I just finished reading a fantastic biography of Abraham Lincoln, titled Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen Guelzo. It is historically dense for the entire 528 pages, and not for the faint of heart, but such a rewarding read for anyone who enjoys American history, Abraham Lincoln, or biographies in general. There were so many things I learned about Lincoln along the way. I felt like I had the chance to identify with him and step into his mind in some instances. I got to see, for the first time, why he was motivated to do the things he did. I got to watch him manage the Civil War not from a historical, fact-driven account, but from his words, his feelings, and his perceptions. And as Abraham Lincoln made his way to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, I wanted so badly to reach through the pages and stop Lincoln from walking inside. I felt true sorrow for a man who died 150 years ago.
The most interesting part of the book to me (and the main reason I wanted to read this particular biography) was to explore Lincoln’s religious stances and how (if at all) his faith factored into his role as President. To my surprise, there were eerie and remarkable parallels drawn between Jesus Christ and Abe Lincoln. Both were born and grew up in unusual, unique circumstances and environments. Both had a clear mission in mind as they made their rounds. Both had so many against them for the things they stood for and proclaimed. Both would willingly die for what they believed was right, and both certainly did. Strangely enough, both men died on Good Friday, assassinated and crucified by bitter enemies who refused to let these great men continue any further. Overall, their legacy has been unified by a word:
Both of these men (at much different exponents, of course) served as the redeemer of their peoples, gladly laying down their lives and paying the necessary price for the goodwill of their brethren.
All of these similarities and many others can cause us to naturally associate Lincoln as the heir-apparent of Christ Himself. But as I read this book detailing every inch of Lincoln’s life in thought, word, and deed, I saw a much different Abraham Lincoln than I expected.
I saw a man who not only never saw himself as “the redeemer,” but a man who didn’t truly know the ultimate Redeemer he oddly illustrated.
Sure, Lincoln definitely knew God was real; and further, that God was present in the world. His early hyper-Calvinist lens of God forced him away from religion altogether for some time, but as he grew older and wiser he began to express his belief in a God who reigned with providence, and who gave us truth in Scripture. He had certainly been in and out of church his whole life, he arguably read and memorized the Bible more than any other book, and his supposed “faith” only grew and intensified as his life and legacy did the same. But his faith was seemingly mute on the crux of the gospel — the deity of Christ.
Since his assassination, we have so little to speculate on. His wife Mary Todd claims he believed in Christ in the most evangelical of senses, while Lincoln’s close partner in law practice, William Herndon, offers the exact opposite conclusion. And the confusion surrounding Lincoln’s exact beliefs have been quite the mystery for over a century. What we do know about Lincoln is that he certainly gave us no quotes or writings to show his confirmation in Christ’s deity, but only the opposite. He was never an active, regular member of church, never publicly professed any relationship to Jesus, and so forth. Christianity to Lincoln seemed to be a great benchmark for running a campaign. It was a way to gather an audience and apply the unity of Biblical language towards a cause. It was Lincoln’s way of chalking up any sequence of events and justifying reason. But it never seemed to be a love of Jesus Christ, confirmed in his heart and through his actions, that compelled him to live the Christian life. Most tragically is the final days of Lincoln’s life. Here was a President who’d been through every sense of exhaustion as a brutal war ended and civil rights hung in the balance. Just before Lincoln was assassinated, he spoke of his desire to take a pilgrimage. It wasn’t merely to “get away and relax.” No. Abraham had been searching, and it all centered around a quote that described his religious life poignantly:
“I had often wished that I was more devout than I am.”
Lincoln was looking for the redemption he could give his people, but couldn’t accept for himself. He had redeemed so many, yet he could not seem to find his Redeemer. And though the desire was there to find this redemption, he didn’t know where to go to find it, or how. He’d certainly skirted around it for his entire life, but couldn’t pinpoint it. Guelzo writes this haunting paragraph in summation:
“Perhaps, in the end, he hoped to find some beginning of an answer after the presidency was laid down, in Jerusalem or some other place of pilgrimage. But it is more likely, as Lincoln confessed to Aminda Rankin in 1846, that “probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did.” Those words make him something very different from the scoffer or deist or infidel in New Salem in 1831. But neither were they the confession of a convert or a prophet. They were, instead, the lonely murmur of abandonment, deathlike in the leafless trees.”
I feel sad for Lincoln, because I know his religious life is a cookie-cutter pattern that would easily fit the mold of millions of self-professed “Christians.” Going on feeling and reasoning, never finding the redemption promised to us right under our nose. There are so many who seem to be searching, yet do not know where to look. If only we, who have the lens of the Gospel in clear view, could point such great people, like Lincoln, in the right direction.
I finished the book with sadness. It was an amazing read, yet I feel so burdened by it, because I know it stands for something greater than Abe, civil rights, war, and even religion. It is the picture of a man who assumed the task appointed to him, yet couldn’t embrace the gift to him that was so similarly packaged. And even further, Lincoln is just one of the countless people who live in such helpless murmurs of abandonment.
I hope this book compels me to continue striving to teach Biblical truth. You never know who is listening. You never know who needs the message of redemption.