This spring I had the very enviable task of traveling to San Francisco to help transport to Illinois a truly amazing artifact: a Bible once owned by President Abraham Lincoln that now has been donated to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where I am executive director.
The trip home to Springfield offered a vivid reminder of how powerful the combination of Lincoln and the Bible can be. Security personnel were fascinated to learn what we carried. They buzzed about it and radioed other employees to spread the news. When we opened the package for inspection, one airline staffer broke into tears at the sight of the Bible within.
The presidential library is honored by and grateful for the donation, because the Bible ties us directly to one of the most interesting elements of the life of Lincoln: his religious faith, or lack of it.
Scholars differ on many things concerning our 16th president, and at the presidential library we offer up an amazing array of resources to help researchers around the world better understand what made Lincoln into the man and leader he was. His faith is a topic of much spirited discussion and intense debate.
Sometimes I believe Lincoln is a bit of a Rorschach test, with interpretations of his actions and motivations reflecting the desires and biases of the author. He is such an icon, many wish to lay claim to him, or conversely to tear him down.
The Bible donated to us was given to Lincoln in Philadelphia in 1864, but we do not know after that how much he referenced it.
We know it still was at the White House when he was assassinated, and that later Mary gave it to a minister named Noyes W. Miner, who had lived near the Lincolns in Springfield.
Knowledge of Lincoln’s use of this Bible or any Bible is based upon reflections of those around him, many of whom disagreed on his religiosity.
We believe this debate is one reason Mary Lincoln gave the Bible to the Miner family – she was trying in her own way to combat the tendency by Lincoln’s former law partner, William Herndon, and others to paint Lincoln as an atheist or agnostic.
There was no love lost between Mary and Herndon for this and other reasons. Her gift of the Bible that has now made its way to us is a fascinating glimpse at her efforts to control the legacy of her beloved husband.
I personally think that Lincoln, like all of us, changed over time. This was true in his religious beliefs, which, by many accounts, evolved from a near atheism in his early adulthood to the belief in God seemingly evident in his second inaugural address.
As he confronted the sorrows and trials of his life – the death of his mother, sister and two sons, the heartbreaking losses of the Civil War, the constant abuse heaped upon him and the unimaginable anxiety of preserving the republic and confronting slavery – we know that this thoughtful, compassionate man tried to find meaning in a world full of suffering. Over time I think he came to believe that the only meaning could be found in God’s plan, a plan not always understandable or to our liking.
In his second inaugural address, he said that neither side wanted war, but still the war came. Why? Because our nation was suffering God’s wrath for the evil of slavery. This was part of God’s plan. “As was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,’ ” he told his audience.
I think, like many, Lincoln had doubts. He was a rational man who wanted to think things out. With his scientific frame of mind, he wanted proof.
The young Lincoln looked around him and saw hardship and sorrow and thought perhaps that was proof that God did not exist.
The older Lincoln saw the same world and thought, possibly, that we were simply paying a price for our evils.
Lincoln remains ever relevant to our nation and the world today, and as this wonderful addition to our collection helps to highlight, he remains endlessly fascinating.
• Alan Lowe, formerly head of the George W. Bush presidential library, has been executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum for nearly three years.