Abraham Lincoln, the Bible, and American Greatness
History - American Released - Jul 19, 2020
It was while campaigning for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives, that his opponent accused Lincoln of not being a true Christian. Lincoln set the record straight: "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."
Lincoln was a lifelong Bible reader, which is evident in his speeches, particularly those written during the Civil War. For example, Lincoln begins the Gettysburg Address with "Fourscore and seven years ago." Here, with some retooling of words, Lincoln is drawing from the King James Bible, where it reads: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years . . . ." (Psm 90:10)
The Bible's influence on Lincoln's language can be seen even before he took office. In February 1861, with the South seceding and the future of the Union hanging in the balance, the president-elect departed from his home in Springfield, Ill., for his inauguration in Washington. Before his train pulled out, he said to a gathering of friends and supporters: "I now leave not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail." What's striking is how closely Lincoln's words echo those of Joshua 1: 5: "As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee nor forsake thee."
Lincoln's mind remained on the Bible during his two-week trip to Washington. In Trenton, NJ, he gave a speech to the state senate in which he recalled as a child reading about George Washington's battle for the city. "I recollect thinking then," he said, "boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise for all the people of the world to all time to come."
It was his intention, he said, "to serve as a humble instrument in the hands of the almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people." By referring to Americans as an "almost chosen people," Lincoln was drawing a comparison between the United States and biblical Israel, which according to Genesis was brought into being so that all the families of the world would be blessed. The American founding too, Lincoln suggested, was about more than independence for his country. It was destined to embody an ideal of human equality, "a great promise" for all the world.
A day later, on Washington's birthday, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Lincoln declared: "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence . . . that all men are created equal . . . not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time." He added, "May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I prove false to those teachings."
As a city of Bible readers, the Philadelphia audience likely would have recognized Lincoln's allusion to Psalm 137: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth." In the Bible, Jerusalem was the home of the Ark of the Covenant, the reminder of God's promise to the Israelites. Independence Hall, Lincoln suggested, was the American Jerusalem, and the doctrine that "all men are created equal" was the covenant of the "almost chosen people." In the impending civil war Americans' dedication to that covenant would be severely tested.
Lincoln's biblical reflections on America would reach full flowering in his Second Inaugural Address, delivered in Washington, on March 1865. In a career of remarkable oratory, it remains his masterpiece. Lincoln called his country to repentance and described the Civil War as God's punishment for American slavery, concluding with the Psalmist's declaration that the "judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" (Psm 19:9).
Which brings us to another American injustice, that of incarcerating immigrants–particularly in separating young children from their parents and putting them in cages–that surely we as a nation will be called upon to answer for, in some way, and in some future time.
A modern day Lincoln would remind us, in quoting the Bible, that we are not divided, but rather are all of "one blood" and of "one father" (Act 17:26 and I Cor 8:6). At the same time–particularly with the recent passing of the great civil rights leader John Lewis–I am reminded of the Bible passages that guided the Civil Right's movement, which was "The Sermon on the Mount" (Mathew chapters 5, 6 and 7).
The American dream is Bible based; I can say this with the knowledge that the Bible was the most quoted book at the Declaration of Independence Convention in 1776, and the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
America has always been about welcoming the world to our land, our land of plenty, of freedom, equal opportunity, and justice for all, irrespective of national origin, religion, race, or color. This is the source of American greatness.
In writing this piece I am indebted to an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal (February 15-16, 2020), entitled "What the Bible Taught Lincoln about America" by Meire Solovehik, and to a very special biography, "Abraham Lincoln" by Benjamin Thomas.
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