Jim Cullen: Review of Elton Trueblood's "Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership" (HarperOne, 2012)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, will be published by Oxford University Press in January. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
With the release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States is (again) riding a wave of popularity. HarperOne, a religious imprint in the larger HarperCollins (and thus Fox) empire, is riding that wave by reissuing this 1973 chestnut by Elton Trueblood (1900-94), a Quaker theologian who held a series of academic posts that included chaplaincies at Harvard and Stanford. It's a shrewd move, and a welcome one. Lessons in Spiritual Leadership, which consists of a half-dozen essays and a new introduction by Gustav Niehbuhr, covers ground that will be familiar to Lincoln specialists. But that is in large measure because Trueblood's analysis has proven prescient.
Trueblood notes what many observers of the Great Emancipator's inner life have considered a conundrum: "Being neither a church member nor antichurch, Lincoln's behavior was often perplexing to both the orthodox and the heretical. While one group was shocked to find him so pious, the other was surprised to find him unimpressed by ecclesiastical rules and practices." But Trueblood finds no paradox here. He notes that only 23 percent of the U.S. population called themselves church members in 1860; if Americans were religious, they weren't necessarily doctrinal. Indeed, he argues that by the end of his presidency, Lincoln's loose denominational affiliation (he paid dues at a Presbyterian church) actually gave him more credibility among clergy who admired his ecumenicalism.
Nor does Trueblood put much stock in Lincoln's former law partner William Herndon's dismissals of Lincoln's religiosity, because even if an accurate description of his early life (an assertion many subsequent observers have considered dubious, though rumors of infidelity dogged Lincoln in adulthood, most famously in his 1846 congressional campaign against Methodist minister Peter Cartwright), Trueblood believes Lincoln took a decisive turn toward faith in the White House. That faith rested on a foundation of deep familiarity with the Bible, documented here with multiple references to how Lincoln's language cited, evoked, alluded or playfully rewrote scripture.
In the last two decades, a number of important scholars -- Garry Wills, Allen Guelzo, and Ronald White, among others -- have all traced a deeply spiritual vein in Lincoln's political vision, much of it rooted in the hard-shell Calvinist currents in his Baptist childhood. (Trueblood believes Quakers in particular were a particular source of succor and influence.) What's perhaps distinctive to Trueblood's analysis is his assertion that the summer of 1862 was the crucible of Lincoln's religious life, the turning point in his personal development and as a result the turning point in conduct of the war. Lincoln, Trueblood believes, concluded that it was God's will that he be an instrument in a larger design of freedom. What's crucial about this sense of mission, however, is how strikingly self-effacing it was: Lincoln saw his job not to do what was right, but to seek what God thought was right, an epistemological modesty notable for the way it fostered compassion and generosity toward others.
Considered more broadly in the context of Civil War historiography, Trueblood's work anticipated what has become a widespread tendency to see Antietam, not Gettysburg, as the true turning point in the Civil War. Antietam gave Lincoln a political basis to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a political masterstroke that allowed the Union to endure subsequent military setbacks. If there is anywhere Lincoln or anyone since could say it with confidence, here was a moment, the words of Lincoln's famous 1860 speech at Cooper Union, that right made might.
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