Like many Americans I have long been fascinated with Abraham Lincoln. He stands out among all the men who have occupied the White House for his genius, his eloquence, his honesty, strength of character, and his determination to hold the nation together in its most perilous time. Books about Lincoln often occupy an entire section at the library.
Recently I stumbled across a volume I had overlooked, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley. Written in 1868, the book contains the memoirs of the woman who served as Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress. She personally designed, sewed and fitted the many dresses Mary required as First Lady and became Mrs. Lincoln’s closest friend and confidant. Elizabeth was born a slave, but at age 30, having become an accomplished seamstress, was able to purchase her freedom. She relocated to Washington, D.C. When the Lincolns arrived, she went to work for Mrs. Lincoln. Her memoirs offer a unique glimpse into unguarded moments in the Lincoln home. I was especially struck by this candid description of Lincoln during one of the low moments of the War.
“One day he came into the room where I was fitting a dress on Mrs. Lincoln. His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad. Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection. … He reached forth one of his long arms, and took a small Bible from a stand near the head of the sofa, opened the pages of the holy book, and soon was absorbed in reading them. A quarter of an hour passed, and on glancing at the sofa the face of the President 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. … He read with Christian eagerness, and the courage and hope that he derived from the inspired pages made him a new man. … What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity.”
It is well known that President Lincoln never joined a church. But it is abundantly clear from what he said and what he wrote that he was a man of deep faith. This surprisingly candid witness from Mary Lincoln’s seamstress is revealing. In the privacy of his home we find this remarkable insight into the faith that sustained him.
The opening lines of Proverbs capture the essence of the Bible’s impact: “To know wisdom and instruction. To perceive the words of understanding. To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgement and equity. To give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion,” (Proverbs 1:1-4). If we would find our way forward as individuals, families and as a nation, we can turn to that source to which Lincoln turned.