ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY—HOW MOURNING BECAME IDOLATRY

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. Since that time more than 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln—one for every three and a half days since his death—and so I’m not going to try to dash out anything new about Lincoln’s role in the preservation of the Union or his proper place in American history more broadly, but I do want to share a thought about how Lincoln’s death was commemorated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Such conflation of the sacred and the secular continued in the days following, as the nation mourned and the slain president’s funeral procession made its way slowly from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. When the procession finally arrived at the grave site in early May, the assembled throng joined their voices in a hymn composed for the occasion:

This consecrated spot shall be
To Freedom ever dear
And Freedom’s son of every race
Shall weep and worship here.

What does it mean to “worship” at the tomb of a departed president?

"Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis)," J. A. Arthur, 1865

“Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis),” J. A. Arthur, 1865

The Christ analogy was also popularized in a series of prints showing what was labeled as the “apotheosis” of Lincoln after his death. One definition of “apotheosis” is “ascension into heaven,” and these prints do regularly show Lincoln being received into the heavenly realm. But another synonym for “apotheosis” is “deification” or “elevation to divine status,” and this definition may apply as well. Significantly, Lincoln is regularly shown being met and embraced by George Washington, who may serve as the gatekeeper into heaven, but might also be effectively a proxy for God the Father. (In the image above, Washington seems to be bestowing on Lincoln a martyr’s crown.)  Indeed, banners during Lincoln’s funeral procession were seen to proclaim “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” Given the common symbolism of Washington as the Founder of the country and Lincoln as its martyred messiah, it’s not much of a stretch to see these images as symbolizing the ascension of the Son (Lincoln) into heaven where he will be seated on the right hand of the Father (Washington).

I admire Abraham Lincoln a great deal, almost as much as any public figure in our nation’s past. But however well intended these images may have been, they can only be described as “patriotic heresy.”

4 responses to “ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY—HOW MOURNING BECAME IDOLATRY

  1. I dont think it is a Martyr’s crown, for it does not have thorns. I think it is a Laurel crown since during that time people associated themselves with Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology.

  2. Jim raises some interesting questions and I wonder just what the United States would look like today if one of the other candidates in the election of 1860 had won and decided to let the south go in peace. What would a modern Confederate States of America look like or would it even exist since it was built on the concept of secession. Of course, the founding fathers also thought slavery would fade away but it didn’t. It became more deeply entrenched in the 1830-60 period. Yes, other nations had done away with slavery but can we assume that historical trends like that are inevitable?

    Certainly remembering Lincoln as a martyr has complicated our ability to see him as the fallible human leader he was. We have the same problem with George Washington (and Jack Kennedy, too?). To me it is extraordinary to see a leader rise above his background and above the violent forces of his day to even hope that “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, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” When I look at the context of Lincoln’s life and Presidency, I can’t help but be impressed by how he was able to grow and change into the person that 150 years later still inspires. Having said that, it is also clear that inspiration is not at all the same as worship.

  3. Jim Cunningham

    Thanks for reminding us about the temptation to idolatry when we look at Lincoln.

    After reading some negative commentary about Lincoln in recent years, I suppose I may be guilty of having a lower opinion of him than I should. He was obviously a tremendously talented writer and leader, and he was generous in victory, etc., etc. But even when I was young, when everything I had heard about Lincoln was very positive, I had questions. How could Lincoln have thought that saving the union was worth the price of a war? Where is it written that the union must be preserved? Wouldn’t it have likely been better to just let the South secede? I have never found satisfactory answers to those questions.

    And I have to believe that the country could have found a way to end slavery without a civil war (pretty much every other country where slavery existed managed to do that). It would have taken longer, but we might be in a better place now with regard to race relations, etc.

    If Lincoln had managed to find a way to avoid the war then he would be much more worthy of our admiration, in my opinion. But my guess is that he would not be generally admired.

  4. Thank you for this! It’s always bothered me that – even today – Lincoln is generally considered above reproach.

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