Did you know that there is officially no such thing as "Presidents' Day"? From the federal government's perspective, the holiday is still Washington's birthday. In the 1960s, Congress changed the observance from the date of Washington's actual birthday, February 22, to the third Monday of February, under the "Uniform Monday Holiday Act." Holidays deemed to have less-than-critical dates were placed on Mondays so federal employees could have a three-day weekend. Then in the 1980s, marketers began unilaterally calling the holiday "Presidents' Day," ostensibly to bring Abraham Lincoln's birthday (February 12) into the fold for advertisements. Now the date mainly serves as the first big post-Christmas sales event.
The Reserved Episcopalian and the Lapsed Calvinist
But for Americans who view the holiday as more than another day to shop or sleep in, the observance still honors Washington, and to a lesser extent, Lincoln, two presidents who show up on most people's "greatest presidents" lists. For what do we honor them? Their integrity, courage in the face of adversity, and strong adherence to America's founding principles, to be sure. Some evangelicals are also quick to assert that these were also men of strong Christian faith. But the personal faiths of Lincoln and Washington were actually quite enigmatic.
I believe that Washington, an Episcopalian, was a serious but moderate Christian, but there are reasons to wonder. Whether from personal scruples concerning his worthiness, or some other concern, he never took communion. And he displayed a remarkable aversion to using the name of Jesus in his voluminous correspondence. As Edward G. Lengel's delightful Inventing George Washington has shown, 19th-century biographers eagerly recalled shadowy memories of Washington being discovered praying privately, to the extent that you'd think the man did little else besides kneeling in the woods. He almost certainly did pray privately, but as a proper Virginia gentleman, he did not wear his faith on his sleeve.
There are graver doubts about Lincoln's faith, especially early in his life. He developed a reputation as a skeptic as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and Mary Todd Lincoln concluded that he was not a "technical Christian." He struggled to put his faith in Christ even as the events of later years took the edge off his religious infidelity. Lincoln grew up in a strongly Calvinist Baptist family, and though he did not embrace all his parents' beliefs, he became ever-more convinced of the Calvinist doctrine of God's sovereign rule over human affairs. Richard Carwardine, one of Lincoln's finest biographers, says that Lincoln presented "his deterministic faith in a religious language that invoked an all-controlling God."
Does Their Faith Matter?
Evangelical history buffs spend a lot of time speculating about the personal faith of great historical figures such as Washington and Lincoln. This is an important topic, but there's a sense in which, for historical purposes, it doesn't really matter if these presidents were serious Christians. When you broaden the scope of the question, it is easy to demonstrate that religion was very important to both of them. Both endorsed a public role for religion in America, and Lincoln particularly employed religious rhetoric, and the words of the Bible itself, to the greatest effect of any political leader in American history. For Lincoln and Washington, a secularized public square was inconceivable.
Washington believed that religion was essential because faith was the primary engine of virtue, that public-spiritedness and integrity needed to preserve the new nation. His Farewell Address of 1796 famously asserted that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports." Washington, like Lincoln, proclaimed national days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving for "humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations." Washington also made a point to reach out to minority religious groups, from Baptists to Catholics and Jews, to assure them that they would share in the new republic's blessings of religious liberty.
Lincoln, likewise, knew that he led a nation that was overwhelmingly religious, and he found the grievous toll taken by the Civil War explicable only in the language of faith. As the war increasingly became not just one to preserve the Union, but also to abolish slavery, Lincoln turned to the Bible to express hope that the carnage of war would be redeemed by a "new birth of freedom."
Then, in the Second Inaugural Address of 1865, Lincoln's greatest speech, he used the rhetoric of faith to summon Americans to humility as the war ended. He reminded the nation that both sides in the war "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God." He reckoned that the war somehow represented the judgment of God on both sides for their indulgence of slavery. If God willed that the war continue, he concluded, "until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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.'"[Psalm 19:9]
So yes, I would love to know exactly what Washington and Lincoln believed personally about Jesus. But there's no question that, in a public sense, faith mattered to them a great deal, and featured centrally in their concept of a thriving American nation. Their reverence for faith's vital role in the republic helps account for Washington and Lincoln's greatness.
Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and the author of many books, including Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (Basic, 2011) and George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014). You can follow him on Twitter.