The Myth And The Man

I have been writing & speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years, & have not now one disciple. Why? Not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me. What could I do, if they came to me? — they would interrupt and encumber me. This is my boast that I have no school & no follower. I should account it a measure of the impurity of insight, if it did not create independence.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his journal, April 1859

Abraham Lincoln was born on this day, February 12th in 1809.  Today he is regarded as perhaps the greatest President in the history of the United States.  That was not always so.   It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time of his presidency, Lincoln was popular with the people but snubbed as a rube by the “upper class.”  In contrast, Ralph Waldo Emerson was considered the brightest intellectual light of his time and the epitome of sophistication.  The two men met in Washington on February 2, 1862, introduced by US Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts – a friend of both.

All we know of the meeting is this excerpt from Emerson’s diary the next day –

The President impressed me more favorably than I hoped. A frank, sincere, well-meaning man with a lawyer’s habit of mind, good clear statement of fact, correct enough, not vulgar as described, but with a sort of boyish cheerfulness, or that kind of sincerity and jolly good meaning that our class meetings on Commencement Days show, telling our old stories over.

When he has made his remark, he looks up at you in great satisfaction and shows all of his white teeth, and laughs.

Meeting the human being changed Emerson.

A short time later when the President was assassinated, Emerson had this to say –

Everybody has some disabling quality. In a host of young men that start together and promise so many brilliant leaders for the next age, each fails on trial ; one by bad health, one by conceit, or by love of pleasure, or lethargy, or an ugly temper, – each has some disqualifying fault that throws him out of the career.  But this man was sound to the core, cheerful, persistent, all right for labor, and liked nothing so well.

I particularly love the absence of politics in that statement.  It’s hard to know how much influence Emerson had over Lincoln during his key decision making years, but in the end, Lincoln certainly influenced the great scholar.

D I G  D E E P E R

Abraham Lincoln

Lawyer, statesman, political theologian and sixteenth U.S. president. Born in modest circumstances in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809, Lincoln spent his early years on the brink of poverty as his restless pioneering family made repeated fresh starts in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. During his youth he worked periodically as a surveyor, farmhand, ferryman and storekeeper, and during the Blackhawk War of 1832 served as a captain in the Illinois militia. He was postmaster at New Salem, Illinois, from 1833 to 1836, while he studied law. He moved to Springfield in 1837, where he opened a law office and gained a reputation as a trial attorney. He soon became involved politically, serving in the Illinois legislature as a Whig from 1835 to 1843 and the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849 when he chose not to seek re-election. Lincoln wed Mary Todd on November 4, 1842, after a stormy courtship which presaged a difficult marriage.

Lincoln continued his political interests and in 1856 joined the newly formed Republican Party. Two years later he stood for the U.S. Senate but lost out to incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. However, his many speeches and debates during the 1850s made him a national figure, and in 1860 he won the Republican nomination for president on the third ballot. Judged by its consequences, the election of 1860 was the most momentous in American history. The issues were so important that the losing side felt it could not abide by the results. When Lincoln won a bitter four-sided race, the South withdrew from the Union and civil war ensued.

He thus entered office at a critical juncture in U.S. history, the Civil War (1861–1865), and died from an assassin’s bullet at the war’s end before the greater implications of the conflict could be resolved. Even though relatively unknown and inexperienced when elected president, he soon proved to be a consummate politician. Above all, he was firm in his convictions and dedicated to the preservation of the Union.

More has been written about Lincoln, including his religion, than about any other president. Although not particularly religious as a young man, Lincoln became increasingly thoughtful about spiritual matters during his last years. Like many aspects of his life, Lincoln’s religious development appears paradoxical. On the one hand, during his youth he appears to have rejected his parents’ Baptist faith and the various other expressions of evangelical Christianity which permeated the frontier during the heyday of the Second Great Awakening. On the other hand, he never discarded the teachings of the Bible as he understood them. The Bible was probably the only book his family owned, and his abundant use of scriptural quotations in his later writings shows how earnestly he must have studied it.

Lincoln’s religious reflections were intensified when he lost one of his four sons in 1850 and a second in 1862, and when his high strung wife suffered a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter. Further, the complex problems and human slaughter of the war years drove him to spend increasing amounts of time in Bible study and prayer. It was also during the war that he regularly began to attend the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and to take counsel from its pastor, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, and from Methodist bishop Matthew Simpson, both of whom were evangelicals.

However, it was not Lincoln’s personal faith but rather his public religion which grew from it that profoundly affected the course of American history. According to historian Sidney Mead, Lincoln was “the most profound and representative theologian of the religion of the Republic,” and William Wolf and Elton Trueblood cite the president from Illinois as the theologian of American destiny. Sociologist Robert Bellah claims that Lincoln represented civil religion at its best and that the Civil War leader was “the man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for America.”

Lincoln, as heir of the Puritans, was convinced that the U.S. was more than an ordinary nation, that it was a proving ground for the idea of democratic government. He was the person most responsible for fusing the dominant evangelical-biblical religion of his day with democratic ideals and for creating a civil-religion version of the old Puritan quest to build a “city upon a hill.” Moreover, he came to believe that he was leading a struggle to preserve “the last best hope of earth.” He argued that the Union should be preserved because it was a republic based on propositions which championed human freedom and that as long the nation allowed human beings to be held in chains, it mocked the sacred founding document which proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” In order to preserve the chosen nation, Lincoln called for removing this inconsistency between belief and practice by freeing the slaves. Therefore, in his speeches to Congress and in the Gettysburg Address (1863), he expounded the public faith, explaining that the war was an effort to preserve both the Union and the American experiment in democracy in order that the nation’s God-given mission in the world might continue. This was the theological meaning of the conflict.

In the meantime, the president called for the nation to repent of the sin of slavery and to make certain that they were on God’s side in the struggle between good and evil in the world. He also argued that the bonds of religious faith were needed to hold the country together, especially once the war ended and reunification took place. Thus, in clear and eloquent language—especially in his Second Inaugural Address of 1865—Lincoln preached a prophetic civil faith which acknowledged that “the Almighty has His own purposes” and that the nation stood under judgment. Awareness of human limitations, Lincoln thought, should check human pride and encourage a spirit of humility and charity. Little wonder that many scholars have regarded him as “our most religious president,” a veritable unbaptized saint in the White House.

Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, made him a redeemer-savior-martyr figure and created anew focus of American civil piety. He thus joined George Washington as the second great hero of the public faith. Much of this deification of the fallen president was metaphorical, but the legend was based on a considerable body of fact. Political and religious feeling were blended in one majestic figure who might be either admired as a hero or invoked as a god. With the war ended and the question of slavery resolved, the civil religion of Abraham Lincoln—with malice toward none, with charity for all—provided a shared outlook which facilitated national reconciliation. It assured a war-weary people that they had not fought in vain and promised that the new society could be qualitatively better than what had existed before.

Daniel G. Reid et al., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

Sources & Resources

W. E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (1920); A. V. House, “The Genesis of the Lincoln Religious Controversy,” Proceedings of the Middle States Association of History and Social Science Teachers 36 (1939):44–54; E. D. Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers (1948); L. Lewis, Myths After Lincoln (1929); S. E. Mead, “Abraham Lincoln’s Last Best Hope of Earth: The American Dream of Destiny Democracy,” CH 23 (March 1954):3–16; R. Niebuhr, “The Religion of Abraham Lincoln,” CCen 82 (February 10, 1965):172–175; M. A. Noll, “The Perplexing Faith of Abraham Lincoln,” CT 29 (February 15, 1985):12–16; S. B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1977); R. V. Pierard and R. D. Linder, Civil Religion and the Presidency (1988);J. G. Randall and R. N. Current, Lincoln the President, 4 vols. (1945–1955); C. Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, 6 vols. (1926–1939); B. P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (1952); D. E. Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of Anguish (1973); W. J. Wolf, Lincoln’s Religion (1970).

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life