Lessons from Lincoln

“I shall be most happy if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this His almost chosen people.” These are the simple but profound words of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and they reflect something of the so called puzzling faith of the famous leader. Lincoln was not as devout of a Christian as some have sought to portray him, nor was he the total secularist that others seemed bent on depicting him. His faith in God was strong but not ostentatious. His love for the Bible was obvious in the eloquent speeches Lincoln left behind for us to study and admire. In 1864, a group of African Americans offered a special presentation Bible to the president. In response, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave the world was communicated through this Book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.” 

As a young child, I can remember reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln and becoming infatuated with him as a man and a leader. His life and times became a major object of personal interest for me. Through the lens of Lincoln’s life, I began a study of the Civil War in particular and American history in general. Some historians speak of our history as a nation as being “before Lincoln” and “after Lincoln.” A plethora of books, numbering beyond 16,000, have been written, focusing on his life and legacy. In the pantheon of presidential leaders, only George Washington rivals the influence of Abraham Lincoln. This year marks the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and for that reason, I have again reflected over this larger than life leader whose influence is as strong today in the public arena of America than any other time. I have been asking myself the question, “What are some lessons we can learn from Lincoln?” He lived in the early- to mid-19th century, and we are obviously in the early years of the 21st. What could he possibly offer as a teacher for our times? Let me cite a few lessons from Lincoln’s life well worth our consideration.”

Abraham Lincoln can teach us something about the aptitude for perseverance. Born in relative obscurity in the now famous log cabin, located in what was then the western frontier of our nation, Lincoln, like so many of his time, did not enjoy privilege and luxury. In the old world of Europe, one had to gain station in life through birth, by being born wealthy or into a prominent family. In the new world, the story was different, and Abraham Lincoln is a prime example of one who persevered and therefore overcame hardship to become a person of achievement. Lincoln had his share of setbacks politically and financially, but in time he became one to whom people turned for leadership. In the face of the worst crisis in American history, Lincoln would not give up. When he suffered the loss of children to early death, he would not give up on life. Lincoln knew how to endure hardship and he has set an example for us to emulate. When you study Lincoln, you learn how to deal with adversity.

Abraham Lincoln can teach us something about the attitude of patience too. Not only did Lincoln not give up on life, he did not give up on people. In her book, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, aptly describes how Lincoln as president assembled a cabinet of strong personalities who had also been political adversaries. Some of them did not even respect the president, at first. Some worked behind the scenes to undermine his influence. Yet Lincoln was a past master at dealing with difficult people. He seemed to know how to read people like a book. Today, this trait would be called emotional intelligence. Then, it was simply old-fashioned people smarts, and Lincoln was blessed in abundance with this practical wisdom. When he was being “out-generalled” by the commander of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, the president patiently worked through the ranks of leading generals until he discovered Ulysses S. Grant. In the words of Lincoln, “I can’t spare this man. He will fight.” And fight Grant did, until he and his army brought General Lee to the conference table in Appomattox. Lincoln demonstrated enormous patience with people and problems, and there is much to learn for us today in such skillful leading of others as a leader.

Abraham Lincoln can teach us something about the art of persuasion. Were there better public speakers than Abraham Lincoln in his time? Yes, indeed there were some of the best orators on the scene during Lincoln’s career in politics. One well-known figure in that day was Edward Everett, the educator, abolitionist and politician. He was invited to bring the keynote address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery in November 1863. Everett was a true wordsmith and an accomplished orator. When he presented his lengthy speech on that occasion, many felt his words would overshadow those of Abraham Lincoln, but as Paul Harvey was once fond of saying, “Now, we know the rest of the story.” In the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, few saw Abraham Lincoln as the favorite to beat the renowned senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas. History reveals that, although Douglas won the Senate race, Lincoln won the presidency, due in part to his powers of persuasion demonstrated in the debates.

Abraham Lincoln represents for us a man who used his talents and faced his times, in a way which won him an indelible place in history. We will most likely not make the history books, but we can make a difference for our Lord in this life He has given us. We can develop the aptitude for perseverance in dealing with the challenges of life. We can seek also to nurture the attitude of patience in working with people, who can sometimes be very difficult. Like, Abraham Lincoln we can also endeavor to develop the art of persuasion. The gospel message is far more important than the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address or either of the well-known inaugural addresses presented by our 16th president. The message of Jesus centers on eternal freedom and abundant living. With the principles of perseverance in life, patience with others and a persuasive presentation of the gospel, we can make a Kingdom difference for Christ in our world today. These lessons can be our legacy too.

Executive Director of Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions

State Missionary Rick Lance was elected in June of 1998 to serve as executive director of the State Board of Missions and treasurer of the Alabama Baptist Convention. Rick leads state missions efforts and facilitates Great Commission Ministries for the Convention's 3,200+ churches and more than one million Alabama Baptists.

Rick and his wife, Pam, are members at First Baptist Church, Montgomery. They have two daughters.

Any requests for Rick Lance to speak in or visit your church should be directed to Billie Davis at 1-800-264-1225, ext. 253 or (334) 613-2253, [email protected]

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