Our Lincoln class is studying two documents this week that betray Lincoln’s posture towards religion. Lincoln’s faith—or lack thereof—is a much-debated topic in the present day, and it was a potential impediment to Lincoln when he was running for office. One of the texts we examine is a letter Lincoln wrote for publication in a local newspaper in the 1840s refuting a claim made by Lincoln’s opponent that he is a “scoffer at religion.”
Lincoln is at something of a disadvantage in responding because he was not then and actually was not ever a member of a church and he is widely known as an outspoken debater who may have taken—quite assuredly did take—positions not wholly aligned with Church doctrine. So he concedes on both of those points—a brilliant tactical move—and then lifts the discussion into the less encumbered realm of simply believing in the Divine, where Lincoln feels he is on solid ground.
Perhaps that is why, when Lincoln leaves Springfield, Illinois to take up the Presidency some fifteen years after his letter to the Illinois Gazette, he says to the assembled crowd, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.”
Our class is still working through what all of this means: why Lincoln refers to a Divine Being rather than God, where human agency ends and divine influence begins, whether Lincoln’s words express his beliefs or those of his audience. There is a lot to distill.
But there is one thing that is very clear. Lincoln did not believe he could accomplish what he needed to alone. Some of his allies and partners he understood—like those who waved him off at Springfield—but he did not know what other forces—human or divine—might support and guide him. And he was painfully aware of the human and political opposition arrayed against him.
I find it instructive especially in times like this to look at eras that were equally challenging and to study the people—now and then—who rose to the challenge. Not simply presidents like Lincoln, where history provides a treasure trove of documents and insights, but everyday people just trying to manage the unimaginable. Like the family whose four-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer a few years ago and was saved by a total stranger who heard about the girl’s plight and got tested to see if he was a match. He was and donated a portion of his liver.
The girl rang the bell in her cancer ward—signaling that she is free of cancer—on the day the lockdown orders went into effect in New York. From cancer to coronavirus—even that couldn’t dim her spirits. The same spirit was evident in a podcast I listened to on “Love in the time of Coronavirus.” Said one young woman who began a relationship just prior to the outbreak and is now sheltering in place with her partner, “I feel badly about it … but I’m incredibly happy.”
Not all the stories are joyful, of course. One caller noted that she hadn’t been close to another human being in weeks. She was lonely and sad. But she called in to tell her story, to share her pain, to look for help. It was like Lincoln in Springfield. We can’t do this alone.
And we aren’t, despite the challenges of distance. We are reaching out, connecting in whatever ways we can. I received a letter (a real one, not an email) from a recent alumna who said she is taking the time to write the old-fashioned way to friends far and wide. It is her way to be with those she cares about, a journey of sorts she is choosing to take.
And so it will continue to be for all of us—an odyssey back to each other. It may not be what we are used to, but that doesn’t really matter. It is what we do with what we have that matters most. And such acts will only bring us closer not simply to wisdom in the time of coronavirus but to each other.