On the same day as Tuesday’s election, the Jesuit magazine America published an article I thought was singularly appropriate to the occasion. It was what we used to call a “think piece” in the newspaper business, an essay by a divinity student and political activist on what comfort — if “comfort” is the right word for it — Abraham Lincoln found in the book of Job at a particularly bad moment in the Civil War.
Its author, Sergio Lopez, is pursuing a master’s degree at Duke Divinity School. He’s interned in the White House, worked on gubernatorial campaigns in California and run for local office in Campbell, Calif. a suburb of San Jose. He’s written for Teen Vogue and an article for the Sacramento Bee headlined “I’m a child of immigrants. Here’s what Springsteen taught me about being an American” that I want to come back to.
But the article on Lincoln perfectly captured the mood of this election season, and crystalized what I was feeling. We’d been warned, by voices as objective and knowledgeable as globalism expert Tom Friedman and John R. Allen, president of the Brookings Institution — not to mention the editors of America — that the norms of American democracy and the rule of law itself were up for grabs on Nov. 3.
Lincoln! How perfect! He was, as Lopez says, “a deeply calculating, political and ambitious man,” a born politician in the not-always-admirable sense of the word. But he was engaged, as Lopez also says, in a “war for the soul of the nation,” and his conduct of that war, I think, has come to embody the soul of the nation.
So what better day to run Lopez’ story than the day a presidential election when the soul of the nation was on the ballot? When I was a living history interpreter in Lincoln’s New Salem historic village, I came to appreciate how deeply his story is woven into the fabric of our culture. He has become, I think, one of our better angels.
The phrase, of course, comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, when he still hoped to avert the Civil War. Said Lincoln in 1861, in words that couldn’t be more appropriate for our own troubled times:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
I’ve been thinking about New Salem, too, lately. And it fits the moment.
This autumn, the administration at New Salem has been putting up lovely photos of the historic village on social media, and they’ve jogged my memory. (One is embedded at the top of this post, mostly because I like the picture.) And the somber beauty of late autumn at a shrine to Lincoln’s memory matches my sense of another historical moment when political discord strains our bond of affection. Can we call on our better angels in 2020?
Lopez, who concedes that Abraham Lincoln was anything but an orthodox believer, quotes a story suggesting he once found comfort, at least inspiration, in the biblical story of Job. He further suggests we also may find sustenance in 2020 from the story of Job’s relationship with God — ending with his “newfound resolution that is, paradoxically, born out of resignation and submission before the awful and awe-inspiring power and glory of God.”
Exactly. Lincoln was raised predestinarian Baptist, and he always had a Calvinist streak. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, you’ve got to hit bottom and accept you’re not in full control of your fate. You have to accept a higher power. Have we as a nation?
All of this goes way beyond politics — there’s something in Job that makes me wish I’d spent more time reading the Old Testament. And there’s something in Lincoln that’s always worth further study. Something that I think Lopez catches admirably. (There’s a matching somber quality in the pictures of New Salem, too. The place is simply magical.) So I’m filing his article here for future reference. (Along with a picture and a link to New Salem’s Facebook page.)
Lopez’ story of Lincoln and the book of Job came from the memoirs of Elizabeth Keckley, an African American “handmaid and close confidante” of Mary Todd Lincoln. She remembered a day in 1863, when Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were matched by defeats at Chancellorsville, Fort Wagner and Chickamauga, and it was far from clear how the war would end. I’ll let Lopez tell the story, but it’s worth reading in full.
Excerpts from Lopez’ article:
One day, Ms. Keckley recalled, she was measuring a dress on Mary Lincoln. The president walked into the room. He looked exhausted and worn out, “his step…slow and heavy, and his face sad.” “Like a tired child,” Mr. Lincoln threw his huge frame onto a sofa in the room, his long legs stretched out, covering his eyes with his hands. He “was a complete picture of dejection,” she recalled.
“Where have you been, father?” Mary Lincoln asked him.
“To the War Department.”
Any news?” she asked.
“Yes, plenty of news, but no good news. It is dark, dark everywhere.”
“Everywhere” was right—he could have been referring at once to the war effort, his administration in the nation’s capital and his own state of mind. Mr. Lincoln, still lying on the sofa, “reached forth one of his long arms,” taking a small Bible from a stand by the head of the sofa. He opened up the book and, Ms. Keckley recalled, “soon was absorbed in reading.”
Ms. Keckley went back to her work dressing the first lady, both women leaving the president to his reading. After a quarter of an hour had gone by, Ms. Keckley glanced back at the president, lying on the sofa with his Bible. “The face of the President,” she thought, “seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope. The change was so marked that I could not but wonder at it, and wonder led to the desire to know what book of the Bible afforded so much comfort to the reader.”
Her curiosity got the best of her. Making an excuse that she was searching for a missing article of clothing, Ms. Keckley discretely walked across the room. Passing by the head of the sofa, she glanced up to see what Mr. Lincoln was reading. It was the Book of Job—the story of a man Ms. Keckley referred to as “the divine comforter.” “He read with Christian eagerness,” she thought, “and the courage and hope that he derived from the inspired pages made him a new man.”
The Book of Job has puzzled biblical scholars for years; Robert Alter called it “in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible.” If Elizabeth Keckley was correct and Mr. Lincoln was indeed comforted by it, he found that comfort in what is to most readers a deeply discomfiting book, raising difficult questions about humanity’s relationship to God. By the end, Job has a newfound resolution that is, paradoxically, born out of resignation and submission before the awful and awe-inspiring power and glory of God. Job regains a sense of his own agency only when he sees that he has none; no matter what he does, he is subordinate to God’s will.
What changes over the course of the book is Job’s perspective. He accepts his powerlessness in the face of the awesomeness of God’s power. It is this latter perspective of Job’s that Mr. Lincoln represents in his Second Inaugural. His statement—“and the war came”—carries an air of resignation. Yet this resignation brings with it a sense of peace.
In the midst of his lament, Job dreams of a place where “the weary be at rest.” But this wish is misguided because he wants God simply to offer relief from his troubles. But relief does not, cannot come that easily. Job fundamentally does not understand at the beginning that doing good works is no guarantee of being free from trouble. By the end, however, he learns that missteps and trouble can come to anyone, even the most faithful. So be it.
In the end, submitting before the will of God, in all its power and mystery, Job is at peace. For Lincoln, that wisdom was hard-earned, coming in the midst of one of the most difficult periods of his life and the nation’s history. But in one brief moment of respite in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln too found peace.
Citation: Sergio Lopez, “What Abraham Lincoln found reading the Book of Job amid civil war,” America, Nov. 3, 2020 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/10/27/abraham-lincoln-book-of-job-civil-war-bible-united-states.
[Nov. 7, 2020]
2 thoughts on “Notes on an election-day article about Lincoln, the better angels of our nature and the book of Job”
I just finished reading the current issue of “Comment,” the quarterly whose editor is Anne Snyder, wife of David Brooks. One essay says that the Book of Job is the appropriate text for the pandemic.
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Job is rapidly making its way onto my short list. I’ve always loved the poetry when I saw it quoted, but I’ve never sat down and read it.
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