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Abraham Lincoln is remembered primarily as the preserver of the Union and the president who freed the slaves. But far less is known about his deep spirituality and devotion to God, qualities too often overlooked by modern secular historians in their attempt to assess Lincoln’s presidency and his place in history.
Lincoln was committed to following God’s will, as he understood it, not only in his personal life but also in the conduct of his presidency. In politics, especially, this desire for truth led to great public ridicule, and throughout his life he suffered from chronic doubt, uncertainty, and a deep sense of internal anguish.
As he said of himself, “Probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did. But in my poor maimed, withered way, I bear with me as I go on a seeking spirit of desire for a faith that was of olden time, who in his need, as in mine, exclaimed, ‘Help thou my unbelief.’”
Lincoln’s commitment to God’s will reached its most dramatic, public expression in the autumn of 1862, when he issued the historic Emancipation Proclamation outlawing slavery in the confederate states. The decision to issue the Proclamation was a turning point in Lincoln’s life, and a challenge from which he emerged as one of the great leaders in history. By what path did Lincoln arrive at this decision where he felt absolutely certain that this was God’s will for him and the country?
A former yogi The spiritual foundations of Lincoln’s life were laid in early childhood. Paramhansa Yogananda has said that in a previous life Lincoln had been a yogi in the Himalayas, who died with a desire to bring about racial equality. His incarnation as Lincoln enabled him to fulfill that desire. Lincoln was born into a family that resonated with strong anti-slavery convictions and devotion to God.
Despite the lack of formal schooling, which amounted to about one year, Lincoln nonetheless had access to a few books, which influenced him deeply. Among these were the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables, RobinsonCrusoe,The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and the Life of Washington. Of these the most influential was The Life of Washington and the Bible, which became the cornerstone of his life.
The Bible: a practical guide Abraham Lincoln was not a literalist in his interpretation of the Bible, even though he had memorized it from cover to cover. For Lincoln, the main importance of the Bible was its implications for the way people live and treat their fellow human beings. Although nowhere in the Bible was slavery condemned, a fact often used by pro-slavery advocates to justify their own position, Lincoln believed in an underlying unity between people—that we are all created in the image of God.
He concluded that if man is made in the image of God, it does not follow that he was sent into this world to be degraded and brutalized by his fellow man. He felt that no person, regardless of color or nationality, was a mere thing to be bought and sold. “The issue,” said Lincoln, “is not what a man’s particular abilities might be, but what his rights are as a human being made in God’s image.”
Moreover, he understood that most of the Founding Fathers were not advocates of slavery. It was already entrenched. But without the willingness to compromise on that particular issue the country could never have been founded.
This is the platform he took to the presidency. That he was an astute politician cannot be denied. But he was much more than a political thinker because of his appeal to a higher moral code, which he felt transcended political expediency. Again and again, during his first run for the presidency, he reiterated his anti-slavery position. In a speech in Clinton, Illinois, October, 1859 he said: “I do hope that as there is a just and righteous God in Heaven, our principles will and shall prevail.”
Again in New Haven, Connecticut, he said: “We think slavery a great moral wrong. We think in that respect for ourselves, a regard for future generations and for the god that made us, require that we put this wrong where our votes will properly reach it.”
Lincoln hated war and oppression. He felt emancipation was right on principle, but rejected the argument that slavery should be attacked by force where it was legally established. To a group of Quakers who urged immediate emancipation, he said, “a decree could not be more binding upon the South than the Constitution, and that cannot be enforced in that part of the country right now.” There didn’t seem to be any clear guidance on how to proceed.
To a group of clergymen he said, regarding the Emancipation Proclamation, “I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation, I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be right and wise.”
When faced with making difficult political decisions, Lincoln tried to steer a middle course. Adamant was his refusal to give into mob sentiment and extremists on all sides demanding simplistic answers. He knew there were none. The war, once started, he knew would have to follow its own inexplicable course toward final resolution.
“Amid the greatest difficulties of my Administration,” he would later say, “when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right.”
By the winter of 1862, the war, which everyone thought would last just a few months, was going very badly for the North. It was a very difficult time for Lincoln and the nation. He was criticized for his handling of the war and the ineptitude of his generals. After almost a year of fighting, Lincoln had to consider the possibility of defeat. What, then of God’s will? Could it be something entirely different from his own? In the midst of these difficulties, Lincoln’s favorite son, Willie, died at age 11.
Overwhelmed with grief, he said, “I will try to go to God with my sorrows.” The ensuing months precipitated Lincoln’s own “dark night of the soul.” Day after day, Lincoln prayed, earnestly seeking to know God’s will for himself and the country. Slowly, after months of doubt and indecision, he again came to feel God’s guiding hand in his life. Out of the ashes of this experience emerged a new man, and a more decisive and confident leader.
A sign from God By July of 1862, Lincoln had written the first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation. Clearly, he felt that this was the right direction. Still, always tentative in his approach to God’s will, he prayed deeply for a sign, a military victory, in order to proceed. With the victory at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, he felt that God had decided in favor of emancipation. From then on, writes one scholar, “the curve of the Confederacy’s fortunes turned decisively downward.”
When Lincoln presented this proclamation to his Cabinet a few days later on Sept.22, he said to them, “When the Rebel Army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation. I said nothing to anyone, but I made a promise to myself and to my Maker. The Rebel Army is now driven out and I am going to fulfill that promise.”
Abraham Lincoln is often thought of as the savior of the Union because of his deep commitment to keeping the country unified. In truth, he was really the creator of a cohesive union. As one Lincoln scholar put it, “The Civil War proved to be not so much the fortress where the Union was preserved as the fiery furnace where men were smelted into one political stuff.”
As President, Lincoln’s deepest conviction was that no nation could ever be truly great except “under God.” He tried in various ways to bring an awareness of God into the national consciousness. Lincoln was the first president to speak openly of God in the context of public policy. During the Civil War years he instituted a day of prayer and fasting as a way of uniting people to a common cause. The phrase “one nation under God” and the term “In God we trust” were first used during Lincoln’s administration. He also established Thanksgiving as a national holiday for giving thanks to the Creator.
Paramhansa Yogananda said of great leaders like Lincoln and Washington: “There are politicians and there are politicians—those puny ones who cater to the mob sentiment and who put the national mansion on a loose foundation. But men like Lincoln and Washington have always tried to solidify the foundations of the national mansions with the eternal rock of truth and spirituality.”
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