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Lincoln has always fascinated me. Many of you, as well, no doubt. In fact, he is now seen as so important a figure that one contemporary historian notes that there are currently more books in the English language about Lincoln than about anyone else except Jesus and Shakespeare. (1)
It seems particularly appropriate, at the beginning of the Obama administration, to think of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. It is equally appropriate, as our nation continues to fight two wars, to think of the man whose presidency was entirely consumed with war. On Lincoln's first day in office he was greeted with a dispatch from Fort Sumter letting him know that the Union troops would have difficulty holding out for much longer unless they were resupplied. His last day in office came as a result of what might be called the "final shot" of the Civil War - the one fired by John Wilkes Booth.
The lines between Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, were clearly drawn. Lincoln wrote, "Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory." (2) There was no middle ground. Too bad. The war that resulted was the most violent event in American history. The 620,000 soldiers killed almost equals the number of American fighters killed in ALL our country's other wars combined. (3)
It was a horrible time. In the North, Henry Ward Beecher was pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church, the most influential pulpit in the land. When he spoke at ceremonies marking the recapture of Fort Sumter, Beecher made clear what he thought the conflict meant in the eye of God: "I charge the whole guilt of this war upon the ambitious, educated, plotting leaders of the South...A day will come when God will reveal judgment and arraign these mighty miscreants...And then these guiltiest and most remorseless traitors...shall be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and ever in an endless retribution." Lordy!
Here in the South, Robert Lewis Dabney was almost as prominent as Beecher in the North. A Presbyterian defender of scripture and of traditional confessions, he was even more orthodox than Beecher. During the war Dabney served on the staff of General Stonewall Jackson; afterward he presided over seminaries here in South Carolina and in Texas. Yet from wherever Dabney viewed the conflict, his opinion was the same. The war, he thought, was "caused deliberately" by evil abolitionists who persecuted the South "with calculated malice." When fellow Southerners asked him to soften his views on denominational colleagues in the North, Dabney had only these chilling words: "What! Forgive those people who have invaded our country, burned our cities, destroyed our homes, slain our young men, and spread desolation and ruin over our land?! No, I do not forgive them." (4) For the rest of his life, Dr. Dabney refused to accept the UNacceptability of human slavery; for that matter, he was equally unaccepting of women in the pulpit. (5)
As to Mr. Lincoln, in a way, it is surprising to look back on him as a great wartime leader because story after story has come down to us concerning his compassionate nature (pardons for deserters, help for needy southern families, mercy for the Confederacy at Appomattox). At the beginning of the war he was convinced that firmness should be tempered with restraint. Lincoln promised that while suppressing the rebels, Union troops would avoid "any devastation, any destruction of, or interference with, property, or any disturbance of peaceful citizens." (6)
As time went on, of course, events dictated a change in that limited strategy. Lincoln himself wrote to General Sheridan and congratulated him on the scorched earth of the Shenandoah Valley. The President did the same in a letter to General Sherman after his devastation of South Carolina and Georgia. War (then and now) is never as clean as might be hoped. Innocent people suffer!
Lincoln suffered too. He had his own private war with depression which he battled with a widely-recognized sense of humor. There was a story that circulated around Washington during those years concerning him and Jefferson Davis. Two pious Quaker ladies were discussing the relative merits and prospects of the two leaders. One said, "I think Davis will succeed because he is a praying man."
The other replied, "But so is Lincoln."
The first responded, "Yes, but when Abraham prays, the Lord will think he's joking." (7)
Once at a Cabinet meeting, the president read aloud from a humorous book. The Cabinet members were amazed; not one of them even smiled. "Gentlemen," Lincoln asked with a sigh, "why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die."
Abraham Lincoln knew the depths of despair. During one particularly trying time he wrote a friend and said, "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth." (8)
Of course, the President was the recipient of all sorts of advice to help him with his momentous decisions (just as Mr. Obama is today). Many of the arguments were based on religion and the unshakeable certainty that God wanted whatever problem was being discussed handled THIS way (which ever way the speaker was heading). Lincoln said, "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." He also wrote, "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 that he would reveal it directly to me...if I can learn what it is, I will do it." (9) Good for you, Abe.
Lincoln's religious training began early. As a young lad he would go to church, hear a sermon, come home, take the younger children out, get on a stump or a log, and almost repeat the morning's message word for word. His family said that, not only would he recall the sermon, but he would also mimic accurately the preacher's eccentricities of style and voice. (10) Lincoln had his own ideas about what preaching ought to be. Later in life he reportedly said, "I do not like to hear cut and dried sermons. When I hear a man preach I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!" (11) Glory!
Soon after settling in the White House, the Lincoln family rented a pew in Washington's New York Avenue Presbyterian Church where Mrs. Lincoln became a member. The whole family regularly attended on Sunday mornings. The President also came to the mid-week prayer service, but to avoid office-seekers and contractors who would pester him anytime he appeared in public, Lincoln did not sit with the congregation; instead he used a side entrance and sat in the minister's darkened study with the door slightly ajar so he could hear what was going on. The President said that he always found that listening to people talking TO God was a greater source of strength than listening to people talking ABOUT God. (12)
Concerning his own profession of faith Lincoln said, "I cannot without mental reservations assent to long and complicated creeds and catechisms. If a church would ask simply for assent to the Savior's statement of the substance of the law: `Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself' - that church would I gladly unite with." Many today would echo that sentiment.
He went on, "Probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling...with him of old time, who, in his need, as I in mine, exclaimed, "Help Thou mine unbelief." (13) Honest Abe was a man of honest faith...and honest doubt.
Those words, "I believe; help my unbelief!" came from another man whose life reflected a mixture of honest faith and doubt. Jesus, Peter, James and John had come back from a mountaintop experience. It had been a beautiful moment, but now they were back in the world where people fight with each other, the world where little children get sick for no reason, the world where folks get frustrated with their problems, the world where the faith of the mountaintop gives way to the despair and doubt of the valley. The mountaintop experiences are wonderful when they come, but the world where most of us live (and where Abraham Lincoln lived) is the one that hears a loving Dad at the end of his rope say, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" and we whisper AMEN.
Lincoln once said, "I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am. Nevertheless, amid the greatest difficulties of my administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right." (14) Abraham Lincoln had his honest doubts (as anyone with any sense would - there is no shame in that), but he was a man of more faith than perhaps even he knew.
One of the best preachers of Lincoln's day, Phillips Brooks, in a memorial sermon after the assassination said, "He fed us faithfully and truly. He fed us with counsel when we were in doubt, with inspiration when we sometimes faltered, with caution when we would be rash...He fed hungry souls all over the country with sympathy and consolation...He fed us with solemn, solid truths...Best of all, he fed us with a reverent and genuine religion. He spread before us the love and fear of God just in that shape in which we need them most, and out of his faithful service of a higher Master, who of us has not taken and eaten and grown strong? At the last, behold Lincoln standing with hand reached out to feed the South with mercy and the North with charity, and the whole land with peace, when the Lord who had sent him called him and his work was done!" (15)
"...when the Lord who had sent him called him and his work was done!" There is an affirmation of providence in that sentence that sends us back to our scripture lesson again. If you recall, it was in two parts. There was the story of the healing of the epileptic boy and that wonderful affirmation of very human faith from the lad's father. We are drawn to that picture because it so reflects our own experience, our own honest doubt and our desire to do better. But the part of the lesson that has not been mentioned yet is this strange mountaintop scene, the Transfiguration of the Lord. Jesus and three of his closest friends had climbed up to pray and rest. But while they were there, Jesus was "transfigured" - as far as Peter, James and John could see, he "glowed," something they had never encountered before. But if that were not enough, two of the greatest heroes of ancient religious history, Moses and Elijah, the great law-giver and the great prophet, appeared as well...paying their respects to one who was even greater than they. Finally, a voice came from the cloud that surrounded them up there, the voice of God: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" It affirmed for those disciples (if they had any lingering doubts) that this Jesus whom they had come to love and trust was more than a man - he was divine. A mountaintop experience if there ever was one!
True, there would be a time to come back from the mountain. Life is lived in the valley. But for Peter, James and John, life in the valley would never be the same again. For despite the fights and the fears and the failures, all the things that would contribute to a lack of faith, these three had seen God's future, the future that an early Christian hymn would describe as a time when every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord...a time of no more sorrow, no more sickness, no more tears, no more pain, no more war...a time when every valley would be exalted and every mountain made a plain. Peter, James and John had seen who was in charge, and with the lyric of the spiritual that slaves of Lincoln's day would sing, know, "He's got the whole world in His hands."
That day on the mountain, that moment in the close presence of God, changed those men, just as these moments in worship, the moments when we feel God especially near, can change you and me. Yes, with the father of the gospel story we cry out, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief." But with Peter, James and John we glimpse the future and, with eyes of faith, see a better day. "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!"
Mr. Lincoln saw a better day and just one month before his death challenged his America and ours: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations." (16) Oh yes, Mr. Lincoln. Oh yes, Lord!
1. James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and The Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 68
2. ibid., p. 88
3. ibid., p. 16
4. Mark Noll, "The Puzzling faith of Abraham Lincoln," http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1992/issue33/3311.html
6. McPherson, ibid., p. 75
7. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1985), p. 358
8. Watson F. Pindell, Milestones to Immortality (Baltimore: Role Models, Inc., 1988), p. 30
9. ibid., p. 94
10. ibid., pp. 8-9
11. ibid., p. 42
12. ibid., pp. 78-79
13. ibid., p. 37
14. ibid., p. 122
15. Phillips Brooks, "Abraham Lincoln," Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume 6, (Waco, Texas: Word, 1971), p. 135
16. Abraham Lincoln, "Second Inaugural Address," Masterpieces of American Eloquence, (New York: Christian Herald, 1900), p. 239