her that he wanted to visit the Holy Land, ajourney that many Victorians made to shore up their fractured faith.

"At the end of the Thomas story, Thomas does believe, but herequired a remarkable demonstration," Guelzo says. "Lincoln never gotthat remarkable demonstration."