Lutheran Sermons on Lincoln's Assassination: Part 1

 
 

The Creation of Lincoln’s Image

 

[1] Those who knew Abraham Lincoln personally or at a distance, those who lived with him through the trials of the Civil War, those who experienced the shock at his sudden and violent death enjoyed a privileged position in accessing the sixteenth President.

What such people said publicly about Lincoln in the seven weeks following his assassination on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, created an image of him that has had an enduring impact even until today, 200 years after his birth. From the sermons on “Black Easter” until the speeches on the National Day of Humiliation on June 1, Northern preachers, papers, poets and politicians gave voice to the people’s grief and placed his life and death in a context of meaning. Among these, it is good to remember, were Lutheran preachers.

 

[2] How “swiftly and thoroughly” was Lincoln “transformed into an iconic, mythic figure,” marvels an historian.[1] “The martyr was instantaneously deified both because of the dramatic structure of the events surrounding his death and because of public esteem for him as a man and statesman. The image people had of Lincoln—the way they perceived, thought, and felt about him—was inseparable from the Civil War. Yet in his magnificent humanity Lincoln transcended the war.”[2]

 

[3] The historian Merrill D. Peterson has written a highly acclaimed book that traces how Lincoln has been remembered through the years. According to Peterson, the discourse immediately after his death featured five “building blocks of the Lincoln image”: “Lincoln as Savior of the Union, Great Emancipator, Man of the People, The First American [the champion of democracy], and the Self-made Man.”[3] Even when historians aim to debunk and deconstruct his image, or—as we commonly hear—to discover the man behind the myth, they still must deal with what is historical in his image. Careful, detailed, nuanced studies of Lincoln give us a more complex picture of him and his times and in so doing both reveal his limitations and confirm his greatness.[4]

 

[4] The public square during these weeks following Lincoln’s death was hardly naked of religious symbolism and language. The Protestant pulpit was one of the most important public agencies in expressing the North’s sorrow and in creating the Lincoln image.[5] David B. Chesebrough, after studying 340 published sermons by Protestant preachers on the assassination, devotes a chapter to each of the five themes that emerged in his study: 1) the people’s grief, 2) Lincoln’s character and accomplishments, 3) the South’s and slavery’s responsibility for the assassination, 4) attitudes of either reconciliation or vengeance toward the South, and 5) the role of Providence in current events.[6] These sermons also contributed to what another historian has called “the sanctification of American nationalism” or “‘a new impulse of patriotism’” (Henry Ward Beecher).[7]

 

[5] Lutheran voices were not absent from this outpouring of emotional remembrance. I have at my disposal five published Lutheran sermons on Lincoln from this time.[8] One of these sermons, by G.J. Butler, was preached on Easter Day, the day following Lincoln’s death, in Washington, D.C. That two Lutheran periodicals quoted extensively from his sermon underscores its importance.[9] The other sermons by Charles P. Krauth, Joseph A. Seiss, E. S. Johnston, and E. W. Hutter were preached on June 1, the national day of remembrance, all in Pennsylvania.[10] Except for Hutter’s sermon, which was published in the Lutheran Observer, the sermons appeared as pamphlets. On the first page of the pamphlets a group of lay people signed a gracious request to have the sermon published that is followed by the preacher’s humble assent to its publication.

 

[6] As might be imagined, these Lutheran sermons fit within this broad picture painted by Peterson and Chesebrough: they contributed to the building blocks of Lincoln’s image and dealt with the themes present in other sermons. Yet each of the five sermons does so in its own way and has its own characteristics, emphases and omissions, as will be seen below by letting them speak for themselves. They are examples of the public church. How do these sermons place Lincoln, his death, the Civil War and its aftermath in a context of Christian meaning?

 

[7] In this first of two parts, I focus on Butler’s sermon. In the next issue of JLE, a second part will discuss the four sermons from June 1.

 

Butler’s “Black Easter” Sermon

 

[8] The Rev. John G. Butler (1826-1909) was pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Washington from 1849 to 1873. Even in 1848 the church was important enough to have President James Polk attend its dedication.[11] Butler was a hospital chaplain in and near Washington during the Civil War, the first chaplain appointed by Lincoln, and he also served as chaplain in the House and Senate.[12] When Union soldiers’ graves were decorated at Arlington Cemetery on the first Memorial Day in 1868, a newspaper reported that Butler offered “a fervent prayer.”[13]

 

[9] Fervent is also a good word for describing the Easter sermon by this prominent 39-year-old preacher.[14] The Lutheran described St. Paul’s congregation that morning:

On the Sunday following the murder of the President the pulpit of this very tasteful church was completely draped in mourning, ornamented with a beautiful wreath of while flowers and evergreen. The front of the orchestra, also, was hung in heavy festoons of black cloth. A profound solemnity pervaded the entire audience, the house being completely filled.

The pastor was deeply affected, and the preliminary services were of a most solemn and impressive character. It was the occasion of the Easter communion. The gospel for the day, from Luke, was read.[15]

 

[10] The Sunday before, Palm Sunday, April 9, marked the end of the Civil War and the Union’s victory, and now the President was dead. If Butler had a prepared sermon, it would not have been suitable for engaging the extraordinary circumstances of that Easter morning. Butler noted in the pamphlet that his sermon was “wholly extemporaneous, inspired by the deep grief which so suddenly overwhelmed our nation,” but he had “hastily endeavored to reproduce it” (3-4). While his heart was “well nigh paralyzed” and he would prefer to remain silent, he could not (5). Butler made clear that while he was a Southerner, he had never been silent and had always been loyal, inspired by the Bible’s teaching “to obey Magistrates, and that the powers that be are ordained of God….This pulpit is in no sense chargeable with the blood of Abraham Lincoln” (8).

 

[11] Butler did not ignore that the day was Easter. He pointed to the sanctuary’s drapery of morning and the spring flowers as combining “the emblems of sorrow and joy.” Along with expressing grief, Butler voiced hope and resolve to carry on, “even at the price of life.” He made the connection that Lincoln was murdered on the now risen Lord’s “Crucifixion Day” (6). What he then said about the resurrection was not about Christ’s triumph over death and the hope of eternal life but on how the church thrives today. “Men may die—be murdered—but truth never. Jesus may, by wicked hands, be crucified, but His cause lives. This is part of God’s plan.” And so it is with Lincoln, who “has fallen a martyr to truth, to principle, to freedom, to law and order, and good Government. But whilst our hearts are bleeding, our hopes are not crushed.” (7) While Lincoln has been stricken down, “the people, the government, the eternal principles of Truth, and Freedom, and Righteousness, still live” (8). Later in the sermon Butler affirmed that Lincoln, “who feared God and wrought righteousness,” lives where “the Great Martyr, our Lord Jesus, lives—in the Heavenly City” (9).

 

[12] Butler also drew on a second biblical figure to interpret Lincoln’s significance. “And now, when rebellion is well nigh crushed, when our armies, flushed with victory, are pursuing a fleeing foe, treason nerves her fiendish arm to strike down our Moses, who, under God, has led us through the wilderness, as he stands upon Pisgah, in full view of the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey” (6-7). Moses, who led his people from slavery to freedom, stands in the background when Butler calls Lincoln “the great Champion of human rights, the friend of the oppressed, the emancipator of four millions of bondmen.” When the American people look upon his spilled blood, their verdict “is, that the land must be free—an open Bible, a free pulpit, a free press, free speech, a free people.” As there were murmurings against Moses and God by the Israelites in the desert, so there might be today. “We may not be able to answer all the hard questions which may arise as to our duty towards the freedman, though God, who has accomplished their deliverance, will teach us: but the one purpose is formed, that the whole land must be free. The voices of God and of the people are one in this verdict.” In this context Butler could say, Lincoln’s “work is done,” thankful that God “spared him to us so long, crowning his government with the prospect of an early, a righteous and permanent peace” (8-9).

 

[13] Butler did not hold back in his praise of Lincoln. He spoke of him as a friend and a neighbor of his congregational members, one “whose pleasant, placid face is so familiar to many of us.” Now “his tall, manly form lies in the cold embrace of death” (8). Lincoln the emancipator “lives not only in the hearts of the four millions of freedmen, from whom he has broken the shackles of bondage, but in the heart of this entire nation his name is embalmed in honor and love” (9). Lincoln was also the healer and “the tender and earnest Intercessor, pleading with us…entreating us to forgive our enemies” and to heal “the deep wounds of the nation’s heart” (8). “Our beloved and noble Chief Magistrate” (5), “Our martyred President” (13), a “great, and good, and wise man” (8), “was so good, so wise, so humane a ruler” (9). Lincoln was “this great human Representative of truth and freedom, and humanity and love” (10).

 

[14] Butler also placed Lincoln among the greatest of presidents. “In all future history this name will stand beside that of Washington. If he was the father of his country, under God, Abraham Lincoln was its saviour” (9). He called for support for the new president “whilst we embalm in memory the surpassing worth of the fallen Chieftain” (10).

 

[15] Butler saw the cause of the “costly rebellion” in slavery, “that which has given it inspiration and life” (8) which he named “the great sin which has occasioned all this blood yet struggles for being” (4). And it was the rebellion that culminated in the assassination. Butler gave voice to his and his people’s anger when he spoke about “the poor, miserable, wicked assassin, whose name is not worthy of mention,” who bears “a mark deeper than the mark of Cain” (8) who committed an act “of which Satan would be ashamed” (7). “Even treason will blush with shame at this assassination” (5). Yet the assassin “was but the representation and instrument of the enemies of the Heaven-blessed Government” (8). “Treason and rebellion [were] concentrated in the fell blow of the assassin” (13).

 

[16] Butler recognized “the terrible desolations of civil war [that] have swept over” “the rebel States.” The Southern church, too, “needs reconstruction. The Southern pulpit, forgetting the Apostolic injunction, has fired the Southern heart and strengthened the arm of the rebel government, by preaching treason and resistance to rightful authority” (12). In spite of his strong language toward the South, Butler rejected vengeance. “In this work of reconciliation and healing, revenge must not fire our heart. But whilst the dignity of the law and the honor of the Government must be vindicated, the spirit of the fallen One, his humanity, his forbearance, his slowness to wrath, his love of peace, must animate our hearts.” While treason is a crime, justice is tempered with mercy (13).

 

[17] Butler titled his sermon “Our Grief and Our Duty,” and duty he based theologically in Communion celebrated that Easter Sunday. In recalling the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he called on his congregation to “renew our consecration to our Divine King.” At this point Butler brought consecration to Christ and to country into close harmony:

As we approach this table to-day…we come as patriot Christians, renewing first our allegiance to Jesus, then to our country—first to the Cross, then to our Flag. The times in which we live call for earnest consecration to Jesus in the cause of our country. Our land has a mission. Our whole history shows God’s hand with us. We are to teach the world the Bible taught truth, that man is capable of self-government. We are to be the light of the world.

For biblical support, he turned to Jesus’ appeal to Isaiah in describing his mission to preach, heal, proclaim deliverance and open prisons (Luke 4:18). Butler went one step further than Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in stating that “our nation has been born again.” Lincoln’s “dying eyes rested…upon the land redeemed, regenerated, ennobled, prepared for the great mission upon which the King of Kings sends her forth” (11).

 

[18] Butler’s remarks illustrate how many at the time viewed the relationship of the Christianity and America. He was right to insist that Christians can be and should be dedicated citizens, and when he listed “the duties of the hour,” they were commendable: remember the soldiers, care for the widow and orphan, feed and clothe the country’s enemies, educate the freedmen, forgive and heal (12-13). He was right in supporting self-government and thereby acknowledging Lincoln’s dedication to “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” but he was not convincing in claiming it as a biblical teaching. He was right to speak of God’s immanence in history, although he could have said more of God’s hiddeness in and transcendence of history. For someone who is distant from the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, the relationship Butler draws between God and country is problematic, and it is not difficult to criticize his excessive, uncritical patriotism and his near identification of the church’s and the country’s mission. But for us who are not caught up in his situation, the lesson for the public church to learn is our need for restraint and self-criticism in drawing too close a connection between our faith in Christ and our political commitments, especially in polarized situations where passions run high. Even our best political judgments remain under God’s judgment, as Lincoln in his Second Inaugural reminded us. Even the best of political arrangements, to which Christians are to be committed, are not the kingdom of God.

 

[19] Butler did not deal with the “embarrassment” that Lincoln was shot in a theater as some preachers did.[16] A critical eye may want to question aspects of his tribute as one-sided and exaggerated, as funeral remarks tend to be, or note, for example, that he did not deal with Lincoln’s disputed relationship with the Christian faith and the church. Yet the overriding image that Butler gave us was that of a great statesman, who saved the Union, freed the slaves and called for healing, and a good human being, whose personal and public life conveyed decency, integrity and principled wisdom. Still today that image has currency.

 

[20] Butler’s stirring, impassionate sermon, attuned to the emotions and perspectives of his congregation, must have comforted, illumined and inspired his contemporaries who heard and read it. For they would have learned that the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, and the difficult days ahead were political events but that had a place in a Christian context of meaning, a context that views the past, present and future in light of God’s governance and care. It is the context of the living “Great Martyr, our Lord Jesus” (9), “who redeemed us by the price of His own blood,” for whom we are to live (10). It is a context that makes sense of Lincoln’s call for the nation’s healing and reconciliation.

 

[21] Butler preached on the day following Lincoln’s death; in the next part of this article, I will look at sermons preached seven weeks later.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Richard Carwardine. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 316.

 

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 26.

 

[3] Peterson, 27. See his first chapter, “Apotheosis,” 3-35.

 

[4] For a recent, concise overview with bibliography by a leading Lincoln scholar, see Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009).

 

[5] According to Elizabeth Morgan, sermons at this time “served as powerful tools for action and reaction for the public. Ideas expressed in the pulpit were discussed, argued about and often taken to heart…Sermons expressed and shaped the mood, behavior and beliefs of a not insubstantial portion of the public.” From the “Overview” of the Web page “The Martyred President: Sermons Given on the Occasion of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” (http://beck.library.emory.edu/lincoln/overview.php). The site contains the texts of 57 sermons.

 

[6]No Sorrow like Our Sorrow”: Northern Protestant Ministers and the Assassination of Lincoln (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994).

 

[7] Carwardine, 320-321.

 

[8] I thank Joel Thoreson in the ELCA Archives for effective and friendly assistance in locating some of these sermons and information about them. Chesebrough lists seven sermons by Lutherans, but Thoreson discovered convincing evidence that two of those preachers were not Lutheran (Abraham Graeter, in Chesebrough, 165, and J.E. Rockwell, 181). I did not have available to me the sermon by the Lutheran M.A. Rhodes, Chesebrough, 180. The sermon by E.W. Hutter printed in the Lutheran Observer was not included in Chesebrough’s list.

 

[9] The Lutheran (April 27, 1865), 1. Lutheran Observer (June 9, 1865), 1. Lutheran Observer stated: “The sermon is one of Br. Butler’s best productions. Like all his sermons and addresses, it breathes an earnest spirit. It abounds in passages of great force and beauty. All his utterances are ardent in loyalty. The writer has clearly discerned the strong features in the character of the martyred President and portrayed them vividly. He comprehends clearly the duties devolving on Christians and good citizens of our country, now that the war is over.”

 

[10] These sermons will be the subject of the second part of this article. It is interesting to note that President Johnson first called for a day of humiliation and mourning for May 25 but then changed it to June 1 after realizing that May 25 was Ascension Day. It is also noteworthy that in his original proclamation, the President wrote that he appointed this special day in “order to mitigate the grief on earth which can only be assuaged by communion with the Father in heaven.” The Lutheran Standard, May 15, 1865. The article following “Day of Humiliation” is titled, “Politics in the Pulpit,” which is seen as “injurious to the cause of Christ and His Church.”

 

[11] St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Web site (www.stpaulslutherandc.com).

 

[12] Gerhard E. Lenski, “John George Butler,” The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, Julius Bodensieck, Editor (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1965), 345. Minutes from the “Ninetieth Annual convention of the Synod of Maryland (October 1909), 42-43.

 

[13] “Decoration of the Soldiers Graves at Arlington Honor to the Patriot Dead,” The Washington Evening Star ( May 30, 1868) (www.arlingtoncemetery.net).

 

[14] “The Martyr President: Our Grief and Our Duty” (Washington, D.C.: McGill & Witherow, Printers and Stereotypers, 1865). (http://beck.library.emory.edu/lincoln/sermon.php?id=butler.001&term[]=Butler). The page from which the quotation in the text comes is given in parenthesis. The words in italics in the quotations were so in the original pamphlet.

 

[15] The Lutheran (April 27, 1865), l.

[16] Lincoln was shot in Ford Theater and was then taken across the street to the home of William and Anna Petersen, where he died on Saturday, April 15, at 7:22 a.m. William Petersen was a German-born tailor. A Baptist preacher in Washington, A.D. Gillete, in telling his congregation about Lincoln’s assassination and in reference to where it occurred, reveals a minor but interesting tidbit of Lutheran history. Lincoln was “shot from a pistol by the hand of a drunken, debased assassin, April 14, 1865. Though the wound was mortal, he did not die, thank Heaven! amid the unhallowed surroundings where he received it. Kind arms bore him to a Christian home, there to terminate his memorable and useful life. His breath and spirit went out of its clay tabernacle into the presence of his God and Judge from the house of a worthy family, belonging to the Lutheran Church, of which the Rev. Dr. [Samuel] Finckel is Pastor, in a room sacred to them, as from it, a few months since, went two cherub children to the bosom of the good Shepherd above. I thank God that he, whom we all revered, did not die in a place of questionable utility--a place I never was in, and where I entreat my hearers never to go. He died in a religious home, his friends and Pastor around him--the most sacred place this side of heaven. May it be ours to die amid such holy surroundings as ever cluster where Christian families reside.” “God above all Calamities,” First Baptist Church, Washington, D.C. (April 23, 1865), 7-8.

 

 

 

© April 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 4