I have read a good number of biographies of Lincoln and the Civil War. When Steven Spielberg’s movie came out a couple of years ago, I saw it four times in the theater. And, of course, when it came out in DVD, I had to have it and bought it the day it came out.
Lincoln is an attractive personage to me for many reasons. He was highly intelligent and self-motivated, and he cared about people. He had high principles and was a man of character. “Honest Abe” they called him because everyone knew you could always count on him to tell the truth and do what was fair and just. He was also very patient, and learned from the various people and situations he met up with in life.
Lincoln knew how to relate to people and was even able, in many cases, to make friends out of former enemies. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the great presidential historian of our age, shows that masterfully in her recent book, "Team of Rivals." She tells how Lincoln took his former rivals for the presidency and molded them into a powerful cabinet — the skill and ability of which has probably not been matched since.
At the core of Lincoln’s life, and the real driving force within him, however, was his religious faith. Much discussion has taken place in the past about whether Lincoln was a Christian or not. He attended church often, but never joined as a member. His speeches show a respect for God and he often beckoned people to pray — especially in the midst of the horrible war which tore our country and even families apart.
In a book I read recently, "Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker" by Jennifer Chiaverini, the author relates an incident that speaks to Abraham Lincoln’s reliance on God and the Bible. This novel is based on a historical account written by Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who actually became Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant. It is a fascinating book and is true to its title, "Behind the Scenes."
The incident I am referring to took place one evening. Lincoln entered the room where Keckley was fitting a dress on Mrs. Lincoln. Keckley noted that Lincoln’s step was slow and heavy, and that his face was sad. “Like a tired child,” she wrote in her account, Lincoln “threw himself upon a sofa and shaded his eyes with his hands.” As Keckley put it, Lincoln was “a complete picture of dejection.”
After Mary Lincoln asked him if there was any news from the War Department, Lincoln answered, “Yes, plenty of news, but no good news. It is dark, dark everywhere.”
But then, Lincoln reached over for a small Bible that had been setting on a stand next to the sofa. He began reading in silence for about 15 minutes. Keckley glanced over at the president and noticed that his countenance had changed. Now he seemed more cheerful and the dejected look was gone. Somehow, Lincoln looked brighter and more hopeful.
This made Keckley curious. She wondered what verses in the Bible he had been reading that had produced such a change in the president. Making an excuse about a misplaced pincushion, Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker walked quietly around the couch to glance at the open book in Mr. Lincoln’s hands. It was the book of Job from which the president was reading. Job — who had undergone such heartache, difficulty and loss.
Certainly Abraham Lincoln felt a kinship with Job. The verse was Job 38:3, and Keckley could almost imagine God speaking to Lincoln out of the thunderous whirlwind of battle: “Gird up your loins now like a man, for surely I will demand of you and you shall declare to me.”
“A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple earnestness for comfort and courage and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity," Keckley observed.
What is true for Abraham Lincoln can be true for us, too. In fact, maybe a little biblical insight would do all of us and our precious country some good. I know it would! Lincoln knew this and found comfort, strength and hope again and again. We would be wise to do the same.
So, as we celebrate the birthday of our 16th president this month (it was Feb. 12), let’s take a few moments to thank God for Abraham Lincoln. Our country is so much the better because of who he was and what he brought to the presidency. His leadership kept the Union together and brought to an end the curse of slavery.
Happy birthday, Abe!
— By the Rev. John Koedyker, pastor of congregational care at Beechwood Reformed Church in Holland.