Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—In three words, he said it: ‘We are elected.’

This entry is part 29 of 29 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

If you’ve visited Springfield, Illinois, you may have a photo of this popular statue with family members joining this Lincoln family scene. There are countless snapshots of this tableaux on social media.

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome. Here’s a Lincoln quote for you:

“Mary, Mary, we are elected.”

It’s the first Tuesday night in November of the year 1860 and the telegraph office in Springfield, Illinois, has received the results of the vote from the state of New York. Abraham Lincoln is assured of winning his election to the Presidency.

A little before two o’clock in the morning Lincoln walks home. One historian (Ronald C. White) records it this way: “By everyone’s remembrance, Lincoln remained remarkably calm through the long evening. He did exclaim that he was ‘a very happy man’ (But then) … as church bells rang, and cheers exploded, Lincoln finally headed for home. ‘Mary, Mary, we are elected.’ ”

What are we to make of this?

He remained remarkably calm, and his first personal words about this momentous event are to his wife, as he gets back home, and calls out in the first person plural pronoun: “We.”

Mary, Mary, we are elected.

If there was ever a time to focus on oneself—one’s own ego—this win would be it. But—and this is why we keep looking at the spiritual life of Lincoln—this is not for him a First Person Singular moment.

Nor should it have been. Mary was a passionate politician. She believed in politics, had been around it all her life, believed in Lincoln’s skills more than he did, and she knowledgeably and personally companioned him in his work all his adult life. Theirs was an unusual 19th-century marriage in many ways.

Because he was personally calm he could be aware of the relationships he was in, including, most significantly, with his wife Mary. So it is, “We are elected.”

Clam in the midst of storm is a hallmark of a spiritual person. The stories of such spiritual calm are endless in spiritual literature. Jesus in the storm-tossed boat with his disciples is just one. Joan of Arc before the flaming stake another.

There is only one reason for this poise and composure, and the storm-tossed person has an even keel, they are balanced by something else. And it holds them.

This is not magic. It is simply that the person thinks about something else, some other, more than about oneself. The even keel of spiritual life is to center yourself on something larger than yourself.

This is Lincoln as a spiritual person. He shows this again and again. Especially we see it in his elections. Historians record that he again and again lets go of himself.

We can see this in his first election and his last election. Lincoln lost his first election and up until the last months he was sure he would lose his last election for a second term.

So, first, there he is at the age of 23, the wrestling champion of his new home town New Salem, Illinois, where he can crow “I’m the big buck of this lick.”

Two of the smartest men in town have asked him to run for the state legislature. They all hope he can win some improvements in their local river, the Sangamon, so that steam boats can come upstream and make a real town out of New Salem. He agrees to run. He writes a campaign flier. And this is what he says: if I should not win this election, “I am too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”

How about that! Hi folks. I’m running for office. But if I don’t win, well, hey, I am real familiar with disappointment, so no chagrin here.

He adds: I am running for the state house with my only object being “that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”

How about that too?! I want you to hold me in esteem and to know that I want to act in a way that makes me worth your esteem. This is not a selfish man. This is a man rooted in larger mutual relationships.

So Lincoln is a truly humble person. He cannot help but think of himself as a humble person and from that flier on to the election of 1864 he refers to himself 35 times as humble Abraham Lincoln. He’s not making this up.
But at one of his election rallies a fight broke out and he stepped into the crowd and, at six feet four inches and then 214 pounds, picked up the culprit that started it and reportedly threw him 12 feet away.

Lincoln lost that election. Country-wide he lost. But in his little town of New Salem, where he most cherish his esteem, he won 277 votes out of 300. That’s a 99% approval rating. He said it was the only election where he was beaten by the direct vote of the people.

But in August of 1864, the country was in the midst of a Civil War and he was sure he would not be reelected. He wanted to be. He said quite plainly, “I desire to be re-elected” But he wrote a letter to the man whom he thought he would lose to. Told him how he would help him try to save the country between the election and the new Inauguration. Sealed the letter. Had all his cabinet sign the back of it to certify it, and put it in his drawer.

His opponent was the infamous general who wouldn’t fight, George McClellan. Lincoln was willing to go through with the election win or lose. Saying this “I know not the power or right to resist them. It is their business, and they must do as they please with their own.”

The election was the people’s right. It belonged to the people not to the President. We must have the election, he said. He would not postpone or cancel it. He proclaimed: “We cannot have a free government without elections.” If the rebellion can postpone this national election he said they might as well have claimed to conquer and ruin us. There were multiple levers of power he could have used to move the election to his favor and he did not. That’s that spiritually humble thing again.

And as his wife Mary said, He was “almost monomanic on the subject of honesty.”

Lincoln won, of course. At the War Office when he received the news that he had won, and by a land slide, every state but three, he said, there is Mary back at the White House and, quote, “She is more anxious than I” and so he left to go back, and indeed, once again thought in terms of “we”—we, himself and Mary; we, his political party; we, the nation; we, the people.

We know how he felt, not just about her, but about us. We have won. We have won.

That is a humble and communal spirit that lights him and can light us, down in honor, to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

 

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Now, we’re all hoping for ‘Yonder’

This entry is part 28 of 29 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

I have a Lincoln quote for you from The Prairie Years, the opening of poet Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume, Pulitzer-Prize-winning reflection on Lincoln’s life. This is how Sandburg described the spiritual foundations of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s “Sweet Angel Mother”—

It could be that she was sad with sorrows like dark stars in blue mist, with hopes burned deep in her that beyond the everyday struggles, the babble and gabble of today, there might be what her brightest dreams told her. She read their Bible. One who knew her said she was a “ready reader.” She was a believer and knew—so much of what she believed was yonder—always yonder. Every day came cooking, keeping the fire going, scrubbing, washing, patching, with little time to think or sing of the glory she believed in—always yonder.

Certainly Nancy Hanks—who died when her son was only 9—was shaped by the revivals that swept west across America in the beginning of the 1800s. Some called this wave another Great Awakening, some felt it was the very Kingdom of God in America. As Sandburg tells the story, the perpetually overworked Nancy Hanks simply thought of it as a faith in “yonder.”

Yonder is a spiritual word whose time has come again. It is a word like other spiritual nouns—like bliss, grace, enlightenment, beatitude. These words are almost verbs because they carry such life, words that as nouns hardly cover the state of being that they refer to. They can be adjectives and adverbs.

Yonder is a mix of vision—horizons—like the prairie lands that stretch out to the edge of the sky, like the ocean of land that the prairie is, and wonder. In the mix of vision and wonder, Yonder becomes an envisioned and visionary place.

Remember Carol King’s “way over yonder”?

A way over yonder
Is a place I have seen
In a garden of wisdom
From some long ago dream

Yonder is a feeling, a wonder, like the story-book awe that greets the little animals at the edge of the riverbanks under the Wind in the Willows, when morning light comes and the sound of the flute of the great God Pan floats over their little ears. Yonder is like that awe. A natural holiness.

Yonder is when the hopes of a people are believed in so much they go beyond themselves to achieve what is then called glory.

Do you remember that word, “glory,” at the close of Sandburg’s passage? He admits that Hanks’ real aim was “the glory she believed in—always yonder.”

That’s the meaning in title of the 1989 film Glory about the Black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th regiment who tried to take South Carolina’s Fort Wagner—in an even larger battle to prove that Black lives matter.

So glory is that place where politics and the real struggles of people mixes with values and vision.

That is the vision involving the spirit of yonder that Lincoln grew up with, and never lost.

This is Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

 

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson!

This entry is part 27 of 29 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

This week’s quote is: “At present we are told that America is being made great again, but specifics are hard to come by. It is true that, compared with the America of memory, little has been done recently to demonstrate modest foresight, let alone grand vision.”

Marilynne Robinson

No, that’s not Lincoln reflecting on the challenges of his turbulently divided America. Those are the words of Christian novelist Marilynne Robinson in the Opinion pages of The New York Times this week. Her lengthy essay was headlined: Don’t Give Up on America. This country is not just an idea. It’s a family.

Lincoln might well have smiled and nodded at such a thought. Spending time with Lincoln becomes a relationship. When we think about the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln—soon, we begin to have a spiritual life with Abraham Lincoln. That is one reason historians don’t write very much about the spiritual life of Lincoln, because it takes them out of the library and into the temple.

Lincoln inspires parents to give their daughters or sons tokens of their own deep interest in Lincoln—perhaps family photos of trips to Springfield, framed old copies of the Gettysburg Address, things like that. This often really happens.

In her Times column, Mrs. Robinson never specifically mentions Lincoln. But her challenge in that piece—and our challenge as well—is much like the awesome task that faced Lincoln and the generations around him: What to do with America?

Mrs. Robinson—whose most famous novel is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gileadsaid in her Times piece that America is more than an idea, it is a family.

Lincoln was deeply drawn to America as an idea. Lincoln was as much an intellectual as he was a politician. But he makes an everlasting blend of the idea of America and the social and political life of America. He re-coins the words “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

America to Lincoln was an idea he hoped people would embrace nationwide. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty….we must think a new, we must act anew.”

The Civil War was about the idea of America, and particularly the unfinished idea of all people being equal. It was a growing family, a unique social experiment, a human proposition.

Not long into the war Union soldiers began to refer to President Lincoln as Father Abraham. Lincoln was an Old Soul even as a boy. He had gravity. It was in the nature of his spirit to be grave, serious, profound, sorrowful.

Of course he also had a way of being forever young. As a father, he could not control his own children. He could barely control his own rollicking jokester humor. He nearly made a romantic mess of his life when he youthfully crashed into the world of women, Eros and love. His favorite poets were the big bad boys Lord Byron and Bobbie Burns. The Bible and Shakespeare barely kept a lid on Lincoln.

Lincoln as Father Abraham brings us into the family of America that he helped conceive, bring forth and offer a new birth of freedom.

Lincoln as an intellectual brings new meaning to the idea of America as much as Lincoln fathers a newly born America.

He was and is a Father Figure to the American Family in the same tragic way that fathers are in the plays of Shakespeare trying to govern a human family of near-impossible variety. Father figures in Shakespeare are flawed characters who have the full range of human angels and devils within them. They meet fates like, Lincoln’s own, tragic, and yet his with ongoing, nearly eternal inspiration for us, the witnessing family.

Shakespeare as the author plays the same role as God does in the Bible, the Father progenitor who survives his own creations. Even in the Bible the God-man Jesus has a tragic encounter with the human family before his love and spirit take over.

Mrs. Robinson is right to move our relationship with America, as did Lincoln himself, from just an idea to a relationship. Of course ideas, and the Idea of America, seem much more orderly than the Family of America. We know about family life, the tribal wars, the sibling rivalries, the divorces.

Lincoln experienced this first hand. Robert E. Lee decided to betray his oath as a soldier in the American Army and went back to the family home to fight for his tribe—to fight, as he said, for Virginia. The tribe of Virginia, or even the idea of Virginia, to him, had more of a draw than the idea of America. He simply was not the intellectual or moral thinker that Lincoln was.

Perhaps, when we think about the spiritual life of Lincoln, as it begins to have an effect on our own spiritual life, we see that his idea was that democracy was for the world. It was not just for America.

To this day, people around the world still look to Lincoln.

Father Abraham is the kind of figure who tells us, as he said, not only to think anew but to act anew, so that we can, as he did, save our country.

This is Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

 

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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From Duncan Newcomer: ‘Do we need another Lincoln?’

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Letters to America

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Author of ‘30 Days with Abraham Lincoln

Friends—

Have you noticed, this autumn, that there is a lot of talk about how we need another Lincoln? Wherever you turn in major magazines and newspapers and even on air, these days, we keep hearing this question: Whose Lincoln do we want and need right now?

There’s a good reason this question keeps arising in each new season of our nation’s history: There’s a lot of Lincoln available!

Paradox is his most noteworthy psychological and philosophical characteristic. Lincoln seems to have values and virtues on one side of the tracks and then values and virtues on the other.

He was a great joking extrovert, he was a silent somber introvert.

He was big and ugly, he was sweet and beautiful.

He was a warrior king, he was a man of peace.

So recently in The New Yorker you could read about a Common Man Lincoln who knew how to love and mix it up with the vulgar circus of humanity. The Atlantic weighed in as well.

There was an Old Sage Lincoln who knew how to speak to tragedy from the Bardo of his own grief. (And George Saunders’ Bardo novel went on to win the Man Booker Prize.)

There was a political Glad Hand and Iron Fist Lincoln who knew how to bring people together for the common good in politically shrewd ways.

Then there is the Yonder Lincoln, whose spiritual life infused all of the above versions.

Or consider the Circus Jokester Lincoln who once hosted Little Tom Thumb as a White House guest and regarded this wee gentleman as a marvel of equal humanity while fully one-half his own size.

To the Lincoln in the Bardo of death his grief for his son defines the god-send from Scripture, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

To the Hand and Fist political Warrior King, Lincoln was also the mythological Grail King, the one who communed with the Holy Grail of the Sacred Feminine, giving the Kingdom its true greatness, which, of course, would be its goodness.

So many questions about Lincoln! We never seem to tire of puzzling over the paradox.

Please, this fall and winter, I hope you will continue to enjoy my own weekly Quiet Fire reflections on Lincoln. Feel free to share with me your own thoughts via [email protected]

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

 

 

 

Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 27—What shaped Lincoln’s soul?

This entry is part 26 of 29 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

FINISHING LINCOLN’S NOSE—Between October 4, 1927, and October 31, 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the 60-foot-high carvings of United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to represent the first 130 years of American history. As a result, we can argue that Borglum may have known more about the lines and shadows in Lincoln’s face than anyone else. After all, Borglum actually “lived” on that face for a very long time.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

When we call Abraham Lincoln the soul of America, which I do in my book 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln, we enter into a powerful process of discerning not only the meaning of Lincoln’s life. In exploring his life—we are peering deeply into our own.

That’s what The New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik argues he is doing in a long reflection on Lincoln in the magazine’s current issue. Gopnik charts how different eras of biographers have reinterpreted major themes in Lincoln’s life to find insights appropriate to their own needs. But therein lies the main flaw in Gopnik’s analysis. He keeps asking: What shaped these Lincoln biographers’ lives—or, we might say, what shaped their their souls as writers? Unfortunately, when he’s finished, Lincoln is more of a mystery than when he started.

So, let’s take a moment and ask the question Gopnik skips: What shaped Lincoln’s soul?

As we always do in Quiet Fire, let’s start with a quote—or, in this case, two short Lincoln quotes:

“All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Psychologically, we all know mothers have a lot to do with our invention.

And then: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Of course, we still have so many questions! Theologically, we want to know: What did Lincoln think God had to do with what he became? Politically, what about Lincoln can we find in these words to guide us now? Ethically, what values can we find in his declarations?

What can we discern from these two quotes?

In the spiritual life, and the psychological life, coming to a positive regard for your mother, or at least towards the Sacred Feminine, is a real goal. Most religions have a Holy Mother.

Lincoln sets such a goal for himself. He also probably meant that the genetic heritage of his mother, not his father, was the source of his genius. Several people in his time acknowledged the feminine in Lincoln. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin thought that Lincoln’s steel-cable strength and yet tensile flexibility was—as she wrote in a newspaper column—his great feminine quality. In other words, he was not a rigid male authoritarian.

The man who photographed Lincoln the most, Mathew Brady, warned against photographing the left side of his face because, he said, it was too soft, dreamy and, of all things, too feminine.

The man who made the Mount Rushmore image of Lincoln, Gutzon Borglum, observed that mystic feminine side of his face, but did not, as a self-described “Western Man” like it as much as what he called his strong masculine right side.

However, in the spiritual life of Lincoln we move from thinking of him only in such psychological terms. Lincoln’s melancholy was not depression—it was spiritual. In that marvelous term of art from Elton Trueblood, it was his “theological anguish.”

The first title to Elton Trueblood’s ground-breaking book was Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish. Trueblood wrote over 25 books and taught at Earlham College for years. This book was “rediscovered” and mentioned in the press by Nancy Reagan, which lead to its revival, and it is now available as Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man, via The Trinity Forum in McLean,Virginia.

Lincoln becomes more than a psychologically integrated and mature person, he has a spiritual extra added attraction. His life with his good mothers—and he had two, Nancy Hanks his Sweet Angel, and Sarah Bush Johnston, his strong step mother—takes him up to another level. From there he has a vision of humanity without malice and of people with charity for all. From there his sadness is sorrow, his grief is love’s loss, and his steadfastness is faith in Providence.

Such vision takes us to the second short quote: “As I would not be a save, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

His political spirit is right there. Where did Lincoln get his idea of democracy? Just as he moves from psychology to spirituality, he moves from politics to the ethical axiom of democracy: the law of equality. He would, he says, not want to be a slave.

He once said that as a boy he felt like a slave. But he didn’t want to become a master. Unlike so many people who solve the oppression and abuse of their childhood by becoming oppressors and abusers, Lincoln turned to a love of democracy, where people would aim to be legally equal with each other. Nobody, by law, above anyone else.

For Lincoln, people were not pawns in a game, people were the game.  Of the people, by the people, for the people.

Lincoln did not try to divide people with anger, he tried to unite people with kindness, compassion really.

His political method was not to corner people in their hypocrisy, but to free people from their duplicity, to free America from its duplicity, freedom for some, slavery for some others.

Lincoln didn’t just invent the idea of democracy, nor was he the first to see democracy as a spiritual path toward the religious goal of a common wealth, a peaceable kingdom. Lincoln had ancestors who had a vision that the role of life was not to be the subject of a King, but a citizen of a community.

Lincoln never knew this but he had a great, great, great, great grandfather, Samuel Lincoln, who came to Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1637 to be a linen weaver. He came from Hingham, England. The folk in this eastern England area, called East Anglia, were radical Protestants, called by the dirty name Puritans. What was pure about these people was simply this: They wanted God, not a bishop; they wanted truth, not superstition; they wanted the Bible for themselves—and they wanted economic and political freedom from the King.

This idea, a vision of equality before God, rather than submission before a king or bishop travelled with the Lincolns to Massachusetts from England, and then with thousands of eastern English, down through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois.

When Lincoln moved out of the legal servitude to his father at the age of 21 he moved to a little town with an English name, New Salem. There was a doctor there who had graduated from Dartmouth, and there was a cohort of free thinking folks who formed a debating society. Lincoln joined and wrote a paper on the anger of God, and some ideas from radical French philosophers.

But there also were tent meetings of evangelical Christians. Lincoln didn’t go but he caught the spirit, saw that people could be reborn. Even he would come to say a nation could be reborn in a new birth of freedom. That’s where the “people” come back into his political and spiritual vision.

The spiritual life of Lincoln seems to begin when we see him with his mother. But we also can say that it began for him generations back in the beliefs of his Puritan ancestors, beliefs that lit his eventual faith.

Lincoln invented himself not just from his favorite texts in Shakespeare and the Bible but from his mothers and God and his Puritan heritage and community ethic. So he was not just a self-made man after all.

As we re-invent democracy, American politics and faith, to look at how Lincoln re-invented himself can be a guide lighting a way in honor, down to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire. The spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

ReadTheSpirit magazine Editor David Crumm contributed to this week’s column.

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 25—How a true leader expresses the nation’s grief

This entry is part 24 of 29 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

�Shapell Manuscript Foundation. All Rights Reserved. For more information, please contact us at www.shapell.org.

EDITOR’s NOTE—September 2020 has been marked by many tragedies nationwide—from wildfires in the West to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to reflections on the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. Our national conversation has often turned to the best examples of leadership in times of tragedy—so, Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer reminds us of this famous presidential response in 1862.

CLICK ON THIS snapshot of the 1862 letter to see it enlarged on your screen. (Shapell Manuscript Foundation. All Rights Reserved. For more information, contact us at www.shapell.org.)

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you, which I’ve condensed for you: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all.”

This is care and wisdom from the ready quill of Abraham Lincoln. It is in a personal letter to a young woman back in Illinois, Fanny McCullough, whose father was just killed in a Civil War battle in Mississippi.

In the spiritual life of Lincoln his ability to care is extraordinary.

To the historian who wrote Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, such letters reveal “what may have been the most important of his emotional strengths—his unusual empathy, his gift of putting himself in the place of others…”

Lincoln’s letters of compassion come from a space in his heart that opens into a space in the receiver’s heart.

Not only are his words unbounded by space they are also timeless.

Fanny, in Illinois, will know his care, and eventually in our time we can also. Such feelings are mystical but they are also ethical.

Lincoln felt personally responsible for this man’s death and his daughter’s grief. He knew her father—a local sheriff and county clerk. He was an older man, had a crippled arm and was partially blind. He implored Lincoln to let him fight for America, fight for the union and the democracy that it was achieving. And so he had become Lt. Col. William McCullough. Killed on December 6th, 1862, 157 years ago, leaving behind his daughter and her mother.

Lincoln’s expressed empathy crosses space and time. But when you read it you don’t feel that this was written so long ago, December 23rd, two days before Christmas, 1862.

Lincoln writes to Fanny that time itself will help her heal. He says that her agony will change, over time, into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.”

So this will be a revelation to her, a new and unknown place that he asserts as pure and holy. Is this not the spiritual life of Lincoln being created then and even shared now?

All scriptures are replete with stories and myths of space and time being crisscrossed by something spiritual.
But Lincoln of course, like all of us, was embedded in secular time. Let us look. It is December 23rd, 1862, and in ten days the final proclaiming of the Emancipation Proclamation will take effect. Ten days before Lincoln wrote this letter the Union army suffered 12,000 casualties in an horrific defeat at Fredericksburg. How could Lincoln have on his mind and heart 12,000 men lost, and then also one man lost, and one daughter in agony, and then, by his words alone, millions of slaves behind Confederate lines suddenly legally free. To add to the weight of time, for Lincoln, it has been just ten months since his dearest son Willie died.

In such a heavy time Lincoln asserts this loving wisdom, “I am,” he writes, “anxious to afford some alleviation to your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.”

This is age-old wisdom, his pragmatic faith. “You need only to believe it to feel better at once,” he says.

This of course is an assertion of the spiritual principles promoted by many other American sages, including Phineas Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy: that divine love coupled with thinking can make something so.

In these dimensions beyond space and time Lincoln’s spiritual life can light us down in honor and in love even to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire. The spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 24—Myths and wisdom in national conversation about rule of law

This entry is part 23 of 29 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

Want to learn more about this national conversation? Click on this snapshot from The Atlantic to read Steve Inskeep’s full September 1, 2020 story: What Lincoln Knew

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you, which I’ve condensed for you:

“Let every American….swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate … the laws of the country (my bold) … Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges…let it be preached from the pulpit…and enforced by the courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion (Lincoln’s italics) of the nation…”

People are still quoting this speech from 1838. He gave it to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, his first invited public address. He’s 28. Yet just the other day the Governor of South Dakota misquoted this speech as if it’s about government protection of private property.

Thankfully, acclaimed author and radio host Steve Inskeep answered boldly in The Atlantic. I, myself, took to the airwaves in Maine a few days ago, feeling the relevance of this speech. We’ve been talking about the relevance of Lincoln’s spiritual life up here on Maine radio for about five years now. Even the current President seems, as Mr. Inskeep noted, to have a fondness for comparisons with Lincoln

But, as scripture can put it, “as far as the East is from the West so far”—so far is Lincoln from this current President. And as the Psalmist continues could we wish for our transgressions to be taken so far from us. Especially the transgression Lincoln had in mind in this speech, lawless violence against Black lives.

Lincoln discovered the end point of our transgressions. That discovery was Lincoln’s spiritual gold. Our transgressions are taken away from us by the righteous wrath and merciful justice of the Living God in the blood-cost of the Civil War. By the time of his last major public address Lincoln transcended his political religion of law and order with the wisdom and charity generated by our suffering. Slavery was our transgression and we have had to pay for it.

How did Lincoln get to such theology in a mere 27-year spiritual journey from the Springfield Lyceum to his Second Inaugural Address?  “Lincoln offers an example of moral depth and subtlety that is hard to find elsewhere in American politics or for that matter American Literature.” so concludes John Burt in Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism. He balanced prophetic moral stances with a human sense of tragedy and irony, what history is really like.

But since law and order is on the front burner, once more, let’s try to understand how even Lincoln, as an ambitious young lawyer, split the difference between Abolitionist disorder and white lynch-mob lawlessness by appealing to one basic: Law.

When he first came to politics, devotion to the Law was his was spiritual life.

You could say that, as a spiritual person, Lincoln had to grow up from his young man’s fantasies of American greatness and his sole faith in law and order. And he did.

He paid for his wisdom with melancholy and was rewarded with compassion. In this first speech, however, Lincoln is not depressed. Nobody has ever said he was bi-polar, but he’s pretty high in this his first-ever major public address. And he’s going to give it all he’s got. He’s got a lot to give. The law really is his political religion. It is his spiritual life at that time.

He’s a struggling young lawyer in the new state Capital, Springfield Illinois, a city of dusty or muddy streets, wooden walk ways, running amuck pigs , horses everywhere and great exuberance for this new nation, America, the United States, barely 50 or 60 years old itself depending on how you count its beginning.

So you have to figure this: Lincoln is almost 30. The country is almost 60. He is half the age of the new nation, the nation is just twice as old as he is. Everything is that new.

This situation gives the words “these uncertain times” a real ring. Not only is this new government really new, it is almost the laughingstock of the Old World, Europe thinks this democracy idea is a fool’s errand. This is not an errand in the wilderness with a beacon on a hill shining back freedom to the old world, it’s, to them, a flickering candle, a smoke signal.

Lincoln is in a pressured position as he gives this speech. It has the marvelous title “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” He was invited by the prestigious town debating society called the Young Men’s Lyceum.

Lyceum is a word from the Roman and Greek heritage that the frontier people keep hoping to use to bless their new project. Athens would be a popular town name and Athenaeums and Lyceums would be popular elite conclaves for the pillars, young pillars, of society.

Surely there must have been a saloon down the boardwalk from the church, often such meetings happened in churches, where most likely this evening meeting was held.

But the setting is even more perilous than we have allowed so far. Lincoln has been in the militia. Many of Lincoln’s companions in the law had been fellow militia members with him in the Black Hawk War aimed at driving the seriously beleaguered Native Americans back up into Wisconsin territory.  Worse still, it was a time when most assuredly Black lives did not really matter. All up and down the Mississippi River, down in Alton, Illinois, into Louisiana, lynching and killings were rampant. The Presidency of Andrew Jackson had released what Lincoln and his Whig Party followers called mobs and were threatening institutions of America with Jacksonian mob-acracy.

To Lincoln this was not what America was for. The rule of law was the source of democratic government, it led to economic growth and social freedoms and stability.

Now this is where the spiritual life of Lincoln comes into play. Every one of his listeners would have known of the recent killing of journalists and clergyman Elijah Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois. Lincoln dare not say his name for fear of arousing the Abolitionists movement that Lovejoy supported. Lincoln was not that radical. His default position was what he called that “political religion,” love of the law, absolute total obedience to the law in every respect. So much so that by the end of this speech Lincoln is saying that no one should ever even walk on the grave of George Washington and the “proud fabric of freedom” should rest as the rock that has been like the church of Christ able to withstand the gates of hell.

Well. Lincoln learned a lot in his spiritual journey, and he learned not to mix his metaphors, with fabric and rock and church all rolled into one really manic law and order passionate plea. Remember, he’s young. He’s just starting out. He does not have a traditional religion. He doesn’t go to the Presbyterian church as a member. He is not a river rat either, nor just a storekeep or a day laborer taking a raft down the river. He is looking to build a life and help build a country and he knows, or hopes, that the reasonableness of law abiding people will do what the passions of the revolutionaries did: create a democracy.

Twenty seven years later Lincoln will have a full spiritual life and message and will empathically share with the nation in its sorrow over the Civil War and he will invoke love and mercy, righteousness and courage, a living God, and a devotion to peace and justice among ourselves and with all nations.

In the spiritual life of Lincoln we see fire early on and then we see a quiet fire were law and order take place along with peace and justice, charity and righteousness, and the humility of a people who have been chastened even punished by a Living God.

That is the arc of a spiritual life that can be seen in Abraham Lincoln, and it can be for us, as for him, a way to live on in honor, down to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire. The spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

 

 

 

 

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