Baptist History Homepage

Kentucky Baptist History - 1770-1922
By William D. Nowlin, 1922


The Mystery of Lincoln's Religion Cleared up

     One of the most interesting characters in all American history is Abraham Lincoln. Born in a one-room log cabin in the wilderness of Kentucky, reared in the grinding poverty and hardships of the backwoods of Indiana and Illinois, he, by dint of industry and application, became a great lawyer and statesman, a great president and preserver of a nation.

     Every student of history is familiar with the real humanity and depths of character of this great American citizen. In the study of such a character questions will arise: "What of his ancestry? Were they pious, religious people? What of his training? What inspired him to a great life?" The student naturally looks for something in the dreary pioneer life of "Honest Abe" that inspired him to nobler and greater things beyond the horizon of his wilderness home. In our search for this inspiration we find that Lincolp's parents were pious religious Baptist stock. The Lincolns were Baptists in Kentucky and united with a Baptist church in Indiana, where they first settled after leaving Kentucky, as shown by the following:

"Lincoln City, Ind., Nov. 5, 1921 - Rolling back the mists of a century and offering the deerskin-bound records of Little Pigeon Baptist Church near here as the missing link of Abraham Lincoln's religion, Thomas B. McGregor, Assistant Attorney-General of the State of Kentucky, has given to an appreciative America substantial evidence that Abraham Lincoln was reared in the simple faith of the 'hard-shelled' Baptist Church."

"Much of the mystery of Lincoln's religion, and

[p. 188]
that of his parents, for over half a century a mooted question, has been evaporated by the finding of Mr. McGregor in the little old deerskin book of Little Pigeon Church.

"There is no record of Abraham Lincoln's affiliation with any church denomination, but Mr. McGregor's story of Thomas Lincoln, moderator and pillar of the little Baptist church, proves conclusively, Mr. McGregor says, that the Lincoln family were Baptists.

Were Well To Do

"The parents of Abraham Lincoln deserve a fairer estimate than has been allotted them by most of the biographers of Lincoln," says Mr. McGregor, "and the story, as told by the records that are still to be found in the archives of Little Pigeon Church, near Lincoln City, Spencer County, Indiana, of the devotion paid by the parents of Lincoln to him who guided the lad of Pigeon Creek in the hour of the nation's travail, goes far to give to them their true estimate. In fact, they were well-to-do pioneers of their day; of sturdy ancestral stock, owned a farm, domestic animals, tools and a family Bible; neighborly, sacrificing and active church-going members.

"Pigeon Creek Church was founded on June 8, 1816, the year that Thomas Lincoln and his family moved from Kentucky and settled on Little Pigeon Creek in what was then Warwick County, Indiana Territory. It was then, as now, the chief church in that vicinity. When the meeting-house was built, its site was selected about a mile west of Thomas Lincoln's home, the church building today occupying practically the same place. When Ljncoln's mother died she was buried between their home and the church, the graveyard not having been at that time started at the church, but when Lincoln's sister, Sarah Grigsby, died in 1828, she was buried at the church burying ground, where her grave is yet to be seen, marked by a rough stone.

[p. 189]
"This church, with its continuous existence since 1816, has only two books containing its records and minutes, the first covering the period from 1816 to 1840. It is in this book that we find Abraham Lincoln's father, stepmother and sister were active members of the hardshell Baptist Church of Pigeon Creek, and this book, with its deerskin cover, the hair still remaining, not only reveals in its crude, historic way the true religion of Lincoln's parents, but gives us the best insight yet found to his own religious views.

Records of Church

"Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks were married by a Methodist minister by the name of Jesse Head, but shortly afterward they were united with one of the churches of Baptist Licking-Locust Association of regular Baptist churches of Kentucky, and when Nancy Lincoln died in Indiana, Abraham, by his own efforts, had their Kentucky pastor, Elder David Elkins, come to their wilderness home and preach his mother's funeral.

"After Thomas Lincoln had married Sally Bush Johnson he sent back to his Kentucky church and obtained his letter of fellowship, and as the minutes on June 1, 1823, show, he united with the Pigeon Creek Church by this letter and his wife by experience. From that date until they moved to Illinois in 1830, their names appear frequently in the minutes of the church proceedings, Thomas being one of the pillars of the church acting as moderator, on committees to investigate the conduct of brethren and sisters, and messenger to associations, bearing the letter of Pigeon Creek to her sister churches.

Text of Records

"The historic minute which records the affiliation of Thomas Lincoln and his wife with this little pioneer church follows:

"June the 7" 1823.

[p. 190]
"The church met and after prayer proceeded to business.
"1st Inquired for fellowship.
"2nd Invited members of sister churches to seat with us.
"3rd Opened a dore for the Reception of Members.
"4th Received Brother Thomas Linkon by letter and * * * *
"7th Received Brother John Wire by Relation and Sister Linkhon and Thomas Carter by Experance."

"Thomas Lincoln was not in such poor circumstances but that he always donated to the needs of his church," said Mr. McGregor in offering the following copy of an agreement to build a new chimney on the meeting-house:

"We the undersigned Do agree one with another to pay the several Somes next our names in produce this fall to be Delivered Betwixt the first and 20 December, the produce, as follows, corn, wheat, whiskey, soft Linnen wool or any other article a material to do the work with, the produce will be delivered at Wm. Barker's in good mercantile produce."

Signed with other names is:
"Thomas Lincoln, white corn, manufactured - pounds - 24."

"Thus," continued Mr. McGregor, "we have revealed to us the religion of Abraham Lincoln's parents, his sister Sarah, and of himself. He was raised in the simple Baptist faith, which in after years never left him.

"We have no record of Thomas Lincoln or his wife ever uniting with any church after they moved to Illinois in 1830."

     The above was published by the daily papers, and is taken from Judge McGregor's lecture on Lincoln. It will be observed that Judge McGregor refers to the "Licking Locust Association of Regular Baptists
[p. 191]
in Kentucky" as "Hardshell." The Licking Locust Association, according to Spencer, was constituted 1807 as a result of a split on the slavery question. This association was an "emancipation association," but it disappeared about 1820, according to history.

     Judge McGregor, however, makes a mistake when he concludes that the association, because anti-slavery, was anti-mission. The churches constituting the Licking Locust Association were missionary, and all of them that now exist are still missionary. Many of the preachers who were known as "Emancipation preachers" were among the most evangelistic of the state. The Licking Locust association could not have been a "Hardshell Association," for it passed out of existence at least a decade before the mission split - or before there were any Hardshell associations. Prior to 1816, the date when the Lincolns left Kentucky, there were no "Hardshells" in Kentucky. To whatever Baptist church the Lincolns may have belonged in Kentucky, it was not a "Hardshell" or Anti-mission church, for Spencer says, "Previous to 1816 there was not an Anti-mission Baptist in Kentucky so far as known." (Volume I, p. 570.) Neither could the Pigeon Creek Church, founded in 1816 in Indiana, be a "Hardshell" church, for the split between the Missionaries and Anti-missionaries had not taken place, and did not occur until about 1832 and following. John Taylor and Daniel Parker, the leaders, later in the Hardshell movement, were yet lined up with the Regular Baptist body, which was doing mission work in 1816.

     William E. Barton, D. D., LL.D., in his "The Soul of Abraham Lincoln," published 1920, page 36, says: "Thomas Lincoln is alleged by Herndon to have been a Freewill Baptist in Kentucky, a Presbyterian in the latter part of his life in Indiana, and finally a Disciple (I, 11). He does not state where he obtained his information, but it is almost certain that he got it from Sally Bush Lincoln on the occasion of his

[p. 192]
visit to her in 1865, as she is the accredited source of most of the information of this character.

     "I am more than tempted to believe that either she or Herndon was incorrect in speaking of Thomas Lincoln's earliest affiliation as a Freewill Baptist. There were more kinds of Baptists in heaven and on earth than were understood in her philosophy; and I question whether the Free-will Baptists, who originated in New England, had by this time penetrated to so remote a section of Kentucky. What she probably told Herndon was that he was not of the most reactionary kind - the so-called 'Hardshell' or Anti-mission Baptists. . . . The Scripps biography, read and approved by Lincoln, said simply that his parents were consistent members of the Baptist Church." This should settle the question as to the church affiliation of the Lincolns. Mr. Barton also gives evidence to show that the Lincolns were never Presbyterians nor Disciples. They were simply Baptists.

      Another point worth noticing is the subscription list for the building of the chimney to the church. Next to "corn," "wheat" came "whiskey" on the list. This shows that whiskey at that time was a staple commodity in commerce. We have two other such subscriptions. South Elkhorn and Pitman's Creek churches both have old subscription lists for pastor's salary and church building respectively with whiskey as a part of the payment.

     Mr. McGregor says Abraham Lincoln "had their Kentucky pastor, Elder David Elkins, come to their wilderness home (in Indiana) and preach his mother's funeral." We learn from Spencer that David Elkins was "one of the early pastors of Goodhope Church," and that "he labored with a good degree of success among the churches of Russell's Creek Association, and preached the introductory sermon before that body in 1814." (Volume I, p. 336.) This puts pastor Elkins in that section of Kentucky where the Lincolns lived, but Elkins was never a "Hardshell." All of these facts go to show that while the Lincolns

[p. 193]
were Baptists they were not "Hardshell" Baptists in Kentucky.

      In response to a letter addressed to the postmaster at Lincoln City, Indiana, asking what kind of a Baptist Church "Little Pigeon Creek" was, and if the old records show from what Baptist Church in Kentucky Thomas Lincoln's letter came, the author received a reply from the clerk of the church, saying: "Old Pigeon Church is a Regular Baptist Church. Some call them Hardshells, but the right name is Primitive Baptist. The record don't show what church he (Thomas Lincoln) was lettered out of." This was signed "Lewis Varner, church clerk of Pigeon Church. Boonville, Ind., 1-4-22." This shows that the church is now a Hardshell church, and this fact, perhaps, misled Mr. McGregor.

      In response to a letter to Hon. Thomas B. McGregor, the author received the following:

Commonwealth of Kentucky
Attorney General's Office

State House, Jan. 2, 1922.
Dr. William D. Nowlin, Pastor,
First Baptist Church,
Greenville, Ky.

     My Dear Doctor: -
I am in receipt of your letter of the 31st ult., relative to my recent article upon the religious views of the parents of Abraham Lincoln, and I have noted with interest what you have to say touching upon the history of the Hardshell Baptist Church in Kentucky.

The article you saw was doubtless taken from a Chautauqua address that I have delivered in several States and which was recently used in a magazine and by the Associated Press in tabloid form.

I found the old church book of the Little Pigeon Church more than twelve years ago, and at that time I looked closely into the history of the Lincoln family

[p. 194]
in Kentucky. Thomas Lincoln joined the Little Pigeon Creek Church in Spencer County, Indiana, by letter, and knowing the customs of the Primitive Baptist Church so well, I immediately "begun to look for his church connection in Kentucky. In my search somewhere, I ran across the fact that his anti-slavery views were that of his church and that he was a member of such church in either Hardin or Washington counties, Ky. In 1807 there was a dissension in the General Union of Baptists, and those churches refusing to give fellowship to slave holders formed a separate Association and it was known as "The Baptized Licking Locust Association, Friends of Humanity." It was of short life, however, and by 1814 it had disappeared. The home of the Lincolns in Kentucky was in Baptist territory.

With high regards and best wishes, and thanking you for your interest in my article, I am Yours very truly,

Thos. B. McGregor.
     It should be remembered, however, that it was not the anti-slavery sentiment that marked a church as "Hardshell," but the anti-mission sentiment. Many of the early Baptists who were anti-slavery were thoroughly missionary. The zealous, evangelistic missionary, Wm. Hickman, was one of the "emancipators," but never anti-missionary.

      Mr. McGregor says Abraham Lincoln "was raised in the simple Baptist faith, which in after years never left him."

      While there is no record of Abraham Lincoln having ever joined a church, it is believed that he, lived and died in the simple Baptist faith of his fathers.

Lincoln and His Bible

     The following account of Lincoln and his Bible is taken from one of our Baptist papers:

     "The Bible which fed the soul of Abraham Lincoln in the Kentucky log cabin of his boyhood was one of

[p. 195]
the cheap little Bibles imported from England by vote of the American Congress in 1777.
"Lincoln loved the Bible above all books, and once paid the following tribute to it: 'I am profitably engaged in reading the Bible. Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance by faith, and you will live and die a better man. In regard to the great Book, I have only to say that it is the best book which God has given to men.'"
      Lincoln's addresses, speeches, and messages are shot through and through with quotations from the Bible. For example, take this paragraph from his second Inaugural Address delivered March 4, 1865:
"The Almighty has his own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come, but which having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense come, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
      In Mr. Barton's recent book, "The Soul of Abraham Lincoln" he gives on page 86 a statement taken from Scribner's Monthly, 1873, page 343, as follows: "Here I relate an incident which occurred on the 4th of March, 1861, as told me by Mrs. Lincoln. She said:
[p. 196]
"Mr. Lincoln wrote the conclusion of his inaugural address the morning it was delivered. The family being present, he read it to them. He then said he wished to be left alone for a short time. The family retired to an adjoining room, but not so far distant but that the voice of prayer could be distinctly heard. There, closeted with God alone, surrounded by the enemies who were ready to take his life, he commended his country's cause and all dear to him to God's care and with a mind calm by communion with his Father in heaven, and courage equal to the danger, 'he came forth from that retirement ready for duty.'"
      Lincoln was a man of God, a man of prayer, a man of faith. He believed unquestionably in the eternal purposes of God, and in the infallibility of his revealed will - the Bible.

[William D. Nowlin, Kentucky Baptist History - 1770-1922, 1922, pp. 187-196. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

Baptist History Homepage