5 Tips about Preaching on Abraham Lincoln


(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this historic year of Lincoln remembrances, we are inviting author, theologian and Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer to write a series of columns. Earlier, we posted Duncan’s video about Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving 150 years ago. You also will enjoy our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. TODAY, Duncan gives sage advice to the men and women preparing talks on Lincoln this autumn.)

Lincoln once exclaimed that when he heard a preacher, he wanted him to preach as if he were “fightin’ bees!” Arms a-wavin’! Feet a-jumpin’! Young Abe loved to stand on a tree stump, before his amused friends, and mimic such frontier preachers.

Those antics may have fueled the myth that Lincoln didn’t like preachers. In fact, the opposite was true: Throughout his life, Lincoln loved to question them searchingly; and he loved to attend and listen.

He just never professed and joined.

This is the sesquicentennial era for many of Lincoln’s greatest speeches and proclamations. Millions will be drawn to echo his words in congregations, even though Lincoln would be amused to think of his words as having sacred value. Yet Lincoln, almost like a high priest, created the nearly religious national holiday of Thanksgiving. Lincoln, almost like a prophet, addressed the nation’s grief with mercy and our offense of slavery with judgment.

These “5 Tips” are the first of several columns that I hope ReadTheSpirit readers, and our clergy colleagues nationwide, will find helpful in tackling the vast and complex subject of Lincoln. Please, share these columns with friends. (Print them out; use the blue-“f” Facebook buttons; use the envelope-shaped email buttons.)

From my own years of preaching, I know the daunting challenge clergy face: carrying a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That’s how Karl Barth advised preachers to equip themselves. These days, I would add that we now need many hands to lift up all that must be held in mind.


1.) LINCOLN IS ALREADY THERE: He’s a popular preaching topic—but here’s a caution. There are many overt and closet Lincoln-lovers: men and women who have fierce and personal views of what is valuable about Lincoln. If you doubt this, just visit the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where there is a beautiful and almost human-sized statue of a shawl-draped Lincoln on a pedestal in one corner. Look closely. His fingertips are as shiny as new pennies from all the worshipers who have reached up and touched his extended hand. Many people love Lincoln.

2.) LINCOLN WAS A THINKER: Remember the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz who sang, “With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’—I could be another Lincoln, if I only had a brain.” Words from Lincoln are a library of nearly holy insights into love and death, war and peace, poetry and life. He was a secular humanist with a Calvinist mind set. His words still speak to the seeker, the spiritual independent. He talked of God without being a fundamentalist and he spoke of America without darkening our light upon the hill.

3.) POINT “YONDER” WITH HIM: Lincoln had what Carl Sandburg called a sense of “yonder.” He had a mystic sense of the value of our union as well as a prophetic sense of judgment about what he called “God’s almost chosen people.” Lincoln’s faith in the possibility of transcendence and transformation shaped his thinking, his vision and his actions—and fueled his great compassion. He continues to point us toward bridging seemingly impossible divisions and healing seemingly fatal wounds.

4.) LINCOLN WAS GROUNDED: He was, indeed, Honest Abe. Lincoln certainly was an ethical man as well as a moral thinker. Virtue defined him personally and politically. Yet he also was a realist. His blend of ethical vision and practical wisdom still can help us to define the doable good verses the ideologically absolute. Americans certainly can use a good dose of that today. Honest, yes, but Lincoln was so honest that he could deflate the arrogant, the idealist, the doctrinaire among us—often with a joke.

5.) FIND YOUR OWN LINCOLN: Everyone does. You may even feel that he is looking to find you. His visage is among the most beloved in American culture. Remember that this is more a matter of revelation than reason. Lincoln was so limited to his time and place that it may be as fruitless to ask “What Would Lincoln Do?” as it may be to pose the same question about Jesus. But the echoes of Lincoln’s ideas of equality, justice and the common future reveal deep truths about America’s potential. It is fitting that 50 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., literally stood before Lincoln to deliver his great Dream. King was preaching Lincoln.

(Originally published by readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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