Lincoln at Sea
Editor's note: I wrote this for the Fine Arts staff at Regents School of Austin in our weekly newsletter.
At the beginning of the school year at a retreat, the head of our middle school took a moment to address students and parents. He shared a story about Lincoln’s many failures before he became President, highlighting his perseverance. The anecdote floated around in my head for months–like something out at sea: a buoy, raft, or boat. I was inspired. A few months later, the story was still floating, so I went to the used bookstore and bought one of Lincoln’s biographies. The book (A. Lincoln) was thick. I mean over six hundred pages. The odds were against me that I'd finish it. The stacks and stacks of half read books around my house would testify to it. And so would my wife. But, miracles do happen, and I finished it.
The book stirred many questions about this tremendous man. But I wondered, What did Lincoln believe about God? Did he believe in the God of the Bible or a god who was distant and disinterested, as some might attest? The biography unearthed a complex picture of his faith.
Lincoln grew up in a Baptist church but felt intellectually stifled, especially when he sought answers to difficult questions. However, after Lincoln became President, he started regularly attending the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church pastored by Phineas Gurley. Gurley’s chief mentor was Charles Hodge, the eminent Christian theologian at Princeton Seminary. An orthodox, gospel-affirming believer. Hodge wrote much about the providence of God . . . and God’s active relationship in human affairs, including man’s pain and suffering.
SUFFERING, SEA, AND THE WILL OF GOD
Lincoln understood pain and suffering. He faced towering waves of discouragement and depression–before and in the midst of the Oval Office. During the Civil War, the intensity only grew: his critics were fresh gales swooping in from both sides, and the deaths of the soldiers and, most of all, the death of his son must have been like submerged rocks, desperate to grab hold of his boat and drag him to the sea floor. Somehow, his boat refused to capsize.
Was God oblivious to the horrors of war tearing the nation apart? In a personal reflection in 1862 called “Meditations on the Divine Will,” Lincoln sheds light on this question.
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party–and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose (A. Lincoln, 622)
Lincoln confirms that, although he doesn’t know what God is doing, he believes God is doing something, and what God wants will prevail. This isn’t fatalism, but a surrender to God’s sovereign hand. This didn’t mean the people were robots, but that–ultimately–they were instruments for God’s will, not their own.
Lincoln wasn’t perfect by any means, but I believe he was faithful. Can you see God steering Lincoln’s boat into the dock, one last time? Can you hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Lincoln’s life is a Kingdom story. Let’s keep sharing it! Who knows where God will send it.
If you're interested, here's the full text of Lincoln's private reflection, "Meditations on the Divine Will." Lincoln took some of these thoughts and put them into his Second Inaugural Address in 1865. Never heard of Charles Hodge? Learn more about him here from this Gospel Coalition article.
Dane Bundy is President of Stage & Story and Director of Fine Arts at Regents School of Austin, a classical Christian school in Austin, TX.