Alabama historian discusses Lincoln’s religious history during second annual Williams Lecture at MSU

Contact: James Carskadon

Alabama historian George C. Rable delivers the second annual Frank and Virginia Williams Lecture on Lincoln and Civil War Studies on Thursday [Nov. 1] at Mississippi State’s Mitchell Memorial Library. (Photo by Megan Bean)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Alabama historian George C. Rable shared insights into Abraham Lincoln’s long-debated religious beliefs during a special guest lecture Thursday [Nov. 1] at Mississippi State.

Rable, professor emeritus and former Charles G. Summersell Chair in Southern History at the University of Alabama, gave the second annual Frank and Virginia Williams Lecture on Lincoln and Civil War Studies at Mitchell Memorial Library. His talk titled “Believer, Skeptic, or Something Else? The Elusive Mr. Lincoln,” reviewed the historical evidence surrounding Lincoln’s religious convictions. Rable said Lincoln developed a deep familiarity with the Bible early in his life, and made regular religious references in political texts and speeches, but he rarely commented on his religious views.

“We could all read Lincoln’s comments on religion in an hour or two, three at the most,” Rable said. “There is simply not a vast amount of evidence on this subject. Now, that has not stopped historians and others from speculating and writing about Lincoln’s beliefs. Their conclusions have been diverse. He’s been described as everything from a life-long sceptic to an orthodox Christian. Though I think the best scholars have noted that the core of Lincoln’s religious beliefs will always remain something of a mystery. One suspects that’s exactly what Lincoln intended.”

At one point, Lincoln issued a handbill denying that he was a religious sceptic, although Rable said even that document was at times contradictory and did not end the speculation then or later. Rable noted that Lincoln expressed contempt for clergy that used scripture to justify slavery. Following the deaths of several loved ones and the tumult of the American Civil War, Lincoln began to write more about divine providence, most notably in his second inaugural address in 1865, shortly before his death. Even with those writings, Rable said, Lincoln left much unsaid.

“He once remarked that he would join a church that simply preached the great commandment of love for God and love for neighbor,” Rable said.

Rable is an award-winning author and historian. His most recent book, “Damn Yankees! Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South,” published by the Louisiana State University Press in 2015, won the James I. Robertson Jr. Literary Prize. He currently is working on a book on the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan, who served as a major general for the Union in the Civil War. From 2004-2008, Rable served as president of the Society of Civil War Historians. In 2014, he was honored with an SEC Faculty Achievement Award.

The Williams Lecture on Lincoln and Civil War Studies was established in 2017 by former Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams and his wife, Virginia. The couple established the lecture series for the university community and others to have a chance to reflect on Lincoln and the Civil War by bringing leading scholars to campus.

In addition to the lectureship, the Williamses gifted their extraordinary private Lincoln and Civil War collection amassed over the past 50 years to the university. The Frank J. and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, located next to the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, is now part of a state-of-the-art museum and gallery in Mitchell Memorial Library. The new exhibit space was unveiled with a grand opening last fall, and has since drawn thousands of visitors. For more, see http://library.msstate.edu/williamscollection/about/.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.