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Listen to the podcast
Read the transcript:
WHAT CAN LINCOLN’S CONVERSION TEACH TODAY’S CHRISTIANS?
TOM LAMPRECHT: Harry, today, we celebrate the birthday of our 16th president. It was on this day, February 12, 209 years ago that Abraham Lincoln was born.
DR. REEDER: Let me talk a little bit about Lincoln, what I believe is his conversion, its impact and why it affects the way you say the Pledge of Allegiance. Lincoln was known for his morality — growing up he was called “Honest Abe” and the stories abound that may or may not be true or accurate — but he was an unbeliever concerning Christianity in his early years.
LINCOLN WAS ORIGINALLY ANTAGONISTIC TO GOSPELS
He was a skeptic. He actually wrote a book that attacked the integrity of the Gospels — that they were not inerrant, that they were not trustworthy. In fact, when he ran for president, one of the things that his campaign manager did was try to get all of those books, get them out of circulation and burn them because they were a liability, but that’s where he was.
However, before he ran for president, his oldest son had a bout with typhoid fever and died. In the process of his son’s death, he was ministered to by a Pastor Smith, who was the old-school Presbyterian preacher at the Presbyterian church in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln was not converted. His wife professed faith in Christ. She started attending. Lincoln began to attend and, while Lincoln never joined the church or professed faith, he did start attending that church for a number of years, contributed to a building program and even purchased a family pew but, again, he was not converted.
He then ran for president and there was the obligatory mentioning of God in his first inaugural speech, but he was pretty much a pragmatic politician with some sensibilities in terms of morals but a pragmatic politician devoted to the saving of the union and ultimately addressing the chattel slavery issue in America. And then his response, of course, to the succession of the six cotton states and that then led to the Civil War.
HOW THE CIVIL WAR AFFECTED HIS FAITH
In the midst of the Civil War, itself, Lincoln began to deal with a number of issues but, also, in the providence of God, he began to deal with some interesting people. A Quaker woman from New York came to visit him the first months of his presidency. He gave her 15 minutes and, in his conversation, he was so impressed with her and then she prayed for him that, when she left, he told his administrative assistant, “Whenever this woman comes, give her free access to see me. I have met a Christian in which there is no guile.”
Later on, he begins to deal with this carnage and all of these deaths and so he starts to write something that was later finished in 1862 about the time of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg. He entitled it “Meditations upon the Divine Will.” Why was God allowing and why was God inflicting this fratricidal war upon this nation? He came to a conclusion that is almost a verbatim identical quote that Robert E. Lee, in one of his journals, wrote as well: that both sides were covered up in sin and arrogance and the sins of the nation had to be dealt with until God had purged us as a nation.
In that comes the famous quote that would later be used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and General George Marshall and then, later on, the famous quote is used by President George Bush the first. “The question in the war is not is God on our side, but are we on God’s side?”
LINCOLN’S FAMILY TRAGEDY
Then another significant event took place, Tom, and that was his son, Willie, whom he loved also got typhoid fever there at the White House and an African-American servant there at the White House, who was caring for the boy in his death struggle, would talk with President Lincoln almost incessantly about Christ, and how his son had trusted Christ and how he needed to trust Christ.
Now, in the midst of all of this, his pastor back in Springfield had recommended to him to attend the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. I’ve been in that church a number of times — there is the “Lincoln Pew” where he sat on Sunday mornings, but there is also the “Lincoln Chapel” that has the “Lincoln Sofa,” which was the chair that he would sit in on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights.
He didn’t sit out in the audience, lest it cause others to see him and would take away from the service and what was being done so he would sit over to the side and then he would discuss with Dr. Gurley the sermon and the issues of Christianity. Dr. Gurley, who preached the funeral of Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, records those discussions and Lincoln’s commitment to Christ. It all pretty much came to a head in 1863 and the result was the speech that he wrote, the Gettysburg Address, you’ll see the evangelical language in it — “regeneration,” a “new birth of freedom,” and he scratches in in his pencil editing “a nation ‘under God.’”
He then noted to Dr. Gurley and others that he desired that the nation formally adopt George Washington’s motto for the nation. George Washington had a motto for the United States that he wanted to have formally adopted and it was “In God We Trust.” He then told Dr. Gurley, after the next election, he wanted to be baptized. He didn’t want to do it before the election, lest it look like a political move. Then, after the inauguration, which was in March of 1865, and then he said, “Well, let’s just do it after Easter,” and then, of course, he is assassinated that Easter and is never baptized but Dr. Gurley gives all of the accounts of this.
GOD’S WORK REVEALED IN HIS SPEECHES
If you want to see the spiritual odyssey and God’s converting work in President Lincoln’s life, read his first inaugural speech, read “Meditations upon the Divine Will,” read the Gettysburg Address and then read what I believe is the second greatest presidential speech ever made and that is his second inaugural address. Read those and you can see the very work of God’s grace in his life.
What is not recorded are his lengthy discussions he had with Dr. Gurley about how to readmit the southern states, how to deal with slavery that eventually led to his proposals that eventually led to the 14th Amendment.
At New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, in 1953, there was a sermon recounting what I just said and much more concerning Lincoln’s conversion and what happened to him in his life and his desire that we be a nation under God — Gettysburg Address quote — and that we adopt “In God We Trust.”
WHERE ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ CAME FROM
Two congressmen are sitting at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. They then go back and introduce two bills. One bill is that we make “In God We Trust” our motto and place it upon our coinage, which is why you see that on our money today, “In God We Trust.” Secondly, they then introduce the bill that “under God” be placed in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge of Allegiance was a secular statist creed wrapped in nationalism but then they added the phrase “under God.” Have you ever noticed that, if you look at the Pledge of Allegiance, it should be said this way, “I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the government for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible?”
In other words, there’s no comma, yet just today, I led in prayer for our county commissioner and they did the pledge after I prayed, “One nation” — pause — “under God.” The reason why the pause is there is because, when people originally learned it, there was no “under God” there. That’s because the “under God” to honor Lincoln and his conversion was inserted in 1953 and, therefore, was always a next thought.
GOD’S HAND ON LEADERS
Folks, here’s what I simply want to say: thank God for His work in grace in leaders. Thank God for what he does in the lives of leaders. Thank God for how he works in leaders and can even convert presidents in the midst of the war, in the midst of their presidency and the ramifications of it can echo into eternity and into the history and future of that nation.
When you celebrate Lincoln and Washington’s birthday this February, remember God’s work of grace in converting George Washington and in converting Abraham Lincoln and pray for God’s work of grace in our elected officials today.
TOM LAMPRECHT: Harry, we are out of time for today. On Tuesday’s edition of Today in Perspective, Super Bowl LII is in the history books. The Philadelphia Eagles are world champions, but there’s a story behind the story.
DR. REEDER: And there’s a story that I hope becomes a larger story in our nation from that story. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.
Dr. Harry L. Reeder III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.
This podcast was transcribed by Jessica Havin, editorial assistant for Yellowhammer News. Jessica has transcribed some of the top podcasts in the country and her work has been featured in a New York Times Bestseller.