A President and Apologetics
In his groundbreaking book on the spiritual life of Ronald Reagan, Professor Paul Kengor describes Reagan as having “faith [that] was not shallow, as his evident appetite for apologetics . . . demonstrates” (128-29). One way in which Reagan manifested this “appetite” for apologetics was in reading the books of former British atheist and apologist C. S. Lewis and assimilating and internalizing Lewis’ defense of the Christian faith.
More than 100 years before Reagan became President, another holder of the office of the U.S. Presidency, Abraham Lincoln, was also greatly influenced by a study of apologetics. The Christian’s Defence, authored by a former skeptic, James D. Smith, and published in 1843, was the result of a debate the author had with C. G. Olmsted in 1841. The Smith-Olmsted debate continued for 18 nights. Olmsted challenged Smith to this discussion because of a series of lectures the latter had delivered in Columbus, MS. The lectures carried such titles as “The Evidences of Christianity” and “The Natures and Tendencies of Infidelity.” Smith argued the case for Christianity so effectively in his debate with Olmsted that a groundswell of support convinced him to print his arguments. In 1843, this apologetics literature, which a few years later would impact the life of Abraham Lincoln, was published in two volumes.
Lincoln first began his reading of The Christian’s Defence in 1849 when he saw the two volumes in the personal library of his father in law, Robert Todd, at the Todd home in Lexington, KY. Stephen Mansfield suggests that Lincoln, having already been influenced by skeptical philosophy through the writings of such men as Volney, Paine, and Gibbon, was likely intrigued by the full title of Smith’s book (78). The complete title is: The Christian’s Defence, Containing a Fair Statement, And Impartial Examination of the Leading Objections Urged by Infidels Against the Antiquity, Genuineness, Credibility and Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures; Enriched with Copious Extracts from Learned Authors. Mansfield further reports that Mr. Lincoln, upon returning to Springfield, IL, from Lexington, contacted Thomas Lewis. Mr. Lewis was a lawyer colleague of Lincoln who was also an elder in one of the Springfield churches. Ironically, Dr. James Smith had moved to Springfield to become the minister of this church. Several years later, Lewis recalled:
Mr. Lincoln said to me that when on a visit somewhere he had seen and partially read a work of Dr. Smith’s on evidences of Christianity, which had led him to change his view of the Christian religion, and he would like to get that work and finish the reading of it, and also make the acquaintance of Dr. Smith. I. . . took Dr. Smith to Mr. Lincoln’s office, Dr. Smith gave Mr. Lincoln a copy of this book, as I know, at his request. (339)
In addition to Thomas Lewis, a son of Lincoln (Robert) also spoke of the influence of Smith’s book on his father, remembering the presence of the book in the Lincoln home in Springfield. Lincoln’s brother in law, Ninian W. Edwards, also recalled that Mr. Lincoln once remarked to him that he had been reading a work on the evidences of Christianity by Dr. Smith. It was James Smith who conducted the funeral for Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s second son, Eddie, in early 1850. Lincoln and Smith appear to have developed a friendship that led to Smith becoming a frequent visitor to the Lincoln residence. Smith himself said that Mr. Lincoln examined the arguments made in The Christian’s Defence and became convinced that the argument for the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible was unanswerable (cf. Mansfield 81-86; Shenk 195-97).
The experience of the 16th President of the United States with his interest in and study of apologetics is a powerful reminder of the value of Christian evidences not only for an individual but also for a nation. Lincoln’s life was one of great pain, depression, and discouragement. He battled severe despondency. He intensely struggled with skepticism. Lincoln knew what it was like to suffer great loss of family, friends, and finances. As President, he also lost the federation of all the states in the Union as the confederation of 11 southern states was formed in their secession from the union. He was Commander in Chief of the Union Army in the American Civil War—to this day, in a true sense, the costliest and bloodiest war in American history. However, through his leadership and his faith in “The Almighty [W]ho has His own purposes” (as he stated in his Second Inaugural Address just weeks before an assassin put a bullet in his head) the Union was restored and preserved.
Concerning faith, the Lincoln of the early years is not necessarily the Lincoln of later life. Mansfield concludes: “A progression had begun, a journey toward a belief in God and an understanding of that God’s nature. This would not end all of Lincoln’s spiritual wrestling. . . . Yet he was in motion, migrating, on something of a pilgrimage toward truth” (90). Apologetics contributed to Lincoln’s restoration of faith and hope.
Today, “more Americans are now religious skeptics, if not atheistic. . . . Decadence (moral and spiritual disease) marked by the decline of religion is the model that has been followed for the fall of every super-power nation for thousands of years. . . . America (as is the case with every nation) needs to be shown the sound reasons for Christian theism. Christian apologetics is concerned with setting forth the provable case for God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ. This is why apologetics—affirming and defending the existence of God, the divine origin of the Bible, and the deity of Jesus Christ—can, with the blessing of Providence, bring restoration of hope for a nation . . . and bring about a restoration of deep faith in God in American citizenry. Such can provide hope for the continued survival of America as an exceptional nation” (Pugh 36-37).
Charles C. Pugh III
Kengor, Paul. God and Ronald Reagan a Spiritual Life. 2004. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Lewis, Thomas. Letter to J. A. Reed. Springfield IL 6 Jan. 1873. Scribner’s Monthly. Vol. 6 (July 1873).
Mansfield, Stephen. Lincoln’s Battle with God. Nashville: Nelson, 2012.
Pugh, Charles C. III. Apologetics: Restoration of Hope for a Nation. Vienna: Warren Christian Apologetics Center, 2015.
Shenk, Joshua Wolf. Lincoln’s Melancholy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.