February 18, 2009
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 12, 2008 at DesiringGod.org here.]
Abraham Lincoln, who was born on this day 199 years ago, remained skeptical, and at times even cynical, about religion into his forties. So the most striking thing about Marvin Olasky’s recent article about Lincoln in World Magazine is how personal and national suffering drew Lincoln into the reality of God, rather than pushing him away.
In 1862, when Lincoln was 53 years old, his 11-year-old son Willie died. Lincoln’s wife “tried to deal with her grief by searching out New Age mediums.” Lincoln turned to Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. Several long talks led to what Gurley described as “a conversion to Christ.” Lincoln confided that he was “driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go.”
Similarly, the horrors of the dead and wounded soldiers assaulted him daily. There were fifty hospitals for the wounded in Washington. The rotunda of the Capitol held 2,000 cots for wounded soldiers. Typically, fifty soldiers a day died in these temporary hospitals. All of this drove Lincoln deeper into the providence of God. “We cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it.”
His most famous statement about the providence of God in relation to the Civil War was his Second Inaugural Address, given a month before he was assassinated. It is remarkable for not making God a simple supporter for the Union or Confederate cause. He has his own purposes and does not excuse sin on either side.
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away.... Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln would have resonated with the paradoxical words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn eighty years later, whose imprisonment in Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labor camps” led not to despair but to the discovery of goodness:
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. . . . That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I ... have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelag 1918-1956, 615-617)
I pray for all of you who suffer loss and injury and great sorrow that it will awaken for you, as it did for Lincoln, not an empty nihilism, but a deeper reliance on the infinite wisdom and love of God’s inscrutable providence. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
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