Wednesday, February 11, 2009

President Lincoln, Man of Faith and Prayer: Born 200 Years Ago

Many consider Abraham Lincoln to have been America's greatest president. He was born February 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and died at age 56, on April 15, 1865. He died from an assassin's bullet in Washington, D.C., shortly after the end of the Civil War and five months after his reelection as President.

His parents were Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. His family moved from Kentucky to Indiana in 1816, and from Indiana to Illinois in 1830. He was the first president born beyond the boundaries of the original 13 states, the first president who was assassinated, and the first Republican president.

His was not an easy life. His father was abusive and barely literate. He lost his mother when he was 9 years old. His baby brother, older sister, and two sons also died. His wife suffered from mental illness. He lived in poverty, was self-taught (he had less than 2 years of schooling), and was homely and gangling. Lincoln worked as a ferry operator, a flatboat pilot, an enlisted soldier, a partner in an unsuccessful merchandise business, a postmaster, and a lawyer. He was admitted to the bar in 1837. He was an excellent wrestler.

He failed in his bid for public office several times: to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1832, to the U.S. Senate from Illinois on the Whig ticket in 1855, to be the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1856, and to the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket in 1858 (just two years before his election as the first Republican president in 1860). He was not liked much during his two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives because he opposed the Mexican War, and because he was considered a amusingly odd westerner of only average talent. His opposition to the war lost him his congressinal seat. His political failures and losses, however, prepared him to be a better president, a presidency he won with a mere 39% of the vote, as the Democrats split their vote.

Lincoln was a man of faith in God. Although he apparently never belonged to any denomination, he attended for over 10 years, the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, pastored by his friend, Rev. James Smith. After becoming President, he frequented a number churches in Washington, D. C., often more than one on a Sunday.

A small book of Scripture and poetry, containing the signature "A. Lincoln," and discovered in 1957, is evidence of his deep faith. He carried this book, The Believer's Daily Treasure; or Texts of Scripture arranged for every day in the year, in his vest pocket. The book had been published in 1852 in London by The Religious Tract Society as a 4th edition. He probably read it as he travelled the Old Eighth Circuit, and later, during the Civil War, as commander-in-chief.

Lincoln read the Bible throughout his life, often quoting it in conversation and in public addresses, and referring to it frequently in his letters. His famous Gettysburg (1863), Second Inaugural (1865), and House Divided (1858) speeches, and many other speeches contain Scripture and references to the Almighty God and the Heavenly Father. He used the name of Jesus in his private and public speech, and seems to be the only president to cite the Holy Spirit in a proclamation.

Several writers and historians have refuted the idea that he was anything but an orthodox Christian, who held to the tenets of historical Christianity (see the reference list). He exhibited Christian virtues of forgiveness, magnanimity, generosity, compassion, courage, honesty, self-control, warm humor, devotion, zeal, patience, and humility. Historian Michael Burlingame, author or editor of 12 books on Lincoln, says, "He was able to rise above the tyranny of the ego which most of us suffer from."

A 19th century author, Allen T Rice, wrote of Lincoln, "His sense of humor never flagged. Even in his telegraphic correspondence with his generals we have instances of it." One of his favorite humorists, he enjoyed reading, sometimes to his staff, was the writer Charles F Browne (pseudonym Artemus Ward).

He and his family owned several Bibles. He cherished the Scriptures, proclaiming: "In regard to this great book, I have but to say it is the best gift God has given to man." He told his friend, L. L. Crittenden, "I decided a long time ago that it was less difficult to believe the Bible was what it claimed to be than to disbelieve it."

In the Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is a statue of Lincoln in an attitude of prayer, done by the sculpturer Herbert Spencer Houck. Houck's grandfather, while walking the fields near the Battle of Gettysburg, had once found Lincoln kneeling in the leaves. This picture of Lincoln, passed on verbally from grandfather to grandson, was the inspiration for Hauck's statue, "Lincoln in Prayer."

Rev. Willard Davis, in a great and important sermon, "Was Abraham Lincoln Really a Christian?" preached in 1989, 20 years ago, at Fourth Presbyterian Church, quotes Lincoln: "When I went to Springfield I wasn't a Christian... When I went to Gettysburg I wasn't a Christian. But there at Gettysburg I consecrated my life to Christ." Rev. Davis goes on to say that the day that he came to know Christ was November 19, 1863 (probably the same day Houck's grandfather found him kneeling in the leaves of the fields of Gettysburg). Davis relates that his subsequent Second Inaugural Address reads like a sermon, much more than his pre-conversion speeches do. Davis claims, based on his studies, that Lincoln was planning to join the Presbyterian Church on Sunday just several days after he was shot and killed. At the time he was shot at Ford Theater he was telling his wife they should take a trip to the Holy Land, "We could go up to Jeru..." He never got to finish the word "Jerusalem"

On the 200th Anniversary of his birth, let us remember the humble Abraham Lincoln, who rose above a life of hardships and sorrows to become one of the greatest U.S. Presidents-a president who acknowledged and trusted God, read His Word, and was in frequent prayer.

References used to prepare this blog:

Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writing, Roy P. Bassler editor, Kraus-Thompson, 1968 (1st published 1946)

Abraham Lincoln's Daily Treasure: Moments of Faith with America's Favorite President, edited by Thomas Freiling, Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell (a division of Baker Book House), 2002

Facts About the Presidents: From Washington to Johnson, Joseph Nathan Kane, NY: Pocket Books, 1960, 1964

Great Speeches/ Abraham Lincoln: With Historical Notes by John Grafton, NY: Dover Publications, 1991

Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest, Krannawitter, Thomas

Lincoln's Devotional: Introduction by Carl Sandburg, Great Neck, NY: Channel Press, 1957 (from my father's library & containing his signature)

Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, Allen T. Rice, New York, 1886, 1909.

The Life of Abraham Lincoln for Boys and Girls, Charles W. Moores, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1900, illustrated

The Hidden Lincoln, Emmanuel Hertz, editor, 1938 (Law partner of Lincoln, William H. Herndon's letters and papers relating to Lincoln, edited by Hertz)

The Lincoln Reader, Paul M. Angle, editor, Greenwood, 1981

For Further Research about Lincoln's Spiritual Life:

Barton, William, The Soul of Lincoln, 1920

Fox, Dr. G. George, Abraham Lincoln's Religion

Jones, Edgar DeWitt, Lincoln and the Preachers

Olasky, Marvin, The American Leadership Tradition

Wolf, William J., The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln

Go to the website of the "HAVEN Today" radio program, if you would like to obtain Pastor Willard Davis' 1989 sermon, "Was Abraham Lincoln really a Christian," preached at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, Maryland:

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