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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Larsen

Did Jesus Help Abraham Lincoln Get Elected?


Having grown up in the Land of Lincoln, I’ve always been a fan of our country’s 16th President. As an elementary school student, we took annual fieldtrips to Abraham Lincoln’s home in the Illinois state capital of Springfield, where he lived for 24 years. We also toured his tomb, and the Presidential library. Did you know that one of Lincoln’s most famous speech elements came straight from the gospels?


To refresh your memory, let me show you Mark 3 starting with verse 20. Jesus had just recently appointed his twelve disciples and he was beginning his ministry in earnest. His message was not setting well with people.


(New International Version). Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not ever able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”


So, how does this tie back to Abraham Lincoln? Two years before Lincoln was elected as President, he was running for the U.S. Senate.  He was selected as the Republican candidate, running against Democrat Stephen Douglas. On June 16, 1858, he accepted the party nomination at the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln had prepared an acceptance speech that he called his House Divided speech. He delivered it to more than a thousand delegates who had gathered.


Here's a short portion of Lincoln’s full speech:


Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention.


We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.


Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.


In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.


"A house divided against itself cannot stand."


I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

 

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.


It will become all one thing or all the other.


Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.

 

Mr. Lincoln never said, “The Bible states …” or “Jesus tells us ….” But he didn’t have to. Lincoln's audience would’ve been familiar with the concept of a house divided as a statement made by Jesus and recorded in the gospels.  By including it in the speech, the majority of listeners recognized it as Jesus’s words.


We know that the speech caused concern to Lincoln’s friends, who regarded it as too radical for the occasion. Lincoln had previewed the speech to his law partner, William Herndon before delivering it, and although Herndon considered Lincoln morally courageous, he advised that it would be politically incorrect to base this speech on Jesus’ words.


Lincoln, however, would not be deterred.  Responding to his partner, he referred to the "house divided" language this way: "The proposition is indisputably true ... and I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times."



Afterward, the speech created many repercussions, giving Lincoln's political opponent fresh ammunition. Herndon remarked, "When I saw Senator Douglas making such headway against Mr. Lincoln's house divided speech I was nettled and irritable, and said to Mr. Lincoln one day this -- 'Mr. Lincoln -- why in the world do you not say to Mr. Douglas, when he is making capitol out of your speech, -- 'Douglas why whine and complain to me because of that speech? I am not the author of it. God is. Go and whine and complain to Him for its revelation, and utterance.' Mr. Lincoln looked at me one short quizzical moment and replied, 'I can't.'"


Lincoln lost that Senate seat to Douglas. A colleague of Lincoln, Leonard Swett, is quoted as later writing to Mr. Herndon, “Nothing could have been more unfortunate or inappropriate; it was saying first the wrong thing, yet he saw it was an abstract truth, but standing by the speech would ultimately find him in the right place."


The right place!  Because although he lost the chance to be Senator, he gained the vote just two years later to be President.  Reflecting on it several years later, Herndon said the speech did awaken the people, and despite Lincoln's defeat, he thought the speech was instrumental in making him President. "Through logic inductively seen," he said, "Lincoln as a statesman, and political philosopher, announced an eternal truth -- not only as broad as America, but covers the world."


Have you ever lost something that you truly wanted and worked hard for, only to later gain something else that you never dreamed of but turned out much better for you?


Do you believe that God has a hand in our elected officials? Because this situation would surely be an example of God helping to guide Lincoln to the position where he had much more control over righting the wrongs of human slavery than if Lincoln had been selected as senator from Illinois.  Through Lincoln’s loss, he was able to ultimately serve in the seat of the most influential official in the land.


When I read Lincoln’s actual words, I have to translate his meaning amidst the manner of speaking of the day, which is different from 21st century English. However, there is no doubt that he became renowned for his oration skills and his ability to rally people to a common cause. He also was known for hanging on and not losing courage in the midst of the immense difficulty of administering the Civil War.


Many books have been written about our 16th President, and interest in him has not waned over the last 150 years.  A website called YouGov rates him as the #1 Most Popular US President, most recently published in the second quarter of 2024. His speeches are studied by scholars and students and his wisdom is recognized in modern times, probably more than when he first uttered them. Along with the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address, the House Divided speech inspired by Jesus’s words became one of the best-known of his career.


Let’s pray:  Dear Father, we thank you for elected officials who read the Bible and become inspired by words and messages found there to lead the people. We thank you that Abraham Lincoln used Jesus’s words about a House Divided to inspire him to fight against the evil of slavery.  Please help us to likewise gain wisdom and inspiration from your word to help us live moral lives.  Amen.

 

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