The Biblical Texts in Memorial Sermons for Abraham Lincoln

“President Lincoln’s Hearse” outside of what appears to be Arch Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (OC-1456)

The Biblical Texts in Memorial Sermons for Abraham Lincoln

Mark Noll


In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, churches and synagogues became the most prominent sites for the nation’s most fervent memorials to the slain president. Usually the centerpiece in these memorial events was a sermon, and almost always the sermon began with a text from the Bible.


As is well known, Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and died the next morning. Ministers throughout the nation scrambled as many set aside sermons prepared for Easter Sunday to preach new discourses responding to the news. At a few synagogues, rabbis had already done the same on Saturday, April 15, although most Jewish sermons honoring the late president, as also most Christian sermons, were delivered on Wednesday, April 19, when memorial ceremonies took place throughout the nation, or on Thursday, June 1, a day designated by President Andrew Johnson for national mourning. It is no surprise that the vast majority of Lincoln memorial sermons that made it into print came from supporters of the Union.


Kayla Gustafson’s informative article in the Winter 2022 issue of Lincoln Lore, “We Mourn Our Fallen Father: Abraham Lincoln’s Easter Sermon and the Beginning of his Martyrdom,” prompted me to revisit some of the research I had earlier carried out on these memorial sermons in the course of writing America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 (2022). As a way of charting changes over time in the nation’s use of Scripture, I wanted to compare the texts found in sermons published for Lincoln with the texts ministers and others chose to memorialize three other American presidents: George Washington after his death in 1799, and then James Garfield and William McKinley after their assassinations in 1881 and 1901.


Rev. John. M. Lowrie (
John M. Lowrie, The Lessons of Our National Sorrow (71200908410099)















In 1865, and as an example especially pertinent to the Friends of the Lincoln Collection, the minister of Fort Wayne’s First Presbyterian Church, John Lowrie, spoke on Easter Sunday from Isaiah 2:22 (“Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?”). From this relatively obscure verse, Lowrie developed a message that bemoaned the evil of the American people, but that also affirmed “the apparent destiny of the Republic . . . our remarkable history seems inseparably linked with the well-being of man.”


Three days later, Joseph Tuttle, president of Wabash College, sought to encourage a Crawfordsville, Indiana, audience with a text from Philippians 4:6 (“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God”). In choosing to speak from the New Testament, Tuttle illustrated a national trend away from interpreting American destiny with ancient Israel as a model to drawing support from the New Testament at times of national crisis. Almost all of the Washington memorial texts had been taken from the Hebrew Scriptures; in 1901, slightly more than half of the texts for McKinley would come from the New Testament. For Lincoln, the proportion of Old Testament to New Testament verses fell in between what was preached for Washington and McKinley.


The focus on Scriptures used in the Lincoln memorial sermons makes sense when remembering the unique status of the Bible in nineteenth-century America. Much of the population, to be sure, remained religiously indifferent or even hostile to traditional faith. Yet compared to any other source guiding formal discourse, providing a vocabulary for moral reasoning, or opening a reservoir of rhetorical tropes that did not need to be explained, the Bible stood alone.


Abraham Lincoln’s skillful use of Scripture is a prime example, especially given that his personal beliefs were a mystery unto himself and that he never joined a church. In large part because of how skillfully he used the Bible, Lincoln’s words became fixed in national consciousness—to make political points (“a house divided against itself cannot stand” from Matthew 12:25), to endue a public statement with gravity (“four score and seven years ago” echoing Psalm 90:1), or to describe the moral significance of the Civil War (four biblical quotations in the short compass of the Second Inaugural Address).


To indicate the scope of the Bible’s presence, it is noteworthy that northern agencies like the American Bible Society (ABS) provided a total of two Bibles (or New Testaments) for each of the more than two and one-half million men who served under arms for the Union. Provision of Scriptures for the million or more Confederate troops was not as extensive, but the ABS and other northern groups managed to sneak perhaps 300,000 Bibles past the Union blockade, and a comparable number of scriptural portions were smuggled in from England for the soldiers.


Another indication of the Scripture’s reach is found in the printing history of the years of conflict, 1861–1865. During that period, twenty-nine different American publishers brought out fifty-five Bible editions, the vast majority providing the Protestants’ King James Version, but also with several printings of Catholic translations and at least six other versions. Bible publishing, as for the print industry as a whole, was concentrated in New York City and Philadelphia, though in that half-decade Bibles were also published in Boston; Baltimore; Cincinnati; Nashville; Hartford, Connecticut; Rochester, New York; Geneva, Illinois; and by the Confederate Bible Society in Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia.


My conclusions from the ninety Lincoln memorial sermons I have read square with what Jay Monaghan earlier found in the 404 he studied and David Chesebrough from the 340 he examined. Shock, mourning, recognition of Lincoln’s heroic stature, and reaffirmation of divine providence generally—and over the destiny of the United States particularly—were the major themes drawn from the texts. A few ministers chose verses featuring vindication against an enemy or punishment of malefactors. A few others rose above sorrow and dismay to encourage specifically Christian responses, or, in the Jewish sermons, the spiritual resources of Judaism.


Rabbi Bernard Illowy (Google Books)
Rev. John C. Lord (













Admiration for the slain president was the main message communicated by the text chosen most often for these sermons, 2 Samuel 3:38 (“And the king said unto his servants, Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?”). Israel’s King David had uttered this lament after one of his soldiers deceitfully murdered the chief general who had served David’s rival and predecessor, King Saul. It had been the verse chosen most frequently for Washington, as it would be also for services to honor Presidents Garfield and McKinley. In the spring of 1865 it gave a host of clerics a prompt as they responded to the national tragedy, including a Maine Episcopalian L. S. Rowland; another Episcopalian, John McCarty in Cincinnati; a Massachusetts Congregationalist, P. B. Day, for a sermon in Concord; John Chase Lord of Buffalo’s Central Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Bernard Illowy in New Orleans; and Rabbi Henry Vidauer in St. Louis.


In Germany, news of the president’s death arrived at Berlin on April 30. Four days later American, English, and German ministers, who had earlier been united in their opposition to slavery, joined together once again, this time for a Todtenfeier to honor Lincoln. For his sermon, the Prussian King’s Hofprediger (court preacher) spoke from this same text.


The messages sparked by 2 Samuel 3:38 covered a spectrum. In Brooklyn, A. N. Littlejohn of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church used it to make a strenuous assault on the southern cause and the unimaginable evil to which it had now led. His conclusion: “Henceforth, slavery will have no apologist in the world’s civilization. The mark of Cain is upon it.” A sermon in Boston by the Baptist minister William Hague deployed the same text to stress the civic meaning of the tragedy. In his eyes, Lincoln had been the “angel of deliverance” who had worked out “for us ‘that great salvation’ which has just now become the most amazing and hopeful of the nineteenth century in the sight of the whole civilized world.” Moreover, “He who raised up Abraham Lincoln from the farm and forest to the chair of state . . . has revealed to them [Europeans], through him, new ideas of the nature of real power.”


Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (OC-0411)

The preachers’ confidence that congregations would recall the heroes from Bible stories guided the choice of several other texts. Although Moses was not invoked as frequently as had been the case for Washington, a number of sermons were organized around incidents from that great lawgiver’s life. The most notable was preached by Henry Ward Beecher at his church, Plymouth Congregational, in Brooklyn. For this brother of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and probably the North’s best-known preacher, words from Deuteronomy 34:1–5 provided his opening to eulogize the fallen president (“And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo. . . . So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord”).


In one of the rare objections raised to such preaching, an anonymous correspondent to a Jewish periodical tried to make a distinction. While the writer saw no problem in expressing “sorrow at the death of the Chief Magistrate of the country,” there was a problem in getting carried away: “Is there a Jew in this whole land, educated in the history and traditions of his people, who would consider a Christian deserving of any of the religious services appertaining to Jewish worship or who in a moment of calm reflection can find any comparison between the late President and their great law-giver ‘whom the Lord knew face to face’?”


Such worries about ascribing sacred meaning to Lincoln’s life did not dissuade Methodist John Baugham in Houghton, Michigan, as he quoted from a New Testament sermon by the Apostle Paul, Acts 13:36 (“For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption”). Charles Robinson of Brooklyn’s First Presbyterian Church also found another Lincoln-model in the New Testament, this one from Luke 23:50 (“And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just”), a passage describing the bystander whom Roman soldiers constrained to carry Jesus’ cross.


As might be expected, sermons in synagogues made more of Abraham Lincoln’s similarity to the patriarch Abraham. But the same trope was also put to use by a few Protestants, including Theodore Cuyler of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn—a congregation proud of being founded by abolitionists. Cuyler spoke from Genesis 24:1 (“And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age: and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things”).


Chaplain Andrew Leete Stone of the 45th Massachusetts Infantry (Library of Congress)

As only to be expected, many of the Lincoln preachers chose texts that simply communicated shock and dismay. For two Boston ministers, the Methodist William Sprague Studley and Andrew Leete Stone of the historic Park Street Church on Boston Commons, verses from Lamentations chapter 5 fulfilled that purpose (“The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned to mourning. The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned!”). Robert Lowry, a New York City Episcopalian, joined many other preachers in turning to 2 Samuel, the Old Testament book narrating Israel’s violent history in the days of King David, and the book that supplied more of the sermon texts than any other in the sermons I examined. As his text, Lowry chose 2 Samuel 19:2 (“And the victory that day was turned into mourning unto all the people: for the people heard say that day how the king was grieved for his son”).


Rev. E. P. Rogers (Google Books)

In many churches, congregations heard sermons that began by affirming God’s control over events, despite the in-breaking of tragedy. At the Dutch Reformed Church in New York City, E. P. Rogers chose Psalm 96:10 (“Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously”). In Berlin, an American, H. B. Tappan, spoke in German from Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God”). For Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia Presbyterian almost as well-known, and also as controversial in his denomination as Henry Ward Beecher was among the Congregationalists, Isaiah 44:24–25, 28 served the same purpose. (“Thus saith the Lord, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the Lord that maketh all things. . . . That saith of Cyprus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure”).


Rev. Albert Barnes (Collection of Jonathan W. White)

When William Ives Buddington of the Clinton Avenue Congregational Church in Brooklyn sought a text with the same message, he drew on a verse that had been enlisted at another crisis in earlier American history. Buddington preached from Psalm 76:10 (“Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain”), the same text that John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, had expounded in May 1776 as he urged a New Jersey audience to join the struggle for independence.


One of the rare published sermons from the South also enlisted a historically renowned passage. A Baptist, Richard Fuller of South Carolina, spoke in Baltimore from the text that Lincoln himself had made famous, Matthew 12:25 (“every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”).


Rev. Richard Fuller (

Preachers, like the Rev. Edwin B. Webb at Boston’s Shawmut Congregational Church and Rabbi David Einhorn at Philadelphia’s Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, who sought a word of hope to counter grief, found such a word in Isaiah 21:11–12 (“Watchmen, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night”).


Some clergymen, however, had not hope, but vengeance, in mind as they selected their texts. A Universalist minister in Buffalo, J. Hazard Hartzell, used 2 Samuel 22:28 for that purpose (“And the afflicted people thou wilt save: but thine eyes are upon the haughty, that thou mayest bring them down”). More explicit was one of the two sermons that Henry A. Nelson, a Presbyterian from St. Louis, preached in Springfield, Illinois, on May 6, two days after the slain president’s interment in the new tomb the city had constructed. Its text, 2 Samuel 18:32 (“And the king said unto Cushi, Is the young man Absalom safe? And Cushi answered, The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is [that is, slain]”), served perfectly for an address that Nelson entitled “The Fit End of Treason.” As he rehearsed the many causes for northern anger, he asked, “who will be able to separate in thought the murder of the President, from Davis’ persistent effort to murder the Union?”


Emma Hardinge (Wikimedia Commons)
Emma Hardinge, The Great Funeral Oration on Abraham Lincoln (71200908403782)












By contrast, occasional notes of Christian forbearance were heard, but only occasionally. A notable instance came from one of the few women to leave a published memorial. Emma Hardinge, an English spiritualist and effective campaigner for Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, began her address at New York City’s Cooper Institute by quoting Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”).


For addresses that regularly canvassed a range of reactions, it was only fitting that ministers sometimes spoke from more than one verse. As an example, Samuel Chenery Damon, a missionary to Hawaii known as a strong supporter of the islands’ Chinese Christians,

enlisted two texts for the sermon he preached at Honolulu’s Seamen’s Chapel: Psalm 75:7 (“But God is the judge: he putteth down, and setteth up another”) and John 13:7 (“Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shall know hereafter”).


Henry J. Fox of the Sands Street Methodist Church in Brooklyn let four texts outline a sermon in which he opined that Lincoln’s only fault had been erring on the side of mercy: Jeremiah 9:21 (“For death is come up into our windows, and is entered into our palaces, to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets”); Isaiah 27:7 (“Hath he smitten him, as he smote those that smote him? or is he slain according to the slaughter of them that are slain by him?”); Proverbs 24:10 (“If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small”); and Hebrews 10:30 (“For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people”).


“St. Clement’s Church, Philadelphia,” where Treadwell Walden served as rector from 1863 to 1869 (he is likely the minister in this photograph). (Collection of Jonathan W. White)

One of the most unusual publications included sermons of mourning preached on Sunday, April 16, and Wednesday, April 19, after the assassination, but printed with a sermon of jubilation from Sunday, April 9, which had celebrated the Union capture of Richmond. Their author was a Philadelphia Episcopalian, Treadwell Walden. For April 9 he had made the uncanny choice of John 11:50 (“it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”) to explain how the Union dead could be likened to Christ foreseeing on Palm Sunday that he must soon be crucified. That sermon was full of civil religion: “The Hebrew Commonwealth, ‘in which all the families of the earth were to be blest,’ was not more a part of the whole world’s concern than is this Republic. There has been no other people and no other cause, save one, for which Christ himself could so soon have come and died. . . . Oh, see the cross! The cross of our country’s sacrifice [e.g., bloody battles] and our salvation. . . . The Easter Sun of the Republic is already dawning. The day of peace and joy and prosperity is at hand. The Kingdom is come.”


For the second sermon, Walden’s mood changed dramatically, but the same text allowed him to say that “the only consolation we have is, that in some mysterious way, the death of Abraham Lincoln will work a greater result than his life.” On April 19, Walden spoke from Jeremiah 8:15 (“We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble”). It led him to condemn peremptorily all who had caused the war: “The best result that we can foresee . . . is not only the annihilation of the rebellion, and the rebuke of treason, but the merciless extinguishment of the sentiment in which they originated. Whether by execution, or expatriation, those minds will be removed from our midst in whom the infernal flame burns.”


As much as the texts chosen for Lincoln memorial sermons revealed the complex character of Union anguish at that time, they also pointed to a significant shift in national self-consciousness. When Washington died, as for a few of the examples we have seen from 1865, the parallel between the United States and the Hebrews of the Old Testament loomed large. T. R. Howlett, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., recalled that parallel by choosing Psalm 147:20 (“He has not dealt so with any nation”) as the text for his sermon, which began, “I hope I do not abuse this beautiful passage—applying it to our own country. Is it not as true of us as of ancient Israel?”


Isaac Mayer Wise, leading Cincinnati rabbi and newspaper editor, who became a Lincoln eulogist and admirer after years of criticism. (National Portrait Gallery)

Yet only a few preachers in 1865 drew this parallel to preach jeremiads, which had been common in 1799–1800. (The term “jeremiad” comes from the prophet Jeremiah’s denunciation of Judah’s sins that, according to the prophet, had led directly to the nation’s captivity by Babylon.) Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati was one of the very few who emphasized in his address what many ministers had stressed two generations earlier: that since the American people had been visited with affliction, it was imperative for the entire community to turn in repentance to God. In his sermon for George Washington, the Rev. John Armstrong of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, had spoken from 2 Samuel 3:38 to admonish his hearers: “if we continue to provoke him, he can inflict judgments upon us much more severe” than witnessed in Israel’s history; so “let us with one consent, strive to walk in the fear of God.”


Rabbi Wise sought the same response from Cincinnati’s B’nai Yeshurun congregation on Saturday, April 19, when he took words from Genesis/Bereshit chapter 13 as one of his texts (“And the Lord said unto Abram. . . . So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken to him”). The sermon was a classical jeremiad: “How can we honor best the memory of Abraham Lincoln? Repent of your sins, ‘Return, Israel, to the Lord thy God, for thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity,’ this deplorable event cries, with a loud voice, God has punished us grievously. His mighty hand inflicted a deep and burning wound upon the heart of the nation, and He is just.”


In moving from the sermons for Washington to the sermons for Lincoln, a shift was taking place away from rhetoric keyed to Old Testament demands for personal moral purity and toward rhetoric taken from both testaments describing the destiny of the United States. In 1865, congregations often heard a message that, while still emphasizing God’s control of events, focused more on the nation’s position in the world. So it was that William Hague of Boston spoke for many others in the lesson he took from the tragedy. It concerned the United States’ new global prominence: We have, he said, proved to the world “that our republican government had enough of coherent strength to withstand the shocks of a great rebellion.”


In a sermon preached to his Baptist church in Utica, New York, A. S. Patton included the same conclusion with the other lessons he drew after choosing Jeremiah 48:17 for his text (“All ye that are about him, bemoan him; and all ye that know his name, say, How is the strong staff broken, and the beautiful rod!”): First, “the murder of the President is but a crowning illustration of the desperate and brutal spirit of rebellion.” Second, “the duty of executing justice is the vindication of violated law.” Third, the outcome of the war, despite the terrible tragedy of an assassination, confirms “the soundness of our Republican form of government.” And fourth, despite reversals, believers should “cherish unshaken confidence in God.”


Citizens wait in line on May 3 or 4, 1865, to view Lincoln’s body in the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois. Rev. Henry Brown, a Black minister in Springfield, stands near the front of the line holding a cane. (Library of Congress)


As the nation’s nonpareil source of rhetoric, moral insight, and spiritual guidance, the Bible’s deployment at times of national crisis revealed much about the nation. The texts chosen for memorial sermons in the spring of 1865 certainly illustrated the extraordinary scriptural knowledge of American preachers, even as they also showed the confidence of preachers in their congregants’ respect for biblical wisdom. In that hour nothing served better than the Bible to register shock, express grief, fuel vengeance, and recall the mysteries of providence. Yet it remains a question whether speakers and their audiences were learning from Scripture or simply exploiting the Scriptures as a handy rhetorical reference. Few at that time, or since, have drawn from the Bible what Abraham Lincoln seemed to conclude from his biblical references in the Second Inaugural Address. He ended by appealing for “malice toward none . . . charity for all” alongside “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” As so often in the United States’ history, so also at the death of Lincoln, it was easier to urge “firmness in the right” from Scripture than to inspire “malice toward none.”


Mark Noll, professor of history emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (2016) and America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Nation, 1794–1911 (2022).