When I read a book, it’s generally for one of three reasons.
1. The book has literary significance or has impacted society in some way.
2. The book was written by an author whose other books I enjoy or appreciate.
3. The book was shoved in my face by a friend or relative who commanded me to read it.
For the most part, the books in the third category prove to be good reads. I discovered classics like Beau Geste and Peace Like a River only because my relatives quite literally pushed them into my hands.
My grandfather, a kindly gentleman of tremendous intelligence, gave me a book last month titled The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. As far as I understand, the book impressed him so much that he purchased a brand-new copy for every one of his grandchildren—that’s roughly a dozen books.
If a book is good enough to buy nearly a dozen copies, I decided, it’s probably worth a look.
The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln is a biography of the man who held the United States of America together when its dissolution seemed inevitable. More specifically, the book traces the development of Lincoln’s religious thought throughout his life by examining his speeches, letters and memorandums.
Was Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest leader in American history, a believer or a skeptic? Did the fiery trial (as he put it) of devastating battles and political infighting destroy or strengthen a faith in a living God?
I won’t spoil the book’s answers to those questions—you’ve probably guessed them already—but I will say this: The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln is an excellent read. The book mostly refrains from using second sources; the author writes, “I make my case stronger if the reader can be certain that he or she is reading the words of Lincoln.” Every major inference about Lincoln’s religious thought is drawn directly from his recorded statements.
These statements—contained in excerpts from memorandums, letters and speeches by Lincoln—are woven into a basic outline of his life. The author provides commentaries upon Lincoln’s statements, clarifying allusions to Scripture and giving historical and biographical context.
I knew about Abraham Lincoln. Don’t we all? He led the United States through the American Civil War! He saved the Union! He freed the slaves! Some of us are familiar with the images of the young man splitting rails in the Illinois frontier or the top-hatted politician pacing the halls of the White House. Beyond these vague ideas, however, I knew very little.
In the end, Abraham Lincoln turns out to be someone to whom I strongly relate. For much of his life, he suffered from intense depression. He loved literature. He wrestled with doubts about Christianity and religion in general. In many ways, he reminds me of myself. Lincoln and I even share a thing for hats.
The thing that impressed me most when I read The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln is the way he kept calm and carried on. The country was falling apart—no, it was being actively pulled apart—and he held it together. His depression never left him. Lincoln and his wife lost a son during the Civil War; somehow, he pushed through his grief and kept making the shrewd decisions that saved his country. Lincoln’s sufferings would have broken an ordinary man. They would certainly have broken me.
In the end, Lincoln expressed a principle that may have carried him, and the Union, through the Civil War: “Without the assistance of the Divine Being . . . I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.”
The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln is a fine work of scholarship. It’s hardly a gripping read, but its conclusions are well-written and meticulously backed up with clear, unambiguous statements from Lincoln himself. Amid these statements and the biographical details surrounding them, the book includes occasional anecdotes that give a vivid picture of a fascinating man.
Inspired? Yes, I rather think so.