Sunday, February 8, 2009
Barack Obama was sworn in last month on Lincoln’s Bible. The reasons for the choice were obvious. As the first African American president, Obama honors the Great Emancipator. Yet choosing Lincoln’s Bible to take the presidential oath of office seems peculiar. For Abraham Lincoln’s religion has always been a matter of dispute.
Unlike Obama, Lincoln was never a formal member of any denomination, although he joked that he admired the Episcopalians, since they didn’t care what your religious or political opinions might be.
Lincoln was a private person who seldom bared his soul. His son Robert said he never knew his father to discuss religion, nor could he recall any family devotions while he was growing up.
Certainly Lincoln didn’t want to subject his children to the kind of upbringing he’d endured. His parents belonged to the Little Mount Separate Baptist Church on the Kentucky frontier—where God predestined souls to paradise or perdition, regardless of their character or conduct.
Even as a youngster, Abraham rebelled against this tyrant deity. A cousin remembered, “He never would sing any religious songs,” but would amuse his sister and half-siblings with parodies of hellfire preachers, using a lot for a pulpit. It wasn’t the last time he made a speech on the stump.
Dogged by charges of atheism in a congressional race, Lincoln released a circular refuting the allegations of impiety. “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true,” he admitted. But what exactly did Mr. Lincoln believe? “In early life,” he explained, “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called ‘the Doctrine of Necessity’.”
Fate—implacable law—ruled all. That might explain why one of his favorite writers was Edgar Allen Poe, author of tales where the hapless victim is trapped in devices he finds himself powerless to escape. It could also account for Lincoln’s fascination with the theater. For aren’t we all like actors where the denouements have been scripted in advance? Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s favorite dramas were tragedies. But even tragedy contained an element of cleansing or redemption.
Lincoln experienced a catharsis as he was tested by the calamities of war. As the casualties mounted, 16,000 dead at Second Bull Run, 20,000 at Shiloh, he had to ask whether it was all merely sound and fury, or whether Providence might have some inscrutable reason for continuing the agony. And the mysterious reason God allowed the national bloodletting to go on, he finally decided, might be to bring an end to slavery.
Lincoln had never been an outright abolitionist. He himself favored freedom for the slave, but if the system could be confined to the south, it was a compromise he could live with. What became clear was that emancipation was not an option, but a military necessity. No one had foreseen putting blacks in uniform at the outset of the war. But it became the trick that turned the tide, as units like the Massachusetts 54th performed heroically. At the same time, a growing river of runaways left their former masters, as the unpaid labor force that supplied Confederate lines headed north. Some say the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished little, but Lincoln himself understood it as the key to the struggle. Ending slavery was the reason for the conflict. Asked why he signed the act, he glanced upward and replied, “I could not do otherwise.”
Ironically, the man who gave freedom to others never found it for himself. To the end, Lincoln felt he was in the grip of gigantic powers. This fatalism made him casual about his own safety: “I see hundreds of strangers daily, and if anyone has the disposition to kill me, he will find the opportunity.” Strangely, the man who saved the union could not save himself.
He was rich in contradictions, one of the most deeply moral men to ever occupy the Oval Office and one of the least conventionally devout, a man who denied the reality of hell, but was forever plagued by inner demons, a man who deliberately turned his back on the religion of his youth and found that it cast a shadow across his entire life, as though predestined to haunt him.
Yet by the end, he was less a religious scoffer than a spiritual seeker. Crisis changes people, and Lincoln’s sense of reverence grew in proportion as the storm around him raged. Still, for him, the scriptures were not a book of answers, but one of many books that informed the questions: Who is God? What is my purpose here? And what does my duty require to serve my country and community?
May our new President likewise be tempered by the challenges ahead, finding inspiration in Lincoln’s Bible and honoring the history of free inquiry and dedication to liberty that book represents.
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A graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Divinity School, Gary Kowalski is author of Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers (BlueBridge, New York, 2008). He currently serves as senior minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont.