Historian Joshua Zeitz says he has always been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln—“a rare person in American political history, a paradox who grows, implausibly, into his role”—and by social forces that shape our understanding of faith, power, and politics in American life. In his upcoming book from Viking, Lincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation (May 2023), Zeitz examines the seismic shifts both the president and the nation underwent in the Civil War era.

Viking associate publisher Wendy Wolf says Zeitz is “rethinking the role of religion in the Civil War in several important contexts often overlooked by biographers and military historians,” adding that the book “is full of surprises and unexpected evidence.”

Lincoln’s God focuses on how “Abraham Lincoln, who was both a lifetime iconoclast and an uncanny student of public opinion, was the first president to channel the spiritual currents of his electorate into a powerful political movement,” Zeitz writes. “Though his brand of Christian faith was not evangelical by common definition, in his appeal to the prevailing religious sensibility of the country—in his deft mobilization of Protestant churches, and in his knowing invocation of religious language and themes to help Americans understand the times in which they lived—Lincoln was, arguably, the nation’s first evangelical president.”

Zeitz, who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century political history, is a contributing editor for Politico and the author of several books, including the 2014 bestseller Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. His approach is to delve deeply into primary sources, although, he tells PW, “Lincoln left a very thin personal paper trail. You have to look at the contemporary evidence. His public speeches and writings show that Lincoln, once openly skeptical of religion, realizes that the religious vernacular would resonate with the churches and the clergy. He knew the Bible was widely read, widely known, and its themes would help people understand the war. He wasn’t sounding a political dog whistle. He embraced faith; he didn’t exploit it.”

Lincoln’s God shows the echoes of the King James Bible—which Lincoln knew deeply—in Lincoln’s campaign for president, in his proclamations in office, and throughout his most impactful speeches. In his second inaugural address, for example, he draws on Psalm 19.9 to remind his audience that “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

The book also parallels the changes in Lincoln’s religious expression with immense changes among Protestant churches and clergy, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. Zeitz writes that Protestantism, in the wake of the Civil War, widened its focus beyond the necessity of personal salvation. It came to call for “a muscular brand of Christianity to assert itself in the nation’s political life.” This brand of Protestantism, Zeitz notes, “presaged the power that evangelicals would later wield, as well as the risks they would incur, by blurring the line between religion and state.”

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