Book Summary Abraham Lincoln – Lessons in Spiritual Leadership

Abraham Lincoln – Lessons in Spiritual Leadership

By Elton Trueblood

Elton Trueblood served as spiritual advisor to American presidents from Hoover to Reagan. Gerald Ford kept a copy of this book on his desk in the Oval Office during his presidency.

This book changed completely my understanding of Lincoln’s faith. Wonderfully written and with many profound insights, I highly recommend the book to all who have any interest in Lincoln or in Spiritual Leadership


Here are some quotes from others on Lincoln’s faith:

“He is one of the few men in history, our own history and all history, whose religion was great enough to bridge the gulfs between the sects, and to encompass us all.” Willard Sperry Dean of Harvard Divinity School

“Lincoln,” he said, “has always been my hero in religion and statecraft.” Reinhold Niebuhr

Trueblood challenges us at the end of the preface with this gem:

The next best thing to being great is to walk with the great.

Chapter 1 The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Abraham Lincoln

In this chapter, Trueblood traces the journey of faith that Lincoln walked:

Underlying all particular decisions was a moral revulsion against human slavery, a mystical sense of the importance of the Union, and an abiding conviction that the divine order could be ascertained and followed.

I wasn’t aware how deeply Christian his family roots were. In many respects on this pilgrimage, Lincoln doesn’t come to faith but he comes back to faith.

Writing to a Quaker about the tension with passivism and responding to oppression, Lincoln said:

“Your people,” he wrote, “have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war.”

Trueblood reflects on that with this:

The difficulty was not that of following a moral principle at personal cost; the difficulty was that of knowing what to do when there is more than one principle, and when the principles clash. …the major key to Lincoln’s greatness is his spiritual depth. … A major element in Lincoln’s greatness was the way in which he could hold a strong moral position without the usual accompaniment of self-righteousness.

One remarkable thing Trueblood highlights was:

The standard which he inaugurated, making it possible to refer to prayer and to divine guidance without embarrassment, has been continued to this day.

Tracing that crucial journey in the early days of the war, Trueblood says:

There were a few hints of theological depth even in the years before the crucial autumn of 1862, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Lincoln’s was the kind of mind which did not reach its true magnitude except in experiences of sorrow and strain.

Chapter 2 – The Agonizing Interlude

This chapter traces the first years of the civil war and the major turning point in Lincoln’s faith.

Wrestling with the need to address injustices and preserve the Union were a primary focus during this period. Reflecting on this period in Lincoln’s journey, Reinhold Niebuhr said:

This [period] is a nice symbol of the fact that order precedes justice in strategy of government; but that only an order which implicates justice can achieve a stable peace. An unjust order quickly invites the resentment and rebellion which leads to its undoing.

Chapter 3 – Lincoln and the Bible

I never knew how well Lincoln knew the Bible until reading this book. I learned that Lincoln carried a devotional with him for much of the latter part of his life. I even obtained that devotional for my own devotions. It is 365 days of Scripture and a brief reflection or poem or hymn.

Here is something Lincoln said his friend Speed (an atheist) about the reliability of the Bible:

You are wrong, Speed; take all of this Book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.

Lincoln’s religion reflects in many ways Samuel Johnson’s perspective:

The Christian religion has very strong evidences. It indeed, appears in some degree strange to reason, but in History, we have undoubted facts, against which, in reasoning a priori, we have more arguments than we have for them: but then, testimony has great weight, and casts the balance.

Lincoln believed that God was a God of History. He believed that God took note of the way our founding fathers handled the slavery issue and believed that the Civil War was the day of reckoning for both sides.

Chapter 4 – Lincoln at Prayer

Like with his relationship with the Bible, Trueblood document’s Lincoln’s prayer life:

Talking with God seemed to the mature Lincoln more important than talking about Him. …That idea that there could be direct communication between finite minds and the infinite Mind had become, for Lincoln, an idea of overwhelming magnitude.

For more about steps to discerning God’s will in prayer, check out my post on this topic.

Chapter 5 – Lincoln and the Church

Of course, one of the main arguments against Lincoln’s faith is that he never joined a church. Reading this chapter changed my whole perspective on Lincoln’s view of the church. For the first time, I do not look down on his reasons for not joining a church. What I never knew was how faithful he was to church going and how influenced he was by some of his pastors. Membership was the real issue for Lincoln.

Listen to this quote of his:

Blessed be God, Who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches

Chapter 6 – the Final Paradox

This final chapter addresses the role of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Can God be on one side in this great conflict when both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God? Does God get involved in guiding one side or the other without taking sides?

“Guided freedom is a paradox, because the ascription of all the glory to God for anything good that is in us does not imply any destruction of our freedom as human personalities, but precisely the reverse: our actions are never more truly free and personal and human, they are never more truly our own, than when they are wrought in us by God.” Donald Baillie

Lincoln had a pervading sense of the sovereignty of God. He was deeply influenced by an English statesman – John Bright.

“I believe the question [of the role of the sovereignty of God] is in the hand, not of my honorable Friend, … nor in that even of President Lincoln, but it is in the hand of the Supreme Ruler, who is bringing about one of those great transactions in history which men often will not regard when they are passing before them, but which they look back upon with awe and astonishment some years after they are past.” John Bright

Lincoln knew very well, [that] it is difficult to look forward and see where the Guiding Hand is leading. But seen in later perspective, the working out of a plan is sometimes obvious.

God’s hand in the course of events is seen in the working out of an objective moral law. A sin as great as the sin of enslaving other people was bound, thought Bright, to have agonizing consequences for a very long time.

Lincoln believed in Providence, but, in Niebuhr’s terms, he understood “the error of identifying providence with the cause to which the agent is committed.”

Trueblood talks a lot in this chapter about the danger’s of invoking God’s will in your decision making:

When dedicated people forget the ubiquity of this danger, they are almost sure to become self-righteous. Only the person who recognizes that he is personally involved in the evils which he seeks to eliminate has any chance of avoiding this primary moral mistake. Lincoln, conscious as he was of the radical difference between the divine will and the human will, understood that ambiguities appear in the moral stance of even the most dedicated crusaders.

Reinhold Niebuhr said: “It was Lincoln’s achievement to embrace a paradox which lies at the center of spirituality of all western culture; namely, the affirmation of a meaningful history and the religious reservation about the partiality and bias which the human actors and agents betray in the definition of meaning.”

Noting the difference between the faith of Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Trueblood wrote:

Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were patriotic and also reverent men, but there was a crucial difference between them, because Lincoln appreciated paradox as Jefferson David did not.

“If God now wills the removal of a great wrong and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln had a real vision for reconstruction that was never realized. How might

Just a few days before he was killed

our country be different if he had lived?

One who saw this clearly was Winston Churchill, who pointed out that “the death of Lincoln deprived the Union of the guiding hand which alone could have solved the problems of reconstruction and added to the triumph of armies those lasting victories which are gained over the hearts of men.”  At the Cabinet meeting on … the very day on which he was shot, the President spoke of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders with kindness.

His only certainty lay in the conviction that God will never cease to call America to her true service, not only for her sake but for the sake of the world. He desired unity and he knew that vision is the secret of unity.

As always, this summary gives you just a taste of the treasures Trueblood has given. Get the book. It was available in my library.