Mourning Lincoln: Nation Saw More Than a Martyr in Felled Leader
One hundred and fifty years ago today, thousands of pastors tore up the sermons they had written earlier in the week. Their new ones were about Abraham Lincoln’s martyrdom.
For four years, Union troops had marched to war to the stirring tune of “John Brown’s Body Lies a-Mouldering in the Grave,” a song spruced up by Julia Ward Howe into the classier “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“In the beauty of the lilies,” it began, “Christ was born across the sea.” The first verse ended with a line reminding federal soldiers of the noble cause they were fighting for: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
Now, as Abraham Lincoln’s body (and not John Brown’s) was being prepared for the grave, the song seemed almost grimly prophetic. Lincoln had made men free, and he had died for it.
Frederick Douglass often told a story that after Lincoln was murdered, a Baptist minister came upon a freed slave in the line of mourners outside the White House. The former slave, an elderly woman, was weeping openly. “Why are you crying?” the preacher asked.
“We have lost our Moses,” she replied. This was a common reaction among African-Americans. Philip Alexander Bell, one of the most prominent black journalists of the time, also proclaimed the slain president “a Moses for our age.”
Other comparisons were made, too. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, a prominent abolitionist before and during the war, wrote to a friend saying that if George Washington was the father of our country, then Lincoln was its savior.
Artist Thomas Nast began work on a painting called “President Lincoln Entering Richmond,” based on events from the week before. He depicted Lincoln arriving in Richmond as Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem before Passover -- with palpable humility instead of exultation.
Many others also compared Lincoln directly to Jesus, while suggesting that his martyrdom might very well have saved America’s soul. My favorite such post-assassination homily comes from a Connecticut pastor, C.B. Crane.
“The terrible tragedy is consummated, its heartrending denouement has transpired, there can be no revision of it. It stands [as] the blackest page save one in the history of the world. It is the after-type of the tragedy which was accomplished on the first Good Friday, more than eighteen centuries ago, upon the eminence of Calvary in Judea.”
Noting that Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, the Rev. Crane continued: “It is no blasphemy against the Son of God and the Savior of men that we declare the fitness of the slaying of the Second Father of our Republic on the anniversary of the day on which he was slain. Jesus Christ died for the world; Abraham Lincoln died for his country.”
It wasn’t just Protestants doing the mourning, noted Richard Wightman Fox, author on a book about the reaction to Lincoln’s assassination.
“The small minority of Jews and Catholics, equally awed by Lincoln's bodily sacrifice, joined Protestants in hailing the president's uncommon virtues: forgiveness, mercy, defense of the poor and the oppressed,” Fox wrote. “Catholics joined Protestants in noting his Christ-like habits of brooding in private and keeping his own counsel.”
Again and again the same theme arose -- that by dying, Lincoln had redeemed the country. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln had referred to the possibility that Providence had unleashed “this terrible war” upon America as a way of atoning for the sin of slavery. Now, it seemed to many men of the cloth and other people of faith that the fates had decreed at least one more payment be exacted: Lincoln’s own life.
“Even here, in the cause of liberty, as in the cause of the church, it shall be found that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Republic,” intoned the Rev. George Dana of Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. “Take courage, then, my countrymen: For even now I see springing from the tear-wet bier of Abraham Lincoln the green and tender blades which foretell the birth of an emancipated, united, triumphant, transfigured, immortal Republic.”
At a rally in Manhattan, a Republican congressman from Ohio made the same point, and more succinctly: “It may be almost impious to say it, but it does seem that Lincoln's death parallels that of the Son of God.”
That congressman’s name was James A. Garfield. He would become the 20th president of the United States and the second one to be felled by an assassin’s bullet.