President Obama, in his February 3, 2011, speech to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, got personal about his religious faith. As he often does, he invoked Lincoln as a point of reference. “The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray,” Obama quipped. “Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”
The audience laughed appreciatively at the light-hearted Lincoln aside, some of them probably aware that Lincoln’s religiosity, like Obama’s, has been questioned. In Obama’s case, many persist in suspecting he’s a half-hearted Christian, if not a closet Muslim, and in Lincoln’s case, some historians have doubted whether his religious language ran any deeper than his desire to please his Protestant supporters.
In Lincoln, his renowned biography from 1995, David Herbert Donald ascribed the theological tenor of the second inaugural address to Lincoln’s desire to make contact with his vast northern audience of Christian believers. Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech (2002) showed that Donald’s largely secular Lincoln needed to be retired.
The president’s rationalism was intertwined, White argued, with deep religious conviction and pronounced theological interest. Never a professed “technical” Christian, as his wife Mary put it, President Lincoln still took the power of God’s Providence very seriously.
His apparent indifference toward the orthodox Christian belief in Jesus as redeemer didn’t stop him from embracing an updated version of his parents’ Calvinist Lord: the awesome sovereign Father who actively superintended his earthly creation.
The evidence that Lincoln prayed is abundant, though “prayer” can mean many different things. It runs the gamut from a two-way conversation with God — including petitioning God for assistance or special favors — to a reverential attitude of humility or gratitude in the face of the unknown.
In Lincoln’s case it seems to have meant a whole-hearted recognition of God’s power, and a willing submission to it. As he said in his second inaugural address, this almighty God harbored purposes that human beings could never fathom.
Non-believers often make the mistake of assuming that “submission” to God’s authority means “resignation” to it, as if giving precedence to God’s unanswerable power entails accepting the futility of independent human action.
But submission, as Lincoln reveals, actually opens up a vast terrain of responsible activity for human beings. Ironically, God’s inscrutability gives human beings the authority to “work earnestly,” as Lincoln wrote to his Quaker friend Eliza Gurney in 1864, “in the best light He gives us.” God doesn’t tell people exactly what to do, but God does assist people in acting conscientiously, according to their best judgment.
Did Lincoln’s form of submission to God really involve being driven to his knees many times, since he had no place else to go? Lincoln, like Obama, may have used the phrase figuratively, even humorously, if indeed he ever spoke it at all.
Lincoln never wrote down those words, and no one reported him uttering them during his lifetime. The source of the quotation is the young reporter Noah Brooks, who claimed a few months after the assassination that Lincoln “once said” he’d “been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”
As always, we have to be skeptical about post-mortem recollections of Lincoln’s words. Observers such as Brooks often push the president’s remarks, however subtly, toward some meaning they hold dear. Brooks goes on to make Lincoln as pious and reverent as he can: “then he solemnly and slowly added, ‘I should be the most presumptuous blockhead upon this footstool if I for one day thought that I could discharge the duties which have come upon me since I came into this place without the aid and enlightenment of One who is wiser and stronger than all others.’”
By using the term “enlightenment,” Brooks implies that Lincoln thought he received actual divine counsel about the proper course of action. That would turn his prayer into a two-way conversation: he asked for help, and God supplied at least a clue about the right way to proceed.
But his letter to Eliza Gurney suggests that Lincoln settled for God providing spiritual support, not explicit advice. God helped people marshal all their resources of concentration and deliberation as they made up their minds. The “best light” God provided let them express their own “enlightenment.”
Driven literally to their knees or not, Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln concur on the vital necessity of prayer for anyone subjected to the pressures of the presidency. Prayer offered Lincoln, in Brooks’s words, “his surest refuge at times when he was most misunderstood or misrepresented . . . he was glad to know that no thought or intent of his escaped the observation of that Judge by whose final decree he expected to stand or fall in this world and the next.”