In honor of President’s Day, I want to share one of my seminary papers from an American Christianity class on Abraham Lincoln. Hopefully, it will offer a unique spiritual perspective on his life and death, and their importance to America as a nation established by God.
As Winston Churchill once stated, “A nation that forgets its past is doomed to repeat it.” With this in mind, there is a growing need for this nation to remember the circumstances surrounding one of the darkest eras in our nation’s history—the Civil War. This event depicted a tumultuous time in American history when differing views on certain issues drove it people to inflict violence against their fellow citizens. However, during this darkest period, there were American leaders who served as shining lights, thus leading a severed nation through this darkness.
Abraham Lincoln was one of these leaders who helped guide America through this dark period and fulfilled certain purposes in the process. Chosen by God for these specific purposes, Abraham Lincoln became an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America by identifying himself and all people equal before God, eradicating the blight of slavery in America, preserving the Union, and, ultimately, giving his life as a martyr of freedom.
CALLED AND EQUIPPED BY GOD: THE EARLY YEARS
Lincoln’s path to this status as an unexpected kinsman redeemer of America consisted of many twists and turns, thus making this status unexpected indeed. From humble beginnings to a wayward youth, his journey to becoming the moral authority in America during the Civil War ultimately deemed him “the spiritual center of American history.” Certain aspects of Lincoln’s early life contributed to his status as President and, ultimately, kinsman redeemer of America, such as his transient childhood, religious background, and various early careers.
In many ways, it seemed that, through these aspects, God equipped young Lincoln for a distinct purpose and task. First, throughout Lincoln’s childhood and teen years, his family seldom remained in one location for any extended period of time and failed to establish community roots. Due to constant turmoil regarding land titles and positions on slavery in Kentucky, Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, had no reason to remain there. According to David Herbert Donald, “[Thomas Lincoln] left Kentucky ‘partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles.’” Shortly after reaching this conclusion, the Lincoln family moved to the promising territory of Indiana.
After a brief stay in Indiana, and a few unsuccessful seasons of farming, Thomas Lincoln seriously contemplated another move based on various reports of nearby epidemics and more fertile lands to the west in Illinois. As Donald states, “a rumor of a new outbreak of the milk sickness in southern Indiana triggered the Lincolns’ decision to [move to Illinois]”, in addition to reports of “the fertility of the Illinois lands.” Following this final move, the Lincoln family was able to finally establish roots in the fertile Illinois soil.
Lincoln’s transient childhood implanted a sense of adventure in the young man, and exposed him to a wide array of people and communities. In turn, it supplanted the seeds of adaptability and versatility that would enable him to identify and connect with many types of Americans later in life. In addition, interaction with these people and communities provided faces to the various issues that plagued the era, such as nasty land disputes, heated political rhetoric, and slavery.
The second aspect of Lincoln’s childhood and formative years that shaped his life was his early religious background. Like most American children, Lincoln’s parents played a crucial role in establishing his early religious worldview and experience, and they fostered their own strict Baptist beliefs in him. As Richard Carwardine states, “Lincoln’s earliest experience of religion came through his parents; as ‘hard-shell’ Baptists, they subscribed to a predestinarian, hyper-Calvinist system of beliefs, including ‘election by grace before the world began’, and mission work.” The tenets associated with his parents’ religious denomination, coupled with textbooks provided by his mother, helped form much of Lincoln’s theological dialogue later in his life, especially his quest for purpose and stance on slavery.
Lincoln’s hard stance against slavery stemmed both from his immersion into anti-slavery communities during his early life, as well as an adoption of his father’s beliefs and attitudes toward it. According to Donald, “Thomas Lincoln’s hostility to slavery was based on economic, as well as religious grounds; Abraham shared his parents’ views, and was ‘naturally anti-slavery.’” As a byproduct of his early environment, Lincoln found it relatively easy to be, and remain, opposed to slavery throughout his life.
Still another viewpoint passed down from his parents was Lincoln’s distaste for institutional Christianity. In part, the Separatist Baptist beliefs of his childhood had an overwhelming influence on this viewpoint, and had a lasting effect on his theology and politics. According to Gustaud and Schmidt, “Lincoln remained aloof from institutional Christianity and displayed a restorationist sense of impurity of all existing churches.” In turn, this allowed him to establish a genuine connection with the American people later in life, since he was not concretely tied to any particular denomination or sect, aside from his initial Baptist worldview.
Together, these aspects of Lincoln’s childhood established the foundation for the calling that God placed on his life. As the old saying goes, “God does not call the equipped, but equips the called.” This old saying summarizes the role that the aspects discussed above contributed to Lincoln’s calling, and the methods in which he received them. In turn, these aspects directly feed into how God prepared him for his calling through his multiple careers as a young man.
The second key aspect of Lincoln’s early life that contributed to his future status was his various early careers, which demonstrates how God prepared him for his ultimate purpose and task. Upon leaving home and striking out on his own, Lincoln’s future seemed uncertain, and there were very few indicators of a chosen profession. As indicated by Donald, “the years after Abraham Lincoln left his father’s household were of critical importance in shaping his future. In 1831, he was essentially unformed; it was not clear to him or anybody else what career he might ultimately follow.” However, a few select occupations and positions held by Lincoln during this period stand above the rest as having the most impact on his future, such as his time spent as a militiaman, entrepreneur, lawyer, and politician.
Lincoln’s brief role as a militiaman in Illinois was his first occupation geared towards civil service, and he volunteered for various reasons. Aside from fulfilling his patriotic duty to his community, Lincoln also knew that his militia service would greatly aid his political ambitions. When the Illinois governor sought volunteers to join the local militia, “men rushed to offer their services, some out of patriotism…and some knew military service would aid their political careers; in Lincoln’s case all these motives were at work.”
During his tenure as a militiaman, Lincoln experienced his first taste of political ambition and natural leadership. In essence, up to this point in his life, his natural abilities as a leader were practically unknown to him given the lack of situations requiring these abilities. However, his militia service presented the perfect conditions for them to flourish. Carl Sandburg relates a brief story that illustrates one of these situations:
Voting for a captain, each man of the company stepped out and stood by either Lincoln or one William Kirkpatrick. Three-fourths of the men at once went to Lincoln—and then one by one those standing by Kirkpatrick left him till he was almost alone. Many years later, Lincoln wrote that “he was surprised at this election and had not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction.” (Sandburg 1954, 30)
This single event served as an indication of the great leadership potential of young Lincoln, despite his inability to find a specific niche in life at the time.
Lincoln’s time spent as a young entrepreneur also had an impact on his future. Though only a store clerk, during this period he began to dabble in local politics and develop a more robust social life. It was in this role that his close friends saw his potential for politics, and began to supplant ideas of political ambitions. Lincoln began to put stock into their ideas given their own backgrounds, since most were college educated and successful professionals.
However, Lincoln also became more cognizant of his own shortcomings when compared to his more educated and sociable peers, which countered these ambitions on several occasions. According to Donald, “In March 1832, at the age of twenty-three, he was only a store clerk in a small country store, a young man with less than a year of formal education and with no experience in the workings of government.” In his own eyes, he could not match the experience and education of his peers, although Lincoln possessed unique personal traits that others did not readily possess—confidence and persistence.
Regarding these self-realizations, Lincoln severely underestimated himself. His God-given traits of unparalleled personal confidence, coupled with uncanny persistence, provided the means for him to excel in his next two professions. As Allen C. Guelzo states, “what set Lincoln apart was not that he had no education, but that he had never been fitted for college; he had unbounded confidence in himself and thought that he could do anything that other men could or would try to do.” Through this confidence and persistence, Lincoln set out to practice law to the best of his abilities despite any formal education or training.
Lincoln’s tenure as a lawyer in the state of Illinois was one of self-awareness and constant interaction with people, which further shaped his future leadership roles. With each new case came a unique challenge that generated a steep learning curve for the young lawyer, since he was not formally educated in the matters of the law. In addition, one of the most endearing character traits of Lincoln came to the surface during this period—his absolute honesty. As Donald describes, “Lincoln’s reputation as a lawyer rested first on the universal belief in his absolute honesty…the lawyer who was never known to lie.” This trait continued to serve him well as a politician.
The final occupation held by Lincoln, which ultimately led to his final position as President, was that of a politician. It seemed that the combination of things learned and realized during his previous occupations and positions culminated in his role as a professional politician. According to Guelzo, “Lincoln was a professional politician and not an intellectual; but he was not a mere politician.” This simply meant that, due to a combination of the traits discussed above, Lincoln’s political prowess exceeded that of a mere politician.
In essence, the characteristics and traits discussed above worked together to equip a called servant of God to fulfill a distinct task and purpose. His progression to the pinnacle of national leadership was not by happenstance, but possessed a divine quality of continuity leading to it. Carwardine agrees that “it is tempting to treat Abraham Lincoln’s progress to national visibility and power as an instance of dramatic transfiguration; the burden of what follows, however, is that in important ways Lincoln’s route to political power was characterized by continuity.” In turn, this continuity of character, combined with Lincoln’s religious upbringing discussed earlier, began to shape his theological views of politics and leadership.
Specifically, his views concerning the will of God and human action served as a divine compass that aided certain decisions that would ultimately lead to the fulfillment of his calling. As stated by John P. Diggins, “although Lincoln doubted that man could ever grasp God’s will and therefore believed that human action would always be estranged from divine intention, he felt that the statesman could not avoid the responsibility of acting decisively in a morally ambiguous world.” According to this reasoning, Lincoln’s decisive actions of identifying himself and all people equal before God, eradicating the blight of slavery, preserving the Union, and giving his life rendered him an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America.
KINSMAN REDEEMER: DEFINITION AND REQUIREMENTS
The term ‘kinsman redeemer’ refers to a person in ancient Jewish culture who fulfills certain roles for certain relatives in accordance with Jewish law. In certain situations where one does not have a male family member to own land or conduct certain business transactions, a kinsman redeemer can assume this role. “The kinsman redeemer was a near blood-relative and always male. This kinsman redeemer had a duty to protect his weaker relatives,” and in certain situations “he had to redeem their persons when they had sold themselves into slavery.”
A kinsman redeemer had to also meet strict requirements in order to assume this role according to Jewish law. The three critical requirements included the relation between the two persons, the financial means to redeem, and the will to redeem. According to Warren W. Wiersbe, in order for a person to serve as a kinsman redeemer, he must meet three qualifications: he must be a near-relative; “the kinsman redeemer also had to be able to pay the redemption price”; and, “the kinsman redeemer had to be willing to redeem.” Given the definition and requirements of a kinsman redeemer, the proceeding discussion will discuss Abraham Lincoln’s role as an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America.
ESTABLISHMENT OF KINSHIP
The first way Abraham Lincoln became an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America was by identifying himself and all people equal before God through a strong connection with the people and public opinion. In doing so, he established a kinship with the American people by utilizing and exploiting their common bond of Christianity and image bearers of God. Essentially, he believed that Christianity spiritually binds all Americans, regardless of race, thus establishing a universal brotherhood throughout the nation. As Gustaud and Schmidt state, “the essence of Christianity is the spiritual kinship, the brotherhood of all humankind.”
Lincoln also utilized his knowledge and fascination with freethinking forefathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to further solidify this kinship. As set forth in the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson wrote, God created all men equal, and Lincoln thoroughly embraced this concept. According to Guelzo, “Lincoln upended the Jeffersonian icon by embracing Jefferson’s words on freedom and equality.” Concepts such as these dominated both the thoughts and actions of Lincoln throughout his tenure as President.
These concepts also dominated his views on religious institutions, and caused him to question many of their practices, such as standard creeds and traditions. Gustaud and Schmidt affirm that “as a freethinking questioner of standard creeds and institutional traditions, Lincoln carried forward the Jeffersonian side of American religious life.” These views seemed to resonate with many Americans who questioned the same, brought on by the Civil War and slavery. This resonation further emplaced the kinship between Lincoln and the people, and greatly aided in his public opinion.
With a kinship established, Lincoln knew that strategic messages were crucial in maintaining it. As a master communicator, he skillfully used public letters to shape public opinion in his favor. According to Eric Foner, “Lincoln designed his public letters to influence public opinion, not just respond to a few individuals.” This meant that, to him, every written word had the power to inform and influence the public, and he took every opportunity to do so.
This became increasingly important during the Civil War, since public opinion impacted each decision made by his administration. Lincoln was very careful not to damage the established kinship with the people and his emerging relationship with Congress. He accomplished these tasks by remaining very much in tune with the public opinion in the north. Foner affirms that he was “attuned to the currents of northern public opinion, and desirous of getting along with Congress.” Ultimately, this subsequent desire would prove crucial in enacting the next step in becoming a kinsman redeemer.
REDEMPTION OF SLAVES
The second way Abraham Lincoln became an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America was by eradicating the blight of slavery in America through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. As discussed above, one of Lincoln’s desires was maintaining a good working relationship with Congress, which would prove vital in his plan of redemption for slaves.
Although many historians view the Emancipation Proclamation as strictly a strategic maneuver to end the Civil War, Lincoln felt he had little control of its destiny. As Diggins explains, “when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, Lincoln did not claim credit for it, confessing that ‘events have controlled me.’” Although there is little concrete evidence that the Emancipation Proclamation was strictly a strategic military action, hindsight gives a clear indication that it served a divine purpose in the direction of America. According to Michael Vorenberg, “by itself, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. That fact, well known by generations of historians, does not demean the proclamation; [it] was surely the most powerful instrument of slavery’s destruction.”
Even after making the Emancipation Proclamation official, there were many in Congress and the media who questioned its effectiveness and veracity. Due to these sentiments, many applied both public and political pressure to Lincoln’s administration, calling for the abandonment of emancipation altogether. However, according to Vorenberg, “Lincoln did not backpedal on emancipation. He promised never ‘to attempt to retract or modify the Emancipation Proclamation,’ lest he commit ‘a cruel and an astounding breach of faith.’” Lincoln was determined to stay the course, and committed to eradicating slavery in America.
Along with Lincoln’s commitment to the cause of eradicating slavery was an increased public and political fervor of support within America and Congress, respectively. As Vorenberg states, “after Lincoln issued the proclamation, lawmakers, politicians, and ordinary Americans considered a variety of plans for making emancipation permanent and constitutional.” In essence, it set the stage for Lincoln’s redemption of slaves to become a permanent part of God’s plan for America in the form of the 13th Amendment.
The final stage of eradicating slavery in America was the passing of the 13th Amendment. From the very beginning of the war, Lincoln was well aware of his spiritual kinship with the American slaves, and wanted to further solidify their freedom. Foner confirms that “over the course of the war, [Lincoln] had developed a deep sense of compassion for the slaves he had helped liberate, and a concern for their fate.” Thus, Lincoln’s willingness to pay this redemption price remained steadfast and true.
However, despite a growing opposition against a more permanent eradication of slavery, Lincoln relied on his God-given trait of stubbornness to hold his ground. Vorenberg states that, “in light of increasing pressure to defeat the passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln’s stance became more forceful in its defense.” This final push by Lincoln ensured that the amendment passed, thus permanently eradicating slavery in America.
REDEMPTION OF AMERICA
The third way Abraham Lincoln became an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America was by preserving the Union, and redeeming America in the process. During the Civil War, Lincoln’s theological views played an important role in his leadership as President. In addition, his views concerning the condition of the national soul changed as the war progressed, and he relied on these views to determine a solution. He believed that “Americans as a people have grown too accustomed to success, too self-sufficient, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It is time, therefore, for humility and confession and earnest pleas for divine forgiveness.”
An additional problem within America that further exasperated this condition was the lack of unity regarding slavery. Lincoln could not understand how fellow Christians that read the same Bible and worship the same God could have such opposing views on the institution of slavery. “Both sides, as Abraham Lincoln later and sorrowfully observed, read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; the prayers of both could not be answered.” With this in mind, it was clear to Lincoln that the position held by his side was in accordance with God’s will.
To Lincoln, the institution of slavery in America was a grievous communal sin in the eyes of God, which demanded an atonement of sorts. This atonement came in the form of a bloody civil war, and Lincoln’s appointed duty was to ensure that this war did not destroy the soul—the Union. As Gustaud and Schmidt state, “the ‘mighty scourge of war’ became, in Lincoln’s exegesis, a national atonement for the offense of slavery.” In other words, the Civil War was the cost of redemption paid by the nation’s blood, and Lincoln clearly had the will to pay this price to eradicate slavery.
The final step and challenge in this process was repairing a fractured nation, and restoring the concept of ‘one nation under God’. Shortly after the war’s end, Lincoln turned his sights on Reconstruction and everything that it required. To address Reconstruction, Congress produced a multi-level plan that addressed both emancipation and specific actions required to rebuild the nation. According to Vorenberg, “Congress had framed a two-tiered plan of reconstruction: first, a simple irrevocable commitment to emancipation, now in the form of a constitutional amendment; and, second, a specific procedure for reconstructing the Union.”
As an ardent student of Thomas Paine, Lincoln visualized an endstate of Reconstruction as a united America and a land of promise for all Americans. According to Michael A. Lawrence, “Lincoln understood that Thomas Paine’s plainspoken articulation of a united America as a land of unparalleled promise was just the sort of message Americans should hear.” Lincoln’s vision, in conjunction with a formal plan from Congress, essentially became the bones for a plan of redemption for America. Unfortunately, there was a final cost associated with America’s redemption plan, and Lincoln did not see his vision come to fruition.
The fourth way Abraham Lincoln became an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America was by giving his life for his cause, thus bestowing on him a sense of martyrdom for many Americans. According to Vorenberg, “three days after his speech on Reconstruction, [Lincoln] was assassinated.” His assassination began a brief period of national mourning and reflection, as well as created a sense of uncertainty within America. However, instead of creating more disunity and anarchy, it produced quite an opposite effect, thus placing the mantle of martyrdom upon the spirit of Lincoln.
The idea of Lincoln as a martyr spread like an uncontrollable fire across the national landscape. According to Mark A. Noll, “after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at the very end of the war, a great outpouring of sermons mourned his passing; many of these rehearsed the notion of God’s special plan for America.” By hearing God’s special plan for America in these sermons, people began to realize the divine calling placed on Lincoln’s life, thus overpowering many of the negative opinions of him as a President. Guelzo states that “the canonization of Lincoln as martyr and redeemer proceeded in such flamboyant fashion that few wished to notice that it disguised an undercurrent of ambiguity and dissimulation about [him].”
This realization of Lincoln’s divine calling further solidified his status of martyrdom, as well as bestowed a secondary status of redeemer on him. His status as such was often evoked by political figures trying to conjure up their own favorable public opinion. According to Lawrence, “in the 1908 presidential campaign, [Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois] urges blacks to vote Democratic, commenting that even if ‘an Abraham Lincoln should now arise in the United States and if he should be a Jew in race or a Japanese in color, or a Negro in descent…his soul would be pressed and shut out of the republic of the civilized.” To this day, the martyrdom and redeemer qualities of Lincoln remain a stalwart part of America’s history.
In conclusion, Abraham Lincoln was chosen by God to become an unexpected kinsman redeemer for America by identifying himself and all people equal before God, eradicating the blight of slavery in America, preserving the Union, and, ultimately, giving his life as a martyr of freedom. To accomplish His divine plan for Lincoln’s life, God purposely placed him in certain situations early in life in order to develop his personality and character traits, thus preparing him for his ultimate calling as a kinsman redeemer.
Lincoln fulfilled all three requirements of a kinsman redeemer by establishing a spiritual kinship with all Americans, achieved a position of leadership that provided the means to pay the redemption price, and stated his intent and willingness to pay it in full. Through the Civil War and, ultimately, his untimely death, Lincoln accomplished his God-given purpose, and redeemed America from the sin of slavery.
1. Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), 198.
2. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995), 24.
3. Ibid., 36.
4. Richard Carwardine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (New York: Random House Digital, Inc., 2007), 43.
5. Donald, 24.
6. Gaustad and Schmidt, 198-199.
7. Anonymous saying heard throughout my childhood.
8. Donald, 38.
9. Ibid., 44.
10. Ibid., 42.
11. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 76.
12. Donald, 149.
13. Guelzo, 20.
14. Carwardine, 20.
15. John P. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 330.
16. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery: An Encyclopedic Exploration of the Images, Symbols, Motifs, Metaphors, Figures of Speech, and Literary Patterns of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, USA, 1998), 501.
17. Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: The Complete Old Testament in One Volume (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2007), 490.
18. Gaustad and Schmidt, 185.
19. Guelzo, 4.
20. Gustaud and Schmidt, 199.
21. Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), 265.
22. Ibid., 334.
23. Diggins, 329.
24. Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1.
25. Ibid., 47.
26. Ibid., 2.
27. Foner, 334.
28. Vorenberg, 198.
29. Gustaud and Schmidt, 197.
30. Ibid., 191.
31. Ibid., 202.
32. Vorenberg, 145.
33. Michael A. Lawrence, Radicals in their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 122.
34. Vorenberg, 227.
35. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 317.
36. Guelzo, 448.
37. Lawrence, 208.