From WILLIAM EDELEN
The Contrary Minister
The movie out now on Lincoln is one of the most magnificent movies I have ever seen. It has motivated me to write about Lincoln, with perhaps another side that the public will not see in the movie.
Lincoln has been portrayed in more books and articles, and in more languages in more countries than any other American. He almost idolized Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and studied their writings in exhaustive detail.
Lincoln refused to be baptized or to join any Christian church. His wife said: “My husband is not a Christian… but he is a religious man, I think.”
Lincoln wrote these words: “I have never united myself to any church, because I could not give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine and dogma which characterize their articles of belief. When any church will inscribe over its altar…as the sole qualification for membership, only the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor that church will I join.”
Following the death of Lincoln, the most eloquent eulogies came from the Jewish community. Rabbi Nathan Krass, in Buffalo, New York, used these words: “It is said that Mr. Lincoln was no churchman… and we know that is true. Well, what of it? The great religious giants of history were not churchmen. The Prophets were not churchmen. Jesus was no churchman, and would not be so even today. Yet in their hearts was the spirit of God that transcends the church.”
By contrast, the Rev. Dr. Gurley, Presbyterian minister of Washington, D.C., in a sermon he called “The Voice of the Rod” told his congregation that it would always be a tragedy to “good Christians everywhere, and God, that Lincoln fell in a theater.” He continued: “Multitudes of Christians would have preferred he be killed anywhere but in a theater, the last place any good Christian should be, and certainly the last place that any good Christian should die.”
Lincoln loved to tell stories and jokes that were in the manner of Mark Twain. His favorite jokes were what he called his “preacher” jokes and stories. Needless to say, the clergy of that day did not find them amusing. Nor would many today.
A number of years ago I found a marvelous little book called “Lincoln’s Preacher Stories.” Many are so ribald, of course, that I cannot print them here. A few of my favorites “A young intelligent Unitarian minister came to Springfield, Illinois. He was becoming so popular that the other orthodox ministers in town decided to preach against him. They flipped a coin to see who would preach the first sermon against this Unitarian minister. It fell to the Methodist minister, who started out by telling his congregation how happy they should all be in the orthodox church, and then he started getting really warmed up and shouted to people… and now… NOW… there comes into town this Unitarian kid preaching a doctrine that ALL men and women are going to be saved… that ALL men and women are going to heaven… oh brethren… oh brethren… let us hope for better things.”
A delegation of clergy once called on Lincoln to explain Christian doctrine to him. Lincoln became more and more exasperated and finally broke in and said: “Reverend if you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs will the sheep have?” Visibly taken back, the Reverend spokesman said: “Why five of course.” “No Sir” said Lincoln, “you are wrong reverend… because calling a sheep tail a leg don’t make it so.” Thus ended the interview with the clergy.
As to Lincoln’s religion, his private secretary said it best: “He believed in the practice of justice and mercy. That was his religion and the world can utter no other verdict than this.”
Lincolns Memorial stands with Jefferson’s in Washington, D.C. Lincoln was a giant in American history, as well as a giant for the world.
May I suggest the Pulitzer prize biography by Carl Sandburg, “Lincoln.”