“The Almighty Has His Own Purposes”: Abraham Lincoln, Religion, and the Emancipation of Slaves



Abraham Lincoln has been remembered, both in his own lifetime and thereafter, by the nickname, “Honest Abe.” His characteristic trustworthiness, nevertheless, has not necessarily permitted historians to easily interpret all aspects of his personal life and political career. One such topic that has been somewhat shrouded in mystery is Abraham Lincoln’s religious views. The prolific American theologian, Reinhold Neibuhr once referred to Lincoln as “unquestionably our most religious president,” who was “superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of the day, but of the religious leaders of the era.”[i] On the other hand, a contemporary of Lincoln, William Herndon, attempted to combat the idea that Abraham Lincoln changed his views about believing in a personal God by dismissing the existence of any evidence for such a claim.[ii] However, Wayne C. Temple’s more recent tome, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, has compiled scores of evidence to outline the religious views of Abraham, which were by no means static throughout his life, but nonetheless gradually moved away from skepticism and towards a more theistic worldview, heavily grounded in biblical imagery.[iii] By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Edmund Wilson writes the following:

We are far here from Herndon’s office, closer to Harriet Beecher Stowe. If the need on Lincoln’s part, as a public man, to express himself in phrases congenial to his public may have had some part in inducing him to heighten and personify the formulas of his eighteenth-century deism, if it is true that as the went on and gave rise to more and more disaffection, it became more and more to his interest to invoke the traditional Lord of Hosts, it is nevertheless quite clear that he himself came to see the conflict in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect. The vision had imposed itself.[iv]

This research will trace the background of Abraham Lincoln in brief, and then especially focus on the religious transitions that occurred during Lincoln’s presidency. It will be argued that Herndon’s hypothesis of Lincoln’s religious ideals is inconsistent with the available data and that Lincoln was a deeply religious man, despite the uncertain characteristics about some of his specific beliefs.

Yet, the primary purpose of this research is not simply to better ascertain what Lincoln thought about religion. Rather, the core focus will be to demonstrate how his religious views affected the ways in which he dealt with the abolition of slavery, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many scholars as of late have propagated interpretations that highlight changes during Lincoln’s presidency pertaining to both his religious beliefs and his strategies for emancipating slaves.[v] However, it seems that most historians focus either on Lincoln’s religion or on emancipation, without connecting the two issues. Admittedly, both topics have tremendously rich historiographical backgrounds, thus, an attempt to link the two together in a concise paper is somewhat of a challenging task. At the same time, the available primary source material, along with secondary literature, arguably allows for the interpretation that Lincoln’s religious beliefs played a significant role in how he attempted to carry out his policies in relation to emancipation.

The Religious Background of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln experienced both positive and negative aspects of religious activities as he grew up. His own father, Thomas Lincoln, was said to be, “A devout Christian of the Baptist order,” according to fellow church member, Nathaniel Grisby.[vi] His family would attend Little Pigeon Baptist Church throughout his childhood, a congregation that faced many controversies in its day, especially pertaining to the funding of missionaries (an especially strong movement in New England), the doctrine of predestination, and issues of local church autonomy.[vii] It is quite plausible that one of the most serious frustrations Lincoln faced in his Baptist background was the inability of older congregants to speak to him in communicable ways. In Lincoln’s later recollections, he stated:

I remember how when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I do not think I ever got angry at anything else in my life; but that always disturbed my temper. I can remember going to my little room, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down trying to make out the exact meaning of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, although I tried to, when I got on such a hunt for an idea, until I had caught it; and when I thought I had got it I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over again; until I had put in language plain enough, so I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me, for I am never easy now when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.[viii]

John F. Cady comments, “The church of his youth had been too void of perspective, too much concerned with futile theological bickerings to be able to contain the inquiring spirit of the young man. Religious considerations seemed to lead into narrower and ever more exclusive channels.”[ix] That very well may be true, though it is also suggested that the unlearned, Calvinistic Baptists from Indiana could not satisfy his curious nature for religious inquiries.[x] At the same time, Lincoln did first encounter, while living in Indiana, a biography on George Washington by Mason Locke Weems, which, “no doubt, influenced his later stand against slavery.”[xi] Notably, Weems was also a Christian minister that unabashedly interpreted aspects of Washington’s life in light of “Providence.”[xii]

In 1831, Lincoln moved to the town of New Salem, Illinois, where he would eventually begin his political career. This six-year stay also seems to be the period of time in which Lincoln became most skeptical about religion, particularly of Christianity. He is believed to have read writings from religious skeptics, such as Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Constantin Volney’s The Ruins.[xiii] According to local legend, Lincoln had even written a manuscript that denied the divine qualities of the Bible, though it was apparently burned.[xiv] A man who met Lincoln in 1834, believed that the Scottish poet, and former Calvinist, “[Robert] Burns helped Lincoln to be an infidel…at least he found in Burns a like thinker & feeler.”[xv] How much of an extended impact these writings had on Lincoln’s life and beliefs is hard to say with precision. Thankfully, for the sake of historical records, once Lincoln moved away from New Salem, he began to write more frequently.

Lincoln moved to the new capital of Springfield, Illinois in 1837. Nearly a decade later, when running for a seat in Congress, his opponent, revivalist preacher, Peter Cartwright, accused Lincoln of being antagonistic towards the Christian faith. Lincoln’s response is tremendously insightful for understanding how his New Salem inquiries of skepticism had since worn off a bit:

A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.[xvi]

It is clear, therefore, that Lincoln was not hostile to Christians or even certain denominations, but his response also notes the following:

It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”—that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years.[xvii]

The eminent Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, defines the Doctrine of Necessity to mean, “all events are determined by a blind necessity.” Thus, “This necessity does not arise from the will of an intelligent Being governing all his creatures and all their acts according to their nature, and for purposes of wisdom and goodness; but from a law of sequence to which God (or rather the gods) as well as men is subject.”[xviii] In January 1851, Lincoln received news through his stepbrother that his father was dying. Responding with care and sensitivity, Lincoln’s thoughts derive from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” and are far from full-blown Deism: “Tell him to remember to call upon, and confide in, our great and good, and merciful Maker, who will not turn away from him in any extremity. He notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads; and He will not forget the dying man, who puts his trust in Him.”[xix] Whether or not Lincoln was actually an “orthodox” Christian in terms of believing in certain doctrines such as Trinitarianism, the deity of Jesus Christ, or the divine inspiration of the Bible, is not necessarily the intention of this research. Instead, the focus will be on how Lincoln came to more distinctively understand the doctrine of providence, and precisely how that belief influenced his attitude towards emancipating slaves.

One of the most significant relationships that Lincoln developed while in Illinois, concerning his religious development, was with the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Dr. James Smith.[xx] The distinguishable characteristic between Smith and the Baptists Lincoln had known in his childhood, other than obvious denominational differences, was Smith’s intellectual rigor as a Christian thinker. He had previously been a Deist, and even made a practice to attend camp meeting revivals for the purpose of mocking preachers. However, through the ministry of Rev. James Blackwell, Smith converted to Christianity and became a Presbyterian pastor. Abraham Lincoln thoroughly read Smith’s book, The Christian’s Defense, and has been quoted to have said, “I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of Christianity, and have heard him preach and converse on the subject, and I am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.”[xxi] Though he always seems to have been profoundly respectful of and attracted to the Bible, his religious convictions still had plenty of potential for alteration.[xxii] During his service as president, a notable change was undertaken, albeit gradually, in his beliefs of man’s free agency and God’s providence.

Religious Transitions During Lincoln’s Presidency

Andrew R. Murphy says the following about Lincoln’s presidency: “Lincoln knew the Bible well, and it seems clear that he became increasingly comfortable with religious rhetoric as his presidency unfolded (culminating, of course, in the Second Inaugural).”[xxiii] It has been commonly interpreted that Lincoln’s speeches became progressively religious further into his presidency. That might be true, but it should not cause one to think that Lincoln avoided religious rhetoric in the first couple of years in his presidency either. At a speech in Cincinnati, as his first term was about to begin, he proclaimed, “I take your response as the most reliable evidence that it may be so, along with other evidence, trusting that the good sense of the American people, on all sides of all rivers in America, under the Providence of God, who has never deserted us, that we shall again be brethren, forgetting all parties—ignoring all parties.”[xxiv] And in his first inaugural address, Lincoln boasted, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.”[xxv] The real significance of Lincoln’s religious transitions during his presidency is not necessarily that he spoke more often in religious terms, but that he changed his foundational view of God’s providence by the summer of 1862, just before the Emancipation Proclamation was given.

Lincoln had moved away from the naturalistic “Doctrine of Necessity” for several years, and at the beginning of his presidency his view of providence might be best understood by the phrase, “divine assistance.” In other words, God was available to intervene in the affairs of mankind, contrasting with the impersonal “Doctrine of Necessity,” but the relationship between “Creator” and “created” was not quite Calvinistic in the sense that the world is to be seen as God’s “glorious theatre” where God’s will surpasses man’s plans.[xxvi] Nicholas Parillo substantiates this claim by stating, “Literary analysis reveals that, even though Lincoln always subscribed to the same technical definition of providence, the role that this concept played in his rhetoric underwent a gradual but dramatic change during his presidency.”[xxvii] Lincoln, in his acceptance letter for the Republican presidential nomination, wrote:

Imploring the assistance of Divine Providence, and with due regard to the views and feelings of all who were represented in the convention; to the rights of all the states, and territories, and people of the nation; to the inviolability of the constitution, and the perpetual union, harmony, and prosperity of all, I am most happy to co-operate for the practical success of the principles declared by the convention.[xxviii]

The words, “the assistance of Divine Providence,” are notable, as they infer that Lincoln believed God would intervene upon the request of the one who seeks aid. To borrow John Calvin’s theatre analogy again, both men and God, according to Lincoln’s understanding of providence, were actors in world events, but the added power of God would give an advantage to those, in particular, who request and rely on his divine assistance.[xxix]

Lincoln addressed Congress in December of 1861, saying, “The struggle of today, is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”[xxx] Lincoln would not have known that the nation’s present “struggle” would eventually yield results such as the deaths of well over 600,000 Americans, or even a more favorable outcome such as the abolition of slavery. His own role in the Civil War seems to have been guided by his evolving understanding of God’s providence. Lincoln never joined a congregation as a member in Washington, D.C., but he did end up attending another Presbyterian church governed by a well-educated clergyman. According to Ronald C. White, Jr., “Lincoln, ever attuned to paradox, appreciated the Presbyterian belief that the sinfulness of human beings did not lead to passivity, because Christian men and women were called to be instruments of divine purpose in society,” and the minister, Phineas Densmore Gurley, was undoubtedly true to his “Old School” Presbyterian roots.[xxxi] And it is plausible that Gurley’s own views on God’s providence rubbed off on the president. Gurley once preached the following message:

I believe this Triune God is in history; I believe He is in all history: I believe His hand and His mercy are exceedingly conspicuous in our national history; and never more so than in the present eventful and perilous crisis: and my confident hope is, that, when the crisis is over, and the Divine purpose in permitting it is fully developed and accomplished, the nations who now predict, if they do not desire, our ruin, will be compelled to say: “the Lord hath done great things for them;” and our simple yet grateful response will be: “the Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad.”[xxxii]

Clearly this is not comparable to a “Doctrine of Necessity,” but neither is it advocating that people do their deeds with “divine assistance.” Rather, Gurley emphasizes the much more Calvinistic approach that speaks of God superseding over the world’s affairs, and the necessity that Christians align their plans with the Almighty’s.

In 1862, Lincoln appears to have altered his own views of providence to closely resemble the teachings of Reverend Gurley. This also happened to be the year that his son, Willie, tragically died.[xxxiii] Furthermore, the U.S. Army had not been nearly as successful as expected, particularly in the Northern Virginia Campaign. Perhaps, then, circumstances also had an effect. On September 13, 1862, he delivered an address in Chicago that could almost be considered a sermon on providence:

I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree.[xxxiv]

The “matter” referred to here by Lincoln is emancipation. Clearly, he believed that God was sovereign over the nation’s concerns of the war, and of slavery as well. Lincoln’s struggles centered on his desire to do “the will of Providence,” without having direct revelation on what action to take towards emancipation. Later in his speech, he claimed, “Whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do.”[xxxv] He no longer held to the “divine assistance” view of providence, in which one decides to act and then hopes for God’s favor. The “theatre” of God would operate as the Almighty willed; Lincoln just hoped to do what was “wise and right,” but obviously with fear and trembling. In a later letter to Albert G. Hodges, Lincoln confessed in retrospect, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”[xxxvi] The Emancipation Proclamation, then, would become one of the biggest actions undertaken by the president, following his final transformation in his religious ideas pertaining to God’s providence.

In September 1862, the same month in which Lincoln publicly announced the Emancipation Proclamation, the president wrote a private note to assess the situation, which has since been designated, “Meditation on Divine Will.” Lincoln asserted the following evaluation:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God [cannot] be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.[xxxvii]

Here, Lincoln makes evident his views on God’s sovereignty and human free agency: all that occurs is under the guiding hand of Providence, but the “human instrumentalities” are still accountable in their actions.[xxxviii] He apparently was ready to make his move towards the Emancipation Proclamation.[xxxix]

A Synthesis of Lincoln’s Religious Views and Evolving Ideas Concerning Emancipation

The transformation of Lincoln’s understanding of providence, starting with the “Doctrine of Necessity,” to a “divine assistance” view, and finally, to a more Calvinistic perspective, created a structure that linked his religious beliefs with his evolving ideas concerning emancipation. Although his plans for dealing with slavery while president changed over time, Lincoln’s distaste for the institution had always been the same. He once stated, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I [cannot] remember when I did not so think, and feel.”[xl] Thus, even before his life in the White House, when skeptical of religion or when accepting of it, he was no friend to slavery. However, circumstantial events during his political career in Illinois seemed to have motivated Lincoln towards a more mature understanding of how the nation ought to view slavery. Eric Foner comments that after eyeing the momentous occurrences related to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then the violence in Kansas, the events in 1857, such as the Dred Scott decision, the Buchanan administration’s oversight in the enforcement of slavery in Kansas, and his debates with Stephen A. Douglas “would propel Lincoln to address directly questions he had until then touched on only tangentially—the rights and future status of black Americans, and the underlying differences between two societies resting on antagonistic systems of slave and free labor.”[xli] But Foner also writes, “All in all the first sixteen months of Lincoln’s presidency—the period from March 1861 through June 1862—witnessed noteworthy changes in the government’s relationship to slavery,” which included him being the first ever president to submit an abolition plan to Congress, as well ending slavery in Washington, D.C.[xlii]

It should be pointed out by way of reminder that Lincoln’s intellectual framework concerning providence had changed from the time he entered into the presidential office to the Emancipation Proclamation. As noted by Ronald C. White, Jr., “Although his heart had long been tormented by the immorality of slavery, his Enlightenment, precedent-based, Old School head had heretofore tethered him to what he believed to be the Constitution’s prohibition against eliminating slavery where it already existed in the South.”[xliii] Lincoln gave his well-known “A House Divided” speech in 1858, wherein he stated:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.[xliv]

It seems quite likely that Lincoln carried this mindset into his presidency, together with his “divine assistance” view of providence. Whatever that was to occur with slavery, then, was basically contingent upon the actions of Americans, though God could be called upon for added support. In an 1861 speech, Lincoln went on to say, “And having thus chosen our course, without guile and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.”[xlv] Throughout the spring of 1862, Lincoln adamantly recommended that emancipation be administered gradually, along with the incentive of compensation.[xlvi] In June, the hopeful William Bernard declared his “earnest desire that [Lincoln] might, under divine guidance, be led to free the slaves and thus save the nation from destruction.” To which Lincoln responded:

[I] had sometime thought that perhaps [I] might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work and [I] certainly was not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end which the memorialists have in view may be different from theirs. It would be [my] earnest endeavor, with a firm reliance upon the Divine arm, and seeking light from above, to do his duty in the place to which he had been called.[xlvii]

Nicholas Parillo’s interpretation of how Lincoln viewed the war appears to be correct: “the events of the Civil War became, for Lincoln, manifestations of God’s intention for the future of slavery.”[xlviii]

When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, which was set to be effective starting January of the following year, he apprehensively admitted, “I can only trust in God I have made no mistake.”[xlix] By this time, it would appear that Lincoln’s view of God’s providence had made an impact on his considerations of emancipating slaves. He made a major motion, but Lincoln did not request divine assistance to fulfill his own plans. Instead, Lincoln possessed the hope that he was fulfilling God’s plans. “For Lincoln,” writes Nicholas Parillo, “[E]mancipation served as no holy crusade but merely fulfilled divine providence.”[l] That Lincoln changed his view of providence, as it has been argued in this research, is not necessarily significant in terms of whether or not the Emancipation Proclamation would have ever happened—it seems unlikely that a change in his view of providence would have altered his motivation for emancipating slaves. On the other hand, this analysis does bring to light the intellectual framework for which Lincoln operated as president, and as the “Great Emancipator.” Furthermore, it also appears that his post-1861 view of providence set himself on a spiritual trajectory that would lead to an even more religious-focused presidency.

Two speeches in particular especially highlight Lincoln’s more intense concentration on matters of religion following the Emancipation Proclamation. On a national fast day in 1863, Lincoln presented a jeremiad-like message to his country:

May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.[li]

Evidently, Lincoln now believed that the Civil War was not merely permitted by God, but that God providentially ordained it for just retribution, a theme he again featured in his Second Inaugural, which is completely saturated with biblical imagery. Although Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, slavery was still not obliterated, and the war carried on ever still. Perhaps what is most striking about this speech is Lincoln’s understanding of providence in relation to the perpetuation of slavery. He stated:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.[lii]

At the same time, Lincoln went on to say, “Yet, if God wills that it continue…so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[liii]


Although deemed the “Great Emancipator” by some, Lincoln merely saw himself as an instrument in God’s created order. Despite his human effort attempts at suppressing the institution of slavery, such as in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and in persevering through the war, Lincoln’s religious views—particularly that of providence—significantly influenced the ways in which he lived out his role as president. His earlier belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” was replaced by a “divine assistance” view of providence before his election to Congress in Illinois, only to morph into a more Calvinistic understanding by the middle of his first term as president in 1862. His latest understanding of providence did seem to influence his attitude towards emancipation and even the war as a whole—that actions ought to be made towards ending slavery, but the success for such endeavors was up to God’s providential will. While not everything is clear about Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs, he did not seem to distinguish between the secular and the sacred when it came to how he viewed his role as the country’s president. If his religiously skeptical ideas had stayed with him throughout his life, perhaps his second inaugural address would have declared, “Nature has her own purposes.” If he had remained steeped in the “divine assistance” view of providence, perhaps Lincoln would have stated, “The Almighty will help us in our purposes.” But in the end, Lincoln came to believe, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”[liv]













[i] Quoted in Andrew R. Murphy, “Religion, Civil Religion, and Civil War: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the Lincoln Presidency” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 9:4 (Winter 2011): 21.

[ii] See Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 102.

[iii] Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet (Mahomet, IL: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995).

[iv] Wilson, Patriotic Gore, p. 106.

[v] Having already noted a couple of sources on the transitional views of Lincoln’s religious beliefs, Eric Foner’s text, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), is a marvelous resource that provides an overview of Lincoln’s transitional views of emancipation. James Oakes’s The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) is also a helpful work, particularly in the way it provides a historical context for how Lincoln eventually found legal confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

[vi] Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York, NY: Random House, 2009), p. 35.

[vii] See John F. Cady, “The Religious Environment of Lincoln’s Youth” Indiana Magazine of History 37:1 (1941): 16-30.

[viii] Quoted in Charles W. Moores, Abraham Lincoln, Lawyer (Greenfield, IN: Wm. Mitchell Printing Co., 1922), p. 484-485.

[ix] Cady, “The Religious Environment of Lincoln’s Youth,” p. 30.

[x] On the Calvinistic, yet anti-educational origins of Little Pigeon Baptist Church, see Ibid., p. 16-18, 27-30.

[xi] Temple, Abraham Lincoln: from Skeptic to Prophet, p. 11.

[xii] For example, Weems writes, “Where George got his great military talents, is a question which none but the happy believers in a particular Providence can solve: certain it is, his earthly parents had not hand in it.” M.L. Weems, The Life of George Washington; With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1800), p. 30.

[xiii] See Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 35; White, A. Lincoln, p. 54.

[xiv] See Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 35.

[xv] See White, A. Lincoln, p. 55.

[xvi] Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:382.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940), 2:280.

[xix] Quoted in White, A. Lincoln, p. 183. Lincoln’s eulogy for Henry Clay further demonstrates his revitalized belief in a God who providentially intervenes in His creation: “Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us. But he is gone. Let us strive to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.” Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2:132.

[xx] Biographical material on Dr. James Smith is cited from Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 36-48.

[xxi] Quoted in Ibid., p. 40.

[xxii] On Lincoln’s love of the Bible, his “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible” is quite helpful. In it, Lincoln confesses, “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.” Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 7:542.

[xxiii] Murphy, “Religion, Civil Religion, and Civil War: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the Lincoln Presidency,” p. 22.

[xxiv] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 4:199.

[xxv] Ibid., 4:271.

[xxvi] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans., p. 63. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.pdf [accessed August 8, 2015].

[xxvii] Nicholas Parrillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War” Civil War History 46:3 (2000): 228.

[xxviii] “To George Ashmun,” in Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 4.

[xxix] His farewell address to Illinois as he left for the White House supports this interpretation:

A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. (Ibid., 4:190)


[xxx] Ibid., 5:53.

[xxxi] White, Jr., A. Lincoln, p. 404.

[xxxii] P.D. Gurley, Man’s Projects and God’s Results. A Sermon: Preached by the Rev. P.D. Gurley, D.C., on Thursday, August 6, 1863, Being the Day of National Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer (Washington, D.C.: Wm. Ballantyne, 1863), p. 5.

[xxxiii] Wayne Temple comments, “Religion appears to have become much more important to Abraham Lincoln following Willie’s death.” And he further writes that according to one witness, Lincoln stated, “When my [Willie] died, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian.” Though later, when asked if he was a Christian, the president said, “I hope I am a Christian.” Therefore, it does seem that Willie’s death impacted the religious outlook of the president, and it happened to coincide while the Lincoln family was under the pastoral care of Reverend Gurley. See Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 191-192.

[xxxiv] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:420.

[xxxv] Ibid., 5:425.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 7:282.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 5:403-404.

[xxxviii] It might be tempting to assert that Lincoln had reverted to fatalism. But as Ronald C. White, Jr., explains:

The content of this private reflection illuminates how far Lincoln had traveled on his journey from fatalism to providence. The modern suggestion that fatalism and providence are part of a continuum would have surprised Protestant theologians in the nineteenth century. The two constellations of ideas had different origins and different outcomes. In fatalism, events unfolded according to certain laws of nature. In 1859, Francis Wharton, author of A Treatise on Theism and Modern Skeptical Theories, described fatalism as ‘a distinct scheme of unbelief’…Wharton contrasted fatalism with the God of Christianity known by ‘his watchful care and love.’” (A. Lincoln, p. 625.)


[xxxix] It is difficult to know with certainty whether or not the “Mediation on Divine Will” was composed prior to the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862. Basler, the editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, makes a case that September 2, 1862 is a preferable date, rather than September 30, the date interposed in Nicolay and Hay’s Complete Works. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:404. Whatever the case, his address in Chicago on September 13, 1862, makes it clear that Lincoln’s new view on providence had certainly been established prior the Emancipation Proclamation.

[xl] Ibid., 7:281.

[xli] Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 91.

[xlii] Ibid., p. 204-205.

[xliii] White, Jr., A. Lincoln, p. 495.

[xliv] William Benton, pub., The Annals of America: Volume 9, 1858-1865: The Crisis of the Union (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1968), p. 1.

[xlv] Ibid., p. 274.

[xlvi] His recommendation was “that the United States ought to cooperate with any state which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such state pecuniary aid, to be used by such state, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.” Ibid., p. 328.

[xlvii] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:279.

[xlviii] Parillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War,” p. 242.

[xlix] Quoted in Ibid., p. 244.

[l] Ibid., p. 243.

[li] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 6:155-156.

[lii] Benton, pub., The Annals of America, p. 556.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Ibid.


Jonathan Edwards: Pastor, Missionary, and Greatest Theologian in American History


Biographer Douglas A. Sweeney once wrote, “Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is the most influential thinker in all of evangelical history” (17). Upon observing this man’s life, ministry, theology, and lasting legacy, it is quite acceptable to agree with Sweeny’s words. Although the culture during Edwards’ days is quite different from the twenty-first century, there is much applicable information to glean from in this remarkable Christian leader. Without a doubt, Edwards faced both success and struggle in his life, yet expressed an attitude of perseverance, love, generosity, faith, and godliness. As a pastor, he was not only a brilliant theologian, but also a tremendous communicator of applicable truth. George Marsden described him by saying, “for Edwards one cannot draw a line between his theological or ecclesiastical roles and the person in some more essential sense. Edwards’ roles were so integrated in his life that they were basic to who he was” (10). Despite being a man of great influence and accomplishment, he also manifested a Christ-like humility as displayed with how he once said, “[I wish] to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child” (Galli and Olsen 43). While North America has beheld several brilliant theologians in its history, none greater than Jonathan Edwards has collectively made such an impact in Christianity with his life, theology, and ministry in the United States.

While it was by far not a perfect society, Jonathan Edwards grew up in the Puritan town of East Windsor, Connecticut. He had the distinct privilege of being a descendant of several pastors who were his forefathers. His grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, and his father, Timothy Edwards, were pastors of Congregational churches in New England and vital influences to young Jonathan who lived in eighteenth century America (Haykin 7). Not only did Jonathan have a strong, Christian influence, but also a well-rounded, highly-scholastic education from his father. Edwards, gifted with a brilliant mind from such a young age, was able to grasp the language of Latin by age six (Sweeney 35). To be well-equipped for college he even studied Greek and Hebrew by age twelve (35). As Edwards reflected on his younger life, he testified that he was tremendously “religious” but not a converted believer. In his Letters and Personal Writings, Edwards recorded how he and his classmates had “built a booth in a swamp, in a very secret and retired place, for a place of prayer” (790). “In process of time,” Edwards continued,  “my  convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights, and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in ways of sin” (791). The sovereignty of God was ever present in Jonathan Edwards’ early life. While he had not become a Christian yet, God was very much at work throughout his childhood, leading Jonathan into what He had in store for his adult life and ministry.

At age twelve, Jonathan Edwards entered Yale University, originally founded in 1701 as the Connecticut Collegiate School (Sweeney 36). In September of 1720, just prior to his seventeenth birthday, Edwards graduated “first in his class” and was given the high honor of delivering the valedictory speech (37-38). He then decided to immediately begin his graduate studies at Yale, pursuing a M.A. degree. While this was a time of increased intellectual growth and philosophical knowledge, Edwards also faced battles of sin and how that has affected relationship before a Holy God (Marsden 36). In the midst of this point in Jonathan’s life, he even faced difficulties with a roommate and cousin Elisha Mix. This young, immature freshman in the undergraduate program was quite opposite of Jonathan, craving social attention, disfavoring any form of scholasticism, and easily distracting in contrast to Jonathan who was shy and intellectual for the most part (37). Among the drama and spiritual journey, Edwards could not separate his heart from his intellect and thus discovered that he indeed was not in proper relationship with God, nor did he understand his purpose of life. That all changed, however, in May/June of 1721 when Edwards became enthralled with reading First Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the King eternal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen” (Marsden 41; Sweeney 40). Jonathan Edwards stated, “there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before…I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him” (793). Observing on Jonathan’s life, John Piper and Justin Taylor commented on Edwards’ theology in relation to God’s desire for His creation by saying, “Edwards’s call for a God enthralled heart does not make the enthralled one central. It makes God central. Indeed it exposes every joy as idolatrous that is not, ultimately, joy in God” (29). Undoubtedly, this was a major point in Edwards’ life. Though crowded with difficulty at first, eventually he was led to a glorious conversion which thereby was foundational for the rest of his life as not only a Christian but also as a faithful servant of communicating the glory of God for the joy of His creation as taught in Scripture.

Though he was still in the process of completing his M.A. degree at Yale, Edwards received the call to pastor a Presbyterian church in New York by August of 1722, leaving some of his education to finish later. Edwards, only nineteen years of age, was given the daunting task of trying to heal the wounds from a recent church split (Sweeney 42). By God’s grace, Jonathan was able to successfully lead this church and likewise this time “proved [to be] a blessing to all concerned” (42). According to Edwards, this was a time of maturity and spiritual growth as he once confessed to be in “constant inquiry, how I should be more holy” (Claghorn 795). He would often study beside the Hudson River, “contemplating the things of God” (Sweeney 43). During these moments, Edwards reflected, “I felt in me a burning desire to be in everything a complete Christian; and conformed to the blessed image of Christ: and that I might live in all things, according to the pure, sweet and blessed rules of the gospel. I had an eager thirsting after progress in these things” (Claghorn 795). According to Douglas Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards had composed several works in writing, including 1,400 miscellaneous reflections which were entitled “theological ‘Miscellanies,’” “Blank Bible” writings, “Notes on Scripture,” “Notes on the Apocalypse,” and even some smaller booklets on Christian doctrines, natural science, metaphysics and aesthetics (47). Like all Christians, this was not a time without difficulty or problems, but all in all, it was a step of progress toward his even greater influences in ministry.

From 1723-1724, Jonathan Edwards left his pastoral position at New York to finish his M.A. thesis in the summer of 1723, immediately pastored at a church in Connecticut for about seven months, but left that position as well to return to Yale as a tutor (Haykin 10). Edwards knew that pastoring was his calling, and therefore took advantage of the opportunity given in 1726 to be an assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, at a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts (10). Before long, Stoddard’s health had declined and progressively Edwards took on more responsibility in the Northampton church. In fact, Edwards would eventually preach at two services on Sunday, as well as a weekday afternoon serviced described as a time of “lecture” (Sweeney 57). During the same time, however, Edwards also had a rather large transition in his life in that he had found a wife, Sarah Pierpont. They married in 1727, just five months after Jonathan had been ordained (Haykin 12). By the time of Stoddard’s death, in 1729, Marsden approximates 1,400 people to have attended Edwards’ congregation, about twice the size as when he began under the leadership of Stoddard (127).  Sweeney, however, proposes a number of attendants as half of the number of Marsden (56). Whatever the actual attendance was, it is known that Edwards faced physical illnesses, probably due to the stress and responsibility of the young twenty-five year old (Marsden 127). Jonathan’s brother-in-law Benjamin Pierpont even traveled to Northampton to preach until he recuperated shortly afterwards (Sweeney 72). Though life was certainly not always easy for Edwards, his ministry career had just begun for the most part, which eventually led to greater things such as the Great Awakening, his well-known theological writings, and a lasting impact on Protestantism in North America.

From the time of Stoddard’s death to early in 1734, there was a spiritual dullness in the community of Northampton. Edwards took notice of this concern, and recognized that much of the contributions were emanating from the youth (Sweeney 107-108). Marsden notes that at this time there came a “dramatic turning point” with the surprising death of a young man after just a two-day fight against the disease of “pleurisy” (153). Almost immediately following this young man’s death, a young woman also contracted an illness leading to her death (155). Justo Gonzalez records the response to Edwards’ sermons from both the young and the old members by saying, “people began responding to his sermons, some with emotional outbursts, but many with a remarkable change in their lives, and with increased attention to their devotional lives” (228). Without question, revival had broken out in this area of New England. In Edwards’ The Great Awakening, he recalls this transformational time by recollecting, “The assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the Word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors” (Goen 151). Though this movement of revival relapsed for a period of time, Edwards continued to grow spiritually, and trusted that God had much more in store for him and his congregation (Sweeney 126). By the spring of 1740, there were several signs of another, even greater, revival in the Northampton area. After being requested to preach, George Whitfield accepted Edwards’ offer and arrived in New England. After preaching at Edwards’ church, Whitfield and Edwards both spent a short period of time together traveling and preaching in the New England area (130). Before long, Edwards would decide to serve as a “traveling gospel preacher” throughout parts of New England, which included him presenting his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon among others as well (132-133). This period of time in church history is commonly referred to as the Great Awakening. Michael A.G. Haykin gives estimates of anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 new converts to Christianity to have resulted from this “awakening” (17). Jonathan Edwards’ influence in arguably one of the most important time periods of church history is remarkable to behold and something that Christians should remember with significant gratitude.

Despite all of Edwards’ efforts to communicate biblical truth, to lead his church, to take care of his family, and to spread the flames of revival in the Great Awakening, several members of the Northampton Congregational church had  opposed some of Edwards’ decisions and actions. The most notable example was his efforts to remove the “half-way covenant,” a “sacramental policy” that was originally implemented by Solomon Stoddard (Sweeney 140-141).  Edwards greatly opposed the covenant because he firmly believed that only genuine Christians were permitted to participate in the ordinances. Unfortunately, Edwards’ stand for his Biblical convictions caused a stir among many Northampton members. Thus, after much commotion, the church conducted a vote for the future presence of Jonathan Edwards as pastor. Out of the 230, male-only, members that voted, only twenty-three voted in favor of keeping him, while the majority opposed, and some refrained (Haykin 23). Though it was disheartening to Jonathan, he and his family relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts after months of itinerant preaching in multiple churches, including even Northampton (Sweeney 170). Yet again, Edwards approached a new and difficult situation in ministry where in Stockbridge he would “assume the life of a crosscultural [sic] missionary” (170).

Though often known for being a Great Awakening revivalist preacher, Edwards was largely influential in missions in three major ways. First, he lived the life as a missionary in Stockbridge, ministering to approximately 250 Mohican and sixty Mohawk Indians (Haykin 24-25). Secondly, he was instrumental in his biographical work on the Life of David Brainerd (Sweeney 170). Thirdly, he not only lived the life of a missionary and wrote about another missionary, but he also composed literary works that would penetrate the hearts of many, particularly Calvinists, to be burdened with missions (170).  A major, but often overlooked, missiological, postmillennial treatise by Edwards was An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture-Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time (170-171). While some would disagree with Edwards on issues of Calvinism, postmillennialism, philosophy of revival, and much more, there is much evidence to concede that Edwards was passionate about making disciples and communicating the message of the Gospel to those in need.

The final stages in Edwards’ life included several notable achievements, though a specific few require further observation. While Edwards lived a relatively isolated life in his ministry at Stockbridge, he took advantage of preaching opportunities aside from his pastoral obligations to the church he had inherited when he arrived (Sweeney 178-180). Also, Edwards spent much time and effort on theological writings such as Freedom of the Will, a book on the Original Sin, a Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, a Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, and much more (147). Finally, just prior to his death from smallpox in 1758, Edwards served a very short-term presidential role for the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University (Marsden xv).

 While many brilliant theologians have risen to great renown in American history, very few would disagree as to Jonathan Edwards being the greatest theologian that the United States has ever known. Douglas Sweeney even stated that Edwards was the “best known Christian in America” during his years in Stockbridge (183). Better yet, his legacy has continued on thanks to much of his sermons and self-produced theological writings. Despite being a strong Calvinist, Edwards was heavily evangelistic. Though often a shy, somewhat introverted intellectual, he was a passionate servant in ministry. Surely, Jonathan Edwards was not a perfect man, nor would he claim to be. Nevertheless, one who has observed his life would contest that he exhibited a life of godliness, service, and perseverance. Perhaps John Piper has best described the thesis of Edwards’ life and how the Christian should respond to an observation of this man’s life, “The God-enthralled vision of Jonathan Edwards is rare and necessary, because its foundations are so massive and its fruit is so beautiful. May the Lord himself open our eyes to see it in these days together and be changed. And since we are great sinners and have a great Savior, Jesus Christ, may our watchword ever be, for the glory of God, ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Cor. 6:10)” (34).

Distinguishing Classical Arminianism from Semi-Pelagianism



“Professor Olson, I’m sorry to say this, but you’re not a Christian.”[1] These were the alarming words from a student to author and professor, Roger Olson, an Arminian theologian. When Olson asked the student “why,” the young scholar replied, “Because my pastor says Arminians aren’t Christians.”[2] Undoubtedly, the theological system of Arminianism has been labeled with quite a few alarming statements, perhaps some being true, while others have been misappropriate. A frequent conception of Arminian theology is to equate semi-Pelagianism with Arminianism as being synonymous. The responsibility for twenty-first century Christians, then, is to examine the evidence of what truly consists of Arminian doctrine, namely the propositions of Arminius and of those who have espoused the same, or at least similar, theology. Presently, many Christians are led to believe that Arminianism inherently is a system that upholds the doctrine of “free will” as the “guiding motif.”[3] Thus, leading many to believe that Arminianism could be properly equated with semi-Pelagianism or even Pelagianism.[4] Needless to say, it is pertinent to sufficiently examine the theology of Jacobus Arminius in order to arrive at what Arminianism actually teaches.[5] After doing so, it will be shown that evidence very clearly reveals that Arminianism is noticeably different from semi-Pelagianism; thus, the roots from contemporary misconceptions will also be exposed to properly comprehend the teachings of the Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius.

The Life of Jacobus Arminius

The story of Arminianism begins with, of course, its founder, Jacob (also translated as James) Arminius, though his name is sometimes cited as Jakob Hermansz/Harmensz.[6] He was born in 1559 in Oudewater, Holland, and was the son of an armor designer, Hermand Jacobszoon.[7] Tragically, his father died around the time of his birth, and not much is known about his mother, Engeltje.[8] Arminius, with a widowed mother, and several known siblings, suffered another tragedy in his early life when his mother and all of his siblings were murdered in the “massacre of Oudewater in 1575.”[9] A year later, Arminius enrolled at the University of Leiden, which is where it was possible that his name was Latinized from Jakob Hermansz to Jacobus Arminius.[10] He pursued further studies in 1582 at the Geneva Academy, headed by John Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza, but left a year later due to theological controversies.[11] Arminius went on to Amsterdam and then became an ordained minister in that city by 1588.[12] However, in 1603, Arminius became a professor at Leiden where he worked alongside of the Dutch Calvinist, Francis Gomar, who was frequently critical of the theological persuasions of Arminius, and did so until Arminius’s death in 1609.[13] Specifically, Gomar disagreed with Arminius over the doctrines of God’s divine decrees in election and reprobation, though many theological opponents of Arminius accused him of Pelagianism and even Socinianism.[14] Evidently, Arminian theology has consistently heard rather strong critiques and accusations from others, even from its inception with Arminius. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to observe the common suppositions put forth by those who discuss the theology of Arminianism.

Conceptions of Classical Arminianism

            While the Calvinist “TULIP” acronym is commonly used for articulating soteriological doctrine, the “five points” actually came as a response to Arminius’s followers’ theological writings called “the Remonstrance.” Roger Olson explains, “The Remonstrance was prepared by forty-three or so (the exact number is debated) Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians after Arminius’s death in 1609. It was presented in 1610 to a conference of church and state leaders at Gouda, Holland, to explain Arminian doctrine. It focuses mainly on issues of salvation and especially predestination.”[15] To counter these Arminian claims, Calvinists issued the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619.[16] Surprisingly, while the main tenets of the Remonstrance were critiqued by the Synod, there is simply no proof that the acronym “TULIP” was ever even used before the twentieth century.[17] Nevertheless, it is important to note that the history of Arminianism traveled from Arminius, through the Remonstrance advocates, and then into other various circles. Therefore, it is important to focus attention primarily on five doctrines that are heavily debated with both Calvinist and Arminian theologians: (1) Total Depravity, (2) Unconditional/Conditional Election, (3) The Nature of the Atonement[18] (4) Irresistible/Resistible Grace (5) Perseverance of the Saints. Before doing so, it is relevant to consider the words from Charles Hodge, “It was not until the Remonstrants in Holland, under the teaching of Arminius, rejected the Church doctrine of original sin, of the inability of fallen man to anything spiritually good, the sovereignty of God in election, and the perseverance of the saints, that the doctrine that the atonement had a special reference to the people of God was rejected.”[19] History will now speak for itself as to which of these claims are true, false, and up for debate.

Historical Observations from Arminian Data

A.           Depravity

Arminian scholar, Roger Olson, defends himself and Arminianism with this claim: “Arminians…emphatically do not deny total depravity (even if they prefer another term to denote human spiritual helplessness) or the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for even the first exercise of a good will toward God.”[20] Olson’s assertion would, of course, just be wishful thinking if no proof could be found, but history does indeed align with what he is saying. Jacobus Arminius spoke these words in his Works: “In this [fallen] state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.”[21] Additionally, one of his closest followers, Simon Episcopius, said:

Man hath not saving faith of or from himself; nor is he born again or converted by the power of his own free will: seeing in the state of sin he cannot so much as think much less will or do any good which is indeed savingly good…of or from himself: but it is necessary that he be regenerated and wholly renewed of God in Christ by the Word of the gospel and by the virtue of the Holy Spirit in conjunction therewith: to wit, in understanding, affections, will, and all his powers and faculties, that he may be able rightly to understand, meditate on, will and perform these things that are savingly good.[22]

Later Arminians, such as H. Orton Wiley, have spoken in perfect harmony with Arminius as well, saying, “Depravity is total in that it affects the entire being of man.”[23] Even the Calvinists who wrote the book Why I Am Not an Arminian have concluded, “Arminians together with Calvinists alike believe in total depravity.”[24]

After such reports of documented evidence stating that Classical Arminians have espoused the doctrine of Total Depravity, the question that begs to be asked is, “How did the misconceptions arise?” While much could be observed, there are two major reasons for the misappropriating of the Arminian doctrine of depravity throughout the past few centuries.        (1) Theologians in times past have adopted the title “Arminian” while they themselves have taken the liberty to step away from Arminius’s primary convictions of Total Depravity. Evidence points to Philip Limborch, a seventeenth-century Remonstrant leader, as being responsible for defecting from Arminius. John Mark Hicks comments, “For Limborch man is only deprived of the knowledge which informs the intellect, but the will is fully capable within itself, if it is informed by the intellect, to will and perform anything good.”[25] Likewise, in the nineteenth-century came evangelist Charles Finney. In denying original sin, Finney stated man does not “have a nature sinful in itself, but merely that before regeneration they are universally and morally depraved, that this is their natural, as opposed to their regenerate state.”[26] Finney would therefore align himself, based on his teachings, with the doctrine of semi-Pelagianism.[27] Thus, the confusion in contemporary theological discussions is a strong result of Limborch and Finney, though many others have followed down the same path as well. (2) Theologians have also misunderstood the Arminian doctrine of “Prevenient Grace.” More will be said on this doctrine later on, but the simplest explanation is that Classical Arminians teach “divine/human” synergism, while semi-Pelagians hold to “human/divine” synergism. The difference between the two is that the former teaches that God initiates the salvation process by a work of the Holy Spirit, enabling people to willingly cooperate and respond to the salvation invitation. However, the latter considers the faith of man necessary to initiate the salvation process, apart from prevenient grace.[28] It can be concluded, then, that unfortunately many people have been falsely persuaded to believe that Classical Arminianism is congruent with semi-Pelagianism due to an incomplete overview of what is genuinely “Arminian” doctrine.

B.           Election and Predestination

A major division line between a Calvinist and Arminian is based on the doctrine of election, namely “Conditional” (Arminianism) or “Unconditional” (Calvinism/Modified Calvinism). According to Roger Olson, “Classical Arminianism teaches that predestination is simply God’s determination (decree) to save through Christ all who freely respond to God’s offer of free grace by repenting of sin and believing (trusting) in Christ. It includes God’s foreknowledge of who will so respond. It does not include a selection of certain people to salvation [unconditional election], let alone to damnation.”[29] However, he distinguishes the doctrine of “predestination” with “election,” which is “corporate.”[30] Jacobus Arminius was certainly not opposed to predestination (in his preferred terms), and stated, “[Predestination is] the foundation of Christianity, and of salvation and its certainty.”[31] In defining the doctrine of predestination, he writes, “[Predestination] is the decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which he resolved within himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of his own glorious grace, believers on whom he had decreed to bestow faith.”[32] He then writes that God’s decree to elect “has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing [prevenient] grace, believe, and through his subsequent grace would persevere…he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.”[33] Therefore while most claims against Arminianism relate to Total Depravity and the resistibility of grace, it is clear to see that Arminius’s understanding of election was God’s choice, not man’s – even though, to Arminius, God’s choice was based on foreseen faith – nor did he pronounce all to be elect, namely universalism.[34]

C.          The Nature of the Atonement

When it comes to the doctrine of atonement, the critical issue that needs to be addressed is Arminius’s view of the nature of the atonement, either substitutionary atonement or the “governmental theory.”[35] To put the matter simply, the historical debate over which view Arminius held to is quite chaotic. Yet, tracing the evidence throughout history will reveal the answer sufficiently. In his Works, Arminius responds to the criticisms of William Perkins, including issues relating to the atonement. In defending his understanding of the atonement, Arminius writes, “The death and suffering of Christ…is reconciliation with God, obtainment from God of remission, justification, and redemption; by which it is effected that God may now be able, as Justice, to which satisfaction has been made, interposes no obstacle, to remit sins and to bestow the spirit of grace upon sinful men.”[36] Arminius makes things even clearer when he states that when Christ died on the cross he provided redemption while “suffering the punishment due to them.”[37] It seems to be quite clear that Arminius held to a substitutionary atonement view. The discussion on Arminius’s view of the atonement, of course, does not end with the very words he has spoken.

An early supporter of the Remonstrants, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), propagated the “governmental theory.”[38] Remonstrant proponent (though full of deviations from Arminius’s doctrines), Philip Limborch, espoused the “governmental theory” as well.[39] Likewise, Charles Finney, who was definitely semi-Pelagian or worse stated, “The atonement of Christ was intended as a satisfaction of public justice.”[40] It is also helpful to note that John Miley, though he personally held to the governmental theory, resolved, “Arminius himself maintained both penal substitution and a real conditionality of forgiveness.”[41] To make matters difficult, however, H. Orton Wiley, “mistakenly attributed the beginning of the governmental theory to Arminius.”[42] Fortunately, there are many Arminian voices that defend Arminius’s atonement position and personally believe it themselves. These include: John Wesley, Richard Watson, William Burton Pope, Thomas Summers, and Thomas Oden.[43] Therefore, after observing the wide range of opinion and deviations from Arminius’s theology, it would be most reasonable to conclude that the “moral government” theory of the atonement is not distinctly “Arminian” and should be classified as a theory formulated by Hugo Grotius instead.

D.         Resistibility of the Holy Spirit

It is quite possible that the key to understanding Arminian doctrine is to understand the doctrine of “prevenient grace.” Arminius states this claim:

In his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.[44]

What truly separates Classical Arminians from semi-Pelagians such as Charles Finny, who, according to Roger Olson, denied prevenient grace, is that this work of the Holy Spirit “makes repentance and faith possible.”[45] And, if not understood properly, Arminianism can easily appear to be a soteriology that does not require God’s initiation. In this particular area of doctrine, Philip Limborch once again deviates from Arminius, and consequently is responsible for more theological disorder. This time, Limborch, who already weakened the view of total depravity, confused prevenient grace with common grace.[46] It would appear that even Henry Thiessen made the same mistake as Limborch, but after observing his explanation and context, that possibility should be rejected. Thiessen proposes, “Common grace is not sufficient for salvation, yet it reveals the goodness of God to all sinful creatures. This is true, but why stop there? We believe that the common grace also restores to the sinner the ability to make a favorable response to God. In other words, we hold that God, in His grace, makes it possible for all men to be saved.”[47] He further clarifies, “It does not mean that prevenient grace enables a man to change the permanent bent of his will in the direction of God; nor that he can quit all sin and make himself acceptable to God. It does mean that he can make an initial response to God, as a result of which God can give him repentance and faith.”[48] Therefore, it must be concluded that the Arminian position of understanding “prevenient grace” rejects the notion that man’s will is free and able to respond in saving faith by his own doing. There is certainly, as H. Orton Wiley states, “The co-operation of the human will” involved in responding to God’s message of salvation, but “that every movement of the soul toward God is initiated by divine grace.”[49] With the available evidence known, it seems to be that a portion of the confusion about linking semi-Pelagianism to Arminianism is simply a result of ignorance to the writings and theology of Arminius and many of his followers, with the exception of Limborch and those who followed with his much more optimistic view of free will.

E.          Perseverance of the Saints

On the final doctrine of examination, the perseverance of the saints, arriving at a strong conclusion of genuine Arminian theology will be a little more difficult. However, there have been erroneous and poor claims concerning Arminianism and the security of the believer (perseverance of the saints) as well that require a response. In Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology, he surveys the “Arminian” view of security. First of all, he commits the fallacy of attributing Arminius’s view of total depravity as being a “pollution” and not “total.”[50] But then he says, “Arminianism clearly teaches that a believer may lose his salvation.”[51] He proceeds to quote Arminius, “I never taught that a true believer can either totally or finally fall away from the faith and perish; yet I will not conceal that there are passages of Scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect.”[52] First of all, this is not a “clear” teaching of a Christian losing salvation, for Arminius “never taught” conditional perseverance (loss of salvation). Additionally, Ryrie fails to include in his book what Arminius articulates just two sentences later. Arminius says, “On the other hand, certain passages are produced for the contrary doctrine [of unconditional perseverance] which are worthy of much consideration.”[53] What can be synthesized, then, of Arminius’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints (whether salvation can be lost or not) is that he “never settled the matter. His strongest statement about it was that ‘I should not readily dare to say that true and saving faith may finally and totally fall away.’”[54] Olson also writes, “Methodists and all their offshoots followed the Remonstrants and Wesley, who believed total apostasy is a possibility, while many Baptists followed Arminius or even held onto the Calvinist’s perseverance.”[55] If anything, it would be best to simply be cautious about attributing the doctrine of conditional perseverance (potential to lose salvation) to Arminian theology. While Arminius was not dogmatic about his position, it would be incorrect to assume that all Arminians believe they can lose their salvation.


While certainly much more could be said of Arminianism and its distinctions from semi-Pelagianism, the evidence presented has proposed several reasons why the two systems of theology are to remain separate. Additionally, there can be plenty of application drawn from studying the claims regarding Arminianism, though just three will be presented for succinctness. First of all, the distortion of theological movements can be a result of either internal or external error. That is, “internally” anyone can assume the title of “Arminian” while straying from major tenets of the originator, namely Jacobus Arminius.[56] And externally, opponents and skeptics can misinterpret or misapply the originator and his followers.[57] Secondly, a lesson to be learned is that tracing history back to the beginning is necessary for accurate theological discussions. For example, “It is no fairer to blame Arminius or Arminianism for the later Remonstransts’ defection than to blame Calvin or Calvinism for Schleiermacher’s departure from Orthodoxy.”[58] Finally, doing sufficient research on a certain theological system will make for much more intellectually honest and respectable discussions with opposing viewpoints. What has been presented and established is that Arminianism is distinct from semi-Pelagianism. What is left to be discussed afterwards, however, is whether or not Arminianism is biblically accurate. After all, the Bible is the source of which all theology should be derived; and thus, studying Arminius (or for that matter, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Edwards and all others in church history) and his writings should propel all listeners to compare his writings with biblical exegesis for the goal of accurate theology and the glory of God.

[1] Roger Olson, Aminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rick Rithie, “A Lutheran Response to Arminianism,” Modern Reformation 1 (1992): 9.

[4] Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17-18, explains the difference between these two heresies, “[Pelagianism] denies original sin and elevates natural and moral human ability to live spiritually fulfilled lives. The latter [semi-Pelagianism] embraces a modified version of original sin but believes that humans have the ability, even in their natural or fallen state, to initiate salvation by exercising a good will toward God.”

[5] It should be noted that this research is not a defense of proving Arminian theology to be the most valid theological system, nor is it an attack on Calvinism/Moderate Calvinism. Instead, this research is simply attempting to give Arminianism an academically and historically honest overview in order to clear up popular misconceptions for the purpose of discussing theology more accurately.

[6] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 108.

[7] Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971), 26-27.

[8] Ibid, 26.

[9] Ibid. 25.

[10] J. D. Douglas, Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell. Who’s Who in Christian History. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 36.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cross and Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church, 108.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Douglas, Comfort, and Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History?, 36.

[15] Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 31.

[16] Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 20.

[17] Ibid., 26.

[18] The debate between “limited” and “unlimited” atonement could be considered another controversy related to the subject at hand. However, many professing Calvinists also hold to unlimited atonement. For this reason, and for sake of space, only the “nature” of the atonement will be addressed.

[19] Charles Hodge, vol. 2, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 548.

[20] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17.

[21] Jacobus Arminius, Works, trans. James Nichols(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956), 2:192.

[22] Simon Episcopius, Confessions of Faith of Those Called Arminians (London: Heart & Bible, 1684), 118.

[23] H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1941), 2:98.

[24] Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove: Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 163.

[25] John Mark Hicks, The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Arminianism (Ph.D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), 34.

[26] Charles Finney, Finney’s Lectures on Systematic Theology, ed. J.H. Fairchild (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1878), 245.

[27] See Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Vol. 3 (Detroit, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 38. McCune writes, “This [view] holds that man has some natural ability, perhaps some faint natural desires to be saved, and God through the Spirit joins in and helps man to Christ.” Also, it is clear that Finney even maintains ideas of full Pelagianism, namely the denial of a sin nature. Wayne Grudem writes in his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), that the “Pelagian position rejects the doctrine of ‘inherited sin’ (or ‘original sin’) and maintains that sin consists only in separate sinful acts” (pg. 499).

[28] See Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17-18 for a proper distinction between views of synergism and how prevenient grace, according to his theology, is necessary for the salvation of totally depraved (by nature and choice) people.

[29] Ibid., 37.

[30] Ibid. Olson adds, “Election is…God’s determination of Christ to be the Savior of that group of people who repent and believe (Eph 1).” Italics added.

[31] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 1:248.

[32] Ibid., 565.

[33] Ibid.,248.

[34] The reason why this last point concerning universalism was included is because historically, there have been professing “Arminians” who have drifted from Orthodoxy into liberalism, particularly “Socinianism” and “Unitarian Universalism.” Certainly these unorthodox “drifters” were not Classical Arminians by any means, but were essentially products of Enlightenment thinking. See Michael Horton, For Calvinism, 34. Roger Olson even agrees; see Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17.

[35] According to Grudem, the governmental theory “holds that God did not actually have to require payment for sin, but since he was omnipotent God, he could have set aside that requirement and simply forgiven sins without the payment of a penalty…Thus Christ did not exactly pay the penalty for the actual sins of any people, but simply suffered to show that when God’s laws are broken there must be some penalty paid.” (Systematic Theology, 582)

[36] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 3:352-353.

[37] Quoted in Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 229.

[38] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 229.

[39] Ibid., 230-231.

[40] Charles Finney, Finney’s Systematic Theology, 207.

[41] John Miley, Systematic Theology, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1989), 2:68.

[42] H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, 2:252.

[43] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 231-241.

[44] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 1:252.

[45] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 27, 35.

[46] Ibid., 148.

[47] Henry Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology, 7th ed.(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 155.

[48] Ibid., 156. From Thiessen’s writings, it would perhaps be acceptable to summarize his understanding of prevenient as grace as having two levels, or that there is a “special” kind of what he calls “common grace.” For example, he exchanges the phrase “common grace” with “prevenient grace” as he continues on in his argument. Most certainly, Thiessen is not semi-Pelagian in his theology, particularly in man’s depraved condition and in his ability to respond to God without prevenient grace. Whereas Limborch, at least from secondary sources, does not quite reach a point of a special divine grace, namely the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin and initiation of the salvation offer by means of restoring the will to making a soteriological decision.

[49] H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, 2:356.

[50] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1999), 381.

[51] Ibid. Italics added.

[52] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 1:254.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 187. Quotation includes Jacobus Arminius, Works, 3:454.

[55] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 187.

[56] Examples that have been included are Philip Limborch, Hugo Grotius, Charles Finney, and on certain points, even H. Orton Wiley and John Miley, though plenty of others could be cited as well.

[57] See the quote from Charles Hodge on page six for an excellent example.

[58] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology, 24.