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A Spiritual Legacy for America: The Faith of Abraham Lincoln

Howard A. Berman
Summer 2006

(This sermon was delivered at a joint service of Boston Jewish Spirit, a Reform congregation, and Emmanuel Episcopal Church, both in Boston, on February 19, 2006.)  
As we have come to know each other, you have probably gathered by now that the study of American history is one of my consuming passions. For me, the unfolding of the saga of the great experiment in human freedom and democracy, embodied in our nation’s past and destiny, is not just a matter of academic interest. I have always believed that there is an underlying spiritual and moral force that has been at work in the founding and growth of America — a virtually Providential purpose — that has shaped our history and that remains clear and strong even in the midst of the many failures and foibles of our leaders and policies.  
I am both an old fashioned, unrepentant, liberal and an ardent patriot — and I am as unwilling to give up my claims to the love of country and flag and hand them over to those arrogant reactionaries and extremists who seek to monopolize patriotism, any more than I am willing to hand the Bible over to those fundamentalists who attempt to hijack religious faith. And so for me, this Presidents Day weekend is far more than just a three day holiday or an opportunity to rush out to over-hyped sales at car dealers and department stores. This holiday is, for me, part of a cycle of holy days and commemorations that are as sacred to me as the ancient Biblical Festivals of our religious calendar. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Chanukah and Passover are joined in my consciousness by the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Independence Day, as times to reflect on and reaffirm profound spiritual and moral ideals.  
Spiritual Reflections  
And so this morning, I’d like to share some spiritual reflections on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is encompassed in tomorrow’s national observance. I particularly want to share with you some reflections on the background and meaning of Abraham Lincoln’s religious ideas.  
The question of Lincoln’s religious convictions and personal spirituality has intrigued and divided historians — and indeed theologians — ever since his own time. Even while the Great Emancipator was still alive there was constant debate and speculation regarding his highly unconventional approach to religion. In the 140 years since his death, controversy has literally raged between those who have painstakingly tried to prove his Christian orthodoxy and those who have steadfastly maintained that he was an irreverent heretic or even an atheist.  
The objective historical evidence is that he was neither! Lincoln’s faith, under careful scrutiny, seems rather to emerge as a deeply personal and non-ritualistic religious humanism that nevertheless was an increasingly profound influence in his life as he grew and matured.  
Growth and Development  
That process of growth and development, a spiritual journey that continued throughout his life, is the key to understanding Lincoln’s faith. It is an odyssey that begins with the simple, unstructured, Bible-centered Protestant Christianity of the backwoods of Kentucky, and ends with the inspiration of his immortal Second Inaugural address. One of the great religious thinkers of our own time, Richard Niebuhr, has concluded that “An analysis of the religion of Abraham Lincoln, in the context of the traditional religion of his time and place — and its polemical use on the slavery issue — must lead to the conclusion that Lincoln’s religious convictions were superior in depth and intellectual purity not only to those of the political leaders of his day but also to those of most religious leaders of the era.”  
Lincoln’s early life in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois did not yet reflect the spiritual depth that was to come. His parents, Thomas and Nancy, were descended from Quakers, and themselves joined a rural Baptist congregation while Abe was still a boy. But, while he was exposed to his parents’ firm and simple faith, the young Lincoln was a skeptic. He rejected the emotionalism of the itinerant revivalist preachers he heard, and as a young attorney, was highly critical of the prejudices and rampant competition of the churches he knew. We know that he read Thomas Paine’s classic statement of atheism, The Age of Reason, and he certainly went through recurring periods of doubt and even disbelief. Lincoln himself never joined a Church — perhaps the only one of our Presidents not to have made this concession to popular expectations. He occasionally attended the Presbyterian Church with his wife, who was a member of that denomination, but remained reluctant to commit himself to any particular creed. His reasons for his resistance comprise one of his most characteristic sentiments. He once said: “When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership, the creed ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy might ... And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will I heartily join!”  
The Rejection of Narrow Parochialism  
Lincoln rejected complicated creeds and narrow parochialism. His perspectives were broad and humanistic. And yet as he grew older, and assumed the great responsibilities of national leadership, his own distinctive personal faith began to emerge out of the depth of his intellect and broad vision.  
The Bible itself exerted great influence on Lincoln throughout his life. He became familiar with its text as a boy when it was one of the few books available for his eager mind to read. The reflection of Biblical language and references in his later literary and speaking style is well known. But on an even deeper level it was a Biblical perspective that shaped Lincoln’s own emerging sense of faith and destiny as he matured. Scholars agree that the Jewish Biblical concept of the “God of History”, who directs the destiny of men and nations and who chooses peoples and individuals as instruments of Divine will, became the very essence of Lincoln’s religious convictions. Indeed it became the essence of his own understanding of his — and America’s — cosmic purpose and mission.  
As the challenges and trials of his Presidency unfolded, Lincoln came, ever more clearly, to a firm conviction that the Union represented a mystical hope of freedom for all humanity. The struggle to save the Union, and in turn to fulfill its sacred destiny as the sanctuary of liberty for all its people, became Lincoln’s own destiny as well. That he saw parallels to his own time in the early history of Israel is abundantly evident in his words and writings. He increasingly felt that he, like Moses, was commissioned to liberate, lead and save the American People which, in deference to the historical context of Jewish history, Lincoln called the “Almost Chosen People”. He fervently believed that the United States was ordained to be a nation of promise — in Lincoln’s own immortal words “the last best hope on earth”.  
Moral Character  
And yet, even in this clear sense of personal and national destiny, Lincoln was never arrogant nor aggressively nationalistic. America’s greatness depended upon its moral character — and its salvation could not be hoped for so long as the sin of slavery continued. In another classic statement, directed to a smug, self-righteous clergyman who assured Lincoln that God was on the side of the North in the war, the President replied, “I am not at all concerned about that, for I know the Lord is always on the side of the right. It is not a question that God is on our side, but it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation are on God’s side!”  
The personal faith that lay behind this broader conviction of national destiny developed slowly throughout Lincoln’s life. He never ceased to wrestle with doubt. The tremendous pressures of his office, as well as the personal tragedies of his life — the death of two young sons and his wife’s mental illness — continued to challenge his spiritual understanding. And yet, out of the trial and tribulation emerged a clear set of religious ideals that sustained and guided him, both as a man as well as President.  
Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong spiritual journey reached its most dramatic and eloquent climax with his Second Inaugural Address, spoken from the portico of the Capitol in Washington on March 4, 1865. This address was written during one of the most trying periods in his life, when he faced major crises and challenges to his military and political leadership.  
Preserving the Union  
The hope of preserving the Union, which had been the major mandate of his first inaugural address four years earlier, had been dashed by the succeeding years of bloodshed and internal discord. While the Northern forces were heading toward victory, the American People, North and South, were physically and emotionally drained and exhausted. Grief and despair, vindictiveness and violent hatred still tore the nation’s soul asunder. It was a moment, one of the most critical in our history, that called for a prophetic voice — for a reaffirmation of the moral vision that had created the United States. Also needed was a message of hope and healing and reconciliation. It was a surely singular reflection of the Providential destiny that has been so clearly at work in the history of this nation — a Divine Purpose that Lincoln so deeply believed in — that all of his genius of intellect and greatness of spirit were brought to bear in the writing of this immortal speech.  
After reviewing the causes and progress of the Civil War that was raging in the midst of his inauguration, the Great Emancipator went on to proclaim a profoundly prophetic vision of the transcendent meaning of the terrible struggle. Let us hear Lincoln’s powerfully inspiring words once again:  
In this battle both sides — North and South — read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange to us that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance, while wringing their bread from the sweat of other men‘s faces. But let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; those of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which in the providence of God, 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 those divine attributes of justice which the believers in a Living God have always ascribed to Him? 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 up by the slaves’ two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid for by another drawn with the sword, still it must be said, as it was said 3000 years ago, “the judgments of the Lord are true and they are righteous altogether”.  
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, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace ... among ourselves and with all nations.  
Lincoln Memorial  
Friends — like so many of us, I first heard these words as a child, standing in reverent awe before the immortal statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington where Lincoln’s words are inscribed on the wall to the right of the great seated figure. I remember my parents reading them to me, and how they choked back emotion as they concluded. I have read these words so many times, and I have never reflected on their magnificent power without tears in my eyes and without a heartfelt prayer of thanks that I am a son of this nation.  
A prominent historian once remarked that to even comment on these words is blasphemous. And indeed, they are as clear and direct in their meaning and challenge as are the words of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. And with their grounding in the ideals and cadences of the Bible they are a cherished part of the shared spiritual heritage of every American. This inspiring document is made all the more moving and poignant when we remember that little more than a month after speaking these words, Lincoln was dead — by the hand of an assassin. The Second Inaugural Address may well be considered his last Will and Testament to the American People.  
And today, as we mark the Anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, these words are as powerful and relevant in their challenge to this nation as they were the day they were first spoken!  
Moral Courage  
How desperately America needs to hear once again Lincoln’s message of moral courage, humility and healing! At a moment in the history of this nation when we seem to be as polarized and divided as America was during the Civil War... at a time when the level of political discourse among our nation’s elected officials often sinks to gutter depths of bigoted mediocrity.., in an era of extremism and arrogant self-righteousness on both sides of each of the great moral and social conflicts of our time... Lincoln’s words of humility and healing have a special and urgent meaning for us once again!  
We need only substitute “liberal and conservative” for “North and South” and stand amazed at how timely and relevant this document remains for this very moment in American history!  
America’s leaders and citizens in both political parties and on both sides of the ideological spectrum need to hear and heed this immortal challenge today — Republican and Democrat — Liberal and Conservative. We all need to hear once again Abraham Lincoln’s message of firm, unwavering moral conviction, tempered with humility, compassion, mutual respect and understanding — again in those powerful words, “firm in the right as God gives us to see the right.. .but with malice toward none.. .and with charity for all.”  
Broad Faith  
In this era of political, social and religious polarization, extremism, narrowness and vindictiveness, Abraham Lincoln’s broad and courageous faith can serve as a common vision to unite all the people of our nation — and indeed of our world!  
On this anniversary of his birth — very much a holy day for every American — let each of us reflect upon these immortal words and reaffirm their challenge as we, too, “strive on to finish the work we are in ... to bind up this nation’s wounds ... and to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace ... among ourselves ... and with all nations. ...”  

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