God Blessed America: Lincoln and Preachers
‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’ (Psalm 33:12a).
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

In 1860 only 3 of 23 ministers in Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, supported him for President (S.2.240). Of preachers nation-wide who opposed him because they were pro-slavery, Lincoln said, “I shall be vindicated, and these men will find that they have not read their Bibles aright” (AG.314).

Lesson 1. Be humble. Bible-believing Christ-followers can be wrong.

In 1863, 96 clergymen from denominations in the South signed a statement entitled, To Christians Throughout the World. It charged the President with trying, through his Emancipation Proclamation, to start a slave rebellion. They said this would require large numbers of slaves be slaughtered for the public safety, and would record the darkest chapter of human woe ever written (S.4.148).

Lesson 2. Remember lesson 1. Be humble.

Delegations of preachers often visited Lincoln. Sometimes they were harsh toward the President, who said, “They have the right to come here and preach to me if they will go about it with some gentleness and moderation” (S.4.175).

Lesson 3. Be kind. Hold your beliefs tightly to your heart, but don’t grip them like a club. Share them, but don’t wield them.

A group of preachers from Philadelphia came to the White House to strongly oppose the appointment of a Univeralist clergyman from their city as a chaplain. They said he not only did not believe in endless punishment, but also believed even the rebels themselves would finally be saved. Lincoln replied, “If that be so, and there is any way under Heaven whereby the rebels can be saved, then, for God’s sake and their sakes, let the man be appointed” (S.4.230).

The Iowa Bugle newspaper ran an article about three Episcopal clergymen from New Orleans who had been arrested by Union General Butler and were being sent to prison. The paper said, “They refused to pray for Mr. Lincoln. Served them right. Everybody should pray for Mr. Lincoln. He surely needs the devout prayers of all the devout people of the country” (S.4.3).

At Natchez, the Union Army expelled a Catholic Bishop who refused to read the prescribed prayer for the President. Also in Natchez, an Episcopalian clergy omitted the prescribed prayer for the President. A young Union officer, after escorting the loudly protesting rector to the door, marched to the pulpit and read the prayer aloud to the Confederate worshipers (S.4.157).

These types of incidents did not please Lincoln. At Pine Street Church in St. Louis, Dr. McPheeters refused to voice support for the Union. When he baptized a baby named for Confederate General Sterling Price, it was more than Union sympathizers could bear. A provost marshal arrested McPheeters and took control of the church. President Lincoln reversed this action, saying, “The United States Government must not . . . undertake to run the churches” (S.4.156).

Lesson 4. Be grateful for religious freedom. I have preached 42 years without fear of reprisal. We Baptists have historically been champions of religious freedom. Let’s remember to desire it not only for us, but for everyone.

Lincoln didn’t like politics in the pulpit. He felt he got plenty of that all week long. “When I go to church, I like to hear the gospel” (W.134). He also said, “I don’t like to hear cut-and-dried sermons when I hear a man preach. I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees” (S.2.323).

When told Stanton was overly zealous, Lincoln said they might have to treat him like a Methodist minister I know of out West. “He gets wrought up to so high a pitch of excitement in his prayers and exhortations, that they are obliged to put bricks in his pockets to keep him down. We may be obliged to serve Stanton in the same way, but I guess we’ll let him jump awhile first” (S.3.447).

One group of clergymen praised Lincoln as a pillar of the church. Due to his tall height, Lincoln replied it would be better to call him a steeple (S.4.289).

While visiting wounded soldiers at a hospital, a lady in front of Lincoln handed a tract to a patient who read the title and laughed out loud. The President told the soldier the lady meant well. “It is hardly fair for you to laugh at her gift. The soldier replied, “Mr. President, how can I help laughing a bit? She has given me a tract on the sin of dancing and both my legs are shot off” (S.4.293).

Lincoln loved to laugh, even at preachers. Of a tedious, long paper written by a lawyer, he said, “It’s like the lazy preacher that used to write long sermons, and the explanation was, he got to writing and was too lazy to stop” (S.2.81).

One committee of clergymen complained about how notoriously bad many of the military Chaplains were. Lincoln said their concern reminded him of a boy he saw digging with his toe in a mud puddle. Lincoln asked, “What are you doing?” “Making a church,” and pointing with his toe, There’s the shape of it, the steps, front door, pews, and pulpit. Lincoln said, “I see, but why don’t you make a minister?” The boy grinned and replied, “I don’t have enough mud.”

Lesson 5. Laugh. Before Lenno, Letterman, Johnny Carson, Will Rogers, and Mark Twain, the USA had Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln as nationally famous comedians. Humor is an American art form. Practice it. Enjoy it.

A northern minister told Lincoln he hoped the Lord is on our side. To the minister’s amazement, Lincoln disagreed. “I am not at all concerned about that, for we know the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side” (S.5.346).

Lesson 6. God is Sovereign. He rules in the affairs of men. He is the Overseer of the Universe, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Serve Him humbly.

He struggled with totally opposite views being presented to him as God’s will. He told a group of preachers, “I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me” (T.41).

Lesson 7. Remember lesson 1. Be humble.

A group of Presbyterian clergymen visited the President in 1863. Feeling comfortable with these men of his favored denomination, he spoke freely to them. The Associated Press recorded his remarks. ‘I am profoundly grateful for the respect given . . . from the religious bodies of this country.’ He said he knew early on ‘that nothing in my power whatever . . . would succeed without the direct assistance of the Almighty. “I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am. Nevertheless, amid the greatest difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right” (S.5.370).

Lesson 8. God can be trusted. Put your faith in Him. Worry less.

A Methodist delegation came May 18, 1864. Methodists, the largest USA denomination, were in the North leading supporters of the war and government. Lincoln prepared written remarks for their arrival. “The Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to Heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church, bless all the churches, and blessed be God, Who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches” (S.5.371).

Lesson 9. Bless a Methodist this week. Tell them Lincoln’s quote, “God bless the Methodist Church.”

One of the Methodists raised a laugh, Mr. President, we hope the country will rest in Abraham’s bosom for the next four years (S.5.371). When told religious sentiment in the North strongly favored his re-election, Lincoln replied he relied heavily on the religious community for the support of his administration.

When asked if he wanted to be re-nominated for President, Lincoln told the story of a preacher who asked for a permit to preach at the Illinois State House. “On what subject?” an official asked. “The second coming of our Savior.” The official responded, “Oh, bosh, if our Savior had ever been to Springfield and got away with his life, he’d be too smart to think of coming back again” (S.4.640).

When Lincoln was elected to a second term, a Pastor put on his front door a copy of Genesis 22:15, “The angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven a second time” (S.5.586).

Lesson 10. A text out of context is a pretext, but may still be useful.

When Rev. Owen Lovejoy died, Lincoln said, “Lovejoy was the best friend I had in Congress” (S.4.563). Lovejoy was for many years a trusted confidante of Abraham Lincoln, one of the few who stayed true to Lincoln through thick and thin, through all the years. The President wrote, “To the day of his death, it would scarcely wrong any other to say, he was my most generous friend.”

Lesson 11. Political leaders need our encouragement. Pray for them.

In Washington, Lincoln opted not to worship at First Presbyterian Church, where many pro-slavery Southerners and former Presidents had attended. He worshiped instead at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

His Pastor was Dr. Phineas Gurley, possibly the most influential clergyman in Lincoln’s life (W.132). The President liked the fact Gurley’s preaching stayed remarkably close to the great central doctrine of the cross. Also it didn’t hurt anything that he was solidly anti-slavery and anti-secession (AG.321).

In final war years, Lincoln sometimes attended mid-week evening prayer services at his church. He would sit in Pastor Gurley’s study with the door ajar, within hearing distance (W.141). At the mid-week service he was most blessed, he told his Pastor, by hearing the prayers of the people (T.74).

Lesson 12. Everyone needs to attend a local church.

At 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, a doctor declared Lincoln dead. After about five minutes of silence, Stanton said to Pastor Gurley, “Doctor, will you say anything?” Gurley replied, “I will speak to God.” “Do it just now.” Dr. Gurley offered a prayer while Stanton, a man rarely given to any public emotion except anger, cried like a child in pain. Gurley ended his prayer with “Thy will be done. Amen.” Stanton then quietly said, “Now he belongs to the ages” (AG.438).

Of the 600 at Lincolns White house funeral, one-tenth were clergymen. The speakers represented several denominations. Baptists were represented on the program by Dr. E. H. Gray, Chaplain of the U. S. Senate (T.115).

Dr. Gurley preached the main message. He described Lincoln as the one in whom rested under God, our best hopes for the timely and speedy pacification of the country. No man since the days of Washington was ever so deeply and firmly embedded and enshrined in the very hearts of the people as Abraham Lincoln.