Church officials announced they would seek co-sponsorship of the
Illinois State Historical Society in erecting a historical marker at
the site of their 1857 church, now a parking lot next to the Lincoln
Public Library, to commemorate their church's alleged connection to
Abe. The ISHS requires at least one primary source before endorsing
an historical marker. A primary source is one that is contemporary
with a given event: for example, a court document, newspaper report
When I read news reports of the plan for the historical marker, I
simply pointed out that no primary source evidence had been produced
to show that Mr. Lincoln had practiced law in that church in 1857.
Church officials then indicated their people would continue
searching for an appropriate primary source. I told church officials
I hoped they would find primary source evidence to prove their case.
As a native Lincolnite, I advocate identifying and commemorating
every possible connection the city has to its famous namesake, but I
also believe in the need to distinguish between fact and myth. In
July 2008 Ron Keller, a Lincoln College professor and laureate of
the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, independently submitted the "Abe in
church" question to PBS' "History Detectives."
By late summer of 2009, I had not heard of any new developments,
so I decided to conduct my own research on this topic. I have
academic interests in Illinois history and Abraham Lincoln.
The 1857 fall term of the 8th Judicial Circuit Court was
allegedly held in the building that became the Lincoln Christian
Church, since a fire had destroyed the Logan County Courthouse
earlier in the spring. Lawrence B. Stringer, whose two-volume "1911
History of Logan County" includes a chapter on Abraham Lincoln,
stated his belief that the circuit court was held in the Christian
Church while the new courthouse was being built (vol. 1, p. 162).
Stringer had spoken at the church plaque's dedication (date unknown
but within the five years preceding Stringer's death in 1942), and
in 2007 church officials cited Stringer's involvement as further
evidence that Mr. Lincoln had practiced law in their church.
Last August when I researched this topic, I first focused on
information that historian James T. Hickey had published in 1953. A
protege of Stringer, Hickey was for many years the curator of the
Lincoln Collection of the Illinois State Historical Library (now the
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library) and had taught a course in the
life of Lincoln at Lincoln College (I took that course in 1960-61).
Hickey had discovered that the contractor who constructed the
building that became the Lincoln Christian Church in 1857 had rented
it to the Logan County Board before turning over the deed to church
members. Hickey said the 1857 fall court term ran from Sept. 21
through Oct. 2. He also found a "bill of particulars" on a case that
was heard in the church while it was allegedly serving as a
courtroom in the fall of 1857. The document is in Lincoln's
handwriting and concerns his firm handling the case of Steigleman
and Johnson v. Many A. Brace and William H. Young.
Regardless, Hickey contended that Lincoln was probably not in his
first namesake town during the 1857 fall term of the circuit court,
because he was then for several weeks deeply involved in the major
Effie Afton case in Chicago. In Hickey's view, the Steigleman case
was handled by Lincoln's Springfield partner, William H. Herndon.
Hickey wrote, "There just is no way that Lincoln could have taken
part in the case in Lincoln and the railroad case in Chicago at the
When I looked online at The Lincoln Log (authoritative account of
Lincoln's daily activities), I discovered that the Effie Afton case
was concluded on Sept. 24, 1857, and that Abe was back in
Springfield on the 26th. I then wrote to Dr. Bryon Andreasen,
research historian of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, to
ask for assistance in determining whether the court records for
Steigleman date to the period from the last few days of September
through the first two days of October, when Abraham Lincoln had
returned to Springfield and thus would have been able to attend
court in Lincoln.
In his reply letter of Aug. 27, 2009, Andreasen said Steigleman
was heard and decided on Sept. 21, 1857, in favor of the plaintiffs,
represented by the law firm of Lincoln & Herndon: "The plaintiffs'
petition (what Jim Hickey must have been referring to as the "Bill
of Particulars") is in Lincoln's hand. It would have had to have
been written and filed before commencement of the Fall Term in
September 1857 in order for notice and process to have been served
on the defendants. It would not have been necessary for Lincoln to
have personally been in attendance on September 21. Hickey was no
doubt correct in his supposition that Herndon (or some other proxy)
attended the September 21st proceeding, since Lincoln is documented
to have still been in Chicago trying the Effie Afton case on that
Hickey's 1953 determination that Abe did not practice law in the
Lincoln Christian Church was published in the Lincoln Courier, where
undoubtedly members of that church saw it. Then perhaps they
promptly removed the plaque because of its inaccuracy.
Using the online "Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln," I then
focused on another case in the 1857 Logan County Circuit Court
involving the firm of Lincoln & Herndon: Dalby v. St. Louis, Alton,
& Chicago RR. Joseph A. Dalby had sued the railroad for injuries he
had received while scuffling with railroad employees over the price
of a fare for his family's passage from Elkhart to Lincoln, Ill. The
firm of Lincoln & Herndon represented Dalby, but Lincoln was in
Chicago during this case also. Court records show that attorney
Samuel C. Parks of Lincoln aided Herndon. Information relating to
the Dalby case proved to be the smoking gun for Stringer's role in
the "Abe in church" question.
[to top of second column]
In his "1911 History," Stringer claimed that the judge's
instructions to the jury in the Dalby case were written by Lincoln
(vol. 1, p. 219). Stringer's book even includes a facsimile of part
of those instructions (vol. 1, between pp. 368-69). Through
additional research, I discovered that historian John J. Duff (d.
1961) in "A. Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer" (1960) pointed out that
Stringer had erred in identifying the author of the jury
instructions. Duff wrote: "One does not have to be a handwriting
expert to see that there is no resemblance whatever between the
facsimile of the instructions and Lincoln's unmistakable
handwriting. (The writing clearly is that of David Davis. The
Illinois State Historical Library has some of the original papers in
this case, and the Judge's hand is much in evidence.) Beveridge
[early 20th century Lincoln biographer], citing Stringer, indicates
that Lincoln tried the case in the lower [circuit] court. As a
matter of fact, at the time of the trial in Logan County, Lincoln
was in Chicago, trying the Effie Afton case" (p. 270).
Undoubtedly Stringer's error in thinking that Abraham Lincoln had
written the judge's instructions to the jury was the basis for
Stringer's mistaken belief that Lincoln had practiced law in the
Lincoln Christian Church in 1857. Further, historian William D.
Beard pointed out that Stringer's error had led several well-known
20th-century Lincoln biographers and historians to make the faulty
inference that Lincoln had practiced law in his first namesake town
The railroad lost the case in circuit court and appealed in the
Illinois Supreme Court. According to Beard, Herndon -- not Lincoln
(as other Lincoln experts had believed) -- handled the appeal
proceedings in which the higher court upheld the lower court's
judgment. The Dalby case became one of the most significant cases of
the firm of Lincoln & Herndon for setting influential precedence.
Curiously, Abraham Lincoln may have passed through his first
namesake town on the day the Dalby case was concluded in the circuit
court. According to The Lincoln Log, on Sept. 24, 1857, the Effie
Afton trial ended in favor of the railroad company, Lincoln's
client. Also, according to The Lincoln Log, Abraham Lincoln, as
noted above, was back in Springfield on Sept. 26. The Lincoln Log
has no entry for Sept. 25, but it follows that Lincoln would have
traveled by train toward Springfield through his first namesake town
on that date -- the very date on which the Dalby case was decided in
favor of his firm's client.
I searched for references to Mr. Lincoln's activity for Sept. 25,
1857, in central Illinois newspapers. Apparently no newspapers of
Lincoln, Ill., for 1857 survive. The Bloomington Daily Pantagraph
and the Springfield Illinois State-Register for that time do not
contain any relevant information.
Court documents show that Mr. Lincoln had participated in the
circuit court at Lincoln in the spring of 1858 while a new
courthouse was being built. By then, a temporary building had been
built for the Logan County Court near the new courthouse
construction, and the 1858 spring term of the circuit court was
probably conducted there also because a courtroom in those days
sometimes served more than one purpose, but I know of no efforts to
find a primary source to prove that in this particular situation.
In 2007, Lincoln Christian Church officials indicated their
belief that the circuit court's 1858 spring term might also have
been held in their 1857 church. Again, I must say, "Show me some
primary source evidence supporting that speculation."
[By D. LEIGH HENSON]
is professor emeritus of English from Missouri State University,
Springfield, Mo. He earned a doctorate from Illinois State
For a photo of the Lincoln Christian Church (constructed 1857),
as it was being dismantled in 1902 or 1903, the text of the lost
church plaque, and other information related to the question of Abe
practicing law in this church, see
For more information about and photos of Lawrence B. Stringer,
James T. Hickey and other historians who have published on the
history of Lincoln and Logan County, Ill., see
The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, 2nd ed.:
Web site of the Lincoln Christian Church:
Articles (2007) on the Lincoln
Christian Church's announcement of its alleged connection to Abraham
"Church researching a new connection to
Roland Klose, "Missing Lincoln link:
The jury's still out on area church's claims, professor says,"
Illinois Times, Sept. 26, 2007