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Perhaps the biggest question I’ve ever had about a remarkable president, Abraham Lincoln, centers around his faith. Or lack of faith. Who really knows what America’s “Father Abraham” thought about God?
Stephen Mansfield does. The great biographer has produced a wonderful new work, “Lincoln’s Battle With God,” in which he sheds important light on what role faith played in Lincoln’s stay in the White House.
Lincoln, a figure still shrouded in some mystery – as iconic persons should be – was at times anti-religion, even anti-God. Yet a ghastly war and the deaths of two young sons forced him to consider unearthly realities.
It is against this backdrop that Mansfield opens “Lincoln’s Battle With God.” He includes a completely fascinating legend that is evidently something more than legend.
It seems that as the Lincolns were watching a play at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday, 1865 – on the cusp of a war victory for the ages – the lanky former lawyer leaned toward his wife and expressed an interest in visiting the Holy Land, Jerusalem in particular, upon their retirement from politics.
Then John Wilkes Booth fired.
Mansfield acknowledges that the story is considered to be apocryphal by many scholars.
One who would know recounted the final conversation to a minister in 1882, and that one was Mary Todd Lincoln.
Such are the gripping stories and vignettes that make up this amazing book.
Those who knew Lincoln referred to him as a “shut-mouthed man,” meaning, he was not forthcoming about personal details. However, he once related to a friend the impact his mother’s influence had had on him. She had died when Abe was a boy, but he remembered her still. Nancy was an intellectual (though poor) and recounted Bible stories while the family worked.
As Lincoln grew up, he also recognized another trait from his mother: depression. No doubt this colored his outlook on religion, and this difficulty was to follow him all his days.
During a congressional race in 1846, Lincoln revealed some inner thought, in a letter to a friend: “At the time you refer to, I was having serious questionings about some portions of my former implicit faith in the Bible. The influences that drew me into such doubts were strong ones, men having the widest culture and strongest minds of any I had known up to that time.”
In other words, as a young man, Lincoln was afflicted with the same terrible dilemma presented to today’s generation of Millennials: skeptics of the faith gaining influence with young minds.
He went on to write in the letter, “The fundamental truths reported in the four Gospels” are “settled and fixed moral precepts with me.”
It is also clear that in the early years of the Civil War, Lincoln the commander-in-chief was trying to make sense of God’s ultimate purpose in all things, particularly, of course, this great national struggle.
By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, Mansfield writes that the famous document “signaled something even more profound in Lincoln’s life. He had come to understand history is orchestrated by God, nations accountable to him, and men as the means by which God fulfills His will.”
A further insight into Lincoln’s thinking in his later years comes to us from the recollection of Union General Daniel Edgar Sickles, who commanded Third Corps, and who had lost a leg at Gettysburg just prior to a conversation he had with his boss. Sickles asked Lincoln his mood during the battle; he had heard the residents of the capital had been gripped with fear.
Not Lincoln: “In the pinch of your campaign up there, when everybody seemed panic-stricken, and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went into my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told him this was His war and our cause, His cause, but that we couldn’t stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. And I then and there made a solemn vow to Almighty God that if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him. And He did, and I will. And after that, I don’t know how it was and I can’t explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that things would go all right at Gettysburg, and this is why I had no fears about you.”
Well, then. Perhaps this pulling back the curtain on a decisive moment in American history best explains the individual faith of a man called by history to greatness.
“Lincoln’s Battle With God” is a great book, and takes its place as an important addition to the body of literature about Abraham Lincoln.