Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr James Smith: Lincoln's Presbyterian Experience of Springfield

By Havlik, Robert J. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr James Smith: Lincoln's Presbyterian Experience of Springfield


Havlik, Robert J., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


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. This paper narrates some of Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, Presbyterian Church-related activities, and his relationship with the Reverend Dr. James Smith, who, years after Lincoln's death, defended him against William Herndon's attack on his religious sincerity. It may also shed some fight on various questions scholars have had regarding the influence this Presbyterian experience had upon him.

When Lincoln's second son, Edward Baker Lincoln died on Friday, February 1, 1850, funeral arrangements for the child were to be held at the Lincoln residence, under the direction of the Reverend Charles Dresser (1800-1865). Dresser was minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Springfield. He had officiated at the wedding of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd on November 4,1842 and on May 2, 1844 the Lincolns had bought his house on Eighth and Jackson Streets in Springfield! It so happened that on the date for the child's funeral, Dresser was out of town. Dr. James Smith (May 11, 1801-july 3, 1871), the new minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, was asked to conduct the service at the Lincoln home in his place.' This began a relationship with the Lincoln family that lasted beyond the death of President Lincoln.

Dr. Smith defined himself as an Old Light Presbyterian. He was a native of Glasgow, Scotland. After receiving an excellent education in Scotland, he came to the United States. He became converted and was licensed to preach in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Kentucky in 1825. Later he emigrated to Tennessee where he became an owner and editor of a newspaper and became active in the General Assembly and served as a Trustee of Cumberland College. In 1844, when the newspaper failed, he returned to the ministry, joined the regular Presbyterians in Nashville and was put in charge of the Presbyterian Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky.' In 1849 he moved to Springfield, Illinois, becoming the second pastor of the First Presbyterian Church.' Dr. Smith had the reputation of preaching good sermons and being a temperance advocate.' He was also noted for publishing a book called, The Christian's Defense I in 1843.

The First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois was built in 1842. It was located at the Southeast corner of Third and Washington Streets, just South of the present G. M.& 0 passenger station. It had been founded in the 1830s with the help of John Todd, Mary Todd Lincoln's uncle.' The present church, which is located on the comer of Seventh Street and Capitol Avenue, was built in 1886, three years after Mary Lincoln's death.

Mary Lincoln was so comforted by the new minister, that she soon left the Episcopal Church and the Lincolns began attending the Presbyterian Church.' Mrs. Lincoln was friends with several women in the neighborhood and attended church with them when Lincoln was on the Circuit.9 Apparently with Lincoln's approval, Mary Lincoln was admitted to membership on Wednesday, October 13, 1852.10 Mary Lincoln stated that she had been confirmed in the Episcopal Church at twelve years of age, but did not wish to join the church by letter, but instead upon profession of faith. Their fourth son, Thomas (Tad) Lincoln was baptized in the Church on Saturday, April 4, 1856. The family continued to attend services there until they left for Washington in February, 1861."

Some writers have questioned the fact that Lincoln was not present at his wife's admission to membership in the Church. …

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