How Did Northern Evangelicals Present the Gospel on the Sunday After Abraham Lincoln's Death?
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth on the evening of April 14, 1865 in Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. It was Good Friday. Therefore, when congregations in the North came together on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mood in most churches was uncharacteristically somber. As Charles Hodge described months later, “Never in our history, seldom if ever in the history of the world, has the heart of a great people been so moved.” In No Sorrow Like Our Sorrow (1994), historian David B. Chesebrough details how Northern Protestant ministers responded to Lincoln’s assassination that Sunday and in the weeks to come. According to Chesebrough, these sermons had a tremendous effect upon Lincoln’s future legacy in America. Not only did Northern ministers extol the character and the accomplishments of “the martyr President,” calling him a “second Washington,” but they also frequently compared his death to that of Jesus Christ. The chilling murder had a sobering effect upon much of the country, dissuading many Americans from the idea of further revenge and bloodshed. Pastor C. B. Crane at South Baptist Church in Hartford, CT declared, “Jesus Christ died for the world; Abraham Lincoln died for his country.” In the Methodist Western Christian Advocate, the editor praised the “life blood of Abraham Lincoln.” In Baltimore, on the following Wednesday after the assassination, Samuel Barnes of Monument Street Methodist Episcopal Church compared Lincoln to the Passover lambs in the book of Exodus. “Walking upon the streets today, or, contemplating the appearance of our whole land, draped, as, at this hour it is, in mourning, one is forcibly reminded of Egypt, when in every house there is one newly slain. There it was a son, a daughter, a sister, or a brother, here it is our Father; more, it is our country’s Savior, whose death by violent and wicked hands we mourn.” On the following Sunday, April 23, Henry Ward Beecher declared, “Lincoln was slain; America was meant. The man was cast down; the government was smitten at.” Lincoln was indeed the pascal President. Although he was not the first to be called the “Savior of the country,” he was certainly the first to be ascribed a cruciform death. The day after the assassination, Rev. Charles Carroll Everett recalled how the freed slaves in Richmond, VA had actually called Lincoln “Jesus.”
But evangelical ministers did not console their congregations with the idea that somehow Lincoln was their Savior. Even though Lincoln had died on Good Friday, and even though most evangelicals believed that his death had served as some kind of atonement for national sins (i.e. slavery), the message of the true gospel was preached that Sunday, and in different ways. For the Dutch Reformed minister Richard H. Steele, “God means to show us that he alone gives the victory.” Steele added, “The work is a completed work; and he whom we lament today acknowledged that while he labored with a patient heart, the result was the Lord’s.” Elder Wallace Shelton of Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio reminded his congregation, “Abraham Lincoln is dead. But God is not dead. Abraham Lincoln is dead, but justice and truth still live.” The following Wednesday, Samuel Babcock of the Orthodox Congregational Church in Dedham, MA admonished his flock that God “took away the staff on which we, perhaps, leaned too confidingly.” Exhorting his listeners to faith in Christ, Samuel Barnes quoted Psalm 146:3: “Put not your trust in princes.”
Even though Lincoln had been, in the words of John Falkner Blake, the “leader and liberator of the American people,” he could not save sinners from spiritual death. And he was not raised on Easter Sunday. Therefore, evangelical ministers in the North counseled their churches to trust in an eternal Savior. For Rev. J.W. Bain at United Presbyterian Church in Canonsburg, PA, “We should learn greater confidence in God.” In the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, evangelicals renewed their hope in the God of their salvation. Despite the unprecedented sadness and mourning that took place on Easter Sunday and on the Sundays that followed in 1865, evangelicals still trusted in the providence of God to sustain them through tragedy and in the Christ to keep their souls secure.