Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 2: Coping with the Uncertainty and Mystery of a Deadly Disease

This famous lithograph of Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for president in 1860 was created from a painting by Thomas Hicks, made into a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier. It is available for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

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

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you: “There is no announcement which strikes the members of a western community with so much dread as the report of a case of milk sickness. The uncertainty and mystery … makes it in the eyes of the inhabitants of a district the worst-looking foe which can best a neighborhood.”

That report of dreadful disease is from the city newspaper closest to where the Lincoln’s lived in southern Indiana.

“Uncertainty and mystery” were the words used by the Evansville Journal in the fall of 1840. This news was still in the papers some 25 years after the milk sick had hit the little Lincoln tribe hard, way south of the city.

Uncertainty and mystery are not journalistic language we recognize today—but they are signal words in the language of spiritual life, and never more than in the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln. Life-and-death uncertainty and mystery become the merciless angels that hovered over Lincoln all his life. These were angels he turned into charity and meaningful judgments. And those words, his words, charity and judgment are as unusual in a presidential address as were uncertainty and mystery in a newspaper report on a dreaded epidemic.

Lincoln became capable, even poised, in the midst of uncertainty, and compassionate, even wise, in the midst of mystery.

That is the pilgrim’s progress he completes.

Now, as Carl Sandburg tells us in his storied biographies of Lincoln, “Hardly a year had passed, however, when both Tom and Betsy Sparrow were taken down with the ‘milk sick’ … Soon after, there came to Nancy Hanks Lincoln that white coating of the tongue.”

(Betsy Sparrow was Nancy Hanks’ aunt and her husband was a brother of Nancy’s step-father. Dennis Hanks, who survived for all of Lincoln’s life, was his cousin. Like the Lincolns, Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow and young Hanks had to leave Kentucky because of land deed problems. Yes, the actor Tom Hanks is a cousin, what he calls “a poor relation,” to Lincoln’s mother.)

So it is that Carl Sandburg tells us of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother when she was 36 or so and he was 9. He was already on his way to being grown, having had an axe in his hands since he was seven. That was when boys began to be initiated to life and work away from their mothers.

But Lincoln never really left behind his mother, who he called his “sweet angel.”

The milk sick took many people in that year, 1818, as well as cows and calves themselves. For the Lincolns, there was no doctor nearer than 35 miles—not that they could have helped, man nor beast.

This particular frontier disease was later found to be caused by cows eating a poisonous snakeroot plant that made their milk itself poison and led to a grotesque death within a few days.

In the southern Indiana land that Lincoln’s father had staked out, there were other lethal diseases as well: malaria and other intermittent annual fevers. But it was this so called milk sickness that struck the most panic in the communities.

The local Evansville Indiana newspaper that reported the widespread dread of milk sickness goes on to report a shocking frontier fact that numerous farms and homes were suddenly found abandoned when the feared epidemic arrived. Fields full of corn, barns filled with hay, homes completely furnished, all left in an instant as people fled, not knowing how this milk-carried disease came. Was it some mineral in the water, some morning moisture in the air that made the cows begin to have “the trembles” and then, with their owners, untreatable death?

More than 100 years later, chemists and agricultural researchers in the late 1920’s began to publish their discoveries of the poison found in certain plants that poisoned the cows and their milk when they ate them.

Lincoln was a great advocate for science. He even gave a lecture on science and agriculture at a western state fair. But during Lincoln’s life, science and medicine never cured the world of uncertainty and mystery. Massive natural disasters were common during his lifetime. Unusual earthquakes, extreme winter snows and overwhelming summer rains, even a volcano eruption in the south Pacific that took out the sun for most of the northern hemisphere for a summer.

For most of his life, Lincoln was guided by practical reason and an overwhelming sense of fate or necessity which he cited with Shakespeare’s line, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them ‘tho we will.” Toward the end of his life he began to talk about what he called “a living God” whose judgements he said were true and righteous altogether, and whose ways were the ways of charity and peace.

Among the deepest mysteries he pondered: Why war? Why slavery? Why childhood death?

He did find some solace. Angels without mercy became for him “better angels” when they were made human by virtue of his tolerance for uncertainty and his humility before mystery.

As with Lincoln, uncertainty and mystery may never leave our lives, but neither did his hope, his humor, his reason, his desire for knowing God, and his belief in the idea of America.

 

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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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