The Martyr President


Reacting to the shock and grief of their parishioners, religious leaders across the country put aside their scheduled Easter Sunday sermons on April 16, 1865 and tried to put into words the country's reaction to the death of its leader the previous day. The large northern cities heard countless sermons that morning on saviors and martyrs.

The black community, both free and slave, had a picture of Lincoln all its own. He was their messiah, their savior. (Peterson 12) "They called him 'Father' as if it were part of his name ... They expected him, as the Israelites did Moses." (Robinson 10) To them Lincoln was bigger than life, and higher than any mortal man. The freedmen had "prayed he would come. They waited for him to come. And then he came!" (Robinson 10-11) "Like a being from heaven" he had answered their prayers and "never broke a promise to their hope." (Robinson 10-11)

While this characterization of Lincoln was understandable to the white leaders who preached that Black Easter Sunday, they sought to temper it. In their enthusiasm for their "second Messiah," the slaves and ex-slaves had "fairly blasphemed." (Robinson 11) Many of the sermons of white leaders were interspersed with cautions against drawing parallels between biblical and contemporary figures. Some, however, found the comparisons too hard to resist and defended their sermons. "If you see a parallelism," one reverend defended, "you cannot say the preacher makes it. If it exists, God made it." (Edgar 2) Another claimed that the assassination of Lincoln was "without parallel in all the annals of earthly history!" but quickly added, "excepting Him...who was the only begotten of God...and hence not to be brought into comparison with mere man. Excepting only the God-man our Savior, there has never been so sad a death!" (Starr 3)

Despite disagreements over the degree to which explicit parallels between Lincoln and Christ could be made, both blacks and whites used the same biblical language to construct their image of Lincoln. Lincoln was often implicitly compared to Christ, quickly earning the title of "Martyr-President." In many cases the two martyrdoms were simply juxtaposed and the audience was left to draw its own conclusions. "Jesus may, by wicked hands, be crucified, but His cause lives. That is a part of God's plan. Abraham Lincoln has fallen a martyr...But whilst our hearts are bleeding, our hopes are not crushed." (Butler 6)

To churchgoers in the North, Lincoln was not only a savior, he was their savior, and when they spoke of him it was not as a Moses, but as "our Moses." (Butler 7, Rankin 7) Yet there was also an awareness of the universality of Lincoln's appeal and a belief that "all true men in all the world are mourners in the funeral of our great Reformer." (Edgar 12) Lincoln's life had not only national, but world impact, and his was "a work almost as marked, in its political aspects, as was that of Moses himself." (Rankin 10)

Many extended this characterization of Lincoln as Moses and applied it to the country as well. "We have passed the Red Sea and the wilderness, and have had unmistakable pledges that we shall occupy that land of Union, Liberty, and Peace which flows with milk and honey." What the author envisioned was not the America which then existed, but rather the America promised by the potential of Lincoln's leadership. (Rankin 16) Lincoln was "the Moses of our American Israel" who was supposedly "called of God to lead us throught the great and terrible wilderness of strife, to the promised land of unity, peace, and concord." (Keeling 10)

Lincoln, however, was killed at the threshold of that new country as Moses was not allowed to pass into the promised land. He was "our Moses, who, under God, has lead us through the wilderness," and who was struck down "in full view of the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey." (Butler 7) Lincoln had stood on the precipice. He had ensured the future of his people yet been unable share in them. It was this fact, perhaps more than any other which enabled even those who had found Lincoln offensive in life to offer him such adoration and respect in death. As both common man and tragic hero, Lincoln was destined to become an American Myth.