James 1:3-4 “The testing of your faith produces perseverance. But let perseverance have its perfect work, that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”
Last week, Donald Trump was sworn in as America’s 45th President with his hand placed upon the Bible of Abraham Lincoln. One other former president also used Lincoln’s Bible at his inauguration: Barack Obama. As with people of all ages, both men have great admiration for a man who has remained one of the most iconic figures in American history (it’s 156 years since Lincoln himself was president).
Why does Lincoln’s persona endure after so many years? If you think America is divided today with Trump as President, consider our nation during Lincoln’s Presidency. His perseverance during one of the ugliest periods in American led to some of the greatest accomplishments of any US President: 1) on January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation which gave freedom to slaves and soon led to the eradication of slavery altogether; 2) he led the Union to victory in the Civil War, and 3) he lay the foundation for the Reconstruction, reuniting the nation when so many urged him to take vengeance against the South.
While Lincoln’s immortality is sealed in history, former pastor Dr. D. James Kennedy, in a sermon given back in October 2013, asked a different question about Lincoln: “Is Lincoln immortal in any other way than merely in the memory of his countrymen? Is he immortal in the real sense of everlasting life which Jesus Christ and Christ only can give to a man, or to put it another way: Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?”
Our verse this week from James, the former brother of Jesus and the very first pastor of the first church in history, tells us that it is when your faith in Jesus Christ is tested that perseverance is perfected. James says it is necessary that trials test your faith, because it is God’s formula of perseverance to fully mature you into a deep reliance on Him that will sustain you. Was this the case with Abraham Lincoln?
Dr. Kennedy begins by examining his early years, “Lincoln was never a member of a church… but was he a Christian? Listen to Lincoln's own words: ‘I am not a Christian. God knows I would be one.’ When Lincoln came to Springfield, he fell in with some agnostic and skeptical friends who gave him, among other things, Volney's Ruins, a great volume of unbelief which attacked viciously and articulately the Scriptures. This had a tremendously chilling effect upon his boyhood faith, and he became quite skeptical.”
Two events in 1863 changed him. Lincoln, a man who persevered through the trials of his Presidency, witnessed the carnage of war at the killing fields of Gettysburg. But the second event crushed him – the death of his 12-year old son Willie. Lincoln’s close friend Ward Lamon wrote down what began driving Lincoln: “...the melancholy that dripped from him as he walked was due to his want of religious faith."
Dr. Kennedy explains what was the turning point in Lincoln’s faith: “He was so overwhelmed with grief that he set aside every Thursday to mourn his death. After some period of time, Dr. Francis Vinton, rector of Trinity Church, came down to Washington from New York… he told him it was not right to mourn thus over his son. He said, ‘Your son is alive in paradise with Christ, and you must not continue.’ Lincoln exclaimed, ‘Alive! Alive! Surely, sir, you mock me.’ ‘No, Mr. President, it is a great doctrine of the church. Jesus himself said that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.’ Lincoln leaped to his feet and threw his arms around this pastor. He wept openly, saying, ‘Alive! Alive! My boy is alive!’ From that day there began a change in Lincoln that even his wife Mary noticed. His religious views began to dramatically change.
There is a remarkable letter from an Illinois clergyman who talked to Lincoln after this time. He said this to Mr. Lincoln: ‘Mr. President, do you love Jesus?’ After a long pause, Mr. Lincoln solemnly replied: ‘When I left Springfield I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus.’
So Lincoln’s immortality is two-fold. We saw the first at our last two presidents’ inaugurations, when they swore on his Bible. And the second is his personal testimony to eternal life in Jesus Christ, the One who gave Lincoln the grace to persevere when he hit those times of greatest personal need. As Hebrews 4:16 explains: “Let us come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Ed Croteau is a resident of Lee’s Summit and hosts a weekly study in Lees Summit called “Faith: Substance and Evidence.” He can be reached with your questions through the Lee’s Summit Tribune at Editor@lstribune.net.