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In The Bible, Abraham Lincoln Found The Antidote To Slavery, Despair, And Death

Statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial
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Remember Lincoln for his courage and his political perseverance in saving the Union, but also remember the source of his courage.

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Not long ago, the Bible was considered a foundational book for American society — a work that stood alongside the Declaration of Independence for its contributions to American politics. However, few American presidents have been shaped by their reading of the Bible as Abraham Lincoln was. From a skeptic and deist to a daily reader who made more than 200 references to Scripture in his speeches and other writings, Lincoln’s transformation as an inspirational leader coincided with his transformed relationship with the Holy Writ. 

How did Lincoln — who grew up trying to escape the shackles of the fatalistic Calvinism of his father, Thomas, and who was remembered in his early adulthood as a skeptic and believer only in a vague deistic providence — end up reading the Bible daily and becoming the president who shattered the “wall of separation” conceived by Thomas Jefferson? That is the implicit question in Gordon Leidner’s new book, Abraham Lincoln and the Bible: A Complete Compendium

Leidner’s book tracks all the biblical references and allusions in Lincoln’s writings and reveals how, as Lincoln grew older, our 16th president was no longer looking to the Bible for just literary inspiration but also (and more importantly) for a moral argument against slavery. Eventually, Lincoln would equally turn to Scripture to find meaning and solace as the United States suffered the mass death and destruction of the Civil War. The Bible became the pillar upon which Lincoln stood.

The Moral Argument Against Slavery

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, westward expansion and slavery were the two great issues polarizing American politics. The Mexican-American War erupted while Lincoln was serving one term as a congressman from Illinois. He, alongside many of his fellow Whigs, condemned the war as a naked and unjust exploit meant to help expand southern slave power. 

In becoming a vocal opponent of the expansion of slavery, Lincoln experienced his metamorphosis from a typical Whig making mere legal arguments against the industry to a champion of anti-slavery politics through moral argumentation. Lincoln began using the language of “conversion experience,” infusing the promise of the Declaration of Independence with the Bible’s assertion that all humans were created in the image and likeness of God to “condemn slavery as a moral evil.” 

Lincoln’s anti-slavery speeches during the 1850s led to a complete reshaping of the slavery debate. Leidner writes, “Lincoln had not only transformed the national argument against slavery from one that was primarily political or economic to one that was moral, but he had also built a solid foundation for his future ethical arguments against slavery.” 

Lincoln’s own speeches drip with the prophetic rhetoric that awakened the moral soul to action. For example, in a speech addressing the significance of the Declaration of Independence delivered in 1858, Lincoln proclaimed, “Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”

As Leidner notes, Lincoln’s moral arguments against slavery, which drew heavily upon the Bible, were now a “personal driving force,” revealing a scriptural influence that was not as obviously present in his earlier life. Tying slavery to evil, sin, and judgment, Lincoln changed the language and politics of anti-slavery and abolitionism to launch a great crusading cause — this cemented evangelical support for Lincoln and the Republican Party, which helped him win the 1860 election.

The Bible as Comfort Amid War

Beyond turning to the Bible for moral arguments against slavery, Lincoln would subsequently look to the Bible for comfort and consolation during the bloodshed and horror of the Civil War. As the country split and fractured and the war dragged on, the mass slaughter and destruction visited upon the battlefields of America pushed Lincoln to a deeper study and reading of Scripture. The Bible was not only a book for building moral arguments against slavery, it was now the place to find comfort and understanding in a world torn asunder.

After the death of his son, Willie, and the heartfelt sorrow of visiting the hospitals of Union (and Confederate) wounded, Lincoln confided in Rebecca Pomroy — a nurse whom he befriended — and shared that he would read the Psalms daily as a source of comfort amid loss. He told her that the Psalms “were the best” and that one could read them “every day in the week.”

But Lincoln’s personal turn to the Psalms wasn’t just a private conversion to the wisdom of the sorrow of the human heart. He also utilized the Psalms in his public declarations of grieving and comfort to console the nation as so many loved ones perished on the battlefields and were often buried in unmarked mass graves. Leidner highlights such a tendency in Lincoln toward the Psalms, for example, in his Second Inaugural Address, where Lincoln wrote:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds (Psalm 147), to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The Bible as a Source of Courage, Strength, and Hope

After the Union victory at Gettysburg, which undid a string of terrible defeats at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, Lincoln traveled to the battlefield where so many Americans were killed and wounded over those three horrific days. The Gettysburg Address is arguably Lincoln’s most famous speech. But what we often forget is how the language was deliberately constructed upon the biblical vernacular familiar to the American audience of the time. 

One of the great traits of Abraham Lincoln and the Bible is how, for all of the writings where Lincoln utilized them, Leidner explains the biblical quotations and rhetorical Scriptural allusions to readers. This helps us understand the religious signification of the Gettysburg Address — especially now in our increasingly secular age when we are tempted to read this inspirational document devoid of its original biblical import. In fact, as Leidner highlights, many lines of the address cross-reference directly with Scripture:

Four score and seven years ago (allusion to Genesis 16:16 and Psalm 90:10) our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation (allusion to Leviticus 25:38 and Luke 1:57), conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. … We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live (allusion to John 15:13). It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

And we must not forget that most famous line near the end in which Lincoln reminds us that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom (allusion to Jonn 3:3).”

The Bible was now a source of hope despite the carnage all around. The Gettysburg Address, although short, runs replete with biblical language, imagery, and allusions. Leidner reminds his readers, “Numerous scholars have noted how the language of the Gettysburg Address emulates the style and cadence of the King James Bible, and how its underlying theme of ‘life — death — rebirth’ is reminiscent of Christ’s teaching from the Gospel of John.” The language that Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address was biblical, theological, and religious.

Lincoln’s Bible

Unlike shallow polemicists who distort Lincoln’s complicated and evolving religious beliefs, anyone who reads his speeches will find a Lincoln who “changed significantly as he grew older.” Abraham Lincoln and the Bible reveals so powerfully how this is the case. While Leidner intelligently stops short of making any declarative proclamations of Lincoln’s formal faith — which we may never know with any certainty — we can know that Lincoln drew upon the Bible as he matured and transformed as a leader.

Abraham Lincoln may have remained uncommitted to denominational dogma throughout his life, but he did commit himself to reading Scripture daily, and he found great comfort in the Bible’s message of love, forgiveness, hope, and reconciliation. Lincoln’s later political speeches and proclamations are clearly inspired by the ideas and teachings of the Bible. Regardless of what Lincoln thought about the technicalities of theology, Leidner concludes, alongside myriad other scholars, that “with the Bible, Abraham Lincoln had found his firm place to stand.” 

When we remember Lincoln for his courage and his political perseverance in saving the Union, we should also remember the source of his courage and perseverance.


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