Now and again the subject of Abraham Lincoln’s religion arises. We have sometimes been told that he had a Free Will Baptist background. Recently reprinted (and available on Amazon) is a little book from 1909, Abraham Lincoln’s Religion, by Madison C. Peters. The reprint adds to the original title these words: His Parents Were Free Will Baptists in Kentucky.
The book does not justify that claim. All Peters said (page 17) was that Lincoln’s “mother and father were Free-Will Baptists in Kentucky.” And that is not correct. Lincoln’s parents attended a Separate Baptist church in Kentucky, and the Separate Baptists never were part of the Free Will Baptist denomination. True, some of them—especially after the merger of the Separate and Regular Baptists in Virginia in 1787—were “free will” in their sentiments, at least in their view of predestination and the atonement.
But it is also true that many Separate Baptists were Calvinistic. Knowing what theology of salvation Lincoln’s parents personally held is not possible. They would have attended churches near them, whether they agreed with all their articles of faith or not. Peters also reports that they were in a predestinarian church when they relocated to Indiana.
Anyone interested in the subject would do well to read Allen C. Guelzo’s article Abraham Lincoln and the Doctrine of Necessity. Guelzo shows convincingly that Lincoln himself was something of a fatalist and cites evidence that Lincoln’s parents were Calvinists.
Separate Baptist literature promotes the tradition that young Abe Lincoln sent for one of their Kentucky preachers to come to Indiana for his mother’s memorial service (some days after her burial) in 1818. Peters (pages 23, 24) identifies him as “Parson Elkin.” But we have no information about Elkin’s theology.
Was Lincoln rocked in a “free-will” Baptist cradle? Forget it! (Now, President Garfield did attend a Free Will Baptist institution in his youth. But that’s another story.)
About the Writer: Robert Picirilli is a member of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission and is grateful for the help of Dr. Darrell Holley in this, especially in pointing him to Guelzo’s online article.