Virtual Voices

Lincoln and God

Religion

Since today is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, we're hearing some about the high points of the 16th president-yet it seems that what turned around Lincoln's spiritual life was his lowest point, which occurred in February 1862.

That's when Lincoln's beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, suddenly died. Mary Todd Lincoln tried to deal with her grief by searching out New Age mediums, and Lincoln went to a séance with his wife, but was unimpressed: Afterward he joked that it was like a cabinet meeting, with several spirits presenting contradictory messages.

Lincoln's search for meaning then took a different direction. Several long talks with Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, helped him go through "a process of crystallization," which Gurley described as a conversion to Christ. Lincoln later told a confidant that he was "driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go." Lincoln began attending Pastor Gurley's church on Sundays and sometimes went to Wednesday prayer meetings as well.

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From the death of his son to the deaths of thousands of soldiers: Lincoln visited injured soldiers with gaping wounds at newly established hospitals throughout the District of Columbia. Whenever Congress was not in session, the Capitol itself became a hospital, with 2,000 cots set up in the rotunda, legislative chambers, and hallways. Most deaths occurred on the battlefield, but those who died in the hospitals, typically 50 per day, cost the army $4.99 per soldier (pine coffin, transport to the cemetery, and burial all included).

The fatalities and injuries led Lincoln to God; he had nowhere else to go. In October 1862 he told visitors, "We cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it." Calling the war "a fiery trial" and himself "a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father," Lincoln said, "I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to His will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid."

Lincoln's "Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day" in 1863 asserted, "We know that, by Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world." He called the war "a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people."

Lincoln's proclamation emphasized how Americans had taken for granted God's kindness: "We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own." That proclamation applied the Old Testament pattern-God's faithfulness, man's forgetfulness, God's discipline-to a new people who had become "too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us."

Lincoln, who had questioned prayer previously, was becoming a praying man. He told one general that as reports came in from Gettysburg during the first two days of fighting, "when everyone seemed panic-stricken," he "got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed. . . . Soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into His own hands."

Increasingly he relied on the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Once, Pastor Gurley announced at Sunday morning service that "religious services would be suspended until further notice as the church was needed as a hospital." Officials had already made plans and stacked supplies outside the building, but Lincoln stood up-he did that often, believing that all prayers should be made standing up-and announced, "Dr. Gurley, this action was taken without my consent, and I hereby countermand the order. The churches are needed as never before for divine services."

Lincoln's second inaugural address, with its call to "bind up the nation's wounds," is often cited as evidence of Lincoln's emphasis on reconciliation, but it shows even more his new sense of Providence. "Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray-that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away," he said. "Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred 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.'"

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