Monday, February 15, 2016

Black History, President's Day, and The Bible

“Let’s drive to Battle Creek and see the Lincoln Bible,” the caller said when I picked up the phone. I agreed to meet as soon as I could drive across town. I put the phone back in place and headed for the parking lot of a nearby church, where I climbed into the pastor’s sporty sedan and anxiously headed for the Kellogg Foundation Headquarters an hour away. This “Lincoln Bible” significantly influenced two historic Americans that we traditionally celebrate every spring: Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth), and America’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln.

Sojourner (pictured left) left her adopted Battle Creek home to visit the White House in mid-1864. With the war still in progress, she hoped to encourage President Lincoln with a personal visit, before giving assistance at the Freedman’s Village. Accompanied by Lucy Colman, she met the President, most likely assisted by Elizabeth Keckley, Lincoln’s housekeeper.1

Sojourner met the President at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. During their historic meeting, Lincoln displayed for Sojourner the Bible the black community of Baltimore, Maryland had presented him--dubbed the “Lincoln Bible.” Upon viewing it, she remarked, “This is beautiful indeed; the colored people of Baltimore have given this to the head of the government, and that government once sanctioned laws that would not permit its people to learn enough to enable them to read this book.” In addition, the President signed Sojourner’s Book of Life--her autograph book--writing, “for Aunty Sojourner Truth, Oct. 29, 1864 A. Lincoln.”            

She described Lincoln’s Bible as “of the usual pulpit size, bound in violet-colored velvet. On the corners were the bands of solid gold, and carved upon a plate, also of gold, not less than one-fourth of an inch thick, on the left hand corner, was a design representing the President in a cotton-field knocking the shackles off the wrist of a slave, who held one hand aloft as if invoking blessings upon the head of his benefactors. At Lincoln’s feet was a scroll upon which was written ‘Emancipation’, and on the other cover was a similar plate bearing this inscription: ‘To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, the friend of Universal Freedom. From the Loyal colored people of Baltimore, as a token of respect and gratitude. Baltimore, July 4th, 1864.’”2
Following this visit, Sojourner assisted at the Freedmen’s Village, but after her death, her traveling companion and benefactor, Frances Titus commissioned Art Professor Franklin C. Courter of nearby Albion College to paint a rendition of the 1864 White House meeting. The professor specialized in Lincolniana, but had never met Sojourner. For this work he received $100, which was then displayed at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition.

The professor’s painting eventually returned to Battle Creek and enjoyed prominent display in the parlor at Dr. John Kellogg’s prestigious health Sanitarium. The original painting burned in the Sanitarium fire of 1903, but a local photographer, Frank Perry, had fortunately photographed it. Perry’s photograph of Courter’s oil painting then became a popular piece of art sold to the public. Residents of the region still stop and study the local copy that is frequently found displayed on the walls of Battle Creek’s City Hall.

The President’s son, Robert Lincoln, presented his father’s Bible to Fisk University of Nashville in 1916 as a tribute to its founder, General Clinton Bowen Fisk. Probably no single institution has played so central a role as Fisk in the shaping of black learning and culture in America. Thus, Thomas Nelson, a Nashville publisher, eventually gave a grant that provided the restoration of the historic bible in a specially constructed display case.
That display came to Battle Creek the week of October 28--November 1, 1995, during which the Touring Fisk Singers presented an area-wide concert in nearby Kalamazoo. That occasion provided a fitting tribute to a book that spelled freedom for the former New York slave and brought Battle Creek its first national recognition in 1857 as the home of Sojourner Truth.

That book empowered our sixteenth president to write-and-issue his Emancipation Proclamation, pursue the preservation of our historic Union, as well as find guidance for his torturous Civil War years in the Lincoln White House.

The teachings of that book--the Biblical conviction--that all men are created equal, under God, gives foundation to human freedom. It helped birth the United States of America played a pivotal part in creating a democratic government … of the people … by the people … for the people.

It was the teachings of that book that guided the dreams of a slave-girl and led her to become one of America’s early female preachers, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and premier social reformer--under God. That young slave girl first learned at Mau Mau Bett’s knee, that her only security in life was in the God of heaven. There, she learned “never steal, never lie and always obey your master … God is your only protection.”
When finally she ran away, she fled like Abraham of old, not knowing where she was going. In the Providence of God, she met a freedom-loving couple that taught her “the law is bigger than slavery.” When that Quaker couple paid twenty-five dollars to John Dumont, her former slave master, she concluded she and her daughter now belonged to them and she asked about taking their name.

“Call me Isaac Van Wagener,” he said, “and my wife is Maria Van Wagener.” With that introduction, he added, “There is but one master and He who is your master is my master.”

Stories abound that corroborate the bible’s impact upon Isabella Baumfree, aka Sojourner Truth. Princeton scholar, Nell Pointer, concluded “Truth was first and last an itinerant preacher, stressing both itineracy and preaching . . . Pentecostal that she was, Truth would have explained that the force that brought her from the soul murder of slavery into the authority of public advocacy was the power of the Holy Spirit . . . Without doubt, it was Truth’s religious faith that transformed her from Isabella, a domestic servant, into Sojourner Truth, a hero for three centuries - at least.”3

While some have questioned the authenticity of Lincoln’s Christianity, few deny the influence of the Bible in his life. Sherwood Eddy suggested that of all the presidents of the United States, Lincoln was probably one of the least orthodox, yet the most religious. He once confessed to visiting Synod leaders from the Baltimore Presbytery that “. . . I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am. Nevertheless, amid the greatest difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right. . .”
Lincoln admitted to a Connecticut Congressman “I have never united myself to any church, because I have found difficulty in giving my assent without mental reservation, to the long complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their articles of belief and confessions of faith. When any church will inscribe over its altars, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church I will join with all my heart and all my soul.”4

When Lincoln read The Christian Defense by Dr. James Smith, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Springfield, IL in 1849-56, it influenced him deeply.  That influence proved sufficient for Tolstoy to refer to Lincoln as “a Christ in miniature.” The noted infidel, Robert Ingersoll, called him “the gentlest memory of our world.”
During the nation’s darkest hours of civil turmoil, Lincoln quietly entered his quarters one day and Mrs. Keckley, his housekeeper, took note of his dejected entrance. She enquired as to where he had been, to which he replied somewhat sullenly, “War Department.” She inquired about the news. “Yes, plenty of news,” he replied, “but not good news. It is dark, dark everywhere.”

The President then reached for his bible and began to read. After about fifteen minutes, the “dejected look was gone and Lincoln’s countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope.” Mrs. Keckley, noticing his changed demeanor, made excuse to pass behind the couch on which he sat. She wished to see for herself what he was reading and she recognized the book of Job.5

What other book do we have that could bring together an illiterate former-black-slave and the President of the United States? No other book brings together such a diverse cross-section of humanity and glues them into one common bond--under God. No other book in the history of humanity has influenced so many people and impacted their lives so positively in their deepest hours of struggling for survival, as has the Bible (pictured is MLK"s Bible).
Celebrating President’s Day,
Black History Month,
and Bible reading; this is
               1 Nell Painter Notes from SOJOURNER TRUTH A LIFE A SYMBOL. (N. Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p.203-4.
               2 Painter (328) credits the Bernice Bryant Lowe Collection, “Sojourner Truth Papers”, Section VIII, Bentley Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, U of MI., Ann Arbor.”
               3 Painter, p.4.
               4 Edgar DeWitt Jones; Lincoln and the Preachers. (NY: Harper, 1940), p. 141.
               5 Ruth Randall. Mary Lincoln. (New York: Little, Brown, 1953), p. 229.