The enduring interest in the religious beliefs of our Founding Fathers, our presidents, and other important historical figures is real; it is a regular fascination of historians and historical collectors, those writing assessments of the past, and others looking for pieces of it.
That is because our feelings about our history are tied to our feelings about ourselves. We cannot help but think of ourselves as the current, ever-expanding endpoint of the historical record. The path of our country snaked like a river, then climbed over mountains, across fields, and, finally, reached its current position within my orbit, one might think. History, therefore, is a first-person endeavor.
While history may culminate at the tip of our finger, its emotional analysis takes place in our minds. History books supply the facts and provide perspective, but ultimately the emotional connection we make with our past is a private affair.
The power, then, of coming across the religious inclinations of our leaders and heroes–as we occasionally do in their personal letters here at Raab–is that you see that same first-person perspective play out on a deeply personal level, a direct connection between our feelings about faith and the privately held beliefs of people we admire.
George Washington References Heaven
The recently discovered George Washington letter, for example, connects a great victory for our nation with Washington’s belief that it was the divine providence of heaven which guided it. He writes, “I congratulate you upon the glorious successes of our Arms in the north, an account of which is inclosed – This singular favour of Providence is to be received with thankfulness and the happy moment which Heaven has pointed out for the firm establishment of American Liberty ought to be embraced with becoming spirit.”
Abraham Lincoln Questioned His Faith
In a historical letter we sold more than a decade ago, we learned from Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, that Lincoln had a rational streak and at one point doubted “the immortality of the soul.” It may be a comfort to some that even great leaders like Lincoln experienced moments of uncertainty. Reticent about sharing his religious beliefs, particularly after his election, Lincoln was nevertheless a believer whose faith had been tested both by personal loss and the toll of the Civil War.
Ronald Reagan’s Belief in God and the Afterlife
Written and sent from the Oval Office in 1985, this deeply personal letter conveys the religious sentiments of Ronald Reagan, who was offering his sympathy to old friends. In the unpublished letter, which was acquired directly from the recipients, Reagan extols his belief in God and the Christian concept of the afterlife, writing, “We have to trust in God’s infinite mercy and wisdom and know that Angela is in a better and happier world as we’ve been promised.” It is the most personal religious letter we have ever seen from a president.
Albert Einstein Rejects Creationism
Earlier this year, Raab received international media attention when we offered a remarkable Einstein letter, previously unknown and acquired directly from heirs of the recipient, that touches upon topics that continue to both unite and divide: science and religion. Written in 1950 to a group of students, the world-famous physicist writes that a person of science could not believe in the biblical version of creation and confirms his belief that science “replaces and supersedes it.” The document has since been sold to a private collector.