Abraham Lincoln: God’s “Instrument”
1. Lincoln as A Spiritual Hero
“Sometimes when the lights are low and I sit musing in my Lincoln Room, where the shelves are filled with books devoted to the life story of our “First American,” and from the walls his portraits look down upon me, I dream dreams and see visions. And there are mystic moments when out of the gloaming there seems to emerge a tall, shawl-wrapped figure which fills the room. And I hear, or seem to hear, that gaunt great figure say in measured speech: “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE, shall not perish from the earth.” (, p. 166).
2. Lincoln, Character, and Spiritual Development
“And this perhaps is the main impression ..., the impression of a man quite unlike the many statesmen whom power and the vexations attendant upon it have in some piteous way spoiled and marred, a man who started by being tough and shrewd and canny and became very strong and very wise, and became, under a tremendous strain, honest, brave, and kind to an almost tremendous degree.” (, p. 7).
2.1. The Enduring Virtues
“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings (an anti-immigrant political group) get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” (, p. 335).
“Tales survive of his kindness to helpless men and animals. it marks the real hardness of his surroundings, and their hardening effect on many, that his exertions in saving a drunken man from death in the snow are related with apparent surprise. Some tales of his helping a pig stuck in a bog or a dog on an ice flow and the like seem to indicate a curious and lasting trait.” (, p. 14).
“’But’, say some, ‘we are no drunkards; and we shall not acknowledge ourselves such by joining a reformed drunkards’ society, whatever our influence might be.’ Surely no Christian will adhere to this objection. If they believe, as they profess, that Omnipotence condescended to take on himself the form of sinful man, and as such, to die an ignominious death for their sakes, surely they will not refuse submission to the infinitely lesser condescension, for the temporal, and perhaps eternal salvation, of a large, erring, and unfortunate class of their own fellow creatures.” (, p. 139).
2.2. The Presidential Virtues
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither expected that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each involves His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.”
2.3. Lincoln’s Character Flaws and Failings
3. Lincoln, Moral Judgment, and Spiritual Development
“They (the founding Fathers who issued the Declaration) meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which could be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” (, p. 360).
3.1. The Structure of Lincoln’s Moral Thinking
“Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.” (, p. 80).
3.2. Lincoln and Moral Dilemmas
“A patient being, who, long ago in his youth, had boiled with anger against slavery, but whose whole soul now expressed itself in a policy of deadly moderation towards it... In almost every department of policy we shall see him watching and waiting while blood flows, suspending judgment, temporizing, making trial of this expedient and of that, adopting in the end, quite unthanked, the measure of which most men will say, when it succeeds, ‘That is what we always said should be done.’ Above all, ... we shall witness the long postponement of the blow that killed negro slavery, the steady subordination of this particular issue to what will not at once appeal to us as a larger and a higher issue. All this provoked at the time in many excellent and clever men dissatisfaction and deep suspicion; they longed for a leader whose heart visibly glowed with a sacred passion; they attributed his patience, the one quality of greatness which after a while everybody might have discerned in him, not to a self-mastery which almost passed belief, but to a tepid disposition and a mediocre if not a low level of desire... (but) perhaps the sense will grow upon us that this balanced and calculating person, with his finger on the pulse of the electorate as he cracked his uncensored jests with all comers, did of set purpose drink and refill and drink again as full and fiery a cup of sacrifice as ever was pressed to the lips of hero or of saint.” (, p. 115).
4. Lincoln, Religion, and Spiritual Development
4.1. Lincoln’s Religious Beliefs and Faith During the Civil War
“When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both the law and Gospel, ‘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 will I join with all my heart and soul.” (, p. 75).
“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
“In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” (, p. 655).
“The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance... We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom and our own error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay. ” (, p. 757).
“I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the divine will... 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 he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is, I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain, physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree.” (, p. 22).
“You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread in the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.” (, p. 772).
“This combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization on the one hand while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle. Surely it was this double attitude which made the spirit of Lincoln’s, “with malice toward none; with charity for all” possible. There can be no other basis of true charity; for charity cannot be induced by lessons from copybook texts. It can proceed only from a “broken spirit and a contrite heart....
Abraham Lincoln is not only a statesman who saved the nation in the hour of its peril; he was also that rare and unique human being who could be responsible in executing historic tasks without equating his interpretation of the task with the divine wisdom.” (, p. 87).
4.2. The Development of Lincoln’s Religious Faith
“The central elements of Lincoln’s mature religious faith were already present in that of the youthful Lincoln. In 1842 he wrote a letter to his closest friend, Joshua F. Speed, in which he discussed Speed’s engagement to be married and stated his belief that ‘God made me one of the instruments of bringing your Fanny and you together, which union, I have no doubt He had fore-ordained.’ Here we have clearly expressed a strong belief in God’s overruling providence and a conviction that Abraham Lincoln might be employed by God as an ‘instrument’ to bring about the specific good of reconciliation. Both of these would be among the wartime themes of Lincoln’s faith.” (, p. 113).
“I am not a Christian. God knows I would be one; but I have carefully read the Bible ...These men well know that I am for freedom in the territories, freedom everywhere, as free as the Constitution and the laws will permit, and that my opponents are for slavery. They know this, and yet with this book (the Bible) in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me. I do not understand it at all. I know there is a God, and that He hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming and I know that His hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me, and I think He has, I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything. I know I am right because I know that liberty is right, for Christ teaches it, and Christ is God. I have told them that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and Christ and Reason say the same, and they will find it so.” (, p. 43).
“I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.” (, p. 568).
“Persons best described at Stage 6 (the stage of universalizing faith) typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives...constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance. It is little wonder that persons best described by Stage 6 so frequently become martyrs for the visions they incarnate.” (, p. 200).
5. Concluding Remarks: Lessons from Lincoln
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Scarlett, W.G. Abraham Lincoln: God’s “Instrument”. Religions 2012, 3, 191-209. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel3020191
Scarlett WG. Abraham Lincoln: God’s “Instrument”. Religions. 2012; 3(2):191-209. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel3020191Chicago/Turabian Style
Scarlett, W. George. 2012. "Abraham Lincoln: God’s “Instrument”" Religions 3, no. 2: 191-209. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel3020191