On this 2018 Presidents Day Weekend, as we are experiencing the uproar of contemporary American politics, a focus on Abraham Lincoln can remind us of the values our greatest American president can shine on today’s tumult. It is not that he can answer the problems of climate change, but his integrity and attitude of respect for persons with whom we disagree, is so much needed today.
I want to shine a special light on his capacity for growth and change. Nowhere was this more evident than in his spiritual growth. Raised in a Baptist family on the Kentucky frontier during the Second Great Awakening, Lincoln reacted against the emotionalism of this tradition. Fixing his star on reason, by his early twenties in New Salem, Illinois, he rejected most of traditional Christianity. He became in his words a “fatalist” — a kissing cousin of Deism.
But then life tumbled in. First, the death of three-year-old Eddie in 1850, and then the death of eleven-year-old Willie in 1862, forced Lincoln to rethink the meaning of faith. He could not adopt the faith of his parents but had to find his own way forward. Within the matrix of the Civil War, Lincoln asked the questions: Who and where is God? His ultimate public answer would come in his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. Far removed from fatalism, he placed his faith in providence — in a God who acted in history. “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
If you would like to pursue Lincoln’s faith journey further, I commend a Trinity Forum Reading, Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man. The reading includes excerpts from Elton Trueblood’s classic book, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish, along with the texts of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. As a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum, I have added a new preface to the reading. You may order the reading from The Trinity Forum Store or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 202.944.9881.