Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has written a biography of Abraham Lincoln that offers not only a compelling portrait of his spiritual journey on the road to emancipation but also enduring lessons for our divided country today.
The title, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, refers to a quote from Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “I do not despair of this country. … The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force.”
In Lincoln’s time, the struggle between freedom and slavery, darkness and light, good and evil divided the nation. A different version of that struggle continues today.
“A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first-century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality,” Meacham writes.
5 fascinating facts about Lincoln
While expounding on these themes, he offers fascinating bits of information about Lincoln:
- The rumor in rural Kentucky where Lincoln grew up was that he was an illegitimate child. A neighbor said that his mother, the wife of Thomas Lincoln, was “loose.”
- The Gettysburg Address was so short—272 words—that a reporter nearby asked Lincoln afterward if he had finished. “Yes, for the present,” Lincoln responded.
- Lincoln did not select Andrew Johnson to be his running mate in 1864. Delegates to the Republican National Convention made the choice, as was the custom in those days, and it proved to be disastrous. Johnson became the first president to be impeached in 1868.
- Democrats spread rumors that Lincoln might not vacate the White House if he failed to win reelection. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said.
- Lincoln began receiving assassination threats soon after he was nominated for president in 1860. “I long ago made up my mind that if anybody wants to kill me, he will do it,” he said later. “If I wore a shirt of mail, and kept to myself surrounded by a body-guard, it would be all the same. There are a thousand ways of getting at a man if it is desirable that he should be killed.”
Lincoln had only about a year of formal education. His philosophical and religious views drew from the King James Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and New England Transcendentalists Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Lincoln was not an orthodox Christian,” Meacham writes.
Yet after Lincoln became president, he attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. “When I go to church, I like to hear the gospel,” he said.
Meacham characterizes Lincoln’s experience at the church as more of an immersion in a Presbyterian theology than a conversion. Instead, Meacham writes, “Lincoln forged a faith of his own.”
He admitted, “I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am. Nevertheless, amid the greatest difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance on God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right.”
Religious imagery elevated his most memorable speeches.
“Lincoln was pragmatic about religion,” Meacham writes. “A man who aspired to lead a democracy needed to speak in a common vernacular, and the American vernacular was steeped in the language and in the imagery of Protestantism. Lincoln’s was not an entirely cynical accommodation. He appreciated traditional religious belief even if he did not fully share it.”
As his faith deepened, he moved toward abolishing slavery. In Meacham’s words, Lincoln came “to believe that the Civil War might well be a divine punishment—a millstone—for a national sin” and think “that the human drama on earth was bound up with the inscrutable but evident will of God.”
When Lincoln visited Richmond after its fall, some Black people knelt in front of him. “Don’t kneel to me,” he said. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”
John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865—Good Friday. He died the next day.
On Easter Sunday, some pastors in the South portrayed the assassination as divine retribution. Others in the North viewed Lincoln as a martyr.
More than one hundred and fifty years later, his legacy seems clear: He appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”
God help us to follow his example today.