Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Abraham Lincoln's Remarkable Letter to the American Baptist Home Mission Society

Page 1 of Lincoln's letter to Rev. Dr. Ide, Hon. J.R. Doolittle & Hon. A. Hubbell
Perhaps the greatest legacy that Abraham Lincoln, the most famous figure in American history. along with being considered its greatest President, was his ability as a writer.  Lincoln scholar, Douglas Wilson notes:
Page 2 of Lincoln's letter to Rev. Dr. Ide, Hon. J.R. Doolittle & Hon. A. Hubbell
"To approach Lincoln's presidency from the aspect of his writing  is to come to grips with the degree to which his pen, to alter the proverb, became his sword, arguably his most powerful presidential weapon."(Wilson; Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words; 8). 
Fred Kaplan, in his book, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, remarks, "The novelist William Dean Howell's claim about his friend Mark Twain, that he was the 'Lincoln of our literature,' can effectively be rephrased with the focus on our sixteenth president: Lincoln was the Twain of our politics" (1).

Given Lincoln's reputation as a writer, one might ask what role did the Bible play in his letters?

One great example of Lincoln's use of Scripture is in a letter dated, May 30, 1864. The letter, spanning 2 pages is reproduced here from the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. I will transcribe the letter below, but first I will let Lincoln scholar, Joseph Fornieri, in his book, The Language of Liberty, to set the historical context of this letter.

Fornieri writes:

Lincoln's response to a group of Baptist manifests his righteous indignation over pro-slavery theology. While extremely patient and compassionate towards others, Lincoln particularly reserved his most bitter scorn for members of the cultural elite who exploited the Bible to justify slavery and rebellion. In this speech, he appealed to the biblical precepts of Genesis 3:19 and Matthew 7:12 (the Golden Rule) against the proslavery interpretation of the Bible. (804).

Lincoln's letter can be found in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), VII, 368, reads as follows:

Letter to George B. Ide, James R. Doolittle, and A. Hubbell Abraham Lincoln Executive Mansion Washington D.C. May 30, 1864 
Rev. Dr. Ide Hon. J. R. Doolittle & Hon. A. Hubbell Committee 

In response to the preamble and resolutions of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, which you did me the honor to present, I can only thank you for thus adding to the effective and almost unanamous support which the Christian communities are so zealously giving to the country, and to liberty. Indeed it is difficult to conceive how it could be otherwise with any one professing christianity, or even having ordinary perceptions of right and wrong. To read in the Bible, as the word of God himself, that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,["] and to preach there–from that, “In the sweat of other mans faces shalt thou eat bread,” to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity. When brought to my final reckoning, may I have to answer for robbing no man of his goods; yet more tolerable even this, than for robbing one of himself, and all that was his. When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said “As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them” appealed to the christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical. But let me forbear, remembering it is also written “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

In The Language of Liberty (723), Fornieri notes that Lincoln also alludes to the story of Satan's temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11. Fornieri's analysis is perceptive:

"Lincoln repudiated proslavery theology as sophistry, claiming that it perverted the Bible and was utterly incompatible with a just God..." in this letter, Lincoln "argued that the disingenuousness of proslavery theology was comparable to Satan's exploitation of the Bible to tempt Jesus Christ, as related in Matthew 4:1-11" (723; italics original).

So what did Lincoln's anti-slavery biblical hermeneutic look like? Stay tuned for the next post.