Encountering Lincoln’s Melancholy

(Posted by Paige)

I recently finished reading this intriguing study by Joshua Wolf Shenk (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), and thought it worth flagging for you. His descriptive subtitle – How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness – reflects only part of his ambitious project, as this book is not only biography but also a history of the understanding of melancholia in America and a commentary on the artful science of historiography. Though I am not widely-read enough on Lincoln to verify this, the author identifies his work as a unique contribution to the literature on our sixteenth president; certainly it is a rich encounter with the man and his times.

Shenk’s premise, that Lincoln struggled with depression at least since his young adulthood and that in his maturity this psychological pain ennobled his character, drives his research into mental illness, the agendas of presidential biographers, and the details of Lincoln’s public and inner life. Although perhaps the most cumbersome and technical part of his presentation, Shenk’s portrait of what in the 19th century was termed “melancholy” offers a fascinating glimpse of a culture’s developing understanding and (often horrific!) treatment of what we now call “clinical depression.” I’d guess that his explanations of current trends in psychology will try the patience of those who just want to know about Lincoln; but actually my favorite insight about depression comes from Shenk’s discussion of a study of “depressive realism” done in the late 1970’s. Apparently the depressive realists, like Lincoln, have the cockeyed “can-do” optimists beat when it comes to reading the times. I loved this bit:

…one standard definition of mental health is the ability to maintain close and accurate contact with reality…But research shows that, by this definition, happiness itself could be considered a mental disorder. In fact, “much research suggests that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events.” (135, quoting the researcher Lauren Alloy)

Thus a personality that tends towards melancholy has perhaps a greater chance of assessing what is really going on in this fallen world – which is, of course, insight that even non-depressives might gain beginning with Gen. 3.

In assembling his supporting data on Lincoln’s emotional health, Shenk apparently uncovered a sort of historiographical subplot: the distorting or suppressing of information in favor of a view of Lincoln that dismisses the possibility that he was melancholic. Thus Lincoln’s various biographers come in for scrutiny throughout this volume, especially in an extended appendix (“What Everybody Knows”). Shenk writes,

To some extent, it is an inherent flaw of biography that, in order to wrestle a figure onto the page, three dimensions get turned into two. Rough spots are ironed out. Minor conflicts are magnified to suit the needs of a dramatic narrative. There is good reason to speak of “Herndon’s Lincoln” or “Sandburg’s Lincoln,” because the real man can only be approximated in any of these works, and the imagination of the biographer obviously plays a large role. (237)

Armchair scholars of Lincoln might enjoy crossing swords with Shenk as he evaluates the work of the president’s major biographers; the rest of us can at least appreciate an example of the very real challenge of distilling a life into words – and perhaps marvel again at the “four-dimensional” view of a life provided to us by the Gospels.

While biographers of Lincoln have sometimes found the fact of his chronic depression expendable when composing their accounts, it is harder to tell this man’s story without some attempt to explain his relationship to God, the Scriptures, and faith. Shenk, writing from a secular perspective, evaluates Lincoln’s encounters with Christianity (especially during his presidency) in terms of the psychological benefits of religious belief and practice, rather than giving any weight to the veracity of a religion’s truth claims (see esp. pp.193-195). I suspect the author would also attribute at least some of Lincoln’s depressive tendencies to his Calvinistic upbringing. Yet even he is struck by the wisdom that Lincoln seems to have gained from close study of the ancient words of warning, judgment, and lament; and his treatment of the faith-dimension of Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses is both thoughtful and respectful (pp. 191-210).

So, worth a look. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has read the book, or any insights you armchair scholars have about Lincoln’s Christianity.


  1. John Harutunian said,

    January 7, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Paige, thanks for the informative blog. My knowledge of American history is weak, and theologically I’m an amateur (though probably a good one), but for what it’s worth, here’s my impression.
    There’s a famous quote from Lincoln about the Bible: “All the good that the Saviour left to the world may be found within the covers of that Book” (or something to that effect). But, though he had a great personal admiration for Jesus, if queried as to whether Christ was God, he probably would have professed ignorance.
    Then there’s the matter of his baptism. On the one hand, I’ve been told that he was never baptized (this would be in keeping with his lonely, existential, individualistic view of what it means to be a Christian [or indeed a human being!].) On the other hand, I’ve been told that he was baptized in infancy -in a Presbyterian church yet!
    I’d appreciate any enlightenment on your part -or, indeed,coming from anyone else.

  2. paigebritton said,

    January 7, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Hi, John,
    Well, from Shenk we learn that “Lincoln was raised in the thick of Old School Calvinism. In Kentucky and Indiana, his parents belonged to a fire-breathing sect called Separate Baptism…” (79) …so it looks like he began Baptist, though Calvinist. Don’t know more than this about the story of his baptism/non-baptism.

    The impression that I have from this book is that Lincoln approached Christianity with strong skepticism in his early adulthood (“In New Salem he became widely known as an infidel,” 82), but grew in his appreciation and understanding of God and his Word especially during the difficult days of his presidency. So when you hear a quote from Lincoln about faith or the Bible, it’s a good idea to inquire what season of life he was speaking from.

    Looking forward to more from others on this!

  3. January 7, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Better to go to the house of mourning
    Than to go to the house of feasting,
    For that is the end of all men;
    And the living will take it to heart.
    Sorrow is better than laughter,
    For by a sad countenance the heart is made better.
    The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    But the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
    -Ecclesiastes 7:2-4

  4. January 7, 2012 at 10:06 am

    I’m not sure if it is true, but I’ve always thought he was a member of the the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It was much stronger in the Tenn/Kent. areas in the mid 19th cen. Though not very Calvinistic theologically; it was so culturally. Like the Methodists CPs had inconsistent baptismal practices.

  5. John Harutunian said,

    January 7, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Thanks! Here’s what I found on Google:

    >Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr James Smith: Lincoln’s Presbyterian experience of Springfield
    Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
    Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
    October 1, 1999 | Havlik, Robert J | Copyright


    It is well known that Mary Todd Lincoln was a member of the Presbyterian Church. There is no recorded evidence, however, that Abraham Lincoln formally joined the church. However, during the years 1850 through 1860 he regularly attended the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield with his wife and children. During the early period of his attendance, under the guiding hand of the Reverend Dr. James A. Smith, he became involved in congregational activities and appeared >close to becoming a member, but it never was accomplished.


    James Smith was originally a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor. He joined the larger Presbyterian denomination in 1844.

  6. January 7, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    From what I know, it is far from certain that Lincoln was a convinced Christian. Many claim that he was a Deist. Others, like historian Allen Guelzo, says he was a “Calvinized Deist,” whatever that means. I assume it means that Lincoln was not convinced of Christ’s divinity, but liked his moral teachings. It also likely means that Lincoln was a product of his age and believed that God was uniquely guiding the United States, hence his willingness to violate the law, use violence and slavery (the draft) to try to create a more just society.

    But look, history is complicated, and so is this fallen world. Many non-Christians have more common wisdom than Christians because Christ came for sinners. And it is true that with much wisdom, comes much sorrow (Eccl. 1:18). I would think that would apply to believer and unbeliever alike. And when I look at Lincoln’s wisdom, especially in the Second Inaugural address, it certainly seems more sophisticated and sorrowful than some of the triumphalist Southern apologies, which still today hold that the Confederacy was the last bastion of Christendom. Whatever.

  7. Matt said,

    January 8, 2012 at 9:52 am

    No honest conversation with either man would leave any of us convinced that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln was a Christian. Lincoln’s rhetorical use of scripture, like Washington’s, fit his time, but there was nothing of Christian faith in it. Washington was famously unconvinced of Christ’s divinity. As an adult, he would attend Church, hear the sermon, and leave before the Lord’s Supper, unable or unwilling to participate, even though he was a member.

    We want to make the heroes of our nation heroes of our faith, but we do a disservice to our faith when we try to shoehorn them in.

  8. John Harutunian said,

    January 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Matt, some of what you say about Washington rings a bell with me. But: to be a regular church-going Episcopalian back in the 18th century (as opposed to today) ordinarily indicated that one believed in Christ’s divinity, didn’t it? So I’d be interested in some quotes (or at least references) which you could supply indicating otherwise. Thanks.

  9. Alan D. Strange said,

    January 9, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    When Lincoln came to Washington, his religiosity was more Calvinist deistic (as Guelzo noted). There is some indirect evidence that it became more evangelical, particularly in the last year and a half of his life.

    The Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865) is remarkable for its religious subtlety and insight. It’s unparalleled in American history. There has been a rumor out there since Lincoln’s “martyrdom” (as it was seen) that he was to join the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on the Easter after he was shot on Good Friday. This has never been confirmed and is likely not the case but the rumor reflects his increased religiosity.

    It is the case that not only did Lincoln attend the Presbyterian Church in Springfield, but was a regular attendee at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near the White House, where he and his family were pew-holders. The pastor was no Cumberland man, but Phineas D. Gurley, an 1840 graduate of Princeton Seminary.

    As an Old School Presbyterian, Dr. Gurley was quite sound and had significant religious conversations with the President. Gurley was taught by Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller and Charles Hodge (among others). Thus solid preaching was heard by President Lincoln in the last four years of his life. It seemed to impact him, Lincoln especially appreciating that Gurley preached “the doctrines of the cross” and not politics. Gurley’s Calvinistic preaching of a vigorous, balanced sort seemed to impress Lincoln and perhaps persuaded him of orthodox Christianity.

  10. January 9, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Strange. The rest of it were “arm chairing” it as Paige invited. I appreciate the additional knowledge. Blessings on your ministry.

  11. greenbaggins said,

    January 10, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Matt, have you read Peter Lillback’s book _George Washington’s Sacred Fire_? He posits that Washington was a low-church Anglican, not at all a deist, and in fact, a true Christian. He masses quite a bit of evidence from Washington’s own work. The idea that Washington denied the divinity of Christ is shown to be a myth of older secularist historians.

  12. January 10, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    “Faiths of our Fathers” a recent work by William and Mary historian, David L. Holmes, disputes that Washington was an orthodox Christian, despite being a church member. Really, as a 2K guy, I don’t know why it really matters one way or another, other than for the sake of Washington’s own soul. I owe loyalty to my earthly country, no matter how Christian or pagan its origins. I Peter 2.

  13. Richard said,

    February 10, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Dr. Strange is right on in his observations. If you read one of the latest bios on him–“A. Lincoln,” the author points out that Lincoln made a conscious choice to avoid a New School Pres. Church for the Old School one at New York Avenue. Roland White, the author, also points out that the Second Inaugural made much use of indicatives and imperatives which flow out of sound theology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: