What Would Abraham Lincoln Do … about facing the fears of epidemic?

First, The Rest of This Story …

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Author of 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire

Every week, I continue to broadcast wisdom from Abraham Lincoln from my home base at WERU in Maine. Through hundreds of these short weekly reflections on Lincoln’s legacy, all of us involved in the broadcasts are amazed at how relevant he remains in our world today.

Two horrific health crises ravaged Abraham Lincoln’s early life. A disorder known in his day as Milk Sick quickly took Lincoln’s mother and two other adults in his seven-person cabin, then the typhoid epidemic took the life of Ann Rutledge, who many scholars now credit as being Lincoln’s first true love.

Wide-spread suffering and intense personal suffering are the polarities of Lincoln’s life as president. His frontier early life taught him so.

Having given five public talks about Lincoln’s spiritual life in the past four weeks, I have seen and heard again and again how relevant his person and his politics are to people even now, and how deeply many folks hold him still in their hearts.

I have always thought that suffering and sorrow were the reasons he had such an iridescent spiritual life. The lessons of human suffering and personal tragedy were experiences on the frontier that he brought east with him. Soon the whole nation would be enveloped in the kind of losses Lincoln had grown up with.

It was especially poignant to read in a December, 1840, Evansville (Indiana) Journal how even two decades after his mother succumbed to the Milk Sick—frontier families were still willing to flee their lives in an instant when the fear of disease came upon them. The newspaper journalist hit upon words that still characterize Lincoln’s spiritual capability: his ability to deal with Uncertainty and Mystery. The spiritual education of Lincoln is as much about how he grasped the world around him as how he contemplated and felt inside.

Now irony is, we know, a hallmark of American history according to Reinhold Niebuhr, so it is perhaps ironic that for health reasons my radio station, WERU, canceled any new recording sessions for the foreseeable future. So what you can read here has yet to hit the air waves. But it will, and by then something else about the relevance of Lincoln will be front and center. Better Angels? Civil War?


Lincoln Quiet Fire Radio Text 1:

Uncertainty and Mystery

This is Quiet Fire, a program about the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln, and its relevance to us today. Welcome. This is Duncan Newcomer.

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 which envelopes its origin … 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. And this news still in the papers some 25 years after the Milk Sick had hit the little Lincoln tribe hard, way south of the city.

Today, uncertainty and mystery are not typical journalistic terms. 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 hover over Lincoln all his life, angels he turns into charity and meaningful judgments. And those words “charity and judgment”—his words—are as unusual in a presidential address as were uncertainty and mystery in a newspaper report on a dreaded epidemic. Lincoln becomes capable, even poised, in the midst of uncertainty. He becomes compassionate, even wise, in the midst of mystery. That is the pilgrim’s progress he completes.

Now, as Carl Sandburg will tell 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. And Dennis Hanks, who survived for all of Lincoln’s life, was his cousin. And like the Lincolns Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow and young Hanks had had to leave Kentucky because of land deed problems. And, 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 however, having had an axe in his hands since he was 7. That was when boys began to be initiated away from their mothers. But for Lincoln what he called his “sweet angel” mother, she was someone he never really left behind.

The Milk Sick took more people that year, 1818, as well as cows and calves themselves. There was no doctor nearer than 35 miles—not that doctors 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 leading to a grotesque death within a few days.

There was a lot of disease in the southern Indiana land that Lincoln’s father has staked out, malaria and other intermittent annual fevers. But it was this so called milk sickness—or popularly “Milk Sick”—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 disorder hit. 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?

It would be more than 100 years later that 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. But in the spiritual life, science and medicine, for Lincoln, never cured the world of uncertainty and mystery.

Lincoln was a great advocate for science even giving a lecture on science and agriculture at a western state fair. But in Lincoln’s life massive natural disasters attended his pilgrimage. Unusual earth quakes, 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.

Lincoln coped with uncertainty and mystery in a number of ways: by superstition, ingenuity, science, reason, and courage. But it was in his spiritual life that history itself challenged him the most. Why war? Why slavery? Why childhood death?

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. 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 judgments he said were true and righteous altogether, and whose ways were the ways of charity and peace.

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

In such light we can be lighted down in honor to the latest generation.

This Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire, the Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln.



Lincoln Quiet Fire Radio Text 2:

‘We Must Rise with the Occasion’

Abraham Lincoln in a reflective pose in 1861. Public domain photo held by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

This is Quiet Fire, a program about the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln, and its relevance for us today. Welcome, this is Duncan Newcomer.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise—with the occasion.”

This sounds like wisdom from the I Ching, that ancient practice of throwing coins or sticks to find ancient hexagrams of sayings that suddenly seem wise and to the point of some present difficulty. Words seemingly random but with the force of truth a soothsayer or an astrologer might have.

So imagine opening up a fortune cookie and reading “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise—with the occasion.”

Lincoln wants us to have a breath-holding pause as we take in the fact that we are facing a high challenge, and he wants to set us up for the significant preposition “with” as opposed to “to”. Because this is a matter of all boats being lifted by the same flood. We are to rise with the occasion. Or sink. It is not a matter of rising to the occasion as if we are going to challenge the occasion and be its conquering hero.

We have here Lincoln’s trademark moral challenge, his call to courage and fortitude as well as a passive awareness of the floodtides of the world.

Rather than a proverb, this actually is a Call. It is meant to be heard from one human voice to the hearing of the people in government and more.
We must rise with the occasion.

The spiritual life of Lincoln, of anyone, is guided by more than wise sayings. There are moral imperatives, calls to right living, summons to duty. These are words of urgency, but not only authority. This is not an order: “You must rise.” It is a leader making common cause with the people who have selected him to lead.

We must.


Here the spiritual life has a long tradition of indicatives and imperatives such as those uttered by Moses, Jesus and others. It is not the kind of thing you can imagine a psychotherapist saying. In the spiritual life there is a time and a vocabulary for telling people the right thing to do. It is a sacred trust.

The crises in spiritual life are of morality and community as well as of healing and wholeness.
This where, in the idea of America, not church and state but secular and sacred come so close together.
One reason so many still gravitate to the voice and life of Lincoln is we know about the high pile of difficulties he went through to get to the point of leadership. His courageous spirit is part nature and part nurture.

Here’s how Mother Nature nurtured him, with her piles of difficulty. We saw in my earlier broadcast how Mother Nature and the Milk Sick took his aunt and uncle and mother. How the uncertainty and mystery of that epidemic terrified homesteaders on the frontier right out of their home and farms to flee to God knows where.

Mother Nature had also piled high some difficulties for the Lincoln family as they moved to Indiana in 1816. Lincoln was 7 and moved with his father mother and sister less than 100 miles but across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Indiana. This was in December. Cold and snow. Thomas had only marked out with piles of brush, some trees and a small three-sided hut. That was home for the four Lincolns that December. With help from the sparse seven families around them, they built a log cabin but the cold kept them from making the mud pitch to seal out the wind from between the logs.

The winter of 1816 was coming after the traumatic summer of 1816 called the summer of no sun. The entire temperature of North America, as well as Europe, had gone down, the sun being strangely blocked out. Nobody knew then that a volcano in the South Pacific had spewed the planet with dark dust. Why the sun had grown so dim? It snowed in Boston in June. Crops around the world failed. Napoleon’s soldiers in France rioted. Thousands died of starvation.

Surely a summer of no sun was not a great year to set out for a new home where the forest was so thick the last 15 miles that they literally had to hack a pathway through, not around, the trees. Remember Lincoln, with his axe, was 7 at the time.

Between the weather and disease Lincoln’s life was piled high with difficulty—and then there was his presidency which still can, even now, help us rise with the occasion in honor down to the latest generation.

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


Care to Read More?

BUY THE BOOK—Abraham Lincoln is the soul of America, calling us to our best as Americans. Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer has hosted more than 200 episodes of the radio series Quiet Fire: The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln. Now, 30 of his best stories provide a month of inspirational reading in a unique volume that invites us to read the stories—or to follow a simple code to hear the original broadcast each day.

“Since its beginning, radio has offered a warm medium for connecting the heart, the head, and the imagination. This delightful collection of Lincoln’s wisdom was seeded in a creative radio show, Quiet Fire,” writes Sally Kane, CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, where this series was born on WERU, a station in mid-coastal Maine. “Now, Quiet Fire has morphed into a daily companion for readers who connect the dots between time and space to map a new understanding of the chaotic times in which we live. Lincoln’s words resonate more urgently than ever, and Duncan has played alchemist in Quiet Fire to one of our country’s greatest souls and distilled an essence that can guide and comfort us.”



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