Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln

Appropriate for President’s Day, I just listened to an excellent speech by Richard Bushman, author of Rough Stone Rolling, which compares and contrasts the lives of Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln.

They were contemporaries though they probably never met. Joseph was just 3 years older than Lincoln, and they both lived in Illinois at the same time for 5 years.

Both were born into poor farming families whose ancestors had arrived in America during the 1600’s. Both were hard working, country boys who achieved little formal schooling.

Lincoln’s had little interest in spiritual matters but went to church often with his parents. Joseph’s parents, on the other hand, did not regularly attend church, but Joseph was deeply concerned with spiritual matters such as achieving forgiveness of sins and his own salvation. As a boy Lincoln would often stand on a “stump” after church, repeating the sermon word for word and mimicking the mannerisms of the preacher. Joseph’s formal religious background was far smaller, but his curiosity and inflection much more.

Both went through a period of maturity and accomplishment from age 22 to 25. Lincoln began to be ambitious and began networking with people. Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, organized the Church, and sent out missionaries.

Lincoln worked his way up from hireling to store owner to lawyer to state politician to senator to President. Lincoln’s accomplishments followed the ideal path of the “American Dream,” rising from poverty to President gradually. Joseph’s curve of accomplishments was “almost vertical”, becoming a prophet essentially overnight, not over a period of time.

Lincoln believed in the impersonal, deterministic, uninvolved God of Calvinism, though that softened as he suffered through the Civil War. Joseph believed in a personable, loving, concerned God, which made it all the harder when he felt alone or abandoned by Him.

Lincoln believed in capitalism, the freedom for every man to determine his own place in life. (This was his main concern with slavery — the lack of personal economic freedom.) Joseph believed in material equality and even tried practicing consecration with his people. But more than economics, Joseph was concerned with the spiritual welfare of his people. Lincoln was concerned with free markets; Joseph was concerned with having a temple in each community.

Joseph Smith died at the young age of 38. If Lincoln had died at 38 he wouldn’t have been remembered for anything. Both died as martyrs to their causes.

Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln by Richard Bushman [mp3]

This and other talks from the Sidney B. Sperry symposium at BYU

23 thoughts on “Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln”

  1. I just had to make a few quick comments, I’m not going to go into thesis detail, but i’ve done much study also and wanted to make a general statements that are found in writings if you delve deep into the subject matter. First, Lincoln was a slick politician, he used the system, he knew his way around it well and his use of it was not always altruistic. Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation was a non binding document, merely a Proclamation meaning it held no weight legally. It was a slick move by the politician Lincoln to arouse and incite northerners, which he needed to win his war. Brigham Young called the Civil War Old Abe’s war and wanted nothing to do with it, thus the majority of members were spared fighting in that war. The only reason Lincoln seemed to soften with the saints was because he wanted them to leave him alone and he made of sorts an agreement with Brigham Young to do so. Lincoln did no such things because he was a friend of the Saints but merely out of political convenience once again.
    The paper by Mr. Bushman is his own personal thoughts. Remember that during this time in America 95%+ of Americans lived on farms and lived mirrored lives, so trying to tie Joseph Smith Jr. and Abe Lincoln together through family and heritage, well, you could do this with a myriad of persons during that era, they would all seem to have lived the same life and similar back ground. I’ve never really held Lincoln in the high esteem that those who just read public school accounts do, and I was very pleased after years of reading and studying to find that Brigham Young was also not fond of Old Abe as he described him. Regardless of remarks one way or the other on Lincoln from church elite, it’s an opinion, just as I’ve come to my own opinions through research. Someone made a statement in the thread that Lincoln has been mentioned by church leaders hundreds of times and compared that to George Washington being mentioned less. @ (Jeff Jensen) First let me ask, because I don’t know, though I have a good idea, please give more recent accounts, say in the last twenty years, 1995 to present day from leaders who might have made statement regarding Lincoln, that would be more helpful. I have some very beloved Presidency Church leaders from the 1920’s that I would love to quote, but through study I know for fact that their statements have not been echoed from the pulpit nor will they be today. I would say Lincoln is not even in the same universe with Washington as far as contributions to this country, and certainly as an inspired being, they do not compare at all. As politicians, again the contrast is large, Lincoln aspiring for office, Washington serving only because of the people’s strong desire that he do so, and even then tentatively. Washington could have been a King, and he turned it down, a humble man who knew why the Revolution was fought and where his place was once it was over. Lincoln was completely uniformed thinking that God was on his side and the North. You may argue that the war had to be fought (I disagree with this premise) but after that point, the statement that God was on the side of the North is a bit wayward. Just as Lincoln was completely shocked and dismayed that the war didn’t end quickly and then went on in flawed reasoning and justifications that it was God who extended it for some reason, or that God was pouring out his wrath? I find this unacceptable and find in Lincoln a man who won’t take responsibility for the blood spilled. This is the same reasoning people use to ask why God is not here, why does he allow atrocities and death and war when the answer is, it’s never God’s war but man’s. I’m sure all wars could somehow be attributed to deity if you wanted to rationalize it that way, and of course all sides cry out for God to be on their side once it starts. I will say that there was just as much compassion from the almighty for the South as for the North, this is simply the lesser evil ONCE the war was started, as in the big picture for the benefit of the work the Union needed to be preserved. I put emphasis on ONCE because before hand I will always believe there was another way, there are always different paths and the Union could have been preserved if the Constitutional Republic for which we once stood, would have been honored and fleshed out with cooler heads.
  2. @ A.C. KORITZ, here is the “plow around them” quote you inquired about. It comes from a letter that was written 7 June 1863 by Thomas Stenhouse, a LDS representative that was sent to Washington to meet with Lincoln. In the letter, Stenhouse reported the following remarks by Lincoln:

    “Stenhouse, when I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it. You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone.”
    (letter can be found in LDS Church Archives, Brigham Young Correspondence)

    Brigham Young was elated. While it wasn’t support, it was actually what Young wanted–to simply be left alone to worship as he pleased. Contrary to what some have presented, Lincoln did not attack Mormonism. When the Saints complained to him about an unfiar, anti-Mormon territorial governor, Lincoln had him removed and replaced him with someone who shared his philosophy of simply “letting them alone.” Lincoln also supported and voted for the Nauvoo Charter. Furthermore, Lincoln did not send out Union troops to supress the Utah rebellion. The Utah War occurred before Lincoln was president, and the troops were sent by President Buchanan. They were recalled at the outbreak of the Civil War and Camp Floyd was abandoned. President Buchanan, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, actually DID fight actively against the Mormons. Lincoln adopted the passive stance, and did not even enforce the anti polygamy that he signed after Congress wrote and passed the bill (Lincoln was not one to use the veto pen).

  3. Also, for the sake of a balanced perspective, I might offer a few more books to balance the ones previously recommended, as they all argue the same theories, which are far from mainstream. I have read several, but not all of them. Again, I’m not saying they’re wrong and the following are right, but in order to know what’s right you have to know more than one perspective.

    “Shattering the Truth: The Slandering of Abraham Lincoln” – by Dennis W. Brandt
    “The Impending Crisis” – David M. Potter
    “Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession” – Russell A. McClintock
    “Lincoln, President Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861” – Harold Holzer
    “Vindicating Lincoln” – Thomas Krannawitter

    It’s a lot of reading, I know, but you can get through them pretty quick. Just remember to fairly study both sides before deciding which one to join.

  4. And as you may have noticed, my ‘P’ key had issues while I was typing that last post as it is absent in a few words where it should be present. I missed a few corrections. Oops!
  5. Wow, for all the opinions going around about Lincoln I’m surprised that no one has turned to what Chuch leaders have said about him. He is referenced more than any other political figure in General Conference talks, even more than George Washington. Since 1851, Lincoln has been referred to or referenced 490 times in General Conference, with 90% of those references coming after 1920, well after people who were “opinionated” about him would have perished. I find it convenient that the one quote shared, by Brigham Young, was selected to support an opinion which Brigham himself later changed. An entire conference address was devoted to Abraham Lincoln, given by an apostle, Elder Mark E. Peterson, in which he declared immediately that he wished to speak about Abraham Lincoln who was a man of God. Even President Benson enlisted Lincoln as a supporter of the Constitution, not a destroyer of it. Many prophets have said over several decades and reiterated on several occasions that Lincoln WAS a man of God, and did the work of God in preserving the Union AND the Constitution. President Heber J. Grant said the following of Abraham Lincoln,
    “Every Latter-day Saint believes that Abraham Lincoln was raised up and inspired of God, and that he reached the Presidency of the United States under the favor of our Heavenly Father. . . …We honor the man that God honors. We honor Abraham Lincoln because we believe absolutely that God honored him and raised him up to be the instrument in His hands of saving the Constitution and the Union” (”Lincoln and Law” 73, 127).
    That was written in the “Improvement Era” in February 1940. As the “Ensign” of its day, the official Church publication, it is not a piece of opinion where the prohet would speculate or speak what he thought that may be contrary to the truth. The editorial itself is presented much as a First Presidency Message of today would be presented, as an official message from the First Presidency.

    There is certainly room to have a debate about Lincoln on strictly political issues, but if you’re going to bring religion into it, than BRING religion into it! Don’t try to measure Abraham Lincoln against Mormonism when you ignore Mormonism. And by doing this, it will quickly become obvious that any criticism you may find of him was spoken by his contemporaries before a full understanding of his life was available. Furthermore, all of those criticisms would be merely a drop in a large bucket when comared to the innumerable things other more recent prophets have said repeatedly about the man and his mission.

  6. I like the comparisons. Some comments should be supported with some research, rather than just comments. Let’s not be ignorants.
  7. An LDS Perspective on “Honest Abe”

    About the Author: Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. He also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College. He is a graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. In addition, he has completed an Advanced Hebrew program at Haifa University in Israel. He is the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts, including How Firm A Foundation, A Ready Reply, and One Lord, One Faith.

    http://www.mtgriffith.com/web_documents/lincolnandlds.htm

  8. Forced Into Glory – Lerone Bennett
    The Real Lincoln – Charles L.C. Minor (Apologia Books)
    Lincoln Unmasked – Thomas DiLorenzo
    Lincoln the Man – Edgar Lee Masters
    Lincoln Uber Alles – John Avery Emison
    Lincoln Takes Command – John Tilley
    Disowning Slavery – Joanne Pope Melish
    Hamilton’s Curse – Thomas DiLorenzo
    Myths of American Slavery – Walter D. Kennedy
    Red Republicans & Lincoln Marxists – Walter D. Kennedy

    Two book reviews may be helpful
    http://www.toqonline.com/archives/v4n1/TOQv4n1Griffin.pdf
    http://www.fff.org/freedom/fd0208h.asp

    1. @Terry: No worries. Understood. Are there any other books or articles you recommend on the topic? That would be really helpful.
  9. @Terry: Your tone doesn’t help your message. It takes some study to learn that Lincoln wasn’t a friend to the Latter-day Saints nor in many ways to liberty. You’ll help people discover this faster if your delivery is softer.
  10. I can’t believe the lame brain comments that deify Abraham Lincoln on this blog. Do you not know Brigham Young spoke out AGAINST Lincoln, when Lincoln trained cannons on his house in 1861.

    Lincoln’s troops were occupying Salt Lake City at the time, because Lincoln believed the Utah Territory was a threat to his precious Union.

    For starters try, “The Real Lincoln,” by Thomas DiLorenzo

  11. When Joseph Smith is recognized as the greatest man ever born in the United States Of America, Lincoln will be recognized as the biggest traitor to the cause of liberty.
  12. Pingback: Critique of Abraham Lincoln; Or, “Why Abraham Lincoln Might Still Be in Hell” by grego « Book of Mormon Notes–How deep can you dig?

  13. Hey, great blog. The link to the Bushman talk on Joseph Smith and Abe Lincoln isn’t working. Is there another way I can get to it?
    -Matt
  14. Lincoln was no friend of the Latter-day Saints. He said nothing when the Saints were being persecuted in Illinois. Before the war, he said the Saints were “probably” in rebellion and added that they needed to be “coerced” somehow. kHe also condemned polygamy as “a relic of barbarism.” As president, he signed the first anti-polygamy bill and appointed anti-Mormons as territorial officials, ignoring Church requests that locals be appointed.

    Privately, Brigham Young was very critical of Lincoln. We must remember that there was a federal army garrison stationed in Utah, and many hostile federal appointees, who all kept a close ear out for anything that sounded the least bit “unpatriotic,” so the Saints were very guarded in their public comments. Readers here may be interested in my article “Abraham Lincoln, the Mormons, and the Civil War” at:

    http://ourworld.cs.com/mikegriffith1/lincolnandlds.htm

    Mike Griffith

  15. I am more interested in how Lincoln acted in his role as a state representative while the Mormon’s were being persecuted. The Governor certainly was ineffective in protecting the Saints as I read it in Bushman’s book.
  16. Didn’t Abe Lincoln respond to an anti-Mormon critic to the effect that the Mormons were like a green tree stump, and to just “plow around them.”? I can’t find the source. Any ideas?
  17. Rachel: My comments here are true to the content and tone of Mr. Bushman’s talk; I was paraphrasing more than writing. But this wasn’t intended to disparage Lincoln at all, nor do I think that was Bushman’s intent. I agree that Lincoln was an incredible leader and lived an inspired and inspiring life.
  18. We do not need to belittle Abraham Lincoln to make Joseph Smith great. Both were inspired of God. I didn’t care for how this was written.
  19. Pingback: Richard K Miller dot coooooooooom » Informal discussion societies

Comments are closed.