Abraham Lincoln was a progressive Christian. While being raised in a small fundamentalist Baptist church, Lincoln rejected the Christianity of his parents. He questioned the Bible as the literal word of God, the miracle stories as historically valid, and the belief in Jesus as a divine being. He never became a member of a church. On the other hand, he had a deep sense of the presence of God, a faith that deepened during his presidency.
Lincoln's life was also a testimony to the workings of whisper ethics. As I have stated in previous blogs, whisper ethics comes from process theology, the work of Alfred North Whitehead and several prominent Christian theologians. To summarize briefly, humans make decisions based upon different messages that float through their awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, wishes, hopes. There are messages from our reptilian brain centered around survival. These messages pertain to fear, greed, and lust among other things. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, justice, harmony, and creativity. To be a follower of Jesus is to act on these messages from God.
As I have also pointed out in the past, every individual has a unique base outlook, an outlook that comes from parental instruction, core adult experiences, genetic inheritance, and a host of psychological factors. It is through this unique base that we process the messages of God's goodness and love. In the case of Lincoln, he was raised by anti-slavery parents in Kentucky and Indiana. He also attended as a child small Baptist churches that were anti-slavery. These childhood influences helped to create a psychological disposition that was open to divine messages opposing slavery. (1)
On the other hand, his birth was in dispute. He wasn't absolutely sure who his father was. He also grew up in a small, dirt floor cabin in rural Kentucky with no formal education. His elusive sense of identity and embarrassment over his impoverished childhood caused him to doubt his place in the world. This deep insecurity created within Lincoln a tremendous drive to prove himself which was played out in the political arena. This drive to succeed functioned to diminish the voice of God within.
Over the course of his life, Lincoln had several encounters with slavery which led to messages from God. As a child, he lived along the Louisville-to-Nashville Cumberland Road upon which the slave trade traveled. It was highly likely that he witnessed slaves being herded in chains along this road as a child. He often spoke of a river trip he took in 1841 where he witnessed ten to twelve slaves on a barge in shackles. The sight continually tormented him.
Because of such encounters, Lincoln came to believe in the existence of a transcendent moral order communicated to humans via conscience. He believed he was acting in accordance to messages received from God in his opposition to slavery. This opposition was nonnegotiable. He remained steadfast in his opposition to slavery despite intense pressure to compromise with the South in order to end a war that was producing horrific casualties on both sides.
Lincoln the politician with deep insecurities about his place in the world could also act in ways that diluted God's messages of love. He refused to get too far ahead of public opinion which was deeply racist even in Northern states. As a result, he advocated gradual emancipation throughout most of his career with compensation paid to Southern slaveholders. Once freed, the former slaves were to be sent abroad to live in colonies. He believed that a multiracial democracy based on true equality between races was not possible in America.
Abraham Lincoln was a great man, a highly successful political leader, and a human being. Part of Lincoln's greatness was that he had a deep sense of his limits as a human being. Lincoln the political realist often conflicted with the man who believed it was his duty to implement God's vision of goodness and love in the affairs of the nation. He sensed this conflict and was often uncertain about whose will he was acting upon.
Lincoln's example presents a good case study of how God works in the world. God sends messages of goodness and love which are processed by individuals with unique psychological dispositions. Theodore Parker, a minister and writer who graduated from Harvard Divinity School, had an important influence on Lincoln's thinking about religion. Parker spoke about the voice of conscience being processed through limited human beings. Like Martin Luther King after him, Parker taught that this voice, through small steps taken over time, would bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Lincoln believed that his steadfast opposition to slavery was doing just that.
(1) The historical data for this essay was taken from And There Was Light, Jon Meacham, New York: Random House, 2022.
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