Abraham Lincoln is generally regarded as this country’s greatest president. It follows, then, that his last words, if we but knew what they were, would be of compelling interest—not merely to historians, but to all Americans.
As it happens, we do know what Lincoln’s last words were. In an interview in 1882, Mary Lincoln, the president’s widow, confided that in the box at Ford’s Theatre, scant seconds before John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal Derringer ball into her husband’s brain, Lincoln had turned to her and whispered: “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior.” And then: “There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”
Mary Lincoln shared this memory with a Baptist minister named Noyes W. Minor, who later wrote it down. The fact that Minor was a clergyman might tend to cast doubt on the story, were it not accepted as true by such eminent Lincoln scholars as Allen C. Guelzo, Wayne Temple, and Doris Kearns Goodwin; also Dr. James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library at Springfield, Illinois.
But if those were in fact Lincoln’s last words, why are they not better known?
This is the question that Stephen Mansfield explores in his engrossing new book, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America.
According to Mansfield, Lincoln’s life was a pilgrimage from doubt to faith. As a young man in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln was practically the village atheist. He devoured authors who scoffed at Christianity—notably Gibbon, Tom Paine, French rationalist C.F. Volney and the poet Robert Burns. He especially enjoyed reciting Burn’s satiric poem, “Holy Willie’s Prayer” — a devastating indictment of religious hypocrisy.
Add to this the fact Lincoln was never baptized, never joined a church, and had, it seems, no qualms about attending the theatre on Good Friday to view a ribald comedy (a detail widely deplored by clergymen at the time in their eulogies to the slain president) and it is tempting for historians to conclude that he had no faith. Lincoln’s later church attendance, like his references to God in his public documents, may be discounted as a politician’s attempts to pander to the religious sensibilities of his countrymen—or, at least, to avoid shocking them by his unbelief.
The problem with this view of Lincoln, says Mansfield, is that it overlooks too much—like Lincoln’s last words. “Lincoln’s faith,” he declares, “is usually frozen as of his early Springfield years and never allowed to mature. This makes him ever the skeptic, ever religiously uncertain and unsure. It is an injustice, for the truth is that Lincoln was, in fact, a religious pilgrim, and his spiritual journey is among the more fascinating and defining realities of his life.”
Lincoln’s spiritual journey was a meandering one, with few discernable milestones and no dramatic Saul/Paul conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Nevertheless, it was real.
Mansfield suggests that it may have begun with the gift of a Bible. It is well known that in his younger years, Lincoln was frequently tortured by bouts of depression so severe that anxious friends more than once felt obliged to remove sharp objects from his reach. During one of the worst of these “hypos,” as he called them, the mother of his good friend Joshua Speed gave him a Bible in the hope that it would comfort him. Lincoln promised to read it regularly, and Mansfield adduces considerable evidence that Lincoln not only continued to read the Bible throughout the rest of his life, but frequently committed long passages to memory.
Another crisis that apparently drew Lincoln closer to God was the death of his second child, three-year-old Eddie, in 1850. During their bereavement, Lincoln and his wife were regularly consoled by the Rev. James D. Smith of Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church. Lincoln had previously read a book by Smith defending Christianity. Smith recommended further reading to Lincoln and the two had many long conversations on the Christian faith. Shortly afterwards, the Lincolns began attending Smith’s church. Three years later, they had their fourth child, Thomas (nicknamed Tad), baptized there–the only one of their children to be baptized. Lincoln was similarly sustained by an Episcopal priest named Dr. Francis Vinton after the death of his second child, Willie—an event that occurred in February of 1862, after he had become president.
Yet the strongest evidence for Lincoln’s faith comes from his struggle to understand the tragedy of the Civil War in terms of God’s will. If God was opposed to slavery, why did the course of the war so frequently go against the Union?
In September of 1862, after another Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln wrestled with this question in a remarkable private essay which has since become known as Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will.” Lincoln wrote this:
“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.”
If those words sound vaguely familiar, they should. They are virtually a rough draft for Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:
“Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other … The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!’ If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”
“Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,” says Mansfield, “was more than a speech. It was Lincoln as prophet pleading the case of God. It was Lincoln as Jeremiah or Isaiah or Daniel.”
It is that Lincoln who provides the best answer to the question of whether or not our sixteenth president was a man of faith. While the exact nature of that faith must forever remain a mystery to all but Lincoln and God, there is no doubt, as Mansfield proves by a preponderance of the evidence, that Lincoln’s faith was real, that it sustained him as he led America through its darkest hours, and that it helped to shape the nation that we know today.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.