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Barbara Walking in the Valley
A Bi-weekly column, featuring one Christian's (a)musings on life's journey

by Barbara Dahlgren

Lincoln's Legacy
Column for the weeks of May 16-31, 2007

Abraham Lincoln was only 51 when he became our sixteenth president in November 1860. By the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1861, many Southern states had already seceded from the Union. Just one month later, the Civil War officially began when the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. No wonder Lincoln issued a Proclamation of a National Day of Fasting on August 12, 1861. It would not be the last time he would encourage our country to turn to God. Two years later he signed a Congressional Resolution calling for a Day of Prayer on March 30 th.

He was not embarrassed to believe in a higher power. His lot in life was to lead our nation during its most turbulent time. The Civil War didn’t just divide the country into the North and the South. Loyalties within the states were all over the place. As a result, brothers were literally fighting against brothers.

Lincoln was reelected in 1864. He delivered his second inaugural address in March 1865. One month later Robert E. Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox, VA. The war ended. Five days later Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 . He died the next morning. He was only 56.

I think about Lincoln ’s life around this time of year – the anniversary of his death and Passover/Easter time. There is something kind of poetic about him dying during this season. His life had not been easy. Perhaps he served his purpose, and although his assassination was tragic, God gave him rest.

How do you remember Lincoln ?

Is it for his honesty? After all, he was nicknamed “Honest Abe.” During his years as a lawyer he tried to convince clients to settle out of court to save money. When he was a store owner, he walked long distances to return money to people who overpaid. He didn’t even like to charge those who were as poor as he was.

Is it for freeing the slaves? He certainly was instrumental in bringing that to pass. However, some debate that his motive was not so much freeing the slaves as saving the Union . I guess only Lincoln knew what was in his mind and heart, but he did refer to slavery as “cancerous” and “one that is threatening to grow out of control in a nation originally dedicated to the inalienable right of man.”

Is it for his humble origins? He was born to poverty in a one-room log cabin. Abe worked hard at plowing, planting, and clearing land for his family and neighbors. His was an arduous life.

Is it for his thirst for learning? In a farm community that only saw value in physical labor, those who were intellectually curious were considered lazy. Yet, Abe was a voracious reader and borrowed books to read whenever possible. He had very little schooling and was mostly self-taught.

Is it for his perseverance? In his early twenties he and a friend purchased a store that failed, leaving them in debt. His friend died and Abe had to pay back his friend’s part of the debt as well as his own. Time and time again, he would have to rise above disappointments.

Is it for his political career? His political career was a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. He lost as many elections as he won. In time he would bounce back from failure after failure, but it wasn’t easy.

Is it for the tragedies in his life? He was 9 when his mother died of “milk sickness.” His brother Thomas died in infancy. His married sister Sarah died while giving birth. His sweetheart Ann Rutledge died from fever at age 22. His son Edward died when almost 4. Another son Willie died at age 11. His wife Mary Todd would become emotionally devastated and never fully recover.

Is it for becoming a great leader in spite of his depression? As a young man he talked of suicide and viewed the world as hard and grim. As he got older he had a perpetual melancholy that he never fully overcame. His worse depressive episode was in 1840 – 1841 when he became bed ridden. He and Mary Todd had broken up. His political career seemed virtually finished. He was overworking as a lawyer. His dear friend Joshua Speed told Lincoln if he didn’t rally he would die. Lincoln responded by saying that he wasn’t afraid to die.

Is it for his compassion? Friend Henry McHenry said that Lincoln was “always on the side of the weak.” Lincoln ’s sympathy for those in the Civil War was evident. He pardoned draft dodgers and deserters. His letter to Fanny McCullough comforting her on the death of her husband in battle is legendary. He was even called “Father Abraham” among thousands of Union soldiers.

It couldn’t be for his stunning, good looks. A little girl once wrote to tell him he’d look better if he grew a beard. So he did.

Is it for his eloquent speeches? In his time, he didn’t have speechwriters to come up with pithy sayings like “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” You’re pipe dreaming if you think Kennedy made that up. What Lincoln wrote and spoke came straight from him. “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free…” (Republican State Convention 1858) “Fourscore and seven years ago…” ( Gettysburg Address 1863) “Both (North and South) read the same Bible and pray to the same God…”(Second Inaugural Address 1865) “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....” (Second Inaugural Address 1865)

Is it for his philosophy about life? Lincoln told his friend Joshua Speed “…die when I may I want it said that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower when I thought a flower would grow.”

For me, I remember Lincoln ’s profound spiritual perception – which is remarkable considering he acknowledged openly that he was not a Christian. He did attend the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington while president, however, Lincoln never joined a church. He was disillusioned by organized religion, but he never denied the truth of the Scriptures. He read the Bible throughout his life, quoted from it, and made use of biblical images. It is said he knew much of the Bible by heart. He pointed our country to God and continually asked for prayers. He was not a theologian, but self taught in the ways of God and man. Maybe that’s why he refused to picture the North as entirely virtuous in the war or the South entirely evil.

Most agree that Lincoln was the kind of leadership this country needed during its most turbulent time. Perhaps God purposed him as the Bible would say, “for a time such as this…” (Esther 4:14) It is interesting to note that in 1841 when Lincoln was coming out of his severest depression, he confided to Speed that he had an “irrepressible desire” to accomplish something before he died that would “redound to the interest of his fellow man.”

God may have granted him that wish!


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