Abraham Lincoln: Prophet for our times?

Every now and again you discover something that stops you dead in your tracks. Or at least makes you think. Such was my recent discovery of the text of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of a national day of fasting.

Living in the times we do, it is almost inconceivable that the leader of a Western nation – or any nation for that matter – would make such a proclamation. Even a quick read of the text reveals an outlook on the world that is lost to the political elites who govern us today. Given that Lincoln’s proclamation was in response to a request from the Senate, it is all the more astonishing.

Lincoln’s declaration of a national day of prayer and fasting, made as it was during the civil war, makes a sharp and distinct connection between the nation’s woes and its forgetfulness of God: America had become too proud to pray to the God that had established and blessed her.

In describing how the spiritual condition of the nation had degenerated, Lincoln’s words have an uncomfortable resonance with our own times. Let me give you a flavour of the text:

 “We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity.”

“We have grown in numbers, wealth and power..”

“But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us…”

“…we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success…”

“… we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

Lincoln’s analysis at times feels like a prophecy of twenty-first century Britain. We might never had had it quite so good as America, but for most of the people for most of the time since the end of second world war, life has been pretty good – certainly in comparison to pre-war years and in comparison to many other nations in the world.  And whilst we might not be in a civil war, it is not too hard to spot the economic, political and religious fault lines that threaten to widen the divisions that already exist in our society.

What can we do about it? Given that twenty-first century Abe Lincolns are in short supply, our best course of action is one that the apostle Paul said was of first importance. It is of course to pray for good government.

We hear a lot about apostolic ministry today. In 1 Timothy 2.1-2 Paul states that prayer for good government is a number one apostolic priority:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Somehow these words seem to have lost their force. Even in churches that have inerrancy and infallibility written into their statements of faith, zeal to implement Paul’s instruction is not always evident. If we spent as much time considering how we might apply Paul’s crystal clear teaching to pray for good government as we spend debating and discussing how to apply Paul’s less than clear teaching in verses 11-5 of 1 Timothy 2, we might begin to see a turnaround in our nation.

We will, I fear, wait a long time, perhaps in vain, for our political leaders to pick up the mantle of Lincoln and call us to prayer. But we can pray ourselves. And we can wait on the Lord, knowing that waiting on Him is never in vain.

The full text of Lincoln’s proclamation can be found here.

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