Abraham Lincoln: His Story/Chapter 6
Like Moses, Luther, and Washington, Lincoln became a great leader of men only when he surrendered himself to God. His mother, Nancy Hanks, was a Christian woman. Of her he said: "I remember her prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life."
As a boy he read his Bible and attended church when he could. In those days he learned the hymns which were his favorites throughout life, "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" and "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood." During his early manhood he drifted into a temporary indifference toward religious matters. Yet even through this time he read and reread his Bible, and his later life showed what it did for him.
Take all of this book upon reason that you can and the balance on faith and you will live and die a happier man.
Lincoln wrote to a skeptical friend.
Another great war president of our own time has borne testimony about this Book of books, which Lincoln would have echoed in the last years of his life:
The Bible is the Word of life. I beg that you will read it and find this out for yourselves. Read, not little snatches here and there, but long passages that will really be the road to the heart of it. You will not only find it full of real men and women, but also of the things you have wondered about and been troubled about all your life, as men have been always; and the more you read the more it will become plain to you what things are worth while and what are not; what things make men happy—loyalty, right dealings, speaking the truth, readiness to give everything for what they think their duty, and, most of all, the wish that they may have the approval of the Christ, who gave everything for them; and the things that are guaranteed to make men unhappy—selfishness, cowardice, greed, and everything that is low and mean. When you have read the Bible you will know that it is the Word of God, because you will have found it the key to your own heart, your own happiness, and your own duty.
Lincoln's period of indifference was followed by an awakening to higher things. In 1842 he wrote to his friend Speed a letter in which he said:
I believe God made me one of the instruments of bringing Fanny and you together, which union I have no doubt he had foreordained. Whatever he designs he will do for me yet. "Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord" is my text just now.
More and more Lincoln's speeches became tinged with religious thought. In 1856 in the "Lost Speech" he said:
The stars in their courses, aye, an invisible power, greater than the puny efforts of men, will fight for us. . . . Our moderation and forbearance will stand us in good stead when, if ever, we must make an appeal to battle and to the God of hosts.
I cannot but know what you all know that without a name, perhaps without a reason why I should have a name, there has fallen upon me a task such as did not rest even upon the father of his country; and so feeling I cannot but turn and look for that support without which it will be impossible for me to perform that great task. I turn, then, and look to the great American people and to that God who has never forsaken them.
His farewell to his friends at Springfield as he left to go to Washington shows as does nothing else the new spirit of his life. As with the friends of the Apostle Paul at Miletus, many of them "wept sore, . . . sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more." To them he said:
My Friends: No one not in my situation can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether I may ever 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.
From that day a new life begins for him—the life of a devoted Christian. "I have been driven many times to my knees," he later wrote, "because I had nowhere else to go."
Again he declared:
I would be the veriest blockhead if I thought I could get through with a single day's business without relying upon Him who doeth all things well.
This spirit shows constantly throughout all his duties. To a Missouri delegation he said:
I desire to so conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the very end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every friend on earth, I shall have at least one friend left—my conscience.
When a minister, representing a visiting delegation, said to him that he hoped the Lord was on their side, Mr. Lincoln replied:
I am more concerned to know whether we are on the Lord's side.
Constantly he sought for the sympathy, and the prayers, and the help of all Christian people. A minister from a little village in central New York State called to tell him that every Christian father and mother was praying for him every day. The tears filled Lincoln's eyes as he thanked his visitor and said:
But for these prayers I should have faltered and perhaps failed long ago. Tell every father and mother you know to keep on praying and I will keep on fighting.
After the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed he said to some men who had called to congratulate him on the success of the Union arms:
On many a defeated field there was a voice louder than the thundering of cannon. It was the voice of God crying, "Let my people go." We were all very slow in realizing that it was God's voice, but after many humiliating defeats the nation came to believe it as a great and solemn command. Great multitudes begged and prayed that I might answer God's voice by signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and I did it, believing that we should never be successful in the great struggle unless we obeyed the Lord's command. Since that the God of battles has been on our side.
Just before the Battle of Gettysburg all of the members of the Cabinet were in a state of terrible anxiety. General Lee with a powerful army had swept up into Pennsylvania. On the eve of the battle General Meade, almost an untried general, had been placed in command, A defeat meant the loss of the Capital and perhaps the occupation of Philadelphia and even New York. Everywhere was panic. Only Lincoln remained unmoved and unafraid. After the battle he told General Sickles the reason of his confidence:
In the pinch of your campaign up there, when everybody seemed panic-stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God, and prayed for victory at Gettysburg. I told turn that this was his war, and our cause his cause, but that we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. Then I made a vow to Almighty God that if he would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by him, and he did stand by you boys and I will stand by him. And after that, I don't know how it was and I can't explain it, but soon a sweet comfort swept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into his own hands, and that is why I have no fears about you.
To Chittenden, the Register of the Treasury, Lincoln said:
That the Almighty does make use of human agencies, and directly intervenes in human affairs, is one of the plainest statements in the Bible. I have had so many evidences of his direction, so many instances when I have been controlled by some other power than my own will, that I cannot doubt that this power comes from above. I frequently see my way clear to a decision when I am conscious that I have not sufficient facts upon which to found it. I am satisfied that when the Almighty wants me to do or not to do a particular thing, he finds a way of letting me know it.
It was this deep and achieved faith in God that made John Hay, who had been one of his private secretaries, say of him:
Abraham Lincoln, one of the mightiest masters of statecraft that history has known, was also one of the most devoted and faithful servants of Almighty God who have ever sat in the high places of the world.
Only a Christian could have written the letter which he sent to a Mrs. Bixby, who had lost five sons in the service. It is copied in letters of gold on the walls of a great English university:
I have been shown in the flies of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
Time went on. The war was drawing to its close. On the day of the receipt of the news of Lee's surrender the President held a meeting of the Cabinet. Neither Lincoln nor any member was able for a time to speak. Finally, at the suggestion of the President, all dropped on their knees and thanked God in silence and in tears for the victory that he had granted to the Union. It is doubtful whether there is any other recorded instance where the meeting of the Cabinet of a great country ended in prayer.
The victories of the Union arms re-elected Lincoln as President. In his Second Inaugural Address he reached heights not achieved before, when looking back over four years of war, hatred, and calumny he was yet able to say:
The Almighty has his own purposes. If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? 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 up by the bondman'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 by another drawn by 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."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are now in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
In his last public speech of April 11, 1865, Lincoln again testified to his faith and trust in God. He said in part:
We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give the hope of a just and speedy peace, the joyous expression of which cannot be restrained. In all this joy, however, He from whom all blessings flow must not be forgotten.
Three nights later in the state box at Ford's Theatre he was talking to Mrs. Lincoln about a trip to the Holy Land. Just as he was saying that there was no city which he so much wished to see as Jerusalem, his words were cut short by the fatal bullet. On the morning of April 15, 1865, he who had wept often but who had never flinched nor faltered, went, not without abundant entrance, into the presence of his Lord. Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War and his onetime enemy, broke the silence of the death-chamber and said:
Now he belongs to the ages.