Hello and welcome to the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog this fine Thanksgiving! As always, feel free to like and share the blog on the social media platform of your choice (preferably before you enter your post-turkey nap) and to let me know what you think once you’ve had a chance to read through it.
Fittingly, today’s investigation focuses on the U.S. president responsible for establishing the date for our observance of a Thanksgiving holiday: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s religiosity has been the source of much speculation in the last century and a half, some of it scholarly and some, well, less so. Lincoln frequently referenced God and invoked divine providence in his speeches and writings, including his second inaugural address, but he never publicly claimed allegiance to any church. This has led a variety of Christian traditions to claim him as “one of ours,” including, as you might have guessed by now, Churches of Christ. Is there any merit in such a claim? Or is this a case of mistaken religious identity?
We’ll begin with a couple of documents recently passed along to me by a friend at church. The first is an excerpt from Winfred Ernest Garrison and Alfred T. DeGroot’s The Disciples of Christ: A History, originally published in 1948. In that work, the authors include the story of an 1852 congressional election which Lincoln lost to one Edward Baker, a Disciples of Christ preacher. (Keep in mind that during this era, the modern groups now known as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ were all connected and to some extent used those three names interchangeably.) Lincoln himself is said to have described Baker as a “Campbellite” and to have assigned Baker’s victory, at least in part, to the support he received from Disciples of Christ in Illinois. (1) We can tell from this brief story that Lincoln was familiar with the Disciples, though it seems unlikely that he was a member; after all, if he had been, Baker’s membership would have been no great advantage for him in the election.
The second document, a letter, seems more promising for our purposes, at least at first. It purports to recount a conversation that its author, G.M. Weimer, had with an older man named John O’Kane. O’Kane claimed to have known Lincoln personally–and not just that he was acquainted with him, but that he had personally baptized Lincoln! I’ll provide a fairly lengthy quotation here for your reference. Again, keep in mind that these words are (theoretically) O’Kane’s, which Weimer is quoting in a letter to a third party:
“I am now going to tell you folks…all about the matter. I have kept it in my own memory because when he first had me arrange to baptize him, his wife assumed a bitter resentment — that it would ruin their social status. So it was postponed for a while (10 days) till the ‘storm’ was over. Then he and I took a buggy ride one day with a change of clothing under the seat. I then baptized him in a small river near Springfield, Ill. Of course, he became a member of the Church of Christ. But I have kept it a secret as far as humans are concerned on account of his home condition.” (2)
However, there are several major issues with Weimer’s letter, as revealed in a 1996 Restoration Quarterly article by Jim Martin. Martin first notes that numerous Lincoln scholars and experts in Disciples history found O’Kane’s/Weimer’s claims suspicious, to say the least, since there is zero outside evidence that Lincoln was a participant in any sort of clandestine immersion, and quite a bit of evidence that he was not a member of any Christian group. (3)
Further calling into question Lincoln’s supposed baptism are a number of historical inaccuracies within the text of the letter itself. First, Weimer claims to have met O’Kane at a Disciples convention in Eureka, Illinois. The last such convention before O’Kane’s 1881 death took place in 1878. Weimer states that he was living in Eureka at that time so that his sons could attend college. The problem, however, is that working backwards from Weimer’s age at the time he wrote the letter (he was 85 in 1942) reveals that he was only 21 in 1878–as Martin observes, he was “barely old enough to have finished college himself,” and certainly not old enough to have had children in college.
Another discrepancy stems from Weimer’s explanation of why no one else could corroborate the details of his conversation with O’Kane. Weimer states quite simply that the only other parties knowledgeable about the conversation, his wife and father-in-law, were already dead. In response, Martin asks the eminently reasonable question: “But what about the two college boys?” Although not impossible, it seems unlikely that they would have remained oblivious to such a story, especially if everyone else in the family was aware of it.
Martin therefore concludes that Weimer, “by confusing incidents and conversations of his earlier days…has started a rumor that persists until now.” (4) From there Martin proceeds to analyze other ostensible connections between Lincoln and the Disciples, yet he ultimately finds that “in spite of legends, speculations, and wishful thinking, Abraham Lincoln was not extraordinarily close to the Restoration Movement.” (5)
Given all of the above, we too can follow Martin’s lead and conclude that this week’s entry is BUSTED. Lincoln–rumors and letters notwithstanding–was not a secret member of Churches of Christ, no matter how much we might want to claim him.
Enjoy the rest of your Thanksgiving holiday!
(1) Winfred Ernest Garrison and Alfred T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ: A History. St. Louis, MO: The Bethany Press, 1948, 221-222.
(2) G.M. Weimer, letter to Clyde O. Summers, October 5, 1942. The original letter was donated in 1975 to the institution which is now Freed-Hardeman University; I am unsure if it remains in Henderson at this point, or if it has since been moved elsewhere.
(3) Jim Martin, “The Secret Baptism of Abraham Lincoln,” Restoration Quarterly 38:2 (1996): 68. A copy of the article’s text can be found at http://www.acu.edu/legacy/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/archives/1990s/vol_38_no_2_contents/martin.html.
(4) Id., 70.
(5) Id., 76.