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HOME > Short Stories > The Soul of Abraham Lincoln > CHAPTER VI THE ENVIRONMENT OF LINCOLN'S LIFE IN
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 WASHINGTON Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated sixteenth president of the United States, on Monday, March 4, 1861. His journey to Washington had served to impress him even more deeply than before with a sense of the solemnity of his task. He still was earnestly hoping, and if we may judge from his speeches along the route, even expecting, that war would be averted;[22] but the possibility of war was always apparent and its probability was growing daily more certain.
Several incidents are related tending to show the solemnity of Lincoln's feeling at this time. Some of them are plainly apocryphal, but others are deeply significant. The following was related by Rev. Dr. Miner, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Springfield, who was intimately acquainted with the Lincoln family and who visited them in the White House. This story he declared was related to him by Mrs. Lincoln on the occasion of his visit to the White House and was published while Mrs. Lincoln was still living. It appears to rest upon a sound basis of fact:
"Here I relate an incident which occurred on the 4th of March, 1861, as told me by Mrs. Lincoln. Said she:
"'Mr. Lincoln wrote the conclusion of his inaugural address the morning it was delivered. The family being present, he read it to them. He then said he wished to be left alone for a short time. The family retired to an adjoining room, but not so far distant but that the voice of prayer could be distinctly heard. There, closeted with God alone, surrounded by the enemies who were ready to take his life, he commended his[Pg 87] country's cause and all dear to him to God's providential care, and with a mind calmed by communion with his Father in heaven, and courage equal to the danger, he came forth from that retirement ready for duty.'"—Scribner's Monthly, 1873, p. 343.
Fort Sumter fell April 13, and on the 15th Lincoln issued his call for volunteers, and called Congress in extraordinary session for July 4. On July 21 occurred the battle of Bull Run, and the war settled down to its weary and varying fortunes. On September 22, 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect January 1, 1863. The battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1-4, 1863, and destroyed the hope of the Southern Army of a successful invasion of the North. Simultaneously with Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, General Grant captured Vicksburg, opening the Mississippi to the union gunboats. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address. On March 4, 1865, he was inaugurated President a second time. On Sunday, April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox. On Friday night, April 14, at 10:20 P.M., Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater and died on Saturday morning, April 15, at 7:22. On Thursday, May 4, his body was interred at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
During his residence in Washington, Mr. Lincoln habitually attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. He was a warm personal friend of the pastor, Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, D.D., whose grandson, Captain Gurley of the War Department, relates that Lincoln sat with Dr. Gurley on the rear porch of the White House during the second battle of Bull Run, and when the strain had become almost unbearable he knelt in prayer and Mr. Lincoln knelt beside him and joined reverently in the petition. Dr. Gurley's testimonies to the religious development of Lincoln's life were conservative, and bear upon their face marks of trustworthiness. There are no extravagant claims; no florid and declamatory theological affirmations,[23] but such as this which Dr. Gurley remembers[Pg 88] to have heard Lincoln say to a company of clergymen calling upon him in one of the darkest times in the Civil War:
"My hope of success in this struggle rests on that immutable foundation, the justness and the goodness of God; and when events are very threatening I still hope that in some way all will be well in the end, because our cause is just and God will be on our side."—Scribner's Magazine, 1873, p. 339.
Lincoln sometimes varied this form of expression and said that he was less anxious to proclaim that God was on his side than he was to be sure that he was on God's side.
During this period Lincoln had frequent occasion to meet delegations from religious bodies and to reply to their addresses. We shall have occasion later to consider some of his words to these different religious bodies. He also issued a number of proclamations, calling for days of fasting and prayer and days of thanksgiving, in which he expressed not only the formal sentiment which he might assume represented the mind of the people, but also to a considerable extent what must have been his own religious conviction.
An unbiased reading of these proclamations and addresses compels the reader to recognize in them, not merely the formal courtesy of an official to the representatives of large and influential bodies, but the sincere expression of his own faith. An illustration may be found in his attitude toward the Quakers. No religious body suffered more during the Civil War, and with no religious fellowship did Mr. Lincoln feel a more instinctive sympathy, though he was compelled by the logic of events to pursue courses of action in contravention of their desires and at times of their convictions.
In September, 1862, he received a delegation of Friends, and listened to an address on their behalf by Mrs. Eliza P. Gurney, wife of Joseph John Gurney, a wealthy banker, entreating him on behalf of their peace-loving organization to bring the war to a speedy end. He could not do what they wished, and moreover, he believed that it was not the will of God that the war should end till it had wrought out the purposes of the Divine will. He said:
[Pg 89]
"I am glad of this interview, and glad to know that I have your sympathy and prayers. We are indeed going through a great trial—a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out His great purposes, 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; but if, after endeavoring to do my best in the light which He affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced. If I had been allowed my way, this war would have been ended before this; but we find it still continues, and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of His own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe that He who made the world still governs it."
We are not permitted to believe that on this and similar occasions Mr. Lincoln met the situation with words of pious evasion, or that what he said was simply what he thought he might be expected to say. Some months after this interview Mrs. Gurney, being then in London, wrote to Mr. Lincoln. He could easily have acknowledged the letter without committing himself to any religious expression. For several months he kept the letter, and then, on September 4, 1864, he wrote to her as follows:
"My esteemed Friend: I have not forgotten—probably never shall forget—the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, ever been forgotten. In all it has been your purpose to strengthen my reliance on God. I am much indebted to the good Christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations; and to no one of them more than to yourself. The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best and ruled[Pg 90] otherwise. 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. Your people, the Friends, have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle and faith opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma some have chosen one horn, and some the other. For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law. That you believe this, I doubt not, and believing it, I shall receive for my country and myself your earnest prayers to our Father in Heaven."
Of Lincoln's habit of public worship during his Presidency, Rev. William Henry Roberts, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly, writes in a foreword to Dr. Johnson's book:
"It was my privilege as a young man to have known Abraham Lincoln. Entering the service of the United States government in the fall of 1863, the first Sabbath of my sojourn in Washington City I went to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. When the time for the long prayer came, according to immemorial usage in many Presbyterian congregations, a number of the men stood up for prayer, and among those upright figures I noticed in particular that of the President of the United States. As a member of the New York Avenue Church I was seated not far from Mr. Lincoln at Sunday services for a year and a half, and his attitude was always that of an earnest and devout worshiper. He was also an attendant at the weekly meeting, though for a considerable period taking part in the services privately. It having become known that he was an attendant at the prayer meeting, many persons would gather in or near the church at the close of the service in order to have access to him for various purposes. Desiring to put an end to these unwelcome interruptions, the Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, the pastor of Mr. Lincoln, arranged to have the President sit in the pastor's room, the door of which opened upon the lecture room, and there Mr. Lincoln[Pg 91] would take a silent part in the service. He informed his pastor on several occasions that he had received great comfort from the meetings, and for the reason that they had been characterized more by prayer than by the making of addresses.
"Dr. Gurley bore repeated testimony to myself and to other members of the church of the deeply religious character of Mr. Lincoln, and it is with pleasure that I add this brief testimony from my own experience and observation.
"It will be fifty years next fall since I came into direct touch with the man, who in the providence of God was the liberator of a race, and I shall always hold in sweet and blessed memory my first sight of him, as a devout worshiper standing for prayer in the sanctuary of the Most High."—Abraham Lincoln the Christian, pp. 13-15.
I have copied direct from the original letter, in possession of Mr. Jesse W. Weik, Nicolay's letter to Herndon affirming that, to the best of his knowledge, Lincoln's belief did not change during his years in the White House. It was addressed to Herndon, and it reads:
"Executive Mansion,
"Washington, May 27, 1865.
"Friend Herndon:—
"I have this morning received your note of the 23rd inst. and reply at once.
"Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, change in any way his religious views, beliefs, or opinions from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death. I do not know just what they were, never having heard him explain them in detail; but I am very sure he gave no outward indication of his mind having undergone any change in that regard while here.
"Very truly,
"Jno. G. Nicolay.
"Hon. William H. Herndon."
While Nicolay's declaration that Lincoln gave no outward indication that his views had undergone any change during his residence in the White House is entitled to great weight, it is not wholly conclusive. It is quite possible that Mr. Lincoln[Pg 92] changed more than those who were closest to him every day realized, more, indeed, than he himself realized. Some men who had known him in earlier years and who met him from time to time while he was in the White House observed a change too subtle to be fully realized by those who saw him daily. Joshua Fry Speed knew Lincoln from the day Lincoln arrived in Springfield until his death. Indeed, he had known Lincoln earlier; but their intimate acquaintance began on the day when Lincoln received his law license and moved to Springfield, where he shared Speed's bed. Speed told of that incident frequently, how Lincoln came into his store, greatly depressed, asking to be permitted to purchase a single bed which he was not certain he could ever pay for; but Speed invited Lincoln to sleep with him in the room above the store. Lincoln carried his saddlebags upstairs and set them down, and came down the stairs with his countenance beaming, as he said, "Well, Speed, I've moved!" Lamon declares that Speed was "The most intimate friend Mr. Lincoln ever had at this or any other time" (Life of Lincoln, p. 231). Says Lamon: "He made to Speed the most confidential communications he ever made to mortal man. If he had on earth 'a bosom crony,' it was Speed, and that deep and abiding attachment subsisted unimpaired to the day of Lincoln's death." To Speed alone Lincoln gave his full confidence in the matter of his love affairs, and they talked together as men seldom talk to each other. Speaking out of a most intimate knowledge, Speed wrote in his lecture on Lincoln:
"I have often been asked what were Mr. Lincoln's religious opinions. When I knew him in early life, he was a skeptic. He had tried hard to be a believer, but his reason could not grasp and solve the great problem of redemption as taught. He was very cautious never to give expression to any thought or sentiment that would grate harshly upon a Christian ear. For a sincere Christian he had great respect. He often said that the most ambitious man might live to see every hope fail; but no Christian could live and see his hope fail, because fulfillment could only come when life ended. But this was a subject we never discussed. The only evidence I have of any[Pg 93] change, was in the summer before he was killed. I was invited out to the Soldiers' Home to spend the night. As I entered the room, near night, he was sitting near a window intently reading his Bible. Approaching him I said, 'I am glad to see you so profitably engaged.' 'Yes,' said he, 'I am profitably engaged.' 'Well,' said I, 'if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.' Looking me earnestly in the face, and placing his hand on my shoulder, he said, 'You are wrong, Speed; take all of this Book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.'"—Speed: Lecture on Abraham Lincoln, pp. 32, 33.
The Bible which the colored people presented to Lincoln was kept and prized by him. Hon. H. C. Deming, in his address before the Legislature of Connecticut, just after Lincoln's death, referred to it:
"The interview which I am recalling was last summer [1864] just after General Fremont had declined to run against him for the Presidency. The magnificent Bible, which the negroes of Washington[24] had just presented to him lay upon the table, and while we were both examining it, I recited the somewhat remarkable passage from the Chronicles, 'Eastward were six Levites, northward four a day, southward four a day, and toward Assuppim two and two. At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar.'[25] He immediately challenged me to find any such passage as that in his Bible. After I had pointed it out to him, and he was satisfied of its genuineness, he asked me if I remembered the text which his friends had applied to Fremont, and instantly turned to a verse in the first of Samuel, put on his spectacles, and read in his slow, peculiar, and waggish tone,—'And everyone that was in distress and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented gathered themselves unto[Pg 94] him; and he became a captain over them: and there were with him about four hundred men.'"[26]
There are two interesting facts about this incident related by Representative Deming. One is that Lincoln knew his Bible well enough to challenge an unfamiliar passage and require that it be shown to him before believing that the Bible contained it. Only a man who had read his Bible much would have been so confident. The other is that this story recalled to Mr. Deming that very important declaration of Lincoln which is attested by a number of other credible witnesses in substance, but which Deming first gave to the world in his notable address:
"I am here reminded of an impressive remark which he made to me upon another occasion, and which I shall never forget. He said, he had never united himself to any church, because he found difficulty in giving his assent, without mental reservations, to the long complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their Articles of Belief and Confessions of Faith. 'When any church,' he continued, 'will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Saviour'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.'"—Eulogy upon Abraham Lincoln, before the General Assembly of Connecticut, 1865, p. 42.
Henry C. Whitney knew Lincoln well, from the days of their circuit riding in Illinois till Lincoln's death. His testimony is valuable:
"Mr. Lincoln was a fatalist: he believed, and often said, that
'There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will,'
[Pg 95]
and as a corollary from this belief, that the Almighty controlled the affairs of men and made the wrath of men to praise Him. In all stages of his administration and before, commencing with his first public utterance after his election, he declared that with God's help he should succeed, and without it he would fail. Likewise, before he was run for the Presidency, he made frequent references to God in the same spirit of devoutness and trust; and, therefore, he was honest; honest with his Father on his dying bed, honest in what he feared was (and which proved to be) his last affectionate farewell to his neighbors, honest to the many eminent bands of clergymen and Christian people who visited him, and honest with his Cabinet in the most important consultation it ever held; then Lincoln, whether as man or as President, believed in God as the Ruler of the Universe, in a blessed hereafter, and in the efficacy of prayer. . . . Mr. Lincoln believed himself to be an instrument of God; and that, as God willed, so would the contest be. He also believed in prayer and its efficacy, and that God willed the destruction of slavery through his instrumentality, and he believed in the Church of God as an important auxiliary."—Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 267-68.
Among the men in Washington who best knew the mind of Abraham Lincoln was Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and afterward Vice-President under General Grant. In his memorial address delivered just after the assassination, he paid a high tribute to the deep religious spirit of Lincoln as he knew it, and said:
"Nor should I forget to mention that the last Act of Congress signed by him was one requiring that the motto, in which he sincerely believed, 'In God we trust' should hereafter be inscribed upon all our national coins."—Hon. Schuyler Colfax, in Memorial Address in Chicago, April 30, 1865.
During his residence in the White House Mr. Lincoln again met the discipline of personal bereavement. His son Willie died. There is conflict of testimony as to Mr. Lincoln's love for his wife, though the present writer believes that he truly loved her, but no one who knew him ever doubted his[Pg 96] devotion to his children. The death of this little boy, William Wallace, who was born in Springfield, December 21, 1850, and died in the White House, February 20, 1862, seemed, according to the testimony of Mrs. Lincoln, to turn his thoughts more to religion. It must have recalled to him all that had occurred when his other boy died in Springfield, and it brought new and solemn thoughts and possibly convictions.
Moreover, he was now father to the boys of a nation. They were marching at his order, singing,
"We are coming, Father Abraham,
Six hundred thousand more."
They were laying down their young lives for a cause that he told them was holy. How he felt for the fathers and mothers of the land, his letter to Mrs. Bixby and his countless deeds of mercy testify. Again and again, as Ingersoll well said, he abused his great power on the side of mercy and never otherwise. The deepening sense of responsibility, as he affirmed, again and again drove him to his knees (Noah Brooks in Harper's Monthly for July, 1885). Did he consciously change his theology? Very likely not; but he certainly became a more and more deeply religious man under the discipline of these experiences.
Perhaps more than all else, the moral aspects of the slavery question thrust themselves into a foremost place in his religious thinking. We need not trouble ourselves overmuch about the accuracy of John Hanks's story that when Lincoln saw slaves sold in the market in New Orleans he vowed to "hit that institution and hit it hard"; part of that story may have originated in John's fertile imagination. But the story is not an unworthy one, and we know from Lincoln's own declaration that on that very occasion he was smitten with a sense of the iniquity of slavery, and that on its moral rather than its political side. That he freed the slaves as a war measure, and that he must thus justify the action as an extra-constitutional prerogative, need not lessen in our mind the moral aspects of the decision. The evidence is incontestable, and we shall quote[Pg 97] it later, that to him it was a solemn obligation, the fulfillment of a vow which he had made to God.
We are presently to go into a detailed examination of the available evidence concerning Lincoln's religious life. We are here considering his environment in the successive stages of his career, and his visible reaction to it. But even if we were to go no further, we should find ourselves compelled to believe in the reality of Lincoln's religion. We might not be able accurately to define it, and we may not be able to do so to our complete satisfaction after we have finished; we might even question, and we may still question, whether he himself ever fully defined it. But we are assured that his religion was real and genuine, and that it grew more vital as he faced more completely the moral and spiritual aspects of the work to which, as he honestly believed, he was divinely called.
When General Lee surrendered his armies on April 9, 1865, Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, though not a very religious man in his profession, felt with the whole nation the Providence of God in the result. He surrounded the dome of the Capitol with a transparency, reading, "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes."
He believed it; the nation believed it; Abraham Lincoln believed it. That conviction that the hand of God had been in it all had but lately been expressed in his Second Inaugural. That faith was warm in his heart, and its expression fresh upon his lips, when on April 14, 1865, he was shot and killed.
So ended the earthly life of Abraham Lincoln; and with that end came the beginning of the discussion of his religion. To the history of that discussion, and the critical consideration of the evidence which it adduced, we are now to address ourselves.

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