Friday, November 2, 2012

Lincoln: The Movie, the Myth and the Man

Lincoln, the new Stephen Spielberg movie due out in theaters next week, will undoubtedly revive interest in the historical personality—as opposed to the myth—of our greatest American President. 

Not coincidentally, Stephen Mansfield has released a fresh biography of Lincoln’s Battle With God (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2012) intended as a counterweight to previous works which portray Abe as a skeptic or freethinker in matters of faith.
Lincoln never joined a church during his lifetime.  During his Springfield years, he was part of a debating society where he seemed to support the views of Tom Paine and other deists of the Enlightenment.  He once called Jesus a bastard and Christ’s mother a base woman.  In an Illinois congressional race, he was dogged by charges of atheism and impiety.  These facts are not disputed.

Mansfield, who is an alumnus of Oral Roberts University, doesn’t deny that Lincoln rejected organized religion as a young man.  But he argues that under the assault of life-changing losses (the death of two sons and the carnage of war) Lincoln experienced something close to a complete conversion: to belief in a personal God accessible through prayer.  He opens his book with widow Mary Todd Lincoln’s remembrance, years after the fact, that her husband’s dying wish as he bled to death from an assassin’s bullet was to walk in the footsteps of his savior.  All the other tangled threads of Lincoln’s lifetime lead to this uplifting finale of faith.

To his credit, Mansfield realizes that first person accounts of Lincoln’s religious life—whether from Mary, his law partner William Herndon, or the various Protestant ministers who sought to befriend him and claim the President as one of their own—need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Sources are not always reliable.  Unfortunately, the author suffers from his own questionable citations.

For example, Mansfield recounts that during his Indiana childhood, Abe “had an impressive capacity for memorization, particularly of sermons.  Those who knew him often recalled how he would take a break from work by getting up on a stump and repeating almost word for word the sermons he had heard in the week before.”  

This un-footnoted passage seems to come from a letter written by Lincoln’s second-cousin Dennis Hanks who wrote to Herndon that “you asked Me what Sort of Songs or Intrest Abe took part in I will say this any thing that was Lively He Never would Sing any Religious Songs it apered to Me that it Did Not souit him But for a Man to preach a Sermond he would Listin to with great Attention.”  Hank’s son-in-law A.H. Chapman wrote Herndon that “When about 10 years old Lincoln first showed his talent as a speaker & from that forward would gather the children together Mount a stump or Log & harang his juvenile audience. he done this so often that it interfered with their labors when at work on the farm & caused him Many reproofs from his father, He would often after returning from church repeat correctly nearly all of the sermon which he had heard mimacing the Style & tone of the old Baptist Preachers.”

Judging from this accounting, was the boy manifesting a serious interest in matters of faith, or rather mocking the frontier revivalists?  In such cases, Mansfield almost always gives evangelical Christianity the benefit of the doubt, taking the episode as an indication of how the camp meeting preachers made an impression on “Abe’s eager mind.” 

Mansfield is a talented writer and I believe he makes a genuine attempt at objective reporting.  But his biases are also apparent.

I would recommend that anyone seriously interested in Lincoln’s faith journey read Allen Guelzo’s  Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which seems a more careful and balanced approach. 

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