It would be hard to say who was the greatest President of the United States, viewing the office as a political function that must be measured by performance during crises in our history. The political achievement of Abraham Lincoln certainly is of the highest order, and he caught the imagination of the world as no other has done. He is unique among the Presidents of our Country. His face - homely, sad, humorous, and in its total effect oddly beautiful - haunts us. He personified in his own suffering the agony of a nation in fraternal war. Compassion, magnanimity and humility have never been so evident in a man who wielded ruling power.
While he sought to reunite the separated sections of the nation, his capacity to feel and minister to the anguish of some humble, obscure individual is distantly like God’s eye upon some fallen sparrow. From the frontier, self-schooled, he achieved rare wisdom and eloquence. Hated and maligned by some in his life, as most Presidents are, in death he touched almost all who had ever heard of him, and his "enemies" in the Confederacy knew they had lost a friend.
Sometimes called an "infidel", often calling himself a fatalist, he brooded all his life on religious questions. Never orthodox, unattached to creed or sect, he ripened during the whole course of his life into one of the most profound religious spirits that ever occupied the White House. Lincoln, if one of the most beloved Presidents, also was one of the most abused.
General McClellan, who served under him and then ran against him, called him "baboon” and "gorilla" - terms taken up by the opposition press. He was called boorish, vulgar, rude, ignorant. He was charged with vice, dishonesty, and corruption, and his wife was said to be a Confederate spy. Generally, somewhere in the refrain of haters occurred the words of "atheist" or "infidel."
Five months before receiving the Republican nomination for President, he sketched his life - "I was born February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks. My father removed from Kentucky to Indiana and later to Illinois. I grew up in a wild region with many bears and other wild animals in the woods. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write and cipher - but that was all.”
The Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois frontier of Lincoln’s boyhood and early manhood was saturated by a primitive, evangelistic, fundamentalist theology. Baptists were the most numerous there and Methodists the runner-ups. The Bible was in most cabins. It was a delight to young Abe to find anyone who could lend him a book. His devoted stepmother, Sally Bush Lincoln, encouraged his taste for reading, for poor Nancy Hanks died too soon to have much influence on her son in that respect.
He did acquire an intimate familiarity with the Bible. In the White House, Lincoln still read from the family Bible, published in 1799. If you did not accept one or another of the prevailing "hard shell" fundamentalist faiths of the primitive orthodoxies of the frontier at that time you were called an "atheist” or "infidel." Lincoln paid little attention to preachers at that time, espoused no creed, but observed good behavior, read his Bible and thought his thoughts.
In 1846, Peter Cartwright, celebrated circuit-riding Methodist preacher, ran against Lincoln for United States Congress. Lincoln went to hear Cartwright preach, and Cartwright asked all to stand who did not wish to go to hell. Everyone in the congregation stood except Lincoln and Cartwright inquired, "Mr. Lincoln where are you going?" Lincoln responded: “I am going to Congress," which he did by defeating Cartwright in the Congressional election. His single term as a U.S. Congressman was followed by a long practice of law in Springfield, Illinois.
In 1858, he was the Republican Party nominee for United States Senate, running against Judge Stephen A. Douglas. He lost the election narrowly, but the hard fought campaign, including the series of seven face-to-face debates, began Lincoln’s rise to the rank of a national political figure.
Two years later he was elected to the Presidency of the United States on the Republican Party ticket.
The moral issue of slavery, the pivot of the Lincoln-Douglas contest, deepened the religious elements of Lincoln’s thoughts. He made frequent reference to scriptural categories of judgment. When he left Springfield, Illinois to travel to Washington, D.C. to become President, mindful that he might not see Springfield again, he told his friend, Presbyterian minister James Smith, "I wish to be remembered in the prayers of yourself and our church members."
In Washington, D.C., the Lincolns attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and Lincoln frequently attended the Wednesday night prayer meetings. On one occasion clergymen came to the White House, one of whom expressed the hope that "the Lord was on our side." Lincoln replied: "I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and the nation should be on the Lord’s side."
When he proclaimed the Emancipation of the slaves in 1863, he told his cabinet: "I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves."
The religious spirit that guided him was clearly evident in his Second Inaugural Address in 1864, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds."
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln's death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died.
When Secretary of War Stanton, so often embroiled in friction with Lincoln, heard that Lincoln had been killed, Stanton uttered this spontaneous epitaph: "Now he belongs to the ages."
Presented by Mr. Forrest F. Burgess, Chairman of the Evangelism Commission and the Ushering Committee; former Chairman of the Administrative Board, Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church; and formerly with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Related albums • See other albumsReligion In The Lives Of The American Presidents
Related peoplePresident Abraham "Abe" Lincoln
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