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 We are ready now to undertake the difficult task of determining with some approach to certainty the essential content and character of Abraham Lincoln's religious belief. We must not be surprised if we find ourselves unable to construct a perfectly symmetrical and consistent confession of faith. The material is much more abundant and explicit and much better attested in some departments than in others. Not only so, but we must never forget the mighty elements of contradiction in Lincoln's personality.
Mediocre men have this in their favor, that it is relatively easy to classify them. Not only may they be readily assigned to their several occupations, and conveniently pigeon-holed as butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, but it is a comparatively simple task to group them under single adjectives, as good and bad, black and white, tall and short, fat and lean, old and young, intelligent and stupid. The process is less easy with really great men. There is always an admirable element of human inconsistency in men of large mold which would be intolerable in lesser personalities. It has been truly said that no man becomes really great and influential who is not a good subject for caricature. The sublime is own sister to the ridiculous. Genius is next akin to insanity. The men who do really great things are a perpetual puzzle to those who possess only commonplace standards of classification. A commonplace villain is a villain, first, last, and all the time; but a villain like Milton's Satan, Napoleon, or the late German Kaiser is so great a villain as to be half a hero. The two hundred seventy-six dripping men who struggled through the surf at Malta one stormy morning rather more than eighteen hundred years ago and gathered shivering round the fire, were quickly classified,[Pg 261] for the most part, into four convenient companies, of sailors, soldiers, passengers, and prisoners; but when one of them shook off a viper into the fire and showed no sign of hurt, it was quite certain that he was either a murderer or a god. Opinions might differ and did differ as to which of the two extremes might properly be claimed for him, but no one proposed to find a place for him in middle ground.
The strength of great men lies in their possession and their counterpoise of opposing qualities. Over against the monotonous uniformity, the stupid consistency, of those common people whom Lincoln said God must love because He made so many of them, this quality displays itself as a peculiar possession of genius. Now and then it is given to a great man sufficiently so to subordinate the inconsistencies without which real greatness could not exist as to incarnate some outstanding principle of which he becomes the exponent. Abraham Lincoln did this; and the world, or that small part of the world which can lay claim to any considerable measure of moral discernment, has redefined its conception of certain high qualities, its measure of the moral significance of certain notable achievements, in terms of his personality. This process is highly desirable as well as inevitable; but the elements of inconsistency are not thereby removed from the character itself. Of him we might say:
"His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up,
And say to all the world: This was a man!"
—Julius Caesar, V, 5.
It has often been affirmed that "'Lincoln knew his Bible better than any minister," and large claims have been made concerning his use of it in public addresses. Mr. Lincoln did know and use the Bible, and his style is saturated with it; but it would be easy to exaggerate both his knowledge and use of it.
Prof. Daniel Kilham Dodge of the University of Illinois examined twenty-five of Lincoln's extended and carefully prepared addresses with this result:[61]
[Pg 262]
In five speeches from 1839 to 1852 he found six Biblical quotations, of which four were in his temperance address.
In his reply to Douglas in 1852 there were two Biblical quotations, both from the Old Testament.
In 1856 he found one, and that most notable of all—the "house divided against itself."
In his "lost speech" at Bloomington, as recorded by Whitney, there were six Biblical quotations, four from the Old Testament and two from the New—the largest number in any single speech.
In his ten speeches in the Lincoln and Douglas debates there were two Biblical references, besides a number of allusions to the "house divided against itself."
There were no Biblical quotations in the Cooper union address or in the First Inaugural or in the Gettysburg address; none in the two messages to Congress in 1861.
His Second Inaugural was itself a kind of leaf out of the books of the prophets.
In the whole of the twenty-five speeches, there were found twenty-two Biblical references, eight in the Old Testament and fourteen in the New. This notwithstanding the impression of many who knew him that Lincoln preferred the Old Testament to the New, as recorded by Noah Brooks.
But this rather meager use of direct quotations and allusions need not disappoint us. Nor does it militate against the essentially Biblical substratum of his style. When we come to the study of Lincoln's literary and oratorical method, we find more striking contradictions and evolutions than we have here. Lincoln's oratory was not of the same style at all periods of his career, nor were his methods uniform at any one period.
He was a ready stump-speaker, yet he became so cautious while in the White House that he was timid about responding even to a serenade without having first written out his address, and on occasion could appear rude in declining to utter even a simple word of greeting and appreciation, as on the night before his address in Gettysburg, when he was very abrupt to the company that serenaded him.
[Pg 263]
He had been accustomed to large use of gesture, swinging his great arms, and sometimes, even in the Douglas debates, bending his knees till they almost touched the platform, and then rising suddenly almost with a whoop, but he became very quiet and self-restrained in his oratory.
He is alleged to have loved Burns more than any other poet, yet his speeches have been searched in vain for a single quotation from Burns. It is said that next to Burns he loved Byron, and he is not known ever to have quoted Byron in any speech or paper. It is said that his favorite Shakspeare play was Richard III., but his Shakspeare quotations are from Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, the Merchant of Venice; and there is one allusion to Falstaff.
Besides Shakspeare, whom he quoted next to the Bible, his literary allusions are to T. H. Bayley, Dickens, Robert Herrick, Pope and Scott, and they are not numerous. The total number of his quotations, as listed by Professor Dodge, including Shakspeare, but not including the Bible, is thirty.
What is more surprising, Lincoln was known as a great story teller. But his addresses contain hardly a single anecdote. He told stories in jury trials and to illustrate points in conversation, but he rarely told them in his addresses.[62]
No man who knew Lincoln intimately studied him so long, so industriously, or, in spite of many limitations, so appreciatively, as William H. Herndon. He was a profound believer in the mental and spiritual evolution of Lincoln.
In 1887, while Herndon, after many years of interruption, began again the preparation of his Life of Lincoln, he had an extended correspondence, partly from Springfield, and partly from Greencastle, Indiana, where Mr. Jesse W. Weik was at work with him on his book, and with a Boston sculptor, Mr.[Pg 264] Truman H. Bartlett, who was planning a statue of Lincoln. Herndon's letters went more and more into detail as the correspondence proceeded, and he gave in some respects the very best affirmation of the development of Lincoln on the higher side of his nature that Herndon wrote at any time.
Herndon seemed to have some apprehension that a study of photographs and life-masks and other evidences of the physical appearance of Lincoln would not reveal the man himself. He said that a person studying his physical nature would say "that his physical nature was low, coarse, and not high and fine." Before he sent this letter he re-read it, and inserted the word "comparatively" before "low." Mr. Bartlett asked him further about this, and Herndon went into detail as to Lincoln's body. "His blood ran slowly. He was of a low or slow mechanical power, within him. I did not intend to say that Lincoln's organization was a low, animal organization. What I meant to say was that it was a slow-working machine. Lincoln's flesh was coarse, pimply, dry, hard, harsh; color of his flesh saffron brown; no blood seemingly in it; flesh wrinkled."
Mr. Bartlett apparently inquired whether the abnormal qualities of frontier life produced these effects, and whether Herndon had known other men of the Lincoln type. Apparently he alluded to the presence of malaria and the large use of pork in frontier diet.
Herndon did not accept the pork and malaria theories. He said that all such theories must give way to facts, and he dealt with facts. The men of the frontier had the best meat in the world, "venison, bear, turkey, and of course some hog."
"You ask me if I ever saw in this great wild west many men of Lincoln's type, and to which I answer, Yes. The first settlers of central and southern Illinois were men of that type. They came from the limestone regions of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and were men of giant strength, physical force, and by nature mentally strong. They were original, were individualists. The strong alone from 1818 to 1830 could get here, and the strong alone could survive here.... No one was like Lincoln, and yet many were of his type.... He[Pg 265] was, as you say, 'a man of extraordinary contrasts.' You would not look for a well-rounded man in such a description."
Lincoln was, then, as Herndon saw him, and as the world must see him, a legitimate product of his environment. Herndon had read Buckle and Spencer and Darwin, and was a thoroughgoing believer in evolution, as was Lincoln, from a far narrower reading, but a very thoughtful study of Vestiges of Creation.
Physically, Lincoln was akin to the strong pioneers of early Illinois, and it was not difficult to find each several trait of Lincoln reduplicated in many of them. But Lincoln himself was never duplicated. He was a product of his environment, but he was also an evolution which in terms of an individual personality went beyond environment, and was still going forward when death came to him.
This evolution of Lincoln, the spiritual Lincoln, as portrayed in these letters to a sculptor, who must not be permitted to forget, if he was in danger of forgetting, that the real man Lincoln had in him more than his bodily measurements could portray, is one of the most suggestive studies disclosed by Herndon, and it is sound, both as approached from the standpoint of science, and as considered in the personal study of Lincoln in his growth from year to year.
Like St. Paul, Lincoln had a warfare in his members. He was an embodiment of forces mutually antagonistic. He would not have been the man he was had either of them been lacking, and the growth of either at the total expense of the other would have given us a man abnormal, which Mr. Lincoln came perilously near to being. But his real development was mental and spiritual.
In another place St. Paul says that "The first man is of the earth, earthy, and the second man is from heaven." It has been assumed without due warrant that what he had in mind was a contrast between Adam and Christ, and this view is strengthened by the intrusion of the words "the Lord" in the authorized English text. But it is quite possible that St. Paul, even if Adam and Christ were a part of his contrast,[Pg 266] had really in mind the evolution of any man's life; he being himself in his bodily nature the first man and in the birth and growth of his higher nature the second and contrasting man. "First is that which is natural, and after, that which is spiritual."
This was Herndon's thought of Lincoln, as disclosed in these letters,[63] and it is true of Lincoln. Lincoln was more than an embodiment of contrasts; the solar system is that, and it is more. In the solar system the opposing forces do not neutralize each other, but together hold the earth and planets in their orbits. So it was with Lincoln. But with him the higher and nobler forces became increasingly dominant.
Herndon resented it when anyone said that Lincoln had died at the right time. He believed that, great as Lincoln was, his nobler qualities had not yet come to their full maturity, and that a longer-lived Lincoln would have been an even nobler Lincoln. Here are some of the things he says of him in these letters:
"I said to you once that Mr. Lincoln had not arrived at maturity in 1865, and I say so now. His blood ran slowly—had low or slow circulation and consequently a slow build-up. As he had a slow build-up, so he had a slow development; he grew up like the forest oak, tough, solid, knotty, gnarled, standing out with power against the storm, and almost defying the lightning. Hence I conclude that he had not arrived at his highest development in 1865.... The convolutions of his brain were long; they did not snap off quickly like a short, thick man's brain.... The enduring power of Mr. Lincoln's thought and brain was wonderful. He could sit and think without food or rest longer than any man I ever saw."
He goes into detail concerning Mr. Lincoln's bodily lethargy and its effect on body and mind, the sluggishness of all his functions, and affirms that this must be taken into account in any right estimate of the man; but that steadily, and the more surely because slowly, his mind and soul developed and became more and more dominant.
[Pg 267]
"His flesh looked dry and leathery, tough and everlasting; his eyes were small and gray; head small and forehead receding; but when this great man was moved by some great and good feeling, by some idea of Liberty, or Justice, or Right, then he seemed an inspired man. It was just then that Lincoln's nature was beautiful, and in complete harmony with the laws of the Great Eternal. I have seen him in this inspired condition, and thought he was molded in the Spirit's best mold. Lincoln was a great man, a good man, and a pure man; and beneath his rough bodily exterior, Nature wove her fine network of nerve.... Lincoln was a gloomy man at one moment and a joyous man the next; he was conscious that a terrible fate awaited him. He said to me, 'I cannot help but believe that I shall meet with some terrible end.' This idea seized him and made him gloomy. At times his better nature would get the mastery of him, and he would be happy till the shadow of his fate flitted before him. In philosophy Lincoln was a fatalist.... In my poor opinion, Lincoln had not arrived, when he was assassinated, at the meridian of his intellectual power.... Were you to read his early speeches thoroughly you would see his then coarse nature. He gradually rose up, more spiritualistic. This is one of the reasons why I say that Lincoln was not fully developed in mind at the last. When a great Boston man said, 'Lincoln died at the right time,' he did not know what he was talking about."
In these and like paragraphs Herndon testified to the mental and spiritual evolution of Lincoln; and he was probably correct when he opined that that evolution was still in process, and that Lincoln was, up to the very hour of his death, a growing man in all that meant most to America and the world.
The religion of Abraham Lincoln was part and parcel of his life; and his life was an evolution whose successive stages can be measured with reasonable certainty. Not only did his religious convictions develop and broaden under the stimuli of Lincoln's constantly broadening intellectual and spiritual environment, but they broadened in the growth of his own personality.
There was an evolution in his apprehension of the ethical[Pg 268] implications of public office. The Lincoln who re-entered politics after the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was a changed man from the Lincoln who, with the other members of the "Long Nine," earned by political log-rolling the severe but not wholly unmerited name applied to them by one of Illinois' best governors, "spared monuments of popular wrath." That Lincoln did not in this earlier period commit any personally dishonorable act is not an argument against the theory here advocated. He had, in his later political career, a far higher ideal of political honor, a greatly nobler conception of the dignity of public office—which he always sought—as a field of popular service. His political career was an evolution, and it developed nobler characteristics than that which characterized his earlier political life.
Lincoln's emancipation policy was an evolution. The successive stages of that policy were worthily set forth by Paul Selby in an address before the Historical Society of Chicago.[64] There never was a time when Abraham Lincoln did not believe slavery to be wrong, but there was a time when he was not an Abolitionist. The moral aspect of the slavery question grew in his mind and conscience till he promised his God to free the slaves.
On Sunday evening, September 7, 1862, a public meeting was held in Bryan Hall, Chicago, to urge upon the President the desire of Christian people that he should free the slaves. A petition was circulated, and was signed by all the Congregational and nearly all the Methodist and Baptist ministers of that city, courteously requesting the President to give the matter his earnest attention. The petition was sent to Washington by the hand of Rev. William W. Patton and Rev. John Dempster, who met the President by appointment on Saturday afternoon, September 13, the interview being arranged by Hon. Gideon Welles.
The story of that meeting has often been told in part, with undue emphasis upon Mr. Lincoln's statement then made that if God had a message for him on this subject He would be[Pg 269] more likely to communicate it directly to Mr. Lincoln than to others for him. The latest book to misuse this incident is one just from the press in Great Britain, the Short Life of Lincoln, by Hon. Ralph Shirley, who says:
"Some of the ministers in this deputation even went so far as to assure him that they had authority in God's name to command him to emancipate the slaves."
Inasmuch as there were but two of the ministers, and neither of them assumed any such authority to speak the mind of God, such statements ought to cease, especially as the true story, from which all these accounts are garbled, is available for inspection in the files of the Maryland Historical Society.
Mr. Lincoln did say to them that he hoped it would not appear irreverent in him to say that if God were to reveal this duty of his to others, it was probable that He would reveal it also directly to Mr. Lincoln. At the beginning of the interview he was guarded; but as he found common ground with his visitors, he threw first one leg and then the other over the arm of his chair, and talked to them with the utmost freedom, and asked them concerning the opinion of ministers and churches, and assured them that he desired to know the will of God, and whatever seemed to him to be God's will he would do.
The next week occurred the battle of Antietam, and on Saturday, September 20, exactly a week after his interview with the Chicago ministers, Mr. Lincoln called the Cabinet together and read to them the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed and published on the following Monday. We know now that Lincoln had promised God that if that battle resulted in the success of the union cause he would issue the proclamation. We also know that the meeting with the Chicago ministers was very timely, and gave him an added assurance of moral support from the churches, if not added confidence in the help of God.
Some time after, Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune, returning from Washington, said, "Secretary Stan[Pg 270]ton told me to say to those Chicago clergymen who waited on the President about the Proclamation of Emancipation, that their interview finished the business. After that there was no manifestation of doubt or talk of delay. Mr. Lincoln's mind was fully made up."—Proceedings of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1888.
Lincoln's literary style was an evolution.[65] His spread-eagle stump-speeches, with their florid rhetoric and grandiloquent figures of speech evolved into the calm, dignified, and forceful English of his maturer years.[66] An able monograph in which this evolution is traced is cited elsewhere in this volume.[67] That change of style was the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual as well as intellectual grace.
In like manner Lincoln's religion was an evolution, both in its intellectual and its spiritual qualities. Up to the time of his residence in New Salem he had heard only the dogmatic sectarianism of unlettered preachers, proclaiming a creed which furnished him certain lifelong tenets but which as a whole he could not accept. At New Salem he read the negative arguments which confuted the dogmas he had heard, and perhaps unwittingly made room for a more intelligent faith.
He was deeply impressed by the argument of Dr. Smith in his The Christian's Defence. It was the first time he had heard the Christian apologetic rationally presented, and it made a lasting impression upon him without, however, fully satisfying him. He was, however, a much more religious man[Pg 271] when he left Springfield than he was when he came to it, whether he knew it or not.
The solemn responsibilities of his office, the daily contemplation of death as it menaced him and came into the homes of the people of his country, the profound conviction that God was working His infinite purpose through the war, and through the human agency of Lincoln himself, took hold of the deepest impulses of his nature, and became the controlling forces of his policy.
Lincoln was no theologian, but I do not find any authority for the statement of Mr. Binns that Lincoln said, "the more a man knew of theology, the farther he got away from the Spirit of Christ." It is possible, of course, for a man to learn theology as an intellectual system and to have little religion as a spiritual experience, and to lose that little in the process of his logical subtleties: but Lincoln was too just a man to make so sweeping and unjust an affirmation of something of which he would certainly have admitted he knew very little.
The rock-bottom foundation of Abraham Lincoln's religious faith was the ultra-Calvinism of his boyhood. He was reared a Predestinarian Baptist; and while he never became a Baptist he never ceased to be a Predestinarian. To this he added a strong rationalistic tendency, inherent in his nature, and strengthened by his study of Paine and Volney. This also he never wholly outgrew. As a lawyer who was not well read, pleading before juries that cared little for the letter of the law, he was accustomed to reduce his cases to simple principles of elementary justice, and to rest all upon these principles. This habit of thought and practice he applied also to his theology. His early recollection of the epitaph of Johnny Kongapod was nothing less than the application of the Golden Rule to theology—the assurance of an eternal justice throned in heaven and intelligible on earth.
Thus, when he argued in favor of universal salvation he did it upon the basis of the old Calvinistic theology with which he had been familiar all his life. If God was, indeed, absolute sovereign, and as good as He was great, and willed not that any should perish, then no one could finally perish. Universal[Pg 272] salvation became logically and ethically compulsory. The Christ who tasted death for every man, did so as the necessary means to the efficiency of a plan of salvation whereby the curse of the fall was fully offset by the sacrifice of Christ, at the instance of the sovereign will of God. As in Adam all died, even so in Christ were all made alive. His theory of universal salvation was the logical expression of his determinism, influenced by his rationalism and confirmed by his appeal to a justice that would not accept a fall more universal than the atonement of Christ. This was not because Lincoln approached the theme from the direction of the grace of Christ, but of the irresistibility of a divine decree. He profoundly believed himself an instrument of the divine will, believing that will to be right, and creation's final law.
If it were asked, where in such a system as his he found a place for the forgiveness of sins, the answer would be first that he had no system, and secondly that he found no place for the doctrine; but it would then be necessary to add that he found the doctrine, nevertheless. He had no system. He thought without logical method. But his thinking was in right lines. He followed simple paths, "blazed" through technicalities and in quite thorough disregard of them. As his office desk was in confusion, and he kept a package marked, "When you don't find it anywhere else, look here," so he had in his thinking a parcel of unassorted first principles to which he recurred when he needed them. Forgiveness and law were to him two unreconciled postulates; but law he had to assume, even though he denied forgiveness. But if he did not admit belief in forgiveness, he did believe in mercy, for he himself was merciful, and he believed that he would be merciful to God if he were God and God were man. Stanton could argue him down as to the necessity for shooting a soldier who slept on duty, but Lincoln injected an intuitive, and from Stanton's point of view, an unreasonable and a certainly unarticulated, element of mercy that forbade the killing of this particular boy.
His theory of governmental forgiveness was as irreconcilable with his theory of military discipline as his theory of[Pg 273] divine mercy was with his system of inexorable law. He did not harmonize the contradictions: he was merciful, and let his system take the consequences, and he believed in a divine mercy while holding a theory with which the exercise of mercy was irreconcilable.
To such a mind as that of Abraham Lincoln, it was not necessary to prove the fact of immortality. If God possessed immortality and intended it for man, then God would make His decree effective in man. Adam's fall could not hopelessly lose to man what God designed; and, whether he accepted for himself or not the theory of the fall and of redemption, he accepted both in meeting an argument which by reason of the fall could have deprived man of his birthright of immortality. He believed in the immortality of the soul.
Did he harmonize that doctrine with the rest of his creed? Probably not. He was no theologian, in the strict and formal sense, no logician. He reasoned on the basis of very simple and elementary principles, whose lines of direction were determined by the early Calvinistic preaching to which he listened, the rationalistic method which he learned from Paine, and his simple sense of justice and right.
His was not wholly an optimistic faith. He knew that man was sinful and sad and that "the spirit of mortal" had little occasion for pride; but he believed in an eternal justice and an unconquerable goodness, regnant above the perplexities and contradictions of this life, and triumphant in the life everlasting.
Abraham Lincoln believed in God. Save in his moments of deepest gloom when everything turned black, he appears never seriously to have questioned this fundamental article of belief. It is not easy to see how he could have done so. His idea of causation forbade it, and, what was more, his profound supernaturalism affirmed it as incontrovertible. This element of supernaturalism went the full length of orthodox preaching, as Lincoln heard it and accepted it. It was in accord with the teachings both of the Baptists, whom he heard in Indiana and rural Illinois, and the Presbyterians, to whom he listened in Springfield and in Washington. In a great God,[Pg 274] a mighty Creator, a Sovereign Ruler, he was taught to believe by all the forms of Calvinism to which throughout his life he listened, and it was in full essential accord with his own native tendency. His supernaturalism was not only ultra-orthodox; it went the full length of current superstition. The frontiersman of that day had superstition wrought into him by the vastness of the wilderness, the solemnity of the immeasurable forest and plain, and the insignificance of man; the haunting tales of savagery and witchcraft; the presence in every frontier community of some person supposed to be possessed of second sight or other supernatural qualities. The rationalism of his mature years modified but did not in any degree eradicate his supernaturalism.
It must be remembered that Paine and Volney, whose works he read, were far from being atheists. Thomas Paine, whatever he denied, believed as strongly as Peter Cartwright or James Smith in a personal God. So far as we know, Lincoln was never under any strong influence that might have made him an atheist, his doubts and questionings were all within the sphere of an expressed or implicit theism.
The names by which Lincoln referred to God are many and suggestive. The following is a partial list:[68]
Almighty, Almighty Architect, Almighty Arm, Almighty Father, Almighty God, Almighty Hand, Almighty Power, Almighty Ruler of Nations, Creator, Disposer, Divine Author, Divine Being, Divine Majesty, Divine Providence, Divine Will, Eternal God, Father, Father in Heaven, Father of Mercies, God, God Almighty, God of Battles, God of Hosts, God of Nations, Governor, Heavenly Father, Higher Being, Higher Power, Holy Spirit, Judge, Lord, Maker, Maker of the Universe, Master, Most High, Most High God, Omniscient Mind, Power, Providence, Ruler of the Universe, Supreme Being.
Lincoln believed in the Bible. I am not sure that he accepted the whole content of the positive arguments set forth so cogently by his pastor, Dr. Smith. When he called this[Pg 275] argument "unanswerable," it need not imply that his every doubt was satisfied, his every misgiving reassured. It is entirely possible that there lingered in his mind some vestiges of what he had read in writers opposed to the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures as it was then taught; indeed, that doctrine in the form in which it was currently stated was not one by which a modern man's orthodoxy ought to be tested. But he read the Bible, honored it, quoted it freely, and it became so much a part of him as visibly and permanently to give shape to his literary style and to his habits of thought. When Mrs. Speed presented him an Oxford Bible in 1841, he declared his intention to read it regularly, believing it to be "the best cure for the blues"; and he kept and loved and constantly used his mother's Bible. How he would have defined his theory of its transmission and of the relation of its divine and human elements we do not know, and we need not be too curious to inquire. It is more than possible that Mr. Lincoln never made this definition in his own mind. His attitude toward the Bible was a thoroughly practical one. We do not know that he ever heard Coleridge's pragmatic affirmation, but w............
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