Original publish date: March 21, 2016
This past October while leading a ghost tour through historic Irvington, I met a pair of lovely young women who posed an interesting question to me. The query came after I concluded my version of the Lincoln funeral train story, a tale fraught with emotional imagery and historical fancy that has been the last story on the tour for over a decade. As the group dispersed into the Irvington night, the young women sheepishly approached to ask their question. They introduced themselves as nurses at Community North hospital, not just any nurses, these were critical care nurses working in the hospice unit there.
As part of their duties they were often in charge of patients in the final stages of life and both had sadly witnessed firsthand the dying of the light many times. They wanted to share personal experiences with me, witnessed by both independently and together, that they hoped I might have an answer for. They explained that on more than a few occasions, patients would suddenly see the figure of Abraham Lincoln moments before dying. One instance in particular involved a recent near comatose patient arising with arms outstretched proclaiming that Abraham Lincoln was there in the room to deliver him up to heaven.
Luckily, I was able to tell them that this was not the first time I had heard this story. As a lover of history, ghost stories, writer and folklore, I have become somewhat of an ersatz authority and repository of Abraham Lincoln ghost stories and sightings. Interestingly enough, most accounts I hear of Abraham Lincoln as a secular saint are rooted within the baby boomer generation although the roots of this belief can be found in his assassination on Easter weekend of 1865.
The assassination had occurred on Good Friday, and on the following Sunday, known colloquially as “Black Easter,” hundreds of church speakers found a sermon buried in the tragedy. Some men of the cloth viewed the act as more than mere coincidence that assassination day was also crucifixion day. One preacher declared, “Jesus Christ died for the world; Abraham Lincoln died for his country.” The meteoric posthumous growth of his reputation was influenced by the timing and circumstances of his death, which won for him a kind of saintly aura.
Although Lincoln enjoyed public popularity during his life, it was his death which erased all opposition and cemented his mythic identity. Lincoln’s shooting on Good Friday and death on Holy Saturday were his first steps on the stairway to heaven. Just moments after he breathed his last breath, Lincoln began his ascension to sainthood. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton kick-started the heavenward trip by stating, “Now he belongs to the angels.”
Churches across the country were now faced with the difficult task of celebrating Easter and mourning the death of Lincoln at the same time. The resulting nationwide church services devoted to Lincoln on Easter Sunday began his posthumous religious transformation from man of the people to Godlike status. Many Americans, North and South, came to believe that his death was the price we paid for the bloodshed of the Civil War. In fact, it became the capstone for America’s greatest internal sin: slavery.
The sermons preached on Easter Day, 1865 painted a theologically enigmatic portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Barely twenty-four hours after his death, Lincoln’s memory was already being defined as superhuman. Lincoln, as a symbolic figure, was revered not only by those who had supported him during his life, but now by all Americans, and soon by the whole world.
Within forty-eight hours of his passing, the association of Lincoln’s character with American tradition began. The clergy, alongside their biblical images of Moses and martyrdom, also invoked the images of Lincoln and the founding fathers. In addition to grouping the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence as sacred texts, these sermons also established a link between Lincoln and the nation’s first President George Washington.
The timing and tragic nature of Lincoln’s death underscored the accomplishments of his life. Lincoln quickly became a central figure-perhaps the central figure-in the unfolding epic of America as a nation post 1865. Who else but Lincoln, the rough-hewn man forged on the prairies of Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, could have seen us through the sectional conflict pitting brother-against-brother? The plain speaker-unpolished, unschooled, and untutored- somehow managed to master a situation that was in his own words “piled high with difficulty.” He did so with a rhetorical mastery that no other American political figure has come close to matching since.
Generations of schoolchildren were taught to memorize two things: the Pledge of Allegiance and the Gettysburg address. Lincoln’s image graces both our paper money and our coinage. Lincoln is referred to as Father Abraham, Honest Abe and the Great Emancipator. Therefore it should come as no surprise to even the most casual observer that Lincoln’s evolution into a religious figure was / is inevitable. Couple that with the realization that more and more late 20th / early 21st century Americans are drifting further away from organized religion and the church, and these visions of Lincoln in the last moments of life become more easily explained.
If Abraham Lincoln does not assume the identity of God to these folks, he must certainly signify the most positive prospects of heaven. I have studied Lincoln’s complicated religious beliefs over the years through conversations with Lincoln scholar and author C. Wayne Temple, whose 1995 book “Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet” is considered the definitive study on the subject. It appears that Abraham Lincoln was a deist, making the view of him as a prophet, angel or Godlike figure all the more ironic. A deist is defined as “a person who accepts the belief in god,but does not believe in the religion.” To a deist, the concept of God is rhetorical with a belief in his power of creation and omnipotence, but unrelated to organized religion.
The religious views of Abraham Lincoln remain a matter of interest among scholars and the public. Lincoln grew up in a highly religious Baptist family. He never joined any church, and sometimes (as a young man) ridiculed revivalists. He often referred to God and had a deep knowledge of the Bible, regularly quoting from it. Lincoln attended Protestant church services with his wife and children, and after two of them died he became more intensely concerned with religion. In short, Lincoln was the “thinking man’s” Christian whose religious ambiguity makes him a perfect candidate for a last second spiritual visitation.
When the sermons of April 16, 1865 asked the American people to “pledge not only to the affectionate memory of our MARTYR but to the imitation of his character and the perpetuation of his principles” a spiritual place was created for Lincoln in the American mind which has existed ever since. The Lincoln of legend has grown into a temporal god available to assume a shape to please almost anyone at anytime.
A 2015 Gallup poll shows that Americans’ trust in organized religion is on the decline, continuing a gradual, decades-long trend. Gallup noted in their commentary on the poll that “Once reliably at the top of Gallup’s confidence in institutions list, [organized religion] now ranks fourth behind the military, small business and the police, and just ahead of the medical system.”
The poll shows that only 42% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion or the Church, well below the high of 68% in the 1970s. This coincides with a 2014 Pew Study showing Americans are becoming increasingly unlikely to identify with any particular religion and that America is building fewer churches. The amount of construction spending on religious structures has dropped by 62% since January 2002. Therefore, it stands to reason that more and more people are apt to view Abraham Lincoln as a savior at the closing moments of their life.
As for me, I think it important for all people to believe in something bigger than themselves, whatever or whomever that may be. So to the nurses of Community North Hospital’s Hospice care unit I want to say thank you for sparking this conversation. Thank you for caring enough to recall with kindness and concern the plight of your beloved patients. It is good for us all to know that you care as deeply as you do right up until the last moments of precious life. One of my personal heroes of the Lincoln assassination saga is a 23-year-old U.S. Army Surgeon named Dr. Charles Leale. For most of that tragic night, Leale held the dying president’s hand. He later said “I held his hand firmly to let him know, in his blindness, that he had a friend.” Ladies, it cheers me to think that the patients of Community North know that they too have angels in the darkness.