God Blessed America: Lincoln and the Bible
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
I love the Bible. When I was a child, Sunday School leaders and my parents urged me to memorize Bible verses. When a teenager, I was encouraged to hide God’s Word in my heart, to let it help keep me from sin.
When I wed, I married a Godly lady who had also been raised to learn, treasure, and live by the Book. When I became a Pastor, I placed on the pulpit a Bible and taught from it every Sunday and Wednesday.
When I die, I trust someone will open a Bible and from its pages comfort my loved ones left behind. Reading the entire Bible annually continues to be the most helpful discipline in my spiritual walk. This has been my custom since 1976. I never find the Scriptures growing old or stale. My daily Bible reading continues to be exciting and fresh. I love the Bible.
I love Lincoln. His bust overlooks my study desk. A gas station near our house has in it a life-size statue of Lincoln. When I drive by, I turn to look at it.
The Bible and Lincoln, two things I admire. It is a blessing to discuss in this lesson how significantly interconnected the two of them were.
Lincoln loved the Bible. It was one of few books he had access to in younger years. In Abe’s youth, books were few and far between. Each was a treat. When given Pilgrims Progress, as he held it in his hands, “his eyes sparkled, and that day he could not eat, and that night he could not sleep” (G.51).
Lincoln would later say, “The Bible is the richest source of pertinent quotations.” He recited from it throughout his life (AG. 151). Stephen Douglas complained about Lincoln’s “proneness for quoting Scripture” (AG.313). It was a habit Abe practiced his whole life.
Lincoln memorized whole chapters in the King James Version. He was once helping a dying woman draw up her last will and testament. When she asked him to read from the Bible to her, he recited Psalm 23 from memory, plus the beginning of John 14, “Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (S.1.416).
Depression was an illness Lincoln fought his whole life. After one of his worst bouts, when struggling in his courtship of Mary Todd, Lincoln wrote he had recovered his self-confidence by applying to himself the words of Moses to Israel, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13) (T.19).
Abe eventually married Mary. Their family Bible was a Comprehensive Bible printed in London in 1847. It had inscribed in it the wedding date of the Lincolns, plus the names and birth dates of their four sons (S.4.219).
When struggling against severe depression on another occasion as a young man, an Oxford Bible was given to Abe by the mother of his friend Joshua Speed. Lincoln, whose faith at the time was no means strong, wrote Joshua about the gift. “I doubt not that it is really, as she says, the best cure for the blues could one but take it according to the truth” (S.1.263).
When President, Lincoln sent Mrs. Speed a photograph of himself. He wrote on it, “For Mrs. Lucy G. Speed, from whose pious hand I accepted the present of an Oxford Bible twenty years ago” (S.5.377).
Joshua Speed felt Lincoln was a skeptic in early life, but had one experience with the President in later years that gave evidence of a change in Abe. In the summer of 1864 Speed, an overnight guest with Lincoln, entered a room and saw the President reading a Bible. Speed said, “I am glad to see you profitably engaged.” Lincoln replied, “Yes, I am profitably engaged.” “Well, if you have recovered from your skepticism,” Speed said, “I am sorry to say I have not.” Lincoln replied, “You are wrong, Speed; take all of this Book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man” (T.59).
While running for President, Lincoln avoided making rash patronage promises. He told Senator Trumbull, “Remembering that Peter denied his Lord with an oath, after most solemnly protesting that he never would, I will not swear I will not make committals; but I do think I will not” (G.271).
Newly elected as President, and constantly badgered about whether or not he would interfere with slavery in slave states, Lincoln finally tired of repeating the same answer again and again. He wrote a friend, “Those who will not read or heed what I have already publicly said would not read or heed a repetition of it. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31) (T.51).
In the White House, Lincoln kept his Bible on a shelf in a tall desk next to the large armchair where he sat at his writing table (S.4.217).
After the Chancellorsville disaster, in one of his saddest times in the Civil War, Lincoln came to Mrs. Lincoln’s room after leaving the War Department. Mary asked if he had news. “Yes, plenty of news, but not good news. It is dark, dark everywhere.” He reached for a Bible, read for about 15 minutes, and seemed to find comfort in it (S.4.259).
When the nation’s financial situation was bleak, and the government was being forced to print more and more paper currency, the Cabinet was debating whether or not to engrave “In God We Trust” on paper currency, as had been done on silver coins. Lincoln quipped, “If you are going to put a legend on the greenbacks, I would suggest that of Peter and John, silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give thee” (Acts 3:6) (S.4.194).
Lincoln often illustrated how love for money could skew a person’s ability to interpret the Bible aright. He would open the Bible, lay a coin on top of a particular verse, ask the observer to read it, and then mention how hard money made it to read any verse of Scripture (S.2.314).
Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, was rude and abrasive, yet so honest and effective that the President felt the nation could not survive without him. When someone harshly complained about Stanton’s abrupt ways, Lincoln retorted, “Go home, my friend, and read attentively the tenth verse of the thirtieth chapter of Proverbs!” The verse says, “Accuse not a servant to his master, lest he curse thee, and thou be found guilty” (G.672).
When a British representative told Lincoln a prince of the royal family had taken a wife, the President told the bachelor ambassador, “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37) (S.4.216).
In a speech to Congress, December 1, 1862, Lincoln said a nation consists of territory, people, and laws, of which only territory endures. Saying laws change, people die, yet the land remains, Lincoln quoted, “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever” (EC 1:4) (S.3.618).
When a Colonel Grinnell asked to be promoted, Lincoln, remembering Grinnell herded sheep, asked the question David was asked by his brothers, “With whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness?” (1 SM 17:28) (S.4.50).
Hearing of a soldier whose life was saved in battle when a rifle ball imbedded in a pocket Bible, the President sent the soldier a personally inscribed replacement Bible (S.5.422).
Congressman Kellogg of New York asked Lincoln to pardon a Union soldier who had been wounded in battle, but was later accused of desertion. Lincoln, referring to the soldier’s wounds, said the lad had shed his blood for his country, and added, “Kellogg, isn’t there something in Scripture about the shedding of blood being the remission of sins? It is a good point.” With that, the President wrote out a pardon (S.5.512).
“Fourscore and seven years ago,” one of Lincoln’s most memorable phrases, seems to be drawn from the wording in Psalm 90:10 “The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years” (AG.373).
In 1864 Lincoln’s re-election was in serious doubt. Some Republicans split from the party and held their own nominating convention in Cleveland. Some Lincoln supporters, fearing a mass defection from the Republican party, were expecting many thousands to attend the renegade Cleveland convention, but only 400 came. Hearing this number, Lincoln opened a Bible, found I Samuel 22:2, and read about those who fled to David, “Everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them, and there were with him about four hundred men” (S.5.74).
Near the end of the war, Lincoln was adamantly told, Jefferson Davis must be hanged. The President replied, “Let us judge not, that we be not judged” (see MT 7:1) (G.722).
In the summer of 1864 a group of African Americans from Baltimore presented the President a very expensive Bible, which is now housed in the Fisk University Library in Nashville, Tennessee. The occasion of receiving this gift gave Lincoln a perfect opportunity to clearly state his views and regard for the Bible. “In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it. To you I return my most sincere thanks for the very elegant copy of the great Book of God which you present” (T.48).
At the second inaugural, a few weeks before his assassination, Lincoln placed his right hand on the open pages of a Bible. Ending the oath with “So help me God,” Lincoln bent down and kissed the Bible (W.181).
He strongly affirmed the Bible, “Nothing short of infinite wisdom could by any possibility have devised and given to man this excellent and perfect moral code” (T.48). I wholeheartedly agree with Lincoln’s assessment.
The Bible is a lamp unto our feet, a light unto our path. It shows us how to live life in the best way possible. I would be terrified to think of having to live life without the Bible. All Scripture, every word of it, is a lifeline of help sent down from Heaven.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16). Scripture is God’s very words graciously given to us in written form. Let’s relish Scripture, and not let our Bibles collect dust.
Read Scripture often. While enjoying other good reading material, don’t overlook the best. The pinnacle of literature is the Bible. May God help us to love it inwardly and to live it outwardly.