A Sermon on Abraham Lincoln: Captain in the Storm

(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this historic year of Lincoln remembrances—the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer is writing a series of columns about the legacy of our 16th president. Read more about Duncan at the end of this sample sermon—which you are free to use and share.)

Captain in the Storm

by the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer

“And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ …”
part of Matthew 8:23-27

“It is necessary for the Christian community, living in faith, to look upon all the events of time and to try to find in them the workings of one mind and will…. Thus prophets, for whom the revelation of God was connected with his mighty acts in the deliverance of Israel from bondage, found the marks of that God’s working in the histories of all nations.”
H. Richard Niebuhr, from The Meaning of Revelation

CAPTAIN IN THE STORY: President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 at Antietam, often described as the bloodiest day of battle in American history with 22,717 dead, wounded, and missing on both sides combined. That day, Lincoln agreed to pose for a series of photographs by Alexander Gardner with General John A. McClernand. More than 150 years later, the photo is ironic, because Lincoln truly was emerging as a commander, but McClernand, a longtime Illinois political ally turned military man, proved to be a very poor general. Photo now in the Library of Congress.

CAPTAIN IN THE STORM: President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 at Antietam, often described as the bloodiest day of battle in American history with 22,717 dead, wounded, and missing on both sides combined. That day, Lincoln agreed to pose for a series of photographs by Alexander Gardner with General John A. McClernand. More than 150 years later, the photo is ironic, because Lincoln truly was emerging as a commander, but McClernand, a longtime Illinois political ally turned military man, proved to be a very poor general. Photo now in the Library of Congress.

ALL across America, we are thinking about Abraham Lincoln—for several good reasons.

First, Daniel Day-Lewis was so compelling in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that he won the Oscar for his portrayal. Through that movie, we loved discovering Lincoln’s voice, his walk, his powerful thinking and his presidential powers.

And, we just marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke not only in front of the Lincoln memorial but out of the legacy of Lincoln’s Emancipation. (See 5 Tips about Preaching on Lincoln.)

This is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s lesser-known Thanksgiving Proclamation. All have been bringing Lincoln to mind.

What else is there to say? More books have been written about Lincoln than anyone else but Jesus. That is the story, anyway, when visitors to the Ford Theatre Museum in Washington see a tower of Lincoln books three and a half stories high—7,000 books, less than half of the 15,000 on record. Yet, new books continue to surprise us with fresh insights into Lincoln’s life and legacy. The best recently, I think, is John Burt’s Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict, which took Burt decades to write.

But can we preach about Lincoln?

Isn’t he just a great war-time President? The famous literary critic Edmund O. Wilson compared Lincoln to Bismarck and Lenin, all three as nationalist visionary dictators.

On the other hand, Lincoln’s Good Friday assassination has made him almost a Christ figure in American mythology, which may make preaching about him doubly dangerous, as idolatrous or sacrilegious.

Let me take my lead from the German theologian Karl Barth. He suggested that the preacher hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The newspaper and the history it records are addressed in the sermon, for Barth, by the revealed Word.

Let me back that up with the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr who argued that revelation is historical in character. Not only are we in time but time is in us. He wrote, “To have a god is to have history. God and the history of selves in community belong together in inseparable union.”

However, the reason to preach about Lincoln comes—not just from the historical nature of revelation and our own historical nature—but because of the very person of Lincoln in our history. He was a secular-religious person by nature. We could just as well call this his spiritual presence. It is found in his actions and his words of wisdom, love, faith, and forgiveness. That makes preaching on Lincoln relevant to the darkness of our time. Lincoln is a model for a real faith—a true, post-religion, way of spiritual life.

Even the grumpy cynic Edmund Wilson once called Lincoln a prophet.

THE CAPTAIN’S EYE ON THE STORM

We are heading into historical storms, and natural storms.

When Christians read Walt Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln O Captain! My Captain! the poem’s scene and its wording recall a crucial moment in the life of Jesus. We remember how Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee and rebuked his disciples for their fear and lack of faith.

Even today, Lincoln is a prophet of a real faith for our stormy time, although that idea would have greatly surprised and amused Lincoln. Of course he did not have the divine powers attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Lincoln began with the “self-evident” idea that all men are created equal. That Jeffersonian idea comes from what we call secular humanism. It entails for Lincoln an idea of individual freedom supported by common law. That idea would lead Lincoln to believe that we are the agents of our life. But he also believed that we are not the masters of our fate.

He managed this stark paradox by his increasingly calm reactions to life events. Lincoln would argue that we are not free to choose our fate but we are free to choose how we react to what fate presents. This fate-faith paradox is much like the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard’s definition of faith: to choose the fate that is choosing you.

Lincoln also held himself and others to a common-sense ethic of honesty. He extended that ethic into some remarkable efforts at personal integrity. But it was his fate-faith paradox that lead him to his more theological views, his explanation of divine justice. By the end, Lincoln came—not unlike Job—to accept what he saw as the will of God. Divine purposes, then—not fate or a doctrine of necessity—were the reasons for the long Civil War. Those purposes lay the ground for Lincoln’s call to mercy and charity and a restoration of the value of the union. God’s judgment gave us reasons to love rather than to hate. Divine purposes had to do with justice. Justice had to do with the moral principle that slavery was wrong. The wrong of slavery violated the core idea that Lincoln had started out with: Human beings are created equal. Our coming equality then was a fate worth choosing.

Lincoln lived these paradoxical truths. We are alone responsible for what happens in life. But, within history, our fate is not in our hands. That was his early “doctrine of necessity.” For a long time he resolved his paradox with Shakespeare’s line from that other Dane, Hamlet, ”There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them though we will.”

But Lincoln’s relevance is not only in all this theology and philosophy about free will and fate.

JESUS & LINCOLN: UNLIKELY LEADERS EMERGE

Lincoln’s personal presence in our history—the real man who lived out these remarkable events guided by his almost secular creed—is what draws us to him still. He never said much about why he was the way he was, except that his mother loved him and his step-mother supported him, that the new America inspired him, and that America’s founding leaders guided him.

Like the Prophets, Lincoln knew he was different, not only weirdly tall, but brighter than any man he met. Most of his life his pants were just too short, his jackets hardly fit his extra-long arms. His face would change from almost grotesque melancholy to a bright festival of wrinkles and twinkles and smiles.

His spirit was embodied in a strange package. He had towering ambition—yet he was also gentle, congenial, and often astonishingly humble. Finally, personally and presidentially, he had profound loves and forgiving mercies.

All this makes Lincoln a good man. But how is he a personal spiritual hero for a sermon in worship?

Perhaps for this unusual reason: He achieved all of this without those religious things we think make for holiness and spirit. Even more, in his secular path, he achieved and eventually proclaimed virtues that embody transcendence—love of the enemy, suffering and sacrifice for others, and strength from a sense of spiritual power greater than one’s self or history. He even experienced knowledge of spiritual realities. His fated voyage to get the country to a safer shore, ending in his own death, were revealed to him in a recurring dream.

We cannot garb him in personal Christian trappings. No baptism. No Pauline armor of faith. No church membership. No professions at all about Jesus as Christ. Morally, more as a Whig than a Christian, he said “No” to tobacco, alcohol, wild women, swearing violence, duels, and social pretensions. He was both personally odd and also religiously adrift.

Let us look at how this odd-ball man with secular values looked to religious Americans then and now.

Let us look at how our own fears and faith can be guided by him now.

And, let us see how the story of Jesus in the storm with faithless disciples—and Lincoln at the helm of our ship of state—can be, in an inner spiritual way, one story. We will then see how the words and images of both stories can bring us to a faith for the fears and storms of our time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a daring connection to make—and certainly would have raised criticism in Lincoln’s own day. Now, a century and a half later, Lincoln is more to us as a person and prophet than he was in his own time. Now we can appreciate his kind of spirituality in our own time of religious change. Millions of Americans seem to have a similar approach to faith, these days. We can appreciate Lincoln’s caution in his phrase about America as “God’s almost chosen people.”

In his own time, Lincoln’s Enlightenment skepticism, his impatience with bombast and arrogance, seemed particularly in tune with the new but secular Whig America. But evangelical Protestant America, the other pillar to our culture, saw him differently. His lack of denominational affiliation, his lack of polite Aunt Polly ways, especially his lack of Christian affirmation, were all severe problems to his acceptance, even to his electability.

So how do we make this spiritual connection between Lincoln and Jesus and the storms they faced?

We look at Jesus’ ministry and recall the many times he preached about the coming of the Kingdom, the reign of God. But in that boat on storm-tossed Galilee—Jesus was the immediate captain, the source of faith, the savior.

It is natural to ask: Given the immediate and immense storms that are tossing human communities all around our planet today—don’t we need Christ, not Lincoln?

The story in our Christian Scripture of Jesus and the disciples in the boat is both a miracle story and a teaching story. This is a story that presents a guidepost to faith, a call to faith that deals with our fears, fear of the natural world and its storms, and fear of our own faithlessness. The story points to two fears: one natural and one spiritual. The disciples, like us, are afraid of the storm, and they are, after Jesus’ rebuke, aware of their inner, spiritual lack.

Why is this storm story both a miracle and a parable? Jesus manifests and teaches. It is about calmness, assurance, what the old hymn called “blessed assurance.” The teaching is not only keep your head up high in a storm, but: Keep your head! If we can keep our heads, the teaching implies, we keep our faith.

We are inside the Christian tradition here. There are, of course, stories in other faith traditions pointing to the dynamics of faith, to what Paul Tillich called the courage to be. The dynamics of faith are universal, but like love itself come to us in a personal story and in particular situations.

A storm story is iconic for our newly unstable global climate condition. We have storms like we’ve never seen before! The challenge to faith is to keep our heads high enough to take heart and keep faith as Jesus’ taught.

The vortex we are entering—nature and terror—also calls for the kind of pragmatic faith that Lincoln spoke of, and by the end, even preached. This is Lincoln to Congress in 1862:

“The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.” Entering an historic crisis, he indicates free will, pragmatic action. “We here, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.” He then says, “As we must act anew so we much think anew, we must disenthrall ourselves.” He calls for a radical a new way of being.

This was how Lincoln sounded: calm, rational, inspiring with his kind of faith, saving the storm-tossed ship of our Unites States. Certainly our Civil War was the largest storm our nation had endured. Into that history came the personal voice of Lincoln.

Whitman wrote, “Oh Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting….”

This is where the story turns secular or perhaps becomes a new kind of sacred. Whitman goes on:
“O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills…”

Of course Lincoln does not rise. We don’t have a miracle that way.

What we do have is the ship of state—and all the secular implications, moral compromises, and spiritual defaults of that boat. We have, too, the disciples’ vessel, maybe owned by James and John, called the Sons of Thunder. It could be the boat in which they left their father, Zebedee, when they went off to follow the new Galilean teacher. Maybe they still owed money on it. Certainly it was a locus of secular, moral, and spiritual, even family issues. A small boat, but no less secular or spiritual by being so.

How then do we get to sacred history and divine revelations with these two story tracks, these two vessels?

FINDING THE INNER CAPTAIN

We go to the inner life of each story. The inner story will open the personal heart, will give us a meaning of shared history in which the story is retold. Faith meaning is heard in the images and reasons spoken by the prophets.

For Lincoln, we know that he had a recurring dream. There is a boat rushing mightily towards a shore. We can believe this dream is telling him that he is bringing this beloved nation to shore, and that as the occupant of the boat he is about to arrive on another, far distant, shore. We know Lincoln had premonitions of this impending death. His dream tells us, and maybe he knew, that he was saving our country, bringing us to shore, but also, himself, crossing over to death. These are the two imagined endings. The poetic images of captain, boat and ship, the unconsciously experienced story of crossing the threshold, all are words that take us to the spiritual teaching and the spiritual presence also revealed in Jesus’ story.

If Lincoln were to have awakened, fully understanding his dream (and he may have) he would have had the spiritual presence, the experience of the faith that Jesus spoke of as he calmed the waters.

Faith then does not depend on the condition of the waters and the winds. It is a matter of inner experience, symbolically told, and shared in the mystic community of memory. Anyone can have faith on a calm day. Jesus’ call is to have that same faith even in the storm. We know enough about Lincoln’s life and temperament to imagine him having such a calm, knowing experience.

There is a destiny, a fate, a purpose and fulfillment in our inner history. The values and the virtues we carry into each new day are told in the words and images that manifest those values and virtues. Often messy and sometimes even bloody, that history reveals the big picture.

In these two stories, we hear one message of calm faith. Both stories work as parables—stories with meaning and a personal living presence. Yet neither Christ nor Lincoln are with us as they were in these stories—though they may be with us in spiritual ways. The faith message is simply that fear has no place in faith, and faith is not dependent upon circumstances. The miracle is that we can feel and have that faith.

One can easily think that Lincoln had reason to be as afraid as the disciples. “Lord, Lord, wake up we are perishing!” But that was not the case. While Lincoln certainly had anxieties, he did not give into them and turn to some savior figure for rescue. He was for himself that figure. Lincoln became his own captain. Jesus calls his disciples to follow the same calm way.

Was it easy for Jesus to be the Christ in that boat? Was it easy for Lincoln to be the Captain of our ship? Probably not. The point of each story is to show the possibility of how we can live. All told, it would be better if we could be more like Jesus than be like Lincoln. But there is a common shared spirit in both that shows us a transcendent path—faith, calm trust, while in the storm, as if on calm seas.

Calm reason is not, however, just for its own sake. Neither Jesus nor Lincoln wanted a boat full of blissed-out passengers. Both figures call us to a calm faith that leads to a life of humble love and transcending mercy, all in preparation for reconciliation and a new birth.

Lincoln MemorialThe contemporary advantage of seeing Lincoln this way is that we don’t assume he is the Son of God miraculously able to show us the way. Lincoln not only becomes president up from the log cabin, but he becomes a spiritual presence up from the ranks of common humanity—just as we can. This is why I call him a secular-religious figure. This is why I think his life can reveal for us the same holy spirit we see in Jesus Christ, whether Lincoln saw himself that way or not.

This is a Hero Sermon, using a model person as an example of faith, and I realize that such sermons generally don’t work and often backfire because people do not think, “I can be like that!” Rather people tend to say, “I can never be that way.”

So we generally go on our faithless even sinful way. It might be motivating, though, if we ask the historical question: What if people, all American people, had had faith, like the faith that Jesus calls for, at the moment Lincoln became president? What if we had really been a Christian nation, listening to the stories of Jesus?

When we re-read Lincoln’s First Inaugural today, we see Lincoln laying out a reasonable, calm, fair, and cautious plan. I think it is a fair historical judgment to say that if people had been calm, had trusted him, things would have worked out without the Civil War.

He closed with the words: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

To a large extent, it was the hysterical and self-righteous panic of Southerners—combined with the righteous and violent rage of the abolitionist Northerners—that swamped Lincoln’s calm call to reason, to the bonds of common wealth, to the mystic chords of memory, and to the shared hopes for a better future.

Both sides had fanatical elements who decided that God was on their side. In that first inaugural, Lincoln argued that—even if this was the case—then both sides should trust in the Almighty, not in their own arms: “If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.”

He called on both sides for calm—to pause in their march toward war.

They did not heed his call.

And in the boat on Galilee, Jesus did not preach a practical plan for God’s calming of turbulent waves. No, much like Lincoln, he called for calm. He calls: “Where is your faith?”

In the short run of their years on earth, neither Lincoln nor Jesus succeeded with their spiritual appeals.

Let us, though, have faith in what is eternal in these two stories.

Let us hear their voices calling to us, still.

Even amid the fiercest storms.

Amen.

 

MORE ON LINCOLN and DUNCAN NEWCOMER

ON LINCOLN AND WALT WHITMAN: If you have read Captain in the Storm by Duncan Newcomer, then you’ll also want to read about Walt Whitman’s powerful tributes to Lincoln. First, we have the full text and some historical background on O Captain! My Captain! Then, we also have the complete text and background on Whitman’s longer and more complex tribute to Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.

ON DUNCAN NEWCOMER: In 1999 Duncan earned a Doctor in Ministry in Preaching from the ACTS DMin program through the Chicago Theological Seminary. He has prepared various community resources, discussion starters and historical columns, which you can find in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page.

You are free to use, discuss, share and even republish this “sample sermon,” as long as you credit Duncan Newcomer and readthespirit.com online magazine.

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Comments

  1. Rodney Curtis says

    Newspaper in one hand, bible in the other …
    Finding the inner captain …
    Lincoln as an unresurrected son of our country …

    Powerful, poignant, poetic words Reverend Doctor.

  2. Peter Stevens says

    Once again we are reminded of the terrible paucity of honorable captains in our public lives today. Perhaps our private (“inner”) lives can fare better with Duncan Newcomer’s insights (and reminders).

  3. beclee Wilson says

    It is difficult to imagine there is anything new to say about either Lincoln or Jesus. Duncan Newcomer breaks that illusion with insights and originality as he ponders the present significance that history yields and speaks from a perspective gained over many years. Something to be thankful for. Well worth sharing.

  4. Rev. Eileen Sypher says

    A powerful, bold, and inspirational sermon! I have learned many new ways to think about God working God’s purposes out in history, through heroic figures like Licoln, and, as importantly, through the likes of each of us. And so thought leads to acts, both extraordinary and ordinary ones.