In 1863, during the American Civil War, the Confederacy was flush with victory after victory, and conditions looked bleak for the Union. It was a difficult time for President Abraham Lincoln. The 208th anniversary of his birthday is Feb. 12.
Less than two years earlier his youngest son, Willie, had died in the White House, apparently from typhoid fever. Lincoln’s suffering was intense, and his wife, Mary, was virtually inconsolable. Since that time, his worries and sorrows had only grown as political and military problems mushroomed, and the death toll in the seemingly interminable conflict soared.
In her book, "Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Seamstress," Elizabeth Keckley, who was Mary Lincoln’s personal seamstress, was privy to sights and interactions others never observed. She described one day when President Lincoln entered his wife’s room as Keckley was fitting Mary Lincoln for a dress.
Keckley explained in the book, “These were sad, anxious days to Mr. Lincoln and those who saw the man in privacy only could tell how much he suffered.” When he entered the room, she wrote that, “His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad. Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa and shaded his eyes with his hands a complete picture of dejection.”
Mary Lincoln noted his mood and ask where he had been. Briefly and “almost sullen(ly),” he explained a visit to the War Department. Asked if there was any news while there, he replied, “Yes, plenty of news, but no good news. It is dark, dark everywhere.”
Abraham Lincoln then “reached forth one of his long arms, and took a small Bible from a stand near the head of the sofa, opened the pages of the holy book, and soon was absorbed in reading them," Keckley recalled. "A quarter of an hour passed, and on glancing at the sofa the face of the president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope. The change was so marked that I could not but wonder at it.”
Curious about what section of the Bible President Lincoln was reading, Keckley pretended to look for something and walked around the sofa. “I discovered that Mr. Lincoln was reading that divine comforter, Job. He read with Christian eagerness, and the courage and hope that he derived from the inspired pages made him a new man. I almost imagined that I could hear the Lord speaking to him from out the whirlwind of battle, ‘Gird up thy loins now like a man: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me,’” she wrote.
Keckley added her own sense of wonder, “What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity. Ponder it, O ye scoffers of God’s Holy Word, and then hang your heads for very shame!”
Abraham Lincoln’s deep and abiding faith, empowered as he studied and pondered the Bible, played a critical role in his life, especially during the catastrophic Civil War.
His dependence on and reverence for God’s word is again apparent in one of history’s greatest speeches, Lincoln’s 1865 second inaugural address. There, he solemnly proclaimed to the world, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” (See his address on bartleby.com.)
In today’s world, amid what many consider to be tumultuous times, the iconic President Lincoln provides a worthwhile example for others to follow. With the fate of a dreadfully divided nation in his hands, with sorrow and losses building, he deliberately took the time to study the scriptures. This alone is remarkable.
However, more impressive was his doing so because he was fully and faithfully aware that in reading the scriptures he would find solace, uplift, counsel and direction in his quest to lead a war-torn nation safely through the terrible storm.
That same privilege — comfort, inspiration and guidance — can and will be ours as we too set aside time, in our often busy lives, to daily study and ponder God’s eternal truths as found in the words and teachings of prophets and scripture today.