At Mount Rushmore, Abraham Lincoln’s face is chiseled into the rockface. Leo Tolstoy called him “a Christ in miniature, a saint of humanity.” Historian David S. Reynolds remarked there was only one historical figure, Jesus Christ, with more books written about him than Lincoln. Why have more than 14,000 books been written about Abraham Lincoln since his death in 1865?
As a young man, Lincoln was soundly defeated politically when first campaigning for the Illinois Legislature. After his General Store business failed, Honest Abe spent seventeen years paying off the debts of his shady business partner. After becoming engaged to Ann Rutledge, she tragically died of typhoid. He later married Mary Todd who encouraged his political future. While running for the United States Senate in 1858, he was badly defeated. Because he was so deeply honest, however, his very failures advanced him, preparing him for his greatest appointment – freeing the slaves and saving the Union. Abraham Lincoln is one of the world’s most successful failures. Dr. E. Stanley Jones said that we can look to Lincoln as an example that our failures in Christ can lay the foundation for ultimate success.
At six feet four inches, Lincoln towered above most men, who in the 1860s averaged five feet seven inches. As a rural Westerner, he was initially mocked for his lack of urban sophistication, but ultimately became loved just like Benjamin Franklin, as a man of the common people. Lincoln is the only American President who received a patent (1849) for his invention. It allowed steamships to cross through shallow waters.
He was a self-deprecating, humorous story-teller who, when President, wrote his own speeches. Loving music, poetry, and drama, he was able to recite long stanzas and passages from memory.
Raised in a hard-shell Calvinist Baptist home in Kentucky, Lincoln was drawn by his mother’s gentle faith and repelled by his father’s angry religiosity. His illiterate dad who worshipped hard work did not understand why his son wasted so much time thinking and reading. If his father caught him reading books aloud to other farm workers, he would sometimes rip up his books and even whip him.
Abraham’s mother, Nancy, died in 1818 from poisoned milk when he was only nine. His father Thomas abandoned his children for seven months in their floorless Kentucky cabin without a door. Lincoln described this area as “a wild region, where the panther’s scream filled the night with fear and bears preyed on the swine.” When Abraham’s new stepmother, Sarah, arrived with his father, she discovered the children living like animals – wild, ragged and dirty. The father-wound in Lincoln was very deep, affecting him spiritually and emotionally. It is no wonder that Lincoln sometimes struggled with sadness, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Amazingly, Lincoln, who only had one year of school, became a self-taught lawyer. Influenced by reading deist Thomas Paine’s book The Age of Reason, he became more skeptical. When questioned however, he said:
“…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.”
Through great suffering and the loss of his son Willie from typhoid, Lincoln later softened towards the gospel. He once said to Rebecca Pomroy, Willie’s nurse: “I wish I had that child-like faith you speak of, and I trust He will give it to me.” E. Stanley Jones recounts how Rev. James F. Jacques, Colonel of the Illinois 73rd ‘Preachers’ Regiment, and Lincoln first met in 1846 while circuit riding in Illinois. Jacques was a circuit preacher, and Lincoln was a circuit lawyer. Lincoln admired Jacques’ level-headedness and integrity. Jacques was later entrusted by Lincoln with a confidential mission to meet the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After hearing Jacques preach one Sunday on the new birth, Lincoln visited him a few days later, spending hours talking and praying together. Jacques said: “I have seen hundreds brought to Christ, and if ever a person was converted, Abraham Lincoln was converted that night in my house.”
“I wish I had that child-like faith you speak of, and I trust He will give it to me.” – Abraham Lincoln
Because Lincoln’s wife was Presbyterian, he began attending a Presbyterian church in 1850. During his Presidency (1860 to 1865), he and his family regularly attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Dr. Phineas Gurley, their pastor, who ministered to the Lincoln family in their many griefs, was given Lincoln’s tall hat as an expression of gratitude. Dr. Gurley served as Lincoln’s personal advisor in the appointment of trustworthy military chaplains.
A man once arrived fifteen minutes early for a five am appointment to meet Abraham Lincoln. Hearing a voice in the next room, the man asked the attendant: “Who is in the next room? Someone with the President?” “No, he is reading the Bible and praying.” “Is that his habit so early in the morning?” “Yes, sir, he spends each morning from four to five in reading the Scriptures and praying.” Dr. E. Stanley Jones commented: “No wonder we cannot forget Lincoln. He is perennially fresh with God.”
There may be no other American President who quoted the Bible as often as Abraham Lincoln. Who can forget his citing Mark 3:25 “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, after which he said: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” In his surviving letters, he mentions God more than 420 times, most often quoting passages from the Old Testament. It is no wonder that many rabbis saw Lincoln as a new Moses.
In the Gettysburg Address of only 700 words, Lincoln referred to God or the Almighty eight times and liberally quoted and paraphrased the Bible. His Gettysburg Address prayer was that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.” Lincoln’s personal Bible is notably dog-eared and heavily underlined.
In his four-year wartime presidency, Lincoln again and again faced impossible, heart-wrenching dilemmas. Over 750,000 people were killed in the Civil War, 2 ½ percent of the population and 25 percent of the soldiers. Lincoln said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere to go; my own conviction and that of those around me seemed insufficient for the day.” Lincoln twice called for a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer in 1861 and 1863. He publicly wondered if the prolonged Civil War was God’s judgement on the USA for exploiting the slaves. Then he called for “malice towards none, and charity to all.”
Many see Lincoln as an American William Wilberforce. He had faith that right makes might. He insightfully realized that “in giving freedom to the slaves, we assure freedom to the free.” Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, went through many conversions in his life, including prioritizing the freeing of the four million slaves. In 1858, Lincoln tried to prevent slavery’s spread to the western territories, saying, “I have always hated slavery I think as much as any abolitionist.” Six years later, he said “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel.” Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” By the end of the civil war, almost 200,000 freed slaves had joined the Union Army.
While Canada was officially neutral in the American Civil War, 50,000 Canadians fought mostly for the Union, with 7,000 giving their lives. Calixa Lavallée, who wrote the music for “O Canada,” was wounded at Antietam as a Union Army musician.
On the last day of his life, Lincoln told his wife that after the civil war, he wanted to visit Jerusalem, to walk in the Saviour’s footsteps. John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln on Good Friday, 1865. Booth was furious over Lincoln’s plans to extend the vote to literate blacks and all black military veterans. Frederick Douglass, the most prominent black leader, initially chastised Lincoln as a pro-slavery wolf in anti-slavery sheep’s clothing. Later in 1865, he described Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s president, the first to show any respect for their rights as men.” Seventy years later, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, proclaiming his dream that one day the nation would live out the freedom and equality, envisioned by Douglass and Lincoln. Let the freedom that Lincoln experienced and believed in, reign in 2023.