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HOME > Short Stories > The Soul of Abraham Lincoln > CHAPTER XXI WHY DID LINCOLN NEVER JOIN THE CHURCH?
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 Mr. Thomas Lewis, attorney in Springfield with an office on the same floor and an elder in the First Presbyterian Church, informs us that there was some real expectation that Lincoln would have united with that church in Springfield after his views had been modified through the influence of Dr. Smith. He says that Lincoln attended with considerable regularity a series of revival meetings in progress in the church, but was out of town when application was made for church membership and the officers of the church were disappointed that he did not then unite. Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, of Washington, tells of conversations with Lincoln concerning religion and of some expressed desires on the part of Lincoln for church fellowship. His feeling of support in prayer was manifest in his coming to the mid-week prayer service, where, however, as Dr. Gurley affirms, he commonly sat in the pastor's room with an open door, hearing the prayers that were offered but preferring not to attract attention by his visible presence.
The best statement, and one that has been accepted as truly representative of Lincoln's feeling with regard to church membership, is one that comes to us on thoroughly good authority and from the period immediately following Lincoln's death.
Hon. Henry C. Deming, member of Congress from Connecticut, in a memorial address given before the Legislature of Connecticut, June 8, 1865, related that he had asked Mr. Lincoln why he never united with a church, and Mr. Lincoln answered:
"I have never united myself to any church, because I have found difficulty in giving my assent, without mental reservation, to the long, complicated statements of Christian[Pg 245] doctrine which characterize their articles of belief and confessions of faith. When any church will inscribe over its altars, as its sole qualification for membership, the Saviour's condensed statement of the substance of both 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 all my soul" (p. 42).
To his Washington pastor, Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, he said that he could not accept, perhaps, all the doctrines of his Confession of Faith, "but," said he, "if all that I am asked to respond to is what our Lord said were the two great commandments, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength, and my neighbor as myself, why, I aim to do that."
Mr. Henry B. Rankin, who wrote his Reminiscences in 1916, states that he was a boy in Lincoln's office and his parents knew Lincoln intimately during his years of struggle in New Salem. Mr. Rankin's recollection of a conversation which Lincoln had with Mr. Rankin's mother indicates that Lincoln had some such feeling as far back as his New Salem days. The Rankin family were warm friends of Peter Cartwright, whom they called Uncle Peter, and also of Mr. Lincoln. Mrs. Rankin asked him concerning the rumor that he was an infidel, and Lincoln denied it; but being pressed to explain why he did not then confess his Christian faith, he gave to her much the answer which in later years he gave to Mr. Deming and to Dr. Gurley (Reminiscences of Lincoln, pp. 324-26).
I think, then, we are compelled to accept this threefold testimony as establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the answer that Lincoln himself gave to the question, why he did not unite with the Church. It is a great pity that he was not brought into contact with some form of organized Christianity, orthodox and constructive in its essential teachings, but with conditions of church membership as broad as those of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Churches have learned a little better than they understood in 1846 that a[Pg 246] church creed should be a testimony and not a test; that it is entirely consistent with the organization and ideal of a thoroughly orthodox church to receive into its membership any and every person who loves God and his fellow-man even though he doubts thirty-eight of the thirty-nine articles of the creed and is more or less uncertain about the other one.
But we cannot consider the question of Lincoln's possible church membership and his failure to acquire it without asking whether the fault was wholly that of the churches. Other men beside Abraham Lincoln were more liberal than the churches, including old Mentor Graham, but were able to find a home there; though Graham was ultimately turned out of the so-called "hardshell" church for his warm advocacy of the principles of temperance. Some share of the responsibility for his failure to unite with the Church must belong to Lincoln himself.
It is a hazardous thing to suggest any element short of perfection in the life or thought of any popular hero. Nevertheless let us remind ourselves that Lincoln had the defects of his qualities.
Lincoln lacked some of the finer feelings. He combined a deep personal sympathy for anything which he could visualize with a rather strange mental obtuseness toward things remote or abstract. Darwin, who was born in the same year, had an early love of poetry and music. How these tastes became atrophied in his concentration of thought upon matters relating to the natural sciences was confessed and mourned by him, and has often been commented upon by others. The time came to him when music and poetry gave him physical nausea. Lincoln never had an appreciation or love of anything very fine either in poetry or music. At a time when he was being considered for President he could sit in a stage coach playing "Yankee Doodle" on the mouth-organ[55] and playing it badly, but he had no fine musical or poetic taste.
Not long before his assassination his sister-in-law, Mrs.[Pg 247] Edwards, visited at the White House, and he accompanied her one evening to the conservatory. She greatly admired the rare exotics which she there beheld for the first time, and Lincoln vainly strove to share her enthusiasm but confessed to her that something had been left out of his nature. Such things seemed to make no appeal to him.
Of Lincoln's lack in matters involving the finer feelings we have abundant testimony not only in the pages of Lamon and Herndon, but in other intimate sketches of his life in Illinois, as, for example, in Whitney's With Lincoln on the Circuit,[56] and especially in his article in the Arena in April, 1898. There were aspects of religion which did not make as strong an appeal to Abraham Lincoln as they would have made but for this blind spot in his nature.
It is not the purpose of this book to go in any detail into Mr. Lincoln's love affairs; but if any further illustration were desired of this point of which we are speaking, it could be found very painfully in his relations with Miss Owens, and his letter to Mrs. Browning.
Reference has been made to a certain lack of good taste which Lincoln sometimes manifested, and of which the reminiscences of Lamon, Herndon, Whitney, and others of his associates have given us sufficient example. But it was not always so with Lincoln. There was in him an innate courtesy, an intuitive sympathy, an ability to adapt himself to another's point of view, which gave him the essential quality of a gentleman. Fred Douglass said of him that Mr. Lincoln was the only white man with whom he ever talked for an hour who did not in some way remind him that he was a negro. That same fine feeling showed itself in many ways.
It should be remembered, too, when his uncouthness of apparel is recalled, that while he was always a careless man in his dress, the period in which he lived was one in which people of the regions where he formed his lifelong habits were not[Pg 248] given to fastidious dress. He dressed much as other men dressed. The shawl which he wore was such a shawl as the author's father wore; such as many men wore. It was a mark of good breeding rather than the reverse, and some men wore the shawl very effectively for purposes of display. The author himself has often carried with him in long rides in the southern mountains what was called a "saddle-shawl" not unlike that of Lincoln; and he now owns such a shawl, bequeathed to him by one of Lincoln's contemporaries, and of the same color and approximately the same size that Lincoln used.
Mrs. Jane Martin Johns of Decatur, died recently at the age of ninety-two. Her mind was clear and her memory precise. She has left this, among other memories of Lincoln, as a reminder that he was a gentleman, and that at times he showed the finest discrimination and good taste:
"When I first knew Mr. Lincoln, he was forty years old; had been a member of the state legislature and of congress; had traveled the circuit with men of culture and refinement; had met great statesmen and elegant gentlemen; and the ungainliness of the pioneer, if he ever had it, had worn off and his manner was that of a gentleman of the old school, unaffected, unostentatious, who arose at once when a lady entered the room, and whose courtly manners would put to shame the easy-going indifference to etiquette which marks the twentieth century gentleman.
"His dress, like his manner, was suited to the occasion, but was evidently a subject to which he gave little thought. It was certainly unmarked by any notable peculiarity. It was the fashion of the day for men to wear large shawls and Mr. Lincoln's shawl, very large, very soft, and very fine, is the only article of his dress that has left the faintest impression on my memory. He wore it folded lengthwise (three and one-half yards long) in scarf fashion over his shoulders, caught together under the chin with an immense safety-pin. One end of the shawl was thrown across his breast and over the shoulder, as he walked up the steps of the Macon House one day in December, 1849.
"Court was in session in Decatur, Judge David Davis presiding. The hotel, where I was living temporarily, was kept[Pg 249] by David Krone and his good lady, whose popularity extended over the fourteen counties of the Eighth Judicial District.
"Court week was always anticipated with great interest by the people of the county seat. It was customary for the entire bar of the district to follow the court from county to county, every man either seeking new business, or as counsel in cases already on the docket. The date of their arrival at any particular county seat could not be definitely fixed, as the judge held court at his pleasure, usually trying to finish all the business ahead before he migrated to the next station.
"He was followed by a curious crowd. Lawyers, clients, witnesses, itinerant peddlers, showmen, and gamblers filled the towns to overflowing. It was no unusual thing for men who had no business in the court, to follow from town to town merely seeking entertainment. Social events of any moment were wont to be arranged for court week, as the harvest time when strangers could be taken in. Taverns were crowded and the hospitality of the people was taxed to the utmost limit.
"To the men of the town, who always crowded the court house, the examination of witnesses and the speeches of the lawyers furnished an intellectual treat, for there were giants at that bar. There was David Davis, the companionable judge, who knew the law and who loved a laugh. And there were Stephen Logan the scholarly, and Stuart the shrewd and kindly, Swett the clever, and Browning the handsome, and Lamon the amusing, and Weldon and Gridley and Parks and Harmon and Ficklin and Linder and Whitney and Oliver L. Davis, and the best beloved Abraham Lincoln. Some of them traveled to only two or three counties, but Judge Davis, Mr. Lincoln and Leonard Swett went the whole circuit; Davis because he had to, Lincoln because he loved it, and Swett because he loved their company.
"The Macon House was an oasis in the wilderness of miserable inns at which they were usually compelled to 'put in.' In Decatur they found clean beds, good bread and an abundance of the good things of the season, administered by a genial landlady who greeted them all as friends.
"It was in court week that my piano, after a long journey by steamer down the Ohio and up the Wabash to Crawfordsville, Ind., and thence by wagon, arrived in Decatur. The wagon was backed up to the steps at the front door of the[Pg 250] Macon House and the question of how to unload it and get it into the house was a puzzling one. Not a man except the landlord was to be found, but he soon solved the problem. "Court will soon adjourn and there will be plenty of men," and almost as he spoke the crowd began to appear. They gathered curiously around the wagon that blocked the entrance. Landlord Krone explained:
"'There is a piano in that box that this woman here wants someone to help unload. Who will lend a hand?'
"A tall gentleman stepped forward and, throwing off a big gray Scotch shawl, exclaimed, 'Come on, Swett, you are the next biggest man.'
"That was my first meeting with Abraham Lincoln.
"After a few moments' consultation with the driver of the wagon, Mr. Lincoln went into the basement where Mr. Krone had a carpenter shop, and returned with two heavy timbers across his shoulders. With them he established communication between the wagon and the front door steps. The piano was unloaded with the assistance of Mr. Linder and Mr. Swett, amid jokes and jeers galore, most of the jeers coming from little Judge Logan.
"Before the legs had been screwed into place, dinner was announced, and the men hurried to the back porch where two tin wash basins, a long roller towel and a coarse comb, fastened to the wall by a long string, afforded toilet accommodations for all guests. When dinner was served, 'Mother Krone' placed a roast of beef in front of Dr. Trowbridge to be carved and exclaimed, 'Men, if you can't get your teeth through this beef you will have to fall back on the sausage. I agreed to try roasting it without parboiling it, and I am afraid it will be tougher than it was yesterday, and that was bad enough.'
"The beef, however, proved to be tender and juicy and was highly praised by the guests. I recall this incident because Mr. Lincoln once reminded me of it, saying that 'that was the time he learned that roast beef ought not to be boiled.'
"After dinner, Mr. Lincoln superintended the setting up of the piano, even to seeing that it stood squarely in the center of the wall space allotted it, and then received my thanks with a polite bow and asked: 'Are you expecting to follow the court and give concerts?' The immense relief expressed on his[Pg 251] countenance, when he was assured that he would not be called upon to repeat the performance was very laughable.
"'Then may we have one tune before we go?' he asked, and I played 'Rosin the Bow,' with variations.
"Someone shouted, 'Come on, boys, the judge will be waiting,' and after I had assured them that if they desired ............
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