KOEDYKER: Lincoln found hope in the Bible

Anyone who knows me, or has heard me speak, knows that I have a great admiration for our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.
Feb 16, 2014

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.



Former Grandhavenite

Lincoln was pretty clearly agnostic. Even in Team of Rivals there are a lot of quotes from his writings that indicate he strongly doubted the existence of God but wasn't arrogant enough to think that he knew for sure, which is exactly the position that I take. Lincoln read the bible because that's what educated folks did at that time, and if you read any old poetry or prose it's filled with references to biblical events and stories because it was the one book that most people were familiar with. Even nowadays so many of our linguistic concepts and turns of phrase are references to biblical events, but the influence was even more overwhelming back then. If you want to relate to your fellow humans it's generally a good idea to have at least some familiarity with the most popular book of all time, even if you feel it belongs in the fiction section as I do.

Saying that Lincoln was a quite religious guy because he read the bible is like saying that he was gay because he slept in a bed with Joshua Speed (it was common for heterosexual folks to share beds back then due to economic pressures) or that he was racist because he used the word 'negro'.

Even if you view the bible as a work of fiction there are still tons of worthwhile things you can take from it. If it's supposed to be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, then why does the supposedly more religious party always have a lot more sympathy for that rich man? It's because ANYONE can see whatever they want to see in the bible. A book full of metaphors and contradictions gives you ample room to find whatever it is that you're looking for to confirm any set of beliefs that you have. Whether you focus more on how that Sodom and Gomorrah thing went down, or on the fact that you should treat others the way that you want to be treated is determined more by your preexisting political views than by an honest effort to understand the words of the bible. Our minds are highly trained to zoom in on the verses that support our views and ignore the rest. Personally I don't particularly care whether or not a Jewish carpenter and his band of disciples existed two thousand years ago, but I sure recognize that the "Golden Rule" is worth following even if you don't believe in any of the rest of it.


Well said.


How did Lincoln feel about the American Indian

Former Grandhavenite

I think he's considered pretty middle-of-the-road in terms of 19th century presidents in relation to American Indian issues. Of course, what was a middle-of-the-road position on that issue back then would be considered genocidal megalomania nowadays. He was nowhere near as anti-Indian as somebody like Andrew Jackson, but he was still pretty bad as far as their treatment.


I do not agree Abraham Lincoln was agnostic, if you do not believe in God you will find little comfort from the Bible at all; to the non-believer it is like rambling babble and parables you could not understand much less apply to your life and way of living.
Lincoln clearly drew comfort and strength from Scriptures which he seemed to understand the deeper meaning of quite well; this to me suggests a faith in God strengthened by reading the words of God. According to history one of the first things he did each morning was read his Bible and enjoy his boiled egg breakfast, he read and jotted down scriptures before making notes about what he needed to do that day…still in his bed gown (PJ’s). He was never found reading a book of poems or Shakespeare or works by any of the popular writers of the day, he always read his bible first thing and then sometimes several times that day.

Former Grandhavenite

There are some historians who agree with you on that. Wherever he was drawing his inspiration from it seemed to be a pretty good choice. One thing a lot of people don't realize is that Lincoln was pretty severely depressed for most of his life because history tends to whitewash the most admired figures, when in all honesty I love the fact that he was a real person with all the same frailties as any of us.

It reminds me of how after a major victory the War Secretary accused Ulysses S. Grant of being much more interested in whiskey than he was in military tactics. Lincoln is said to have responded, "Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to every one of my other generals."

I'm speaking just for myself of course, but as an agnostic I feel like I've benefited and gotten some small level of comfort from reading sections of the Bible. If I see a good idea lying on the ground I'll pick it up regardless of where else it's been. I believe in some aspects of several different religions and take whatever ideas I can get from other mystical/spiritual/philosophical books. I don't think most of the events happened as described in any of the holy books, and I don't believe in the supernatural aspects. I generally agree with the Ten Commandments but I don't think they should take the place of the Constitution in organizing our society.

Whether or not a God of some sort exists ultimately shouldn't have any bearing on how you live your life if you're doing it right. Whether you oppose exploiting the poor because of Jesus' stance on it or because of something you read in Das Kapital by Karl Marx ultimately doesn't make much difference in terms of how you should live and treat others. Whether you're a secular humanist or an evangelical Christian your view on murdering people or stealing will probably be similar.

I wish they'd explain to you in school that even a stopped clock is right twice every day and that a lot of perceived 'bad' people and institutions have come up with some pretty good ideas, and vice versa. Opposing political or religious views are not evil and their proponents aren't trying to ruin the world. If you have a burning hatred toward someone because of their religion or politics that should be a red flag that you may be going over the deep end. This sort of independent thinking doesn't fit well within the structure of corporate America or our two-party, one-religion (that being mammon), system.

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