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Lincoln’s spiritual journey from spiritual skeptic to America's first evangelical Christian presidentbeliever—a conversion that changed both the Civil War and the practice of religion itself.
Abraham Lincoln, unlike most of his political brethren, kept organized Christianity at arm’s length. He never joined a church and only sometimes attended Sunday services with his wife. But as he came to appreciate the growing political and military importance of the Christian community, and when death touched the Lincoln household in an awful, intimate way, the erstwhile skeptic effectively evolved into a believer and harnessed the power of evangelical Protestantism to rally the nation to arms. The war, he told Americans, was divine retribution for the sin of slavery.
This is the story of that transformation and the ways in which religion helped millions of Northerners interpret the carnage and political upheaval of the 1850s and 1860s. Rather than focus on battles and personalities, Joshua Zeitz probes ways in which war and spiritual convictions became intertwined. Characters include the famous—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher—as well as ordinary soldiers and their families whose evolving understanding of mortality, heaven, and mission motivated them to fight. Long underestimated in accounts of the Civil War, religion—specifically evangelical Christianity—played an instrumental role on the battlefield and home front, and in the corridors of government.
More than any president before him—or any president after, until George W. Bush—Lincoln harnessed popular religious enthusiasm to build broad-based support for a political party and a cause. A master politician who was sincere about his religion, Lincoln held beliefs that were unconventional—and widely misunderstood then, as now. After his death and the end of an unforgiving war, Americans needed to memorialize Lincoln as a Christian martyr. The truth was, of course, considerably more complicated, as this original book explores.
About the Author
Joshua Zeitz is a contributing writer at Politico and the author of the New York Times bestseller Lincoln’s Boys and three other works of history. He has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, American Heritage, Smithsonian, and Dissent. He appeared as a commentator in Ken Burns's documentary Prohibition.
“Zeitz adds meaningful context to the story, examining the ways in which soldiers experienced religion in the field . . . Importantly, Zeitz includes the perspective of Black Americans, who held views of their own that were often at odds with the tendency to see the United States as a promised land, or Canaan . . . Zeitz has chosen an important element of Lincoln’s life to explore, especially in an age when the virus of religious certainty drives so much autocratic thinking, at home and abroad.”—The New York Times Book Review
"In his thoughtful new book...Zeitz writes a compelling chronicle of Lincoln's evolving relationship to faith against a backdrop of events that influenced the Great Emancipator as much as he influenced them. Such a portrait of young Lincoln in particular, who "studiously avoided mixing religion and politics," is timely and provocative."—The National Catholic Reporter
“Zeitz’s timely, thoroughly documented account compellingly portrays how the war crumbled Jefferson’s wall separating church and state and presaged lingering changes in American discourse.”
“A broad overview of the rapidly changing faith journey of Lincoln individually and of the antebellum U.S. as a whole [and] a worthwhile addition to the corpus of Lincoln studies.”
Praise for Building the Great Society
"Building the Great Society is endlessly absorbing, and astoundingly well-researched — all good historians do their homework, but Zeitz goes above and beyond. It's a more than worthwhile addition to the canon of books about Johnson.”
—NPR, Michael Schaub
“[A] well-researched and readable history of a vast governmental effort to make America anew.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Zeitz draws creatively on memoirs and White House documents. His tales… zip along with style.”
—The New Republic
“Zeitz’s lively narrative foregrounds the personalities and power plays of Johnson’s White House staff…[his] lucid account yields engrossing insights into one of America’s most hopeful, productive, and tragic political eras.”
"Zeitz presents accessible, nuanced portraits of the men behind Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic programs...[and] effectively demonstrates how Johnson assembled one of history’s most productive White House staffs: an amalgam of committed John F. Kennedy holdovers along with new talents from academia, the newspaper world, and think tanks."
“Joshua Zeitz’s beautifully written book is not only a riveting portrait of LBJ and the talented men around him, but also a compelling reminder of what extraordinary political skill it took to enact the body of laws that made America a more humane and admirable society. Every officeholder in Washington would profit from reading this book.”
—Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 and Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
“Zeitz argues convincingly that Johnson's team . . . quickly became a smoothly running and effective machine, accomplishing a great amount in a relatively short time . . . A timely reconsideration of the Johnson years.”
Praise for Joshua Zeitz and Lincoln's Boys
“A century before Harry Hopkins, Clark Clifford, or Ted Sorensen, John Hay and John Nicolay performed the duties of presidential aide, adviser, political operative, and confidant. Even the great Abraham Lincoln needed support, and Joshua Zeitz captures perfectly the intimate, interior world of the White House.”
—David Plouffe, former White House Senior Adviser
‟What a wonderful, welcome book. Zeitz has pulled off a difficult task—revealing how the myth of Lincoln came to be without distorting the true greatness of our extraordinary sixteenth president.ˮ
—Ken Burns (filmmaker)
“Joshua Zeitz’s delightful study of John Hay and John Nicolay interweaves intimate biography, political drama, and the shaping of historical memory to produce an arresting and original narrative. Above all, it reminds us that, thanks to Lincoln’s secretaries, the moral dimensions of the emancipationist Civil War could not be bleached from the historical record by an increasingly fashionable understanding of the struggle as a romantic ‘brothers’ conflict.’”
—Richard Carwardine, author of Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power
“Abraham Lincoln was blessed with truly first-rate biographers in John Nicolay and John Hay, so it is ‘altogether fitting and proper’ that Nicolay and Hay have now attracted a terrific chronicler of their own life and times in Joshua Zeitz. This fine book traces the extraordinary evolution of Lincoln’s two private secretaries from clerks into tireless historians and rabid keepers of the flame. Historians have long remembered their roles as canny observers of the White House during the Civil War, but this study adds much fascinating new material about their peerless role in crafting and preserving the Lincoln image.”
—Harold Holzer, author of The Civil War in 50 Objects
“Beautifully researched and written, it restores to full stature two figures who might have been young, but left a deep mark upon history. Highly recommended.”
—Ted Widmer, former presidential speechwriter and author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City