Much has been written about the faith of Abraham Lincoln. He read the Bible from cover to cover several times, but he never joined a church. In his early campaigns for political office his opponents accused him of being an ‘infidel,’ an unbeliever, and a scoffer at religion. Although we cannot know exactly what led to these charges, it is pretty clear that Lincoln was not, in his early years, a deeply religious man, at least not in any traditional sense of the word.
However, in the last years of his life Lincoln displayed a deep and profound dependence on God. The personal tragedy of losing two sons and the national nightmare of the Civil War during Lincoln’s presidency often brought him to his knees in prayer. Those troubled times also led him to speak publicly about God and our dependence upon God, and about God’s judgments upon us. Lincoln came to see the whole Civil War, terrible as it was, as God’s righteous judgment on this land for the sin of allowing slavery for 300 years. On April 30, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Prayer and Fasting. In his proclamation he wove together the themes of God’s judgment and of our need to acknowledge our dependence upon God. He wrote:
Insomuch as we know that by God’s divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of a national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
I Peter 2:25 was written to people who had gone astray like sheep, but then returned to Jesus, ‘the shepherd and overseer of their souls.’ In this proclamation Lincoln is calling on the nation to return to God with prayer and repentance and fasting. And he does that by not only calling to mind God’s judgment, but by also calling to mind God’s blessings and how we are in every way dependent upon those blessings. Sheep are totally dependent on the shepherd for everything; for food and water, and for protection from weather, wild animals, and thieves. Sheep had to trust the shepherd to take care of their every need, just as we must look to and trust in and depend on God for our every need. Remembering such dependence on God was for Lincoln, a necessary part of the nation’s repentance and prayer.
Abraham Lincoln had to learn at a young age to depend upon himself. His mother died when he was only nine years old. His father could be a bit irresponsible and had a hard time taking care of himself sometimes, much less a whole family. But young Abraham worked hard and read anything he could get his hands on. As an adult, his great physical strength, powerful intellect, and quick wit made him a leader. Despite many setbacks and obstacles he became a successful and respected frontier lawyer. He learned to depend on himself for everything and was indeed a self-made man.
However, as president during the most horrible five years in this nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln found that it was not enough to depend on himself, and he learned to depend on God. Alone, he could not handle the burden of bringing together this divided and warring nation. He needed God’s guidance to lead and God’s strength to endure. Also, he could not endure alone the death of his two little boys. He needed a hope only God could give, and he learned to depend of God. The shepherd image for God, so often used in the Bible, teaches us this dependence on God. It reminds us that we are sheep that need to be led and cared for and protected. It is for us to always remember and return to and trust in that ‘Good Shepherd and overseer of our souls.’
I Peter 2:25 — You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
James 1:16-17 — Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
Psalm 121:1-2 — I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who cares for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. —Book of Common Prayer