Since President Obama has come on the national political scene many have raised the question of whether he is a Christian in spite of his strong profession of faith reiterated again recently at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. on February 3. One may find the text of his message online simply by searching for the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast. I've written previously of his liberal theological stance.
Meanwhile, as we celebrate the birthdays of the two most influential and revered Presidents in American history this month the question has been oft debated as to whether they were Christians. Much has been written on this subject and of which you may find much online by simply searching for, "Was George Washington a Christian?" and the same for President Lincoln. That they were men who believed in God there is no doubt. That they revered the Bible and read it is not in question either. That they called for prayer for the nation in times of crisis was evident too.
But did they hold to a Trinitarian view of God and that Jesus Christ is the incarnate second person of the Trinity who died for our sin? Many historians and writers have come to opposing conclusions on that question. George Washington was an active member of an Anglican Church and though some have made much of the fact that he frequently left the service before communion that was apparently not always the case. Peter Lillback has written a more recent work, "George Washington's Sacred Fire" wherein he concludes from researching many original sources that President Washington was a man of genuine Christian faith. He was a good man and highly respected, but as with most public figures there are those who seek to find discrediting behavior in their lives. There is no doubt that all historians have their bias and many do not hesitate to do historical revisions to suit their own ends regardless of the truth. I am rendering a personal opinion here in saying based on the reading I have done that George Washington held to the basic tenets of historic biblical Christianity and by profession was a Christian. Only God knows for certain who among us are genuine Christians and who are not. Thank God he who knows our deepest thoughts is also the judge of all the earth. Genesis 18:25
The case for the convictions of Abraham Lincoln is not as easily resolved. He grew up in a very economically poor home with few books and that he read the Bible voraciously is not in question. He quoted from it often in his varied speeches and it is obvious that he revered the book. But Mr. Lincoln never joined a church nor made a clear profession of faith in Christ that is recorded. There were times when he made clear statements that he did not believe historic biblical orthodoxy. How could a man be so humble and wise, honest and forgiving without knowing God experientially? We must concede that there are many "good" people who make no profession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. However, the definition of Christian is not being a good person who seeks to follow Christ's example. A Christian is one who acknowledges his sin and seeks the forgiveness God offers on the basis of Christ's atoning death. So we are not asking was Abraham Lincoln a good man, perhaps the most godly President in American history. We are asking did he believe in Christ for the forgiveness of sin?
Again there are those who have studied the matter very carefully and come down on either side of the question. He grieved long and hard after the death of two sons. Many feel that his visit and address at Gettysburg touched him more profoundly than the death of his sons. He did start attending New York Avenue Presbyterian Church not far from the White house in his last year(s). His pew may still be seen there though the building has been rebuilt. When I finished Wheaton College and went to Washington D.C. in student ministry in the late summer of 1960 the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church was the first church I visited. Not because President Lincoln's pew was still there, but because the late Senate Chaplain, Peter Marshall had been pastor there before becoming Senate Chaplain. Peter Marshall's biography, "A Man Called Peter" written by his widow, Catherine, had influenced me deeply in my own call to ministry and visiting that church was something of a pilgrimage for me.
The late D. James Kennedy of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Florida taught that Mr. Lincoln did profess faith in Christ in the year before he was assassinated. Others have challenged that claim. Again, only God knows for certain and we must trust the judge of all the earth to do right? We rest our case thankful for the significant role both of these men had in the leadership of our country. May God who knows all of our hearts have mercy on us all.