Thursday, April 02, 2009

Book Review: A. Lincoln

A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White is a fascinating biography of the greatest American president and is appropriately published in this 200th year since his birth.

The first half of the book is devoted to Lincoln's early life on the western frontier and his emergence as a self-educated lawyer and political leader in Illinois. The second half covers his rise to national prominence and his terms in office until his assasination. White focuses on Lincoln's public life and work rather than on his private life and family. Unlike many recent biographies, White portrays Mary Lincoln in a very sympathetic light.

One of the major themes of the book is the development of Lincoln's spiritual life and thought as he struggled with doubt and Christian belief throughout his life. This is not surprising, given the fact that the author is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and was dean and professor of American Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

My PresbyReaders will be interested to learn how Lincoln was influenced by the Old School Presbyterian minister Dr. Phineas Gurley, the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington where Abraham and Mary Lincoln rented a pew and regularly attended worship services (although Lincoln himself never formally became a member of the church).

According to White, Lincoln "had chosen to attend rational nonpolitical Old School congregations over experiential, antislavery New School congregations in both Springfield and Washington." White traces the development of Lincoln's belief in a God of providence who guides men and nations during this time and links it to Gurley's sermons.

Lincoln's belief is evidenced in a fascinating fragment that was not published until many years after his death. Found by his secretary John Hay, it is known as A Meditation on the Divine Will. Although I have read several biographies of the Great Emancipator over the years, I don't recall another that gave as much emphasis on Lincoln's spiritual development as to the development of his political opinions and his mastery of military strategy.

A. Lincoln is a superb portrait of a complex, great and good man. Kudos to Dr. White!

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