Lincoln: the President as Pastor

By Neil Earle

“Abraham Lincoln is his country’s most important historical figure.”

In the midst of an outpouring of Lincoln appreciation at the occasion of the 16th President’s Bicentennial on February 12, 2009, this statement is most interesting in that it is from outside the United States – from Canada’s National Post of February 12, 2009.

We devoted a sermon to him last week. Why?

So many reasons. For beginners, Lincoln is certainly a league leader in a subject dear to the Bible’s heart – wisdom, how leaders rule, how they affect others. Or in the words of Proverbs 1:1-4, “The Proverbs of Solomon…for acquiring wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight…by me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me, princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth” (see also 8:15).

Broad Human Sympathies

Lincoln was uncommonly wise. When the threat of war loomed in 1861 with an offended Great Britain over an incident on the high seas, the President cautioned his irascible Secretary of State, “One war at a time, Mr. Secretary.” When General Hooker boasted that the country needed a dictator Lincoln wrote him calmly that “you win the victories and I’ll risk the dictatorship.” In his sublime Second Inaugural Lincoln spoke to both North and South, people who “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” He concluded: “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”

He saw the essential point amid a host of obfuscating details, a vital prescription for first-rate management and leadership. When General Meade wrote to his army after Gettysburg that the invader will be “driven from our soil,” Lincoln winced: “Great God! Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil” (James M. McPherson, “Commander in Chief,” Smithsonian, January 2009, page 44).

With the present financial crisis afflicting Washington one wonders if either political party will rise to Lincoln’s key insight in December, 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

(Will someone please send this to Mr. Obama?)

One aspect of wisdom is humor. To have a good sense of humor, it is said, one needs a good mind and a good heart. Ecclesiastes 12:11 reports that “the words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails.” Lincoln’s ability to speak in sharp, pithy and often funny phrases is part of his legend. “If I had two faces would I wear this one?” he once retorted of a press report. Of a General who signed dispatches “headquarters in the saddle” Lincoln quipped that “his headquarters were where his hindquarters should be.” He greeted one friendly Congressman, “Tell me all you know. It won’t take long.”

And so on.

Wisdom gave birth to empathy, that rare quality among political animals, that ability to see good in the other side, a facet of human compassion tracing from warm and broad human sympathies. Though Lincoln hated slavery, he once remonstrated that “our Southern brethren would be what we would be” if the situations were reversed. His First Inaugural was a model of statesmanship, holding out the hand of conciliation to a South where seven states had already seceded while appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” Or this: “My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.”

That was the President as Counselor. But what made Lincoln move into the ranks of President as Pastor was his deep spiritual insight. Garry Wills, the Catholic writer, spoke of Lincoln’s “morally persuasive rhetoric,” his ability to “give honor and meaning and purpose to the Civil War,” to the horrible bloodshed. This is the spirit that animated the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln quite forcefully and gently at the same time moved the focus off human self-importance and ceremonial pomp by saying “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” No. Lincoln reminded his hearers that it was “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Students of rhetoric have noted that Lincoln did not say “brave Union men” or “brave Northern men” but the brave men. Period. Empathy once again. Those broad and oh so profound human sympathies. Our better angels.

Spiritual Perception

Mark Noll, the evangelical historian, wrote about “Lincoln’s spiritual perception far above the ordinary.” Noll’s summation is piercing: “It is one of the great ironies in the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation’s deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity.” This is seen, again, in the Second Inaugural of March 4, 1865 which The London Spectator praised as “the noblest political document known to history.” Here is a rich portrait of a President wrestling with Providence, asking the inevitable but human question: How could a just God let this slaughter have happened? How does God rule the world? Where is His hand in all this?

He had little more than a month to live and Lincoln’s answer was stunning, and Biblical: “The Almighty has his own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.’”

This was the pastor’s text – Matthew 18:7. Then came the sermon:

“If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from these divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”

That is a gentle but clear indictment of both North and South for profiting from the sin of slavery. Northern ships profited from the slave trade. The profits from King Cotton formed some of the early investments for Northern factories and industry. Lincoln, born in Kentucky, knew this. He went on, like a good preacher, with the application.

“Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty tears of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

There it was. As clear as American English. The reason why. The President as pastor. God send us many more.

Yet Lincoln was like all pastors, all too human. His ambition was restless and fierce. He shunned his father. He was converted to emancipation after many long and false starts, exasperating Frederick Douglass in the process. He cashiered generals and subordinates with a ruthlessness George W. Bush clearly lacked. Lincoln made no pretensions to sainthood. But saints do not have to be angels, and neither do pastors. Abraham Lincoln set the bar pretty high for politicians who could inspire. Inspiration, that ability – as Wills wrote – to let men and women know what they are dying for. Not the vision thing, but the character thing. He will live on as long as the Republic endures.