Lesson Plan 14: The Importance of Religion in Political Life in the 19th Century: Abraham Lincoln's Experience

By Tara L. Dirst


 Objectives:

  • Students will explore the importance of religion in community building in frontier America.
  • Students will analyze the importance of religion in political life in the 19th century.

Student Preparation:

Students should read the appropriate textbook sections on the Second Great Awakening and Westward Expansion. Sample text: Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "Religion Sparks Reform." Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2003. 240-245.

Materials Needed:

Time Required:

One 50-minute class period.

Introduction:

Play the video clip: John Mack Faragher, Religion on the Illinois Frontier (2:58).  Ask the students questions about Faragher's statements and what the textbook says about religion and frontier life, particularly about the Second Great Awakening (suggested questions below):

  • According to Faragher, what was the main function of religion in frontier life? [To form communities.]
  • Thinking about this important function, what might happen to one who was not a member of a specific church? [They may not be accepted by the community in which they live.]
  • According to what you've read in the textbook (and Faragher's video) about religious communities, what kinds of social functions did they serve? [Morally-based activism in areas like temperance and anti-slavery. Social functions like community assistance and organization.]

Play the video clip: John Mack Faragher, Lincoln's Religious Beliefs (2:00).  Ask the students questions about Faragher's statements regarding Abraham Lincoln's religious beliefs (suggested questions below):

  • Ask the students if they know what agnosticism or Deism is. [Agnosticism is the view that the issues relating to God or gods cannot be known. Deism is a rationalistic, reason-based philosophy that was popular in the Enlightenment period, where people believed in objectivity, science and natural law to explain and govern society.]
  • What did Faragher mean about the Founding Fathers having those sentiments? [The Founding Fathers specifically rejected the idea of state-sponsored religious institutions, even while many retained their own religious beliefs. They believed in reason and law as the foundation for governing society.]
  • What did Faragher say about people who weren't members of organized religion? [They were somewhat ostracized, and considered outsiders.]
  • What changed from the 18th century to the 19th century in terms of the importance of religion and religious affiliation? Why do you think this might be so? [With the rise of revivalism, religious community became more important to individuals. As Faragher stated, it was the foundation for community establishment.]
  • How do you think Lincoln's religious views (as stated by Faragher) might have impacted his political career? [One might assume that Lincoln would have had difficulty in his political career with views such as the ones Faragher described. Students might say, though, that it didn't seem to impact him because he did succeed at becoming the 16th president!]
  • Ask the students if they know anything about Lincoln's earlier political career. [He was elected 4 times to the Illinois General Assembly, elected once to the U.S. House of Representatives, failed at other times in bids for office -- Illinois Assembly, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.]

Reading the Primary Document and Class Discussion:

Put the excerpt of Lincoln's letter on a projector and have one of the students read it aloud. (This letter is in reference to Lincoln's attempt to get the 1843 Whig nomination for Congress). Ask questions to elicit discussion on the letter (suggested questions below):

  • Does it appear that Lincoln did have some difficulty because of his religious non-affiliation? In what way?
  • What was Lincoln accused of, religiously? [Deism, not belonging to a church]
  • How does Lincoln feel about religion being used against him?
  • What did Lincoln say he was accused of being in Sangamon county [not associated with his religious views]? [Being an aristocrat -- wealthy and prideful]
  • What was Lincoln's response to the accusation of being an aristocrat?
  • Why do you think his opponents may have accused him being an aristocrat? [Irreligious or anti-religious views could be seen as an elite position.]
  • What party was he running under in that time period? [Whig]
  • "What issues did the Whig party support? [Pro-business, pro-internal improvements, pro-national banking system]
  • How did the Whigs want to present themselves to the public? [Down to earth, everyday farming folk -- for examples, look at the 1840 Whig Presidential campaign materials.]

Conclusion:

Based on what we know about the importance of church membership on political life from the 1770s-1790s, how have things changed by the time Lincoln is running for political office in the 1830s and 1840s? What reasons do you think might account for this shift?

References:

Full text of Lincoln's letter to Martin M. Morris available here.

Guelzo, Allen C. Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999

Acknowledgments: The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this lesson plan under the We the People Project.