(Feb. 12, 1809–April 15, 1865)
Obedient to Father God’s command,
Aware that I am dust and ashes borne
Through space at speeds I cannot comprehend,
I ask the Holy Spirit to relate
Through me, a sinner saved by grace not works,
How God has moved through history in men
And women who were individuals
With courage and resolve to follow Him.
For wisdom is to let God lead and love,
As Dante welcomed God’s control and grace,
And Milton called the Spirit as his guide,
And if another has a higher art
In any language known on Planet Earth
Or in the voids that humans overcome,
Let there be light upon his worth and works,
Let him reflect the glory of the Lord,
Who made the heavens and the earth, produced
The man from dust of ground, and made a soul
That lived by breathing in his nostrils breath
Of life, that he could be a friend of God.
How character is formed is mystery
To us who look from outside in, at acts
Instead of soul and spirit, though by words
And actions men express their inner springs.
With outward signs historians must be
Content, and poets may surmise the words
And thoughts which records fail to show, until
The day when all’s revealed, the veil’s removed,
The Bride of Christ is face to face with God.
For wisdom is to know the will of God
And follow it in truth and holiness,
In love that sacrifices selfish gain,
As character is formed in that pursuit.
Where greatness starts is hard to know–is it
Predestined from before the miracle
We call conception in the way that God
Told Jeremiah his prophetic call
Was known before he was within the womb?
God can raise men of greatness from all walks
Of life, from palaces and shepherds’ fields.
From desert lands He raised up Abram, who
Lived by his faith, and changed his name when He
Promised that Abraham would have a son
And would be nations’ father, though his wife
Was ninety years of age, too old to bear
A child unless the Lord did miracles.
When called to sacrifice the promised child,
The father trusted God and raised his knife
In his obedience to kill his son,
And God rewarded his devoted heart
By sparing Isaac’s life, and gave a ram
Which substituted as the sacrifice.
Almost four thousand years passed by (between
Them was the birth, the ministry, the death
And resurrection of the Lamb of God)
Until another Abraham was born
To Tom and Nancy Lincoln, pioneers,
In a Kentucky cabin built of logs
That had one door, a floor of pressed-down dirt,
One window and a chimney made of sticks
And clay that carried smoke to winter skies.
“He’ll never come to much,” said Dennis Hanks,
The uncle of the homely child who wailed
At entry to a world of sin and blood.
A man has seldom been more incorrect,
For this new Abraham would learn of strength
Through secret power in obedience.
Young Abe grew tall on bacon and salt pork,
Wild turkey, venison, hot bread and cakes,
Which Nancy cooked on iron pots and pans.
His father tilled the land with wooden plow
To grow his corn and beans while Abe cut wood
And stacked the logs, packed coals, and kindled fires.
A lawsuit over title to the land
Encouraged Thomas Lincoln to remove
(A future lawyer in his family)
To Perry County, Indiana soil
Where settlements were sparse, and earth was rich.
But milksickness took Nancy Lincoln’s life
At thirty-six, Abe whittling pine wood pegs
That held together planks the men had shaped
For Nancy’s coffin, and they buried her
Beside a path where deer ran through the woods.
The boy, who would in manhood hold a house
Together as it warred against itself,
Whose words would consecrate a battlefield,
Shed tears when Tom and Dennis buried her,
His childhood dying on a winter day.
His heart alone could understand its grief.
In thirteen months Tom married Sally Bush,
Who took a liking to young Abe, acquired
New clothes for him, and prompted him to read.
Abe read the Bible–source of Lincoln’s style
And love of righteousness declared in law–
And Pilgrim’s Progress, Life of Washington,
Aesop’s Fables, history, and DeFoe.
The home-schooled boy and future President
Grew up in Indiana, and became
A storyteller and a wit who worked
On farms, on flatboats and in blacksmith shops,
A man experienced at many tasks
And comfortable with people high and low.
On Sundays people went to meeting, men
Attired in deerskin pants and moccasins,
The women dressed their best, and neighbors talked
Of hunting game, of crops and children’s growth,
Until the Baptist preacher took a text
And preached the Gospel to the backwoods folks.
God-breathed, inscribed by men in holy fear,
The Word of God is sharper than a two-
Edged sword: it penetrates to split the soul
And spirit, joints and marrow; it is judge
Of thoughts and attitudes of human hearts.
The preacher’s Word sliced through the heart and bones
Of unschooled folks who lived by faith not sight,
And made a home in Lincoln’s heart and mind.
In eighteen-thirty Abe packed up again,
Driving a wagon drawn by oxen team
North of the Sangamon in Illinois.
Now six foot four, two hundred fourteen pounds,
He won New Salem’s praise when he prevailed
Against a bully in a wrestling match.
When Chief Black Hawk rode with five hundred braves
Across the river, Lincoln volunteered,
For duty called, and he was strong and bold.
Elected captain of a company,
He led this band, this “hardest set of men,”
Into no battles, and he had to save
An Indian who wandered into camp
From frontier soldiers eager to destroy
All Indians, including friendly ones.
The man who would emancipate the slaves
Thus stood alone, as he would often stand
Alone, to guard against abuse of force,
Protecting innocence from injury,
Obedient to mercy’s higher law.
Back in civilian life, declared a Whig,
He dared to stand against the crowd,
For all the Jackson Democrats enjoyed
The popularity their President
Had gained as military superstar.
Upon defeat for public office, Abe
Took different jobs: he ran a general store
And managed a post office; he split rails,
Worked at a mill, and surveyed land, then ran
Again and won in eighteen-thirty-four
And eighteen thirty-six, an able hand
At politics who linked his words to strength.
No abolitionist, he took the road
Between extremes, and made no enemies.
In his spare moments at his store, he read
On principles in Blackstone’s works,
Reciting definitions of the rights,
The wrongs, and remedies in English law,
Going at law in earnest, reading books
Until his eyes were red and glazed as though
A fire was burning under strips of ice.
In later years he told the men who asked
About a course of study in the law,
“Your resolution to succeed is more
Vital than any other single thing.”
He read and worked, and was enrolled with oath,
Attorney and a counsellor at law.
Licensed to practice law in every court
In Illinois, he rode the Circuit, learned
To pay attention to minutiae, used
The law and common sense to sway the judge,
And won respect for fairness, honesty,
And arguments abundant in their wealth
Of illustrations, principles, and wit.
Committed to the law and public life,
Where records show successes and defeats,
His life is not so difficult to trace, except
For the events behind his romances
With women: Ann, who died of fever in
Her early years, and made a mumbling ghost
Of Lincoln; Mary Owens, who refused
To marry him; and Mary Todd, ten years
His junior, who repeated vows with him
Inside her sister’s home one winter day.
“Love is eternal” said the words inscribed
Upon the ring he gave to her, whose tongue
Could terrorize delivery boys and maids,
And taught sad Abraham longsuffering
And patience, virtues leaders must acquire
To persevere through blizzards, hail and rains.
Sometimes the spirit in a man compels
His rise to greater altitudes, as when
Napoleon ascended to become
A General and Emperor of France.
Sometimes the Lord directly intervenes
And gives a mission to a person, as
When He persuaded Moses from within
A burning bush to rescue Israelites
From bondage to Egyptian tyranny;
And other times the tides in men’s affairs
Force new decisions, pressing men up high
To heights they never dreamed they would attain.
Thus Lincoln, married man and family man,
A leader in the bar of Illinois,
Would have remained to practice law, obscure,
Unrecognized, a lawyer with a wit–
If slavery had remained in status quo.
When Stephen Douglas introduced a bill
That could extend the evil, slavery, to
The territories, Lincoln was aroused,
And, ignorant that higher goals were his
In time, he spoke to re-elect a man
Who also wanted slavery kept apart
In Southern states, without new lands to claim.
In fifty-eight, debates began between
Contenders for a Senate seat in Illinois,
As Lincoln rose to bear his cross, and said,
“A house divided cannot stand,” the words
Of Jesus when the Pharisees declared
That He drove out the demons by the power
Of Satan, for the aim of Lincoln was
To keep the nation from a civil war
In which the demons dominated souls.
That men and women strive to force their wills
On other people, whether due to race,
Political belief, defenselessness,
Or other pretext for their prejudice,
Is proven throughout history, in Rome
And Caesar’s wars, and with Cortez and Mao,
The Nazis, Huns, Czars, Mongol hordes; that God
Allows oppression to bewilder men
So that His glory radiates in hearts
Is also shown in Gospel verse, as when
The Lamb of God, before His followers,
Restored his vision to the man born blind.
Their consciences consumed in lust for gold,
Slavetraders profited by selling blacks
From Africa to Southern men to till
Plantations, feed their stock, and pick their crops.
To right a wrong whose poison branches stretched
For several centuries is not achieved
By swinging axes at the trunk for one day.
For decades Abolitionists spoke out
Against the wickedness of slavery–
Such men as Lovejoy, Howe, and Garrison–
Who added kindling to the Yankee fire,
And then a preacher’s daughter wrote a book
That started flames across America.
The movement only needed one who’d die
To further human liberty, and God
Had one selected and reserved to give
His life to whip the flames of discontent.
Old Testament-styled prophet, radical,
John Brown had failed to spark a slave revolt,
But he knew how to die a martyr’s death,
And he foresaw that only blood would purge
The crimes committed by a guilty land,
With hands that planned to brand the runaways,
A land which had denied identities
To persons for the colors of the skins.
His body lay a-moulderin’ in the grave,
And few could see calamity ahead
When the conventions met with candidates,
With speeches, music, screams, parades and votes.
“The taste is in my mouth a little,” Abe
Reported to his friends who said he might
Be nominated for the President.
The moving hand of God in history
Selects the instruments at His command,
And no plan prospers counter to the will
Of God, the God of liberty, for where
The Holy Spirit is, is liberty.
Our knowledge of the push and pull
Of great events is colored when we know
Results participants could not foresee,
And nomination by Republicans
Of Lincoln as their candidate surprised
The politicians, though in retrospect
We see the choice was foreordained to save
The Union from division and defeat.
The candidate was born in dirt and sweat,
Had no political machine to match
His competition, but was known to be
A moderate, though this was less than true.
More zealous than a scientist who probes
The secrets of the universe with tests
And theories, Lincoln sought experiment
In Constitutional obedience.
As God gives grace to humble men, and strikes
The proud from heights, He lifted Lincoln up
As President to press experiment
Beyond the explanation of poor words,
For Lincoln told a group who wanted peace,
“The Constitution will not be preserved
Until obeyed in every part of each
Of the United States, let grass grow where it may.”
His rival, Douglas, from debates three years
Before, held Lincoln’s stovepipe hat for half
An hour as the new President addressed
The nation on the brink of civil war,
And asked his fellow countrymen to trust
In Him who never has forsaken this
Favored land to conduct them from distress.
A pragmatist and visionary, he
Summoned the mystic chords of memory
To swell the Union’s chorus and to touch
The better angels of our nature, which
Had disappeared before the year had closed:
The chorus sang angelic hymns no more,
And turned instead to cannons, swords and guns,
To blood and dust, to horses’ shrieks, to mud
And mangled limbs, death rattles, shallow graves,
To concentration camps and ships on fire,
To fury of the friendships severed by
The love of self and money, as hatred steamed
Like venomed vapors in a sulfur cave.
Insomniac, he wandered rooms at night,
Endured reports both false and true, relied
On Him whose favor rested yet on those
Who dared experiment with liberty,
The government not by the rights of kings,
Not by the swords of military coups,
But by the people, individuals
With common wisdom by the grace of God,
With wisdom’s seven pillars as support,
The liberty to worship God without
The persecution of the state, the chance
To speak their minds in public forums, the right
To plan, to build, to plant, to love, to move,
To earn a profit and to make a home
Unhampered by police and servicemen,
Or bureaucrats with guns to back their rules.
He saw the storm approach and knew the hand
Of God was in the winds and blackened clouds.
Confederates, who knew the Yankees had
Low food supplies inside their fort, discharged
Their guns and cannons, and set fires that made
The Union yield, beginning war which both
The sides believed would end in several months.
But John Brown saw the truth before his death:
To purge a country of its sins takes blood,
The blood of young and old, the blood of kind
And cruel, blood of innocence, the blood
Of wickedness, the blood of butchers’ sons
And daughters, blood of housewives, farmers, blacks
And whites, storekeepers, teachers, blacksmiths, blood
Of mothers, fathers, newlyweds, the blood
Of privates, generals, sailors, schoolboys, blood
Of horses, chickens, pigs, cows, dogs and mules,
The blood of slaves, the blood of Presidents.
The battles of Bull Run, Antietam Creek,
In Fredericksburg, in Shiloh, Chancellorsville,
In Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Sherman’s March,
Atlanta–thousands fell in sacrifice,
The blood of sheep and goats to purify
The land which had offended Him who rules,
Invisible, in love and holiness,
With righteous judgments that appease His wrath.
A man who suffered melancholy spells,
Abe wandered, wondered, worried, room to room,
He wrestled with the angel of the Lord
All night, but no angelic ladder led
Him on, the wilderness was dark, the path
Was lined with thorns, and guides were hard to find
Amid the press’s ridicule, the frauds,
The office-seekers lining White House halls,
And military men who failed to fight.
He aged with speed, face furrowed by his loads,
This man who quoted poetry at home,
Who loved to laugh with friends, who spoiled his boys,
Lost one to fever, and he had to tell
His wife, “Control your grief, or it will drive
You mad,” this man who bore a nation’s pain
Bore malice toward no man, and charity
Toward all, and visualized a people healed
From wounds of war and bloody sacrifice.
His prime concern to save the Union, Abe
Had no desire at first to free the slaves,
But when the battles went the Rebel way,
The President resolved he would proclaim
The liberty of slaves, and took advice
To time it with a Union victory,
Thus changing history and Judgment’s wrath,
Obedient to Providence’s will.
As woodcutters select their axes’ blades
To chop the elms and pines that scrape the sky,
The President selected generals,
Discarded them, replaced them, and advised
Them ’til the Union Army was well-honed
With Unconditional Surrender Grant,
The one whom Lincoln could not spare because
He fought, in charge of veterans who brought
The rebel army to retreat, defeat–
And Washington rejoiced when Richmond fell.
His years of patience justified at last,
The weary President, whose death was close,
Stood still and saw salvation of the Lord,
And took a barge to Richmond when it fell.
“There’s the Messiah,” said the blacks, who kneeled
And kissed the feet of Lincoln, who replied,
“That is not right. Kneel only to the Lord,
And thank Him for the liberty you will
Enjoy. I am a humble instrument
Of God, but you may rest assured that while
I live no one shall shackle you, and you
Shall have the rights which God has given to
All the citizens–you’re free as air;
Obey God’s laws, thank Him for liberty.”
With Lee’s surrender on an April day
By woods on a white road at the court house
In Appomattox, four years of war were done,
The nightmare having vanished in the blood,
The blood atoning for the nation’s sins.
As danger’s night retired, the star of peace
Returned to shine above the broken land.
As Lincoln planned to bind the nation’s wounds,
He dreamed one night he went from room to room
In the White House to search the source of sobs,
And came at last to the East Room, in which
Some soldiers stood as guards around a corpse
Upon a catafalque as mourners wept.
He asked, “Who’s dead in the White House?” to which
A soldier said, “The President was killed
By an assassin!” then the mourners’ cries
Of grief awoke him from this dream of death
Which lingered with the man like Banquo’s ghost.
He told his family of his dream, and that
The Bible told how God and angels spoke
To men in sleep, revealing truth in dreams.
Good Friday eighteen sixty-five was good
To honor crucifixion of the Lord,
Good as that sacred day commemorates
The love the Father lavished on His sons
By sending us His one and only Son
As perfect sacrifice for every sin,
Good as it signifies that man’s redeemed
And has an Advocate who stands before
The throne of God to plead on our behalf,
Good as it means grace, mercy, peace and love;
But for the citizens who’d suffered war,
And for the President who bore the weight
In manly strength, the day was Lincoln’s dream
Fulfilled, his death at an assassin’s hand.
The Savior of the Country lay in state,
The funeral procession took him back
To home in Springfield, Illinois, and he
Was buried in the grasses at Oak Ridge,
The President of the United States,
A martyr to the cause of liberty,
Not slave, not master, but a common man,
Believer in democracy’s great hope,
Obedient to God’s commanding hand,
The humble man who rose to save a land,
Who held the house together through belief,
Whose death tolled bells of all the people’s grief.