Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—’The Last Best Hope of Earth’

THIS BRIEF VIDEO was made to introduce a 2013 Baltimore performance of Paula Vogel’s ‘A Civil War Christmas,’ a play that’s referenced in this column. The setting: It’s a bitterly cold Christmas Eve during the war and, from the White House to battlefields, friends and foes alike find their lives strangely and poetically intertwined. The New York Times calls this perennial classic a “beautifully stitched tapestry of American lives.” Due to the pandemic, this may be the first year in more than a decade that Vogel’s play will not be not presented somewhere across the U.S. In this column, Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer invokes Lincoln’s and Vogel’s wisdom about hope in the midst of chaos.

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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.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

“The last best hope of earth.” Once again, Lincoln coined a phrase that has cascaded across more than a century into countless contexts and meanings—a phrase he built around that timeless virtue: hope.

Hope. A candle in the dark.

Hope is one of the three theological virtues in Christianity. It’s the theme of the first candle lit in the Christian ritual of lighting weekly candles during Advent, the four weeks that prepare us for Christmas. Lincoln was delivering these words 24 days before Christmas of 1862.

Here’s the context. He already had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of that year. He had not yet delivered his full summation of these themes at Gettysburg, an address that would come in November 1863. These words about “last best hope” appeared in the closing lines of Lincoln’s December 1, 1862, message to Congress. Today, we would call it his State of the Union. The full closing paragraph was:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless. 

In his line about “hope,” Lincoln was summoning a global vision—the hope of the world for free government, for self government, for equality. A hope that belongs to the whole earth—that was Lincoln’s scope. Lincoln knew this was a rare and precious moment. He told Congress that history had given them an opportunity—a fiery trial—to make that hope come true.

A fiery trial. An opportunity to embody hope. So, too, as 2020 heads toward 2021 in this nation.

We see again how much the world needs the hope of equality and freedom—perhaps even the last best hope of earth.

The Christmas coming in 1862 was particularly bleak for Abe and Mary. Their boy Willie had died in February of that year. They were grieving. Two of the three most recent major Civil War battles had gone very badly for the Union. Abe and Mary would spend Christmas that year visiting the wounded soldiers in various hospitals in Washington. The many sick and the many, many dying were their concern.

He was the President, offering the hope of only his presence to the grieving and the dying.

Helping us to envision Lincoln and Christmas during the Civil War is a moving musical play, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel: A Civil War Christmas. Until the pandemic shut down most theaters, the play was presented somewhere across the country almost every year since Vogel wrote it more than a decade ago.

What does the play show? It shows Black people. It shows white people. It shows Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s Black American dress maker, future stalwart companion and author. The play shows us far more than just Abe and Mary. In fact, there are 61 different characters in this play, rich and poor, safe and in danger, all played by 16 actors. It is an American Musical. Folksongs, hymns, Carols, marches and spirituals bring the lost and the isolated into that one open-hearted place of hope we call Christmas in America.

The spirit of community is at stake in this play. We see the best of the human spirit arise in hope and forgiveness for so many different people—just as it can today.

One of outstanding lines from the play is this: “The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself.”

And, for Christians, peace is the theme of the second week’s Advent Candle.

The play echoes Lincoln’s message. It is nothing less than the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every hospital and grave, every flooded hurricane-hit city to every burned-down town and home, from every Black life that didn’t seem to matter, to every living and opened heart in this broad land, yet swelling the chorus of the union, when again, all are touched, as surely they will be this Christmas, by the better angels of their nature.

Those are the candle flames that can light us, as they did Abraham Lincoln, 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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