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 We have read Buckle's History of Civilization to little effect if we have not learned that the development of an individual or a nation is profoundly influenced by environment. The biographers of Lincoln would appear to have kept this fact carefully in mind, for they have been at great pains to give to us detailed descriptions of the houses in which Lincoln lived and the neighborhoods where from time to time he resided. Although the camera and the descriptive power of the biographers have done much for us, they leave something to be desired in the way of sketching a background from which the Abraham Lincoln of the successive periods emerged into conditions of life and thought that were more or less religious. For the purpose of this present study the life of Lincoln divides itself into four parts. The first is the period of his boyhood, from his birth in Kentucky until his coming of age and the removal of his family from Indiana into Illinois.
The second is the period of his early manhood, from the time he left his father's home until he took up his residence in Springfield.
The third is the period of his life in Springfield, from his first arrival on April 15, 1837, until his final departure on February 11, 1861, for his inauguration as President.
The fourth is the period covered by his presidency, from his inauguration, March 4, 1861, until his death, April 15, 1865.
Before considering at length the testimony of the people who knew him, except as that testimony relates to these particular epochs, we will consider the life of Lincoln as it was related to the conditions in which he lived in these successive periods.
The first period in the life of Abraham Lincoln includes[Pg 30] the twenty-one years from his birth to his majority, and is divided into two parts,—the first seven and one-half years of his life in the backwoods of Kentucky, and the following thirteen years in the wilderness of southern Indiana.
Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, was born near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on Sunday, February 12, 1809. He was the second child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who were married near Beechland, Washington County, Kentucky, on June 12, 1806, when Thomas was twenty-eight and Nancy twenty-three. Nine days before the birth of Abraham Lincoln the territory of Illinois was organized by Act of Congress; the boy and the future State were twin-born. For four years the family lived on the Rock Spring farm, three miles from Hodgenville, in Hardin, now Larue County, Kentucky. When he was four years old his parents moved to a better farm on Knob Creek. Here he spent nearly four years more, and he and his sister, Sarah, began going to school. His first teacher was Zachariah Riney; his second, Caleb Hazel.
In the autumn of 1816, Thomas Lincoln loaded his household goods upon a small flatboat of his own construction and floated down Knob Creek, Salt River, and the Ohio, and landed on the northern bank of the Ohio River. He thence returned and brought his family, who traveled on horseback. The distance to where the goods had been left was only about fifty miles in a straight line from the old home in Kentucky, but was probably a hundred miles by the roads on which they traveled. Thomas doubtless rode one horse with a child behind him, and Nancy rode the other, also carrying a child behind her saddle.
When the family arrived at the point where the goods had been left, a wagon was hired, and Thomas Lincoln, with his wife, his two children, and all his worldly possessions, moved sixteen miles into the wilderness to a place which he had already selected, and there made his home. That winter and the greater part of the following year were spent in a "half-faced camp" from which the family moved in the following autumn to a log cabin, erected by Thomas Lincoln. For more[Pg 31] than a year he was a squatter on this farm, but subsequently entered it and secured title from the government. Here Nancy Hanks Lincoln died, October 5, 1818, when Abraham was less than ten years old. A year later Thomas Lincoln returned to Kentucky and married Sally Bush Johnson, a widow, with three children. She brought with her better furniture than the cabin afforded, and also brought a higher type of culture than Thomas Lincoln had known. She taught her husband so that he was able with some difficulty to read the Bible and to sign his own name. On this farm in the backwoods in the Pigeon Creek settlement, with eight or ten families as neighbors, and with the primitive village of Gentryville a mile and a half distant, Abraham Lincoln grew to manhood. Excepting for a brief experience as a ferryman on the Ohio River and a trip to New Orleans which he made upon a flatboat, his horizon was bounded by this environment from the time he was eight until he was twenty-one.
The cabin in which the Lincoln family lived was a fairly comfortable house. It was eighteen feet square and the logs were hewn. It was high enough to admit a loft, where Abe slept, ascending to it by wooden pins driven into the logs. The furniture, excepting that brought by Sally Bush, was very primitive and made by Thomas Lincoln. Three-legged stools answered for chairs, and the bedsteads had only one leg each, the walls supporting the other three corners.
Of the educational advantages, Mr. Lincoln wrote in 1860:
"It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools so-called, but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond readin', writin', and cipherin' to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education."—Nicolay, p. 10.
Here he attended school for three brief periods. The first school was taught by Azel W. Dorsey, when Abraham was ten years old; the next by Andrew Crawford, when he was four[Pg 32]teen; and the third by a teacher named Swaney, whose first name Mr. Lincoln was unable to recall in later life. His schooling was under five different teachers, two in Kentucky and three in Indiana. It was scattered over nine years and embraced altogether less than twelve months of aggregate attendance.
In Kentucky it is probable that his only textbook was Webster's Elementary Speller. It was popularly known as the "Old Blueback."
Webster's Speller is a good speller and more. Each section of words to be spelled is followed by short sentences containing those words, and at the end of the book are three illustrated lessons in Natural History—one on The Mastiff, another on The Stag, and the third on The Squirrel. Besides these are seven fables, each with its illustration and its moral lesson. I used this book in teaching school in the backwoods of Kentucky, and still have the teacher's copy which I thus employed.
The two Kentucky schools which Lincoln attended were undoubtedly "blab" schools. The children were required to study aloud. Their audible repetition of their lessons was the teacher's only assurance that they were studying;[2] and even while he was hearing a class recite he would spend a portion of his time moving about the room with hickory switch in hand, administering frequent rebuke to those pupils who did not study loud enough to afford proof of their industry.
In Indiana, Lincoln came under the influence of men who could cipher as far as the Rule of Three. He also learned to use Lindley Murray's English Reader, which he always believed, and with much reason, to be the most useful textbook ever put into the hands of an American youth (Herndon, I, 37). He also studied Pike's Arithmetic. Grammar he did not study in school, but later learned it under Mentor Graham in Illinois.
[Pg 33]
The first of these schools was only about a mile and a half distant from his home; the last was four miles, and his attendance was irregular.
In the second school, taught by Andrew Crawford, he learned whatever he knew of the usages of polite society; for Crawford gave his pupils a kind of drill in social usages (Herndon, I, 37).
In Swaney's school he probably learned that the earth was round. A classmate, Katy Roby, afterward Mrs. Allen Gentry, between whom and Abraham a boy-and-girl attachment appears to have existed, and who at the time was fifteen and Abe seventeen, is authority for the statement that as they were sitting together on the bank of the Ohio River near Gentry's landing, wetting their bare feet in the flowing water and watching the sun go down, he told her that it was the revolution of the earth which made the moon and sun appear to rise and set. He exhibited what to her appeared a profound knowledge of astronomy (Herndon, I, 39; Lamon's Life, p. 70).
It is not necessary for us to assume that Abraham knew very much more about astronomy than the little which he told to Katy Roby; but it is worth while to note in passing that when Abraham Lincoln learned that the earth was round, he probably learned something which his father did not know and which would have been admitted by no minister whom Abraham had heard preach up to this time.
We are ready now to consider the character of the preaching which Abraham Lincoln heard in his boyhood. Direct testimony is fragmentary of necessity; but it is of such character that we are able without difficulty to make a consistent mental picture of the kind of religious service with which he was familiar.
A recent author has said that Lincoln never lived in a community having a church building until he went to the legislature in Vandalia in 1834 (Johnson, Lincoln the Christian, p. 31). This is probably true if we insist upon its meaning a house of worship owned exclusively by one denomination, but the same author reminds us that there was a log meeting[Pg 34]-house[3] within three miles of Lincoln's childhood home in Kentucky (p. 22).
Dr. Peters says:
"The prayers that Parson Elkin said above the mound of Nancy Hanks were the first public prayers to which Abraham ever listened"—Abraham Lincoln's Religion, p. 24.
This is absurdly incorrect. Abraham Lincoln almost certainly heard public prayers at intervals, probably from the time he was three months old.
Abraham Lincoln was born in February, or his mother probably would have taken him to church earlier; but by May or June, when there was monthly preaching at the log meeting-house three miles away, she mounted a horse and Thomas Lincoln another, he with Sarah sitting before him at the saddlebow and she with Abraham in her arms, and they rode to meeting. If they had had but one horse instead of two they would have gone just the same. She would have sat behind Thomas with Abraham in her arms and Thomas would have had Sarah on the horse before him. Thomas Lincoln was too shiftless to have a horse-block, but Nancy could mount her horse from any one of the numerous stumps in the vicinity of the home. She and every other young mother in the neighborhood knew how to ride and carry a baby, and having once learned the art, the young mother was not permitted to forget it for several years.
Arrived at the log meeting-house, they hitched their horses to swinging limbs, where the animals could fight flies without breaking the bridle-reins. Nancy went inside immediately and took her seat on the left side of the room; Thomas remained outside gossiping with his neighbors concerning "craps" and politics, and maybe swapping a horse before the service had gotten fairly under way. After a while he heard the preacher in stentorian tones lining and singing the opening hymn, the[Pg 35] thin, high voices of the women joining him feebly at first but growing a little more confident as the hymn proceeded. Then Thomas and his neighbors straggled in and sat on the right side of the house. The floor was puncheon and so were the seats; they were rudely split slabs, roughly hewn, and the second sitting from either end had an added element of discomfort in the projection of the two legs that had been driven in from the under side and were not sawed off flush with the surface of the slab. There were no glass windows. On either side of the house one section of a log may have been sawed out about four feet from the floor; but most of the light of the interior came in through the open door in mild weather, or was afforded by the fireplace in cold weather.
On the rude pulpit lay the preacher's Bible and hymn book, if he had a hymn book—no one else had one; and beside these were a bucket of water and a gourd. There was no time in the service when Thomas Lincoln did not feel free to walk up to the pulpit and drink a gourd of water, and the same was true of every other member of the congregation, the preacher included. As for Nancy, she spread her riding-skirt on the seat under her and when her baby grew hungry she nursed him just as the other women nursed their babies.
To such congregations the author of this present book preached hundreds of times in the woods of Kentucky; and there is no essential feature of the church services which he does not know.
In the autumn, just before fodder-pulling time, there was an occasional camp-meeting or big revival, followed by a baptizing, which brought multitudes of people from long distances. They brought their provisions, or they stayed with friends, one cabin proving elastic enough to accommodate two or three households. Under these conditions the author of this book has slept many nights in houses of one room, with as many beds as the room could well contain, inhabited not only by the family but by visitors of both sexes; and in all that experience he is unable to recall any incident that was immodest.
When the converts of the camp-meeting or revival were[Pg 36] baptized, they were led into the water with due solemnity; but as each one came to the surface he or she was likely to break forth into shouting, a proceeding which, as the author can testify, was sometimes embarrassing, if not indeed perilous,[4] to the officiating clergyman.
Herndon tells us of the fondness of the Hanks girls for camp-meeting and describes one in which Nancy appears to have participated a little time before her marriage (I, 14). We have no reason to believe that that was her last camp-meeting.
Thomas Lincoln is alleged by Herndon to have been a Free-will Baptist in Kentucky, a Presbyterian in the latter part of his life in Indiana, and finally a Disciple (I, 11). He does not state where he obtained his information, but it is almost certain that he got it from Sally Bush Lincoln on the occasion of his visit to her in 1865; as she is the accredited source of most of the information of this character.
I am more than tempted to believe that either she or Herndon was incorrect in speaking of Thomas Lincoln's earliest affiliation as a Free-will Baptist. There were more kinds of Baptists in heaven and on earth than were understood in her philosophy; and I question whether the Free-will Baptists, who originated in New England, had by this time penetrated to so remote a section of Kentucky. What she probably told Herndon was that he was not of the most reactionary kind—the so-called "Hardshell" or anti-missionary Baptists. Of them we shall have something to say later. The Scripps biography, read and approved by Lincoln, said simply that his parents were consistent members of the Baptist Church. Nicolay and Hay do not record the membership of Thomas Lincoln in the Presbyterian Church, and one is more than tempted to question the accuracy of Herndon at this point. Presbyterianism had at that date very little part in the shaping[Pg 37] of the life of the backwoods of Illinois and Indiana, as we shall see when we come to the life of Lincoln in Illinois. Nicolay and Hay tell us that "Thomas Lincoln joined the Baptist church at Little Pigeon in 1823. His oldest child, Sarah, followed his example three years later. They were known as consistent and active members of that communion" (Nicolay and Hay, I, 32-33). If Sarah joined the Baptist church in 1826, and the family was remembered as active in that church, the relation of Thomas Lincoln with the Presbyterians in Indiana must have been brief, for he left that State in 1830. We are assured that he observed religious customs in his home and asked a blessing at the table; for one day, when the meal consisted only of potatoes, Abraham said to his father, that he regarded those as "mighty poor blessings" (Herndon, I, 24). While Thomas Lincoln was not an energetic man, there is no reason to doubt the consistency of his religion, in which he was certainly aided by Sally Bush Lincoln. That he died in the fellowship either of the Disciples or of the New Lights is probably correct; but the Presbyterian membership in Indiana, while not impossible, appears more likely to have been a mistake in Herndon's interpretation of Mrs. Lincoln's narrative.
Herndon's statement concerning Thomas Lincoln's religion is as follows:
"In his religious belief he first affiliated with the Free-will Baptists. After his removal to Indiana he changed his adherence to the Presbyterians—or Predestinarians, as they were then called—and later united with the Christian—vulgarly called Campbellite—Church, in which latter faith he is supposed to have died" (I, 11-12).
I am satisfied that Herndon is mistaken in two if not in all three of these assertions. I am confident that Predestinarian was not a popular or commonly understood name for Presbyterians, but it was a name for one type of Baptists. Mrs. Lincoln probably told Herndon that her husband joined in Indiana, not the hardshell, or most reactionary kind of Baptists, but the Predestinarians. Knowing that predestina[Pg 38]tion was a doctrine of Presbyterianism, Mr. Herndon assumed that that was what the name implied. It implied nothing of the sort. Thomas Lincoln probably belonged to the old Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, not quite as hard in their shell as the Hardshells, but very different from the Free-will Baptists or the Presbyterians, the kind whose preachers were accustomed to shout—"I'd rather have a hard shell than no shell at all!"
Dennis Hanks[5] was far from being impeccable authority on matters where his imagination permitted him to enlarge, but he seldom forgot anything, and still less frequently made it smaller than it really was. If Thomas Lincoln had ever sustained any relation to the Presbyterian Church, he would surely have told it, or some member of his family, jealous as those members were for the reputation of "Grandfather Lincoln," would not have failed to report it. In his interview with Mrs. Eleanor Atkinson, in which his family participated, Dennis evinced a definite attempt to set forth Thomas Lincoln in as favorable a light as possible, and there was a high and deserved tribute to his "Aunt Sairy," Thomas Lincoln's second wife.
"Aunt Sairy sartainly did have faculty. I reckon we was all purty ragged and dirty when she got there. The fust thing she did was to tell me to tote one of Tom's carpenter benches to a place outside the door, near the hoss trough. Then she had me an' Abe an' John Johnson, her boy, fill the trough with spring water. She put out a gourd full of soft soap, and another one to dip water with, an' told us boys to wash up fur dinner. You just naturally had to be somebody when Aunt Sairy was around. She had Tom build her a loom, an' when she heerd o' some lime burners bein' round Gentryville, Tom had to mosey over an' git some lime an' whitewash the cabin. An' he made her an ash hopper fur lye, an' a chicken-house nothin' could git into. Then—te-he-he-he!—she set some kind of a dead-fall trap fur him, an' got Tom to jine the Baptist Church. Cracky, but Aunt Sally was some punkins!"—American Magazine, February, 1908, p. 364.
[Pg 39]
I am of opinion that what Mrs. Sarah Bush Lincoln told Herndon was that her husband sometimes attended the Presbyterian service, and that the church he joined was the Baptist, but not the Hardshell Baptist. But evidence is wholly lacking that he had any connection with the Presbyterian Church, or with the Free-will Baptists, of which latter sect he probably never heard.
The church at Farmington of which Thomas Lincoln became a member is not now in existence. I have endeavored through investigation in Farmington, and by correspondence with Mr. Robert T. Lincoln, to ascertain its denomination. It called itself "Christian," and Herndon did not doubt that that name indicated that it was a church of the denomination sometimes called "Campbellite." But that is not certain. Other denominations claim that as their distinctive name, and one of them was at that time active in that part of Illinois. My inquiries have brought me no certain knowledge on this point; but Mr. Jesse W. Weik is of opinion that the denomination was that known as "New Light." It is possible that Herndon was in error in every one of his three affirmations concerning the religion of Thomas Lincoln, and that the President's father was never a Free-will Baptist, never a Presbyterian, and never a Disciple or Campbellite. I have endeavored to learn whether his change from the Baptist to the "Christian" church was a matter of conviction or convenience, but on this I have found nothing except a statement from the minister who buried him, in which it would appear that his change of polity was a matter of conviction. This minister spoke very highly of Thomas Lincoln, whom he had known well in the latter years of his life.
There has been undue attempt to credit the pious boy Abraham with the religious service conducted over the grave of his mother by Rev. David Elkin[6] some months after her[Pg 40] demise. There is no good authority for this legend. Herndon probably tells the truth about it:
"Within a few months, and before the close of the winter, David Elkin, an itinerant preacher whom Mrs. Lincoln had known in Kentucky, happened into the settlement, and in response to the invitation from the family and friends, delivered a funeral sermon over her grave. No one is able now to remember the language of Parson Elkin's discourse, but it is recalled that he commemorated the virtues and good phases of character, and passed in silence the few shortcomings and frailties of the poor woman sleeping under the winter's snow."
—Herndon, I, 28.
This does not compel us to believe that there had been no preacher in the Pigeon Creek settlement since the death of Nancy Hanks.[7] It was customary among these Kentucky-bred people to hold the funeral service some weeks or months after the burial. The author of this volume has attended many such services.
The reasons require some explanation. The dead were commonly buried on the day following death. There were, of course, no facilities for embalming or preserving the corpse for any great length of time. Preachers were nearly all farmers; and the particular minister with whose church the family was[Pg 41] affiliated might be living at a considerable distance and be at that time at some distant place upon his wide circuit. No minister expected to preach every Sunday in any one place. A monthly appointment was the maximum attempted; and the more remote settlements were not reached statedly by any one preacher oftener than once in three months. There were occasional services, however, by other ministers riding through the country and preaching wherever they stayed overnight. It was the author's custom when coming unexpectedly into a valley to spread word up and down the creek that there would be preaching that night in the schoolhouse or in the home where he was entertained. The impromptu announcement never failed to bring a congregation.
What took David Elkin into Indiana we do not know. He may have been looking for a better farm than he had in Kentucky, where he could dig out a living between his preaching appointments. He may have been burdened for the souls of certain families formerly under his care and now gone out like the Lincolns into a howling wilderness. The late summer and early autumn between the end of corn-plowing and the beginning of fodder-pulling afforded such a minister opportunity to throw his saddlebags over his horse and start on a longer circuit than usual; and the winter gave him still another opportunity for long absence. He took no money and he collected none, or next to none, but he had free welcome everywhere with pork and corn pone for supper and fried chicken for breakfast. Many a time the author of this volume has ridden up to a house just before suppertime, has partaken with the family of its customary cornbread and bacon or ham, and after preaching and a good night's rest has been wakened in the morning before the rising of the sun by a muffled squawk and flutter as one or more chickens were pulled down out of the trees. After this fashion did the people of the backwoods welcome the messengers of the Lord.
Not necessarily on his next appearance in a settlement is the preacher requested to conduct the funeral service of persons deceased since his last visit. The matter is arranged with more of deliberation. A date is set some time ahead and word is[Pg 42] sent to distant friends.[8] After a time of general sickness such as had visited Pigeon Creek in the epidemic of the "milk sick," Parson Elkin may have had several funerals to preach in the same cemetery or at the schoolhouse nearest at hand. I have known a half-dozen funerals to be included in one sermon with full biographical particulars of each decedent and detailed descriptions of all the deathbed scenes, together with rapturous forecasts of the future bliss of the good people who were dead and abundant warnings of the flaming hell that awaited their impenitent neighbors. Even those people who had not been noted for their piety during life were almost invariably slipped into heaven through a deathbed repentance or by grace of the uncovenanted mercies of God. It is the business of all preachers to be very stern with the living and very charitable toward the dead.[9]
I must add a further word about the custom of deferred funerals. Although the burial was conducted without religious service, it was not permitted to be celebrated in neglect. The news that a man was dying would bring the sympathetic neighbors from miles around, and horses would be tied up the creek[Pg 43] and down while people waited in friendly sorrow and conversed in hushed voices in the presence of the solemn dignity of death. That night a group of neighbors would "sit up" with the dead, and keep the family awake with frequent and lugubrious song.
Next day the grave must be dug; and that required a considerable part of the male population of the settlement. If only two or three men came in the morning they would sit and wait for others and go home for the dinner and come back. It thus has happened more than once in my experience that we have brought the body to the burial and have had to wait an hour or more in sun or wind for the finishing of the digging of the grave.
I remember well an instance in which death occurred in the family of one of the county officials. His wife died suddenly, and under sad conditions. I mounted my horse and rode four or five miles to his home. I hitched my horse to the low-swinging limb of a beech tree and threaded my way among other horses into the yard, which was filled with men, and up to the porch, which was crowded with women. Passing inside, I spoke my word of sympathy to the grief-stricken husband and his children. Then I passed out into the yard and moved from group to group among the men. Presently a neighbor of the sorrowing husband approached me and asked me to step aside with him for private converse. This was strictly in accordance with the custom of the country, and I walked with him behind the corn-crib. He said to me: "Mr. McCune"—naming the bereaved husband—"wants to know whether you have come here as a preacher or as a neighbor?" I answered, "Tell him that I have come as a neighbor." With this word he returned to the house. Up on the hillside I could see the leisurely movements of the grave-diggers. From the shed behind the house came the rhythmic tap of the hammer driving in the tacks that fastened the white glazed muslin lining of the home-made coffin. We had some little time still to wait before either the grave or the coffin would be finished. Presently the neighbor returned to where I waited behind the corn-crib and brought with him Mr. McCune. The[Pg 44] latter shook my hand warmly and said, in substance: "I appreciate your coming and the respect which you thus show for me and for my dead wife. I was glad to see you come when you entered the house, but was a little embarrassed because I knew it to be your custom to preach the funeral sermon at the time of the burial. I have no objection to that custom; and while we are Baptists [he pronounced it Babtist, and so I have no doubt did Thomas Lincoln], there is no man whom I would rather have preach my wife's sermon than you. We shall undoubtedly have a Baptist preacher when the time for the funeral comes, but I hope you also will be present and participate in the service. But it is not our custom to hold the service at the time of the burial, and we have distant friends who should be notified. Moreover, there is another consideration. I have been twice married, and I never yet have got round to it to have my first wife's funeral preached. It seems to me that it would be a discourtesy to my first wife's memory to have my second wife's sermon preached before the first. What I now plan to do is to have the two funerals at once, and I hope you will be present and participate."
I need only add that before I departed from that region he was comfortably married to his third wife, not having gotten round to it to have the funeral sermon of either of his first two wives. I am unable to say whether when he finally got round to it there was any increase in the number. It never was my fortune to conduct the joint funeral of two wives of the same man at the same time; but I have more than once been present where a second wife was prominent among the mourners; and I sometimes believed her to be sincerely sorry that the first wife was dead.
It is not easy for people who have not lived amid these conditions and at the same time to have known other conditions to estimate aright the religious life of a backwoods community. Morse, whose biography of Lincoln is to be rated high, is completely unable to view this situation from other than his New England standpoint. He says:
"The family was imbued with a peculiar, intense, but unenlightened form of Christianity, mingled with curious[Pg 45] superstition, prevalent in the backwoods, and begotten by the influence of the vast wilderness upon illiterate men of a rude native force. It interests scholars to trace the evolution of religious faiths, but it might not be less suggestive to study the retrogression of religion into superstition. Thomas Lincoln was as restless in matters of creed as of residence, and made various changes in both during his life. These were, however, changes without improvement, and, so far as he was concerned, his son Abraham might have grown up to be what he himself was contented to remain" (I, 10).
This criticism is partly just, but not wholly so. There was superstition enough in the backwoods religion, and Abraham Lincoln never wholly divested himself of it; but it was not all superstition. There was a very real religion on Pigeon Creek.
In like manner, also, it is difficult for Lincoln's biographers to strike an even balance between adoring idealization of log-cabin life and horrified exaggeration of its squalor. Here again Morse is a classic example of the attempt to be so honest about Lincoln's poverty as to miss some part of the truth about it.
The Lincoln family was poor, even as poverty was estimated in the backwoods. Lincoln himself was painfully impressed with the memory of it, and Herndon and Lamon, who understood it better than most of his biographers, felt both for themselves and for Lincoln the pathos of his descent from "the poor whites"; but there is no evidence that Lincoln felt this seriously at the time. His melancholy came later, and was not the direct heritage of his childhood poverty. Life had its joys for families such as his. Poverty was accepted as in some sort the common lot, and also as a temporary condition out of which everybody expected sometime to emerge. Meantime the boy Abraham Lincoln had not only the joy of going to mill and to meeting, but also the privilege of an occasional frolic. We know of one or two boisterous weddings where he behaved himself none too well. Besides these there were other unrecorded social events on Pigeon Creek where the platter rolled merrily and he had to[Pg 46] untangle his long legs from under the bench and move quickly when his number was called or pay a forfeit and redeem it. He played "Skip-to-My-Lou" and "Old Bald Eagle, Sail Around," and "Thus the Farmer Sows His Seed," and he moved around the room singing about the millwheel and had to grab quickly when partners were changed or stand in the middle and be ground between the millstones. As large a proportion of people's known wants were satisfied on Pigeon Creek as on some fashionable boulevards. We need not seek to hide his poverty nor idealize it unduly; neither is it necessary to waste overmuch of pity upon people who did not find their own condition pitiable.
What kind of man had been produced in this environment and as the result of the conditions of his heredity and of his inherent qualities? What do we know about the Abraham Lincoln who in 1830 took simultaneous leave of Indiana and his boyhood, and entered at once upon his manhood and the new State, that, twin-born with him, was waiting his arrival?
He was a tall, awkward, uncouth backwoodsman, strong of muscle, temperate and morally clean. He had physical strength and was not a bully; was fond of a fight but fought fairly and as a rule on the side of weakness and of right. He was free from bad habits of all kinds, was generous, sympathetic, and kind of heart. He was as yet uninfluenced by any women except his own dead mother and his stepmother. He was socially shy, and had not profited greatly by the meager lessons in social usage which had been taught in Andrew Crawford's school. He was fond of cock-fighting and of boisterous sports, and had a sufficient leadership to proclaim himself "the big buck of the lick" and to have that declaration pass unchallenged.
He could read, write, and cipher, and was eager for learning. He was ambitious, but his ambitions had no known focus. He was only moderately industrious, but could work hard when he had to do so. He had some ambition to write and to speak in public, but as yet he had little idea what he was to write or speak about. He was a great, hulking back[Pg 47]woodsman, with vague and haunting aspirations after something better and larger than he had known or seemed likely to achieve.
What do we know about the spiritual development of the young Boanerges who grew almost overnight in his eleventh year into a six-footer and was so wearied by the effort that he was slow of body and mind and was thought by some to be lazy ever afterward?
We know the books he read—the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, ?sop's Fables, Robinson Crusoe, and Weems' Life of Washington. It was a good collection, and he made the most of it. Sarah Bush Lincoln noted that while he did not like to work he liked to read, and she said, "I induced my husband to permit Abe to study" (Herndon, I, 36).
John Hanks said of him, "He kept the Bible and ?sop's Fables always within reach, and read them over and over again."
Sarah Bush did not claim that he showed any marked preference for the Bible. Lamon quotes her as saying, "He seemed to have a preference for the other books" (Life, pp. 34, 486). But he certainly read the Bible with diligence, as his whole literary style shows. Indeed, if we had only his coarse "First Chronicles of Reuben," which we could heartily wish he had never written, and whose publication in Herndon's first edition was one of the chief reasons for an expurgated edition,[10] we should know that even then Abe Lincoln, rough, uncouth and vulgar as he was, was modeling his style upon the Bible.
We are told that when he went to church he noted the oddities of the preachers and afterward mimicked them (Lamon: Life, pp. 55, 486). This might have been expected, for two reasons. First, he had a love of fun and of very boisterous fun at that; secondly, he had a fondness for oratory, and this was the only kind of oratory he knew anything about.
[Pg 48]
It is a remarkable fact that the Lincoln family appears never at any time in its history to have been strongly under the influence of Methodism.[11] This is not because they did not know of it; no pioneer could hide so deep in the wilderness as to be long hidden from the Methodist circuit riders. But the prevailing and almost the sole type of religion in that part of Indiana during Lincoln's boyhood was Baptist, and in spite of all that Mrs. Lincoln believed about the freedom of it, it was a very unprogressive type of preaching. The preachers bellowed and spat and whined, and cultivated an artificial "holy tone" and denounced the Methodists and blasphemed the Presbyterians and painted a hell whose horror even in the backwoods was an atrocity. Against it the boy Abe Lincoln rebelled. Many another boy with an active mind has been driven by the same type of preaching into infidelity.
Dr. Johnson quotes as indicative of the religious mind of the young Lincoln the four lines[12] which in his fourteenth year he wrote on the flyleaf of his schoolbook, and the two lines which he wrote in the copybook of a schoolmate:
"Abraham Lincoln
his hand and pen—
he will be good but
God knows When";
[Pg 49]
"Good boys who to their books apply
Will all be great men by and by."
Commenting on these Dr. Johnson says: "These show two things: First, that the youthful boy had faith in his mother's God; and, second, that he believed his mother's teachings."[13]
In like manner Dr. Johnson takes the four hymns which Dennis Hanks remembered to have been sung by himself and Abe and says:
"A soul that can appreciate these hymns must recognize, first, that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin; second, that Jesus Christ died upon the Cross for the salvation of the world; third, that life without the Saviour is an empty bubble, and, fourth, that loyal devotion to the Christ and his cause is man's highest calling, and the test of true character."—Lincoln the Christian, pp. 28-29.
This is very far-fetched. It shows only that Abe sang such songs, good, bad, and indifferent, as were current in his day, and without any very fine discrimination either in songs sacred or secular. If one were to make a creed out of any of his poetry in this period, it were better to find it in his jingle, about the Kickapoo Indian, Johnny Kongapod.[14] He was supposed to have composed an epitaph for himself that ran on this wise:
"Here lies poor Johnny Kongapod;
Have mercy on him, gracious God,
As he would do if he was God
And you were Johnny Kongapod."
[Pg 50]
It matters not for our purpose that these lines were not strictly original with Johnny Kongapod. We meet them in George Macdonald's story "David Elginbrod," and they have been used doubtless in rural England for generations. But they involve a certain rude and noble faith that the Judge of all the earth will do right and that divine justice and human justice have a common measure. Lincoln never forgot that, and he learned it on Pigeon Creek.
Herndon is our authority, if we needed any, that the Baptist preaching of Lincoln's boyhood made him a lifelong fatalist.[15] He emerged into manhood with the conviction that "whatever is to be will be," and Mrs. Lincoln declared that this was his answer to threats concerning his assassination; that it had been his lifelong creed and continued still to be the ruling dogma of his life.
It would have gladdened the heart of Sarah Bush if her stepson, whom she loved with a tenderness almost surpassing that which she bestowed upon her own flesh and blood, had manifested in his youth some signs of that irresistible grace which was supposed to carry the assurance of conversion as an act not of man but of the Holy Spirit. He did not manifest that grace in the form in which she desired. She could not consistently blame him very much, for, according to her own creed and that of Thomas Lincoln, nothing that he could have done of his own volition would have mattered very much.
Horace Bushnell's Christian Nurture had not yet been written; and if it had there was not a preacher among the Baptists in southern Indiana who would not have denounced it as a creation of the devil. There were no Sunday schools in those churches, and when they began to appear they were vigorously opposed. There was no Christian nurture for the boy Abe Lincoln save the sincere but lethargic religion of his father and the motherly ministrations of his stepmother.
But "Abe was a good boy." With tears in her eyes Sarah Bush could remember that he never gave her a cross word. He was unregenerate, but not unlovable; and he had more faith than perhaps he realized.

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