A presidential holiday season

  • January 9, 2013

This New Year opened with a distinctly presidential flavour. First, I saw the two hit movies about U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. (Both I highly recommend, especially Lincoln.) Second, I received two fascinating books: The Jefferson Bible by Thomas Jefferson and The Words Lincoln Lived By from Lincoln historian Gene Griessman.

The presidents featured in these movies and books are three of the best. Lincoln, once famously described as a man with too few vices to ever possibly become president, has always been at the top of my list as the greatest in U.S. history. And the other two would make my Top 10, although Hyde Park on Hudson reaffirms that when it comes to personal morality, FDR was the Bill Clinton or John Kennedy of his era.

Jefferson, who authored the renowned words in the U.S. Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal,” also had flaws. How could a man write such immortal words and, at the same time, own slaves? After his wife died, he fathered the children of Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. But it can be a mug’s game to judge the morals of others, especially from different eras.

Like the two movies, I enjoyed The Jefferson Bible and The Words Lincoln Lived By. They are both intimate windows into the minds and spirituality of these historical figures. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln was a regular church-goer, but both were deeply inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Each president grappled with hard decisions when events seemed to be against the teachings of Jesus. For example, seemingly counter to the Prince of Peace’s message, Lincoln waged war to save the Union and free the slaves. In other words, the end justified the means.

More on Lincoln, but first a few words about The Jefferson Bible. It is a fascinating little book in which Jefferson took copies of the four Gospels in four different languages — English, French, Greek and Latin — and with a razor and glue, he meticulously cut and pasted various passages into a notebook of 82 pages that is now enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution. (At Christmas, I was given a replica of this book as well as an easy-to-read English version.)

The project, which he began during his presidency between 1801 and 1809, took Jefferson 17 years to complete. He once described Jesus’ teaching as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals.” And yet, Jefferson, likely influenced by his fellow revolutionary, Thomas Paine, must have believed that reason and science trump religious belief because The Jefferson Bible does not include any of the miracles, only Jesus’ teachings. Indeed, he calls the miraculous healings, demonic possessions and resurrections “artificial scaffolding” around the great teachings and messages of Jesus.

Catholics, obviously, cannot agree with Jefferson on that point, but reading his book is nonetheless interesting: first, the Gospels are beautiful literature in any form and one cannot be reminded of Jesus’ teachings too many times; second, imagining a U.S. president meticulously cutting and pasting, night-after-night while in office, shows the great influence Jesus had on him and his decision-making. That has to be a good thing.

Like Jefferson, Lincoln was accused by political opponents of atheism because he belonged to no particular church. Although Lincoln was not a religious man in the traditional sense, he was “a religious man by nature,” said his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Lincoln could quote many psalms from memory, he talked of Almighty God regularly, especially in war cabinet meetings, he preached mercy and magnanimity, and he loved talking in parables to get his point across. In fact, I would wager Jesus had more influence on his life than any other.

Griessman’s book is a stirring collection of Lincoln quotes (with Griessman adding context along the way) that can be read all at once, in piecemeal or even back to front. It is laced with spiritual guidance that makes one ponder and reflect on life; from courage and honesty, to time management and focus, to forgiveness and compassion.

During the Civil War, Lincoln was asked if God was on the North’s side. He replied: “I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

Lincoln often preached the power of forgiveness and its positive impact on those granting it; once stating that when “any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him.” It is a good lesson, especially for me, because the healing power of forgiveness on those harmed is often understated.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@ abc2.ca.)


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