THE main facts surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln are well known. As he watched Our American Cousin, a light English melodrama turned into an American farce, with his wife, Mary, at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, on 14 April 1865, the actor John Wilkes Booth — a fanatical supporter of the Confederacy with a deep loathing of the emancipation of negro slaves — entered the President’s box, and shot Lincoln in the head.
He died at 7.22 the next morning. His Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, was in attendance, and murmured the words: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
What is less well known is that 14 April 1865 fell on Good Friday — coincidentally, the same date as in 2017. Lincoln had been criticised in some quarters for attending what had been billed as an “eccentric comedy” on a day of deep Christian solemnity.
Most such voices were stilled, however, as the President was laid out in a house across the road from the theatre. His Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, recalled the image of “the giant sufferer who lay extended diagonally across the bed” that had been borrowed from an absent lodger.
LINCOLN had been scorned and hated by many during his presidency — and almost universally in the South — but as he reached his Calvary on Good Friday, the role of martyr awaited him. Two days later, churches were draped in black. The news of his death led clergy to change joyful Easter sermons to lamentations.
Just as Christ had died to save a broken world, preachers now attested that Lincoln had laid down his life to save the Union. He had taken upon himself the burden of the whole nation, and for that, he, too, had been crucified.
Anger also thundered from pulpits, and there were calls for revenge. One Northern minister desired that the Southern States should perish: “In the grave of our murdered President let the last vestige of them be buried.”
Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, chronicled the response of the people to the assassination in his poem “The Martyr”:
Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm —
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.
THIS powerful religious myth began almost immediately. Stories circulated that clocks in watchmaker’s windows had been permanently set at 7.22 to mark the moment of his transfiguration. In the aftermath of a hideous civil war that had sanctioned murder and savagery on an industrial scale, a weary and demoralised people had a deep, almost instinctive, yearning for a new redeemer.
In the years that followed, 35 American towns and cities were named after him. More than 125 statues were erected in his honour. His birthplace in Kentucky became a national shrine, and his most memorable speeches were rendered in bronze.
A memorial obelisk at Council Bluffs, Iowa, described him as “A King of Men, whose crown was love, whose throne was gentleness.” Parks and libraries bore similar inscriptions. The myth continues to this day, most recently in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, which features a compelling performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.
WHEN Lincoln’s flaws are conceded, along with the temptation of idolatry, as millions feared that peace and human liberties might once again be threatened in the aftermath of his death, it is still possible to ascribe a cruciform shape to his presidency.
His human weaknesses are well documented. By his own reckoning, he was the most miserable of men: “If what I feel were distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.”
There was also the fatalism that pre-empted any prospect of his personal happiness, and more than once led him to prophesy his own demise. This tendency towards melancholy was, however, tempered by a prodigious talent for story-telling and wry anecdotes, which is noted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln (Reading groups, 7 October 2016). This is the book that inspired both Barack Obama in his approach to his own presidency, as well as Spielberg’s film.
We smile when a president such as Lincoln can write: “When you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he is trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.”
Alongside his limitations, political failures have to be acknowledged. As Commander-in-Chief, he suspended Habeas Corpus, limited freedom of the press and personal liberties, and issued the military orders that led to great numbers dying in battle. And yet his term of office was dominated by the intolerable pressures and invidious choices of war and, in his view, the right “to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy” — including, if necessary, a policy of attrition.
Being in sole charge, he carried the guilt, shame, and remorse of vicious conflicts, and saw first-hand the tears of grieving mothers and widows. He was also merciful to individual soldiers who had been sentenced to death for cowardice or for falling asleep on sentry duty.
In his private life, he endured the death of two sons, and struggled to sustain a marriage to his wife who suffered frequent bouts of illness, and was forcibly confined to a psychiatric institution by her son, ten years after her husband’s death.
THE accumulative cost of his labours included a daunting flow of human traffic from all walks of life. On New Year’s Day in 1863, the Lincolns held the traditional reception in the White House. The President stood for three hours shaking hands with visitors, before retiring to his study to sign the Emancipation Proclamation — the executive order that set out freedom for slaves in designated parts of the South. His hand was so sore from welcoming guests that he could barely hold the pen.
He declined to sign while his hand was still trembling, because those who came after might say that he had hesitated. That was not acceptable to him; for “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. . . If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
Lincoln then picked up the pen, and signed his name without a tremor. The Proclamation concluded with an invocation of “the gracious favour of Almighty God”.
Some have found in this scene the resoluteness of Jesus who, as “the days drew near for him to be taken up, set his face towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51).
The many portraits taken during Lincoln’s White House years display a face increasingly lined, eyes more sorrowful, and a mouth resembling that of a man much older than one in his late fifties. One painter described it as “the saddest face I ever saw”, a face that, however, also evidenced a resigned kindness, as if the eight of suffering had purged any resentment from his soul.
His two young secretaries, John G. Nicolai and John Hay, came to regard him as the greatest person since Christ. The new birth of freedom which he had achieved for those once held as slaves inclined many others to this view.
IN THIS respect, and given the contested and conflicting evidence about Lincoln’s religious beliefs, much has been written about his faith and the extent to which it shaped his character and the moral clarity that formed his oratory and his personal life.
His wife, Mary, declared (in a curious but revealing phrase) that he was not “a technical Christian”, and Professor Richard Carwardine, a historian specialising in American politics and religion, concluded that Lincoln “if no Christian, was a man of peculiar spirituality and faith” (Comment, 1 July 2009).
Honest Abe (as he came to be known) was raised as a Baptist. His parents were regular church-goers, and his father, Thomas, helped to establish the Pigeon Creek church in an Illinois village where Baptists, Methodists, and fervent Evangelical sects competed for souls.
In his formative years, the Bible and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress provided Lincoln with durable precepts for living, but he was less clear concerning the existence of God. For the greater part of his adult life, he remained detached from organised religion, but would occasionally speak of his family’s roots among the Quakers of Virginia, or address correspondents as “Friend”, in the venerable Quaker manner.
The challenges of the presidency, however, and particularly the carnage wrought by war, witnessed a change in his journey of faith. The death of one of his sons — “the severest trial of my life” — did not make him a Christian, and in his troubles, there is little to suggest that he found much of the comfort afforded by Christian faith.
When he went to Gettysburg, however, and saw the graves of thousands of soldiers, he recorded: “I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.” He argued repeatedly that slavery was against the teachings of Christianity, and saw the civil war as a form of divine retribution for the sin of keeping slaves.
During the terrible years of conflict, he attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. He read the Bible and prayed in the White House, placing his trust in an inscrutable Providence presiding over the nation, and indeed all human affairs. When informed of a mother who had lost five sons in battle, he wrote her a personal note, praying “that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement”.
And in a celebrated letter to the cotton workers of Manchester who, on New Year’s Eve 1862, had passed a motion in support of the Union and, crucially, its blockade of the exporting of Southern cotton, which was now causing Lancashire workers to starve, he wrote: “I cannot but regard your decisive utterances . . . as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or any country.”
His second Inaugural Address, only 701 words long, mentions God 14 times and quotes scripture four times, with references to the Old and New Testament. Above all, however, it is his capacity to be a “burden-bearer” (Galatians 6.2) for the sake of the nation and its captive people that reflects Lincoln’s real commitment to the way of the cross. On this Good Friday, he may justly be seen as a redeeming president, who began this costly work long before his untimely death.
Canon Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, and Theologian to the diocese of Liverpool. His books include On Being Saved (DLT, 2011), How to be Wise (SPCK, 2013), and Something in the Air (Trinity Heritage Publication, 2016).