Freethought of the Day

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There are 4 entries for this date: Charles Darwin , Abraham Lincoln , George Meredith and Francois Bancel
Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

On this date in 1809, Charles Robert Darwin was born in England. He prepared for the Church at Cambridge, but his passion was natural history. During his work as a naturalist for the Beagle, he began documenting and formulating his theory of evolution. At the time he wrote the monumental On the Origin of Species (1859), he still accepted the "First Cause" argument. Gradually he threw off his religious beliefs. In his Descent of Man (1871), Darwin wrote: ". . . For my part I would as soon be descended from [a] baboon . . . as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies . . . treats his wives like slaves . . . and is haunted by the grossest superstitions."

He wrote the Rev. J. Fordyce on July 7, 1879, that "an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind." Darwin penned his memoirs between the ages of 67 and 73, finishing the main text in 1876. These memoirs were published posthumously in 1887 by his family under the title Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, with his hardest-hitting views on religion excised. Only in 1958 did Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow publish his Autobiography with original omissions restored (see excerpt below). D. 1882.

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

—Charles Darwin, Autobiography

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

On this date in 1809, the 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, was born in Hardin County, Kentucky. Largely self-educated, he worked on farms, splitting those famous rails, and clerking at a store. Lincoln spent eight years in the Illinois legislature and also rode the circuit of courts for many years. He married Mary Todd; only one of their four sons lived to adulthood. While seeking the nomination for Congress, Lincoln ruefully wrote Martin M. Morris, of Petersburg, Illinois, that "There was the strangest combination of church influence against me . . . everywhere contended that no Christian ought to vote for me because I belonged to no Church, [and] was suspected of being a Deist." (March 26, 1843, Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, Nicolay & Hay edition.) Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglass for U.S. Senator in 1858, losing the election--but winning a national reputation, and the Republican nomination for President, in 1860. Lincoln guided the nation during the Civil War, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed slaves within the Confederacy. He won reelection in 1864. His wise plans for peace ("With malice toward none; with charity for all") were foiled by an assassin's bullet on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Among the words inscribed at the Lincoln Memorial are Lincoln's Second Inaugural address, which, though full of conventional references to the "Almighty," astutely observes of the North and the South: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged."

While Lincoln punctuated his eloquent speeches with deistic references to "Divine Providence," in which he firmly believed, he was strongly rationalist and was not Christian. Among the friends who testified to that was Ward Hill Lamon in Life of Abraham Lincoln (1872), as well as William H. Herndon, his law partner of 22 years, whose book, with Jesse Weik, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (3 vol., 1889), has been largely discredited but whom historians value for preserving many Lincoln materials. Col. Lamon had known Lincoln as a friend and colleague for years. Lincoln had appointed him Marshal of the District of Columbia, and Lamon was put in charge of Lincoln's funeral train. A religious man himself, Lamon wanted the historic record to be accurate. In addition to his own and Herndon's testimony about Lincoln's remarks on religion over the years, he cites Judge David Davis, Col. James H. Matheny, John T. Stuart, Dr. C.H. Ray, William H. Hannah, James W. Keyes, Jessie W. Fell, Col. John G. Nicolay and Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln to corroborate Lincoln's lack of conventional religiosity. Lamon wrote that "Perhaps no phrase of his character has been more persistently misrepresented and variously misunderstood than this of his religious belief." Lamon related how Lincoln wrote a "little book," probably an extended essay, to prove "First, that the Bible is not God's revelation. Second, that Jesus was not the Son of God." He took the manuscript to Samuel Hill, a shopkeeper and unbeliever, whose son considered the work "infamous." Hill reportedly snatched the book from Lincoln and threw it into the fire to protect Lincoln's political career, a story other contemporaries corroborated had been told them. As Lincoln's political ambitions advanced, he became more cautious.

"But he never told anyone that he accepted Jesus as the Christ," Lamon noted (p. 498). Lincoln's first law partner, John T. Stuart, at one time also a member of Congress, went on record: "Lincoln went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard: he shocked me." (p. 488) Col. James H. Matheny, a one-time political manager, said: "I knew Lincoln as early as 1834-7; knew he was an Infidel. He and W.D. Herndon used to talk Infidelity in the Clerk's office in this city, about the years 1837-40. Lincoln attacked the Bible and the New Testament on two grounds: first, from the inherent or apparent contradictions under its lids; second, from the grounds of reason. . . Sometimes Lincoln bordered on Atheism." Jesse W. Fell, Secretary of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign, told Lamon: "He was utterly incapable of insincerity, . . . I have no hesitation whatever in saying that, whilst he held many opinions in common with the great mass of Christian believers, he did not believe in what are regarded as the orthodox or evangelical views of Christianity." Pres. Lincoln's private secretary, Col. John G. Nicolay, attested to Lamon: "Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way, change his religious ideas, opinions or beliefs, from the time he left Springfield till the day of his death." David Davis, who knew Lincoln for 20 years and rode with him on the court circuit, was later a U.S. Senator and Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told Lamon: "He [Lincoln] had no faith, in the Christian sense of the term." (p. 489) His widow testified: "Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptation of those words." (p. 489). D. 1865.

“Mr. Lincoln was never a member of any Church, nor did he believe in the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures in the sense understood by evangelical Christians.

When a boy, he showed no sign of that piety which his many biographers ascribe to his manhood. When he went to church at all, he went to mock, and came away to mimic.

When he came to New Salem, he consorted with Freethinkers, joined with them in deriding the gospel story of Jesus, read Volney and Paine, and then wrote a deliberate and labored essay, wherein he reached conclusions similar to theirs.”

—Colonel Ward H. Lamon (a religionist and Lincoln's longtime friend), Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 486, 487, 157 (1872), cited by Franklin Steiner in The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

George Meredith

George Meredith

On this date in 1829, novelist and poet George Meredith was born in Portsmouth, England. His mother died when he was five, and when his father later had to declare bankruptcy, George was sent to live with relatives, becoming a Ward in Chancery in 1841 to protect his small inheritance. At 15, he had his only formal education, when he was sent to a Moravian school for less than two years. Apprenticed to a solicitor, he jettisoned legal work when he began writing articles and poetry for magazines. Poems (1851) was followed by The Shaving of Shagpat (1855), neither very successful. He worked as a reporter, read for a book publishing company, and was a war correspondent. Among the writers he encouraged was Thomas Hardy and Olive Schreiner. He married widow Mary Ellen Nichols, who was seven years older than he, in 1849, who became the role model for many of his heroines. It was not a successful marriage. She eloped with an artist in 1858, leaving their one surviving child with him, and died three years later. The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, (1859), a semi-autobiographical account of his marriage, had better success. Meredith married Marie Vulliamy in 1864. Other books include The Egoist (1879) and Diana of the Crossroads (1885). He was quoted in Fortnightly Review in July 1909 saying: "The man who has no mind of his own lends it to the priests." D. 1909.

“When I was quite a boy, I had a spasm of religion which lasted six weeks . . . But I never since have swallowed the Christian fable.”

—George Meredith, letter to Mr. Clodd (Memories), cited by Joseph McCabe, A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Francois Bancel

On this date in 1822, Francois Bancel was born in France. He was educated at Touron and Grenoble, became a lawyer and then member of the Legislative Assembly in 1849. Bancel was known as one of the most passionate critics of the royalists and clerics. After Napoleon III expelled him in 1852, he moved to Brussels and taught at the Free University. The Deist, according to freethought historian Joseph McCabe, "gave great assistance in the Belgian Rationalist movement" (A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists). Bancel was again elected to the legislature upon his return to France. D. 1871.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? "Freethought of the Day" is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

If you would like to be placed on the "Daily Freethought" e-mail list to automatically receive the calendar notice, log in and edit your email settings (My Membership). Or, email  and include your first and last name with your request for verification purposes. This email service is limited to members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation or subscribers to Freethought Today. To become an FFRF member, click here.


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