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Lincoln used the Bible

Published 8:09am Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Abraham Lincoln was never a church member or expressed whatever theology he might have entertained in any systematic manner. His language, especially in private, was not what one would expect from a clergyman or even a conventionally religion person. Yet, our sixteenth president had a keen sense of the Bible as a resource for life and the value of religion in living.

His parents were religious (hard-shell Baptists, in fact), but in a definitely primitive and crude way. He didn’t accept their perspective on religion and he actually rejected their religious notions. Although he famously read books by the light of a fireplace, there is no indication he ever read the Bible at home. He attended various churches but occasionally and never joined one.

Curiously, Lincoln liked clergymen and actually sought contact with them. While traveling the legal circuits around Illinois, he talked well into the night with several on many occasions. In places the local pastor was the only college man in town. It might be this young lawyer, who himself had never attended college much less law school, found clergy to be the only intellectual stimulation available.

Somewhere along the line, Lincoln must have taken to reading the Bible seriously, because he became as familiar with its contents as most regular church-goers. His earliest political speeches were replete with quotations from the Bible and illustrated by biblical allusions. For some years, these references were rather like other public speakers quoting Shakespeare or Milton. This is to say, he drew upon literature that was known to and respected by his audiences. At first, Lincoln’s use of the Bible was as a wise, practical, and usable book. He did not, at least in the early years, speak of the Bible as anything like the inspired, infallible Word of God. The Bible made sense to him, and he obviously believed in its usefulness for the practical affairs of daily living as well as governing a nation.

Just as his moral outrage at the immorality and injustice of slavery grew as his responsibilities in public office increased, the monstrous burdens of the presidency during one of this nation’s greatest crises seem to have led Lincoln inexorably to the Bible. Not only did he quote the holy book more frequently as president, his understanding of biblical truths became at once more profound and more serious. Whereas once his use of the Bible was largely simple literary allusion, in his maturity it became more conscious and purposeful. It was less to support his own ideas and more that the message of the Bible became his message to the nation. I would characterize his later use as not being so much religious as it was theological. It was no longer a convenient rhetorical device but, rather, an essential resource.

By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural in March of 1865, his spiritual thinking was at its keenest, and his use of religion and the Bible most productive. This, the shortest inaugural address in presidential history, was just 701 words. Yet, in it he mentioned God fourteen times. Moreover, he four times referred to the Bible, and stressed the importance and value of prayer four times.

By modern expectations, President Abraham Lincoln was not politically correct—but he was morally right. He was honest and sincere. For all his political sagacity, he was intensely moral. He knew and understood what most of today’s politicians and governmental officials on all levels seem to ignore or misunderstand. The Constitution rightly separates church and state, but it does not separate public life and religion. Indeed, what is arguably our greatest president purposefully and successfully employed religious concepts.

More important then placing his hand on a copy of the Bible while being sword in, a president needs to speak and live the Bible. Those who also speak and live the Bible need to vote for president by what they have so learned.


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