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One of the Sangamon County, Illinois, spots "sacred" to the renowned Methodist itinerant preacher, Peter Cartwright, was the Spring Creek camp ground six miles west of Springfield. Also known as "Watter's Camp-Ground" after an early owner of the land, Spring Creek featured "the first church ... ever built in Sangamon County ," a Methodist meetinghouse known as Salem—"really a log-cabin, about eighteen feet by twenty"—on the adjacent grounds of which "many, very many, glorious camp meetings were held" between 1825 and the Civil War. Spring Creek had everything natural that was necessary to an encampment: good water, timber, and open meadows, where the people could pitch their tents and the church could erect an ample preaching shed. Cartwright loved the place dearly, because, as he recalled, "several of my children were converted [there]," along with "many of my best friends." During his years as Presiding Elder for the Sangamon District of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Cartwright favored Spring Creek for the autumn quarterly gathering of preachers and church members. These were three-day outdoor events, sociable picnics and serious camp-meeting revival services where the preachers worked long into the night to harvest the souls of those who had lately harvested the hay and corn and wheat. Cartwright had of course led camp-meetings at "Watter's," and with considerable success; but on one particular occasion he was to be a silent watcher at a remarkable performance by this greatest Illinois Methodist rival, Peter Akers.
The date was August 13, 1837, a Sunday. Peter Akers was at the time superintending the Ebenezer Manual Labor School, a Methodist-sponsored seminary located on the Akers farm four miles Page [End Page 27] northwest of Jacksonville. He had come to Spring Creek camp meeting to preach at the invitation of the Sangamon Circuit pastor, George Rutledge. Having transferred to Illinois from Kentucky in 1832, Akers had in five years become widely known and appreciated for his learned if lengthy sermons—often running over three hours and full of large allegorical applications of scripture. While this was not the sort of sermonizing we would expect westerners to admire—and far from the emotional whirlwinds of Cartwright—Akers enjoyed a revivalist reputation equal to or, in the eyes of some of his Methodist fellow preachers, even exceeding the other "Uncle Peter's." One of these, who as a young man had heard Akers many times, and later became both a Methodist bishop and an authority on the American pulpit, went so far as to deem him "the greatest Bible preacher that ever preached on the continent."  William Henry Milburn also marveled at Akers's ability to reach a western audience: "You wondered how his massive thoughts, his lofty line of reasoning, mighty unfoldings of the deep things of the holy Scriptures (for almost every sermon was an apocalypse, an uncovering of the mysteries), could hold as with a spell the plain, unlearned people of the border." 
There was another young admirer of Akers in the audience that day: William Rutledge, in training for the ministry and the son of the circuit preacher whose camp meeting it was. William, at seventeen, was a student at Ebenezer,  and had come over to Spring Page [End Page 28] Creek on a kind of unexpected holiday, a good opportunity for him to hear the preaching and visit his father. Rutledge sat (or more likely stood) near the front of the large open area for the crowd, close to the preaching platform and altar. He was in the company of five other Ebenezer students, three of them Chippewas being trained for missionary work in their nation. Eager and interested as he and his comrades were, they could not have foreseen how memorable the event would prove to be. The young Rutledge was sufficiently moved by what he saw and heard that he remembered it graphically all his life, though he waited more than fifty years to write his account of the events at Spring Creek. It is his memoir from 1890 that forms the basis of this narrative. While not the earliest version of the events, it is the most detailed, comprehensive and coherent; and, as we shall see, it is the most nearly verifiable. Precisely for what audience Rutledge originally spoke or wrote is not clear. Perhaps he was attempting to correct or amplify an earlier account he may have seen in a newspaper; or what he published may have been based on a speech given at some sort of ceremonial event, such as a Grand Army of the Republic encampment, or a Memorial Day or Fourth of July celebration. All we know for sure is that Rutledge says he was "writing" his piece "in sight of" the Lincoln monument in Springfield, which presumably means at Oak Ridge Cemetery. The text, quoted in full in the notes, appeared in the July 17, 1890, number of the New York Christian Advocate.  Page [End Page 29]
Likewise in attendance at the Spring Creek camp meeting was Abraham Lincoln. He had come out from Springfield in a party of ten, including two physicians who were also local Methodist min- Page [End Page 30] isters, Jacob Early and Francis McNeill.  Rattling along in a "band wagon," the horses and human company had been the objects of "a most humorous criticism" from Lincoln, teasing that they en- Page [End Page 31] dured until "Dr. McNeal [sic] ... reminded him of the grave errand on which they were going." Lincoln took the rebuke kindly, for according to Rutledge he "cherished a profound respect" for McNeill, and the group spent the rest of the trip putting on their best faces, serious or pious as the case might individually be.
When they reached the campground, the "warm up act" had already begun: the Rev. John T. Mitchell delivering "a strong sermon on the Divinity of Christ." When Mitchell ended, the crowd heard a scripture lesson, sang a hymn and watched expectantly as Akers took the stand. He announced his text, Zechariah 9:9–10:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, they King cometh unto thee; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass.
And I will cut off the chariot from E'phraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off; and he shall speak peace unto the nations; and his dominion shall be Page [End Page 32] from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.
Though Akers spoke to his Spring Creek congregation for a full three hours, ringing changes on the Zechariah text and introducing other prophetic matter from Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation, Rutledge listened to it all "with fixed attention." He took notes throughout, as a dutiful student would have, and these, preserved over the decades as an aid to his "excellent memory," would have allowed him even in old age (Rutledge was seventy in 1890) to "reproduce the entire sermon" had he wished to do so. Instead, he concentrated—because this was what most interested history and his audience—on the section of Akers's address "that elicited from Mr. Lincoln for the first time ... the expression, oft repeated afterward concerning his own life-work, that some regarded as superstition."
Akers asserted that despite this fallen world's worst efforts to degrade humanity utterly, "Babylon's" time was almost over, for a "Son" had been anointed and enthroned, and henceforth "'the government shall be upon his shoulders.'" But who was this "Son" and what would be the mission of his "government"? In standard Christian biblical typology, the Old Testament prophesied what would be fulfilled in the Gospel: the messiahship of Jesus. Yet this Page [End Page 33] linear connection between prefigurement and realization is not what Akers is claiming. In quoting Ezekiel 21:27, "I will overturn, overturn, overturn it, and it shall be no more, until he comes whose right it is; and I will give it him," Akers alters the prophet's "I" to "He" and the "it" that will be given to "reign": "He will overturn, overturn, till He shall come whose right it is' to reign."
Hence there are two agents of the Lord God coming: one to "overturn" Babylon by scourging it, the other to redeem the world and initiate the "kingdom" (chiliastic or heavenly). Further to complicate the perspective, Rutledge makes Akers the prophet's prophet, his text now from Revelation 18:9–19): "So he [Akers] led us to the heights that overlooked her [Babylon's} overthrow and 'the smoke of her burning:'"
Biblical Babylon was consumed because of its "whoring"—which is not to be taken merely as its creatural sins but rather as the political sins of injustice and opposition to the church. Akers now extended the historical allegory to fit the moral and political condition of the world, and the United States particularly, in the decades following his standpoint in time, 1837:
Rutledge recalled that "men cringed and cowered under words so plainly spoken, for it was near the time of the terrible Lovejoy tragedy in Alton, and a majority of that audience were from Southern States and had been directly or indirectly connected with slavery." The typical upland southern settler in Illinois viewed abolitionism and its proponents as Yankee meddling and meddlers. Even when ex-southerners such as Cartwright despised slavery and had emigrated to escape its shadow, they often hated abolitionists more, or at the very least thought their policies counterproductive to the end they sought (Lincoln and Cartwright were in this latter group). Throughout the summer of 1837, Illinois had been facing a minor political and social crisis brought on by "Yankee" abolitionist activity. In the town of Alton, abolitionist editor and Presbyterian minister Elijah Lovejoy, having crossed the Mississippi from St. Louis in 1836 to live in a state where he assumed his civil right to publish what he believed was protected, had spent much of his time facing down mobs and buying new printing presses to replace the ones successively dumped in the river. Lovejoy's recent Page [End Page 35] difficulties in the slave state of Missouri had become national news, and it is safe to say that Illinoisans, whatever their views on slavery, were anxious about what his removal to Alton portended. But despite strong opposition, and careless of personal danger, Lovejoy had continued publishing his antislavery newspaper, the Alton Observer, until he was shot dead by unknown assailants, members of a mob attacking his offices, on the night of November 8. With the abolitionist editor safely dispatched, they tumbled his last press, the fourth, into the muddy deep.
Perhaps Akers prophesied more imminently than he knew. Elijah Lovejoy's "martyrdom" three months after Spring Creek became a national rallying point for abolitionism in the north. On that August Sunday in 1837, Rutledge declares, Akers touched the people's conscience concerning the gravest moral, social, and political issue Illinois and the United States had ever confronted, and one that would take another quarter of a century to resolve. They were "dazed and overwhelmed" in the wake of his prophetic eloquence, rose to their feet and "stood in silence" when he finished his three hours' speaking. And so deep and lasting was the impression upon the community, that folks talked of the event for years afterward: and they recalled Peter Akers's words "as they tearfully girded their boys for battle in 1861–62."
What Presiding Elder Peter Cartwright thought of the sermon and its galvanic effect on the people we do not know. Ever since his own conversion in the Kentucky Revival in 1801, he had cherished the evangelical even as he deplored the apocalyptic. One of his early ministries had been against the Shakers's "big lie" of the imminent kingdom, and for more than thirty years he had preached against the humbug of false prophets who claimed they and they alone knew from God that the second coming was at hand. Thus we would expect him to react negatively to the Peter Akers prophecy, which he probably did—in private. Yet because Akers was a colleague and a sometime friend, as well as a rival for preaching pre-eminence in the Illinois Conference, Cartwright kept his opinion to himself. The Autobiography is silent concerning Spring Creek. The only known documentation linking him to the camp meeting is a laconic report he submitted to the Illinois Conference, fulfilling his presiding elder's duty: "P. Cartwright writes Aug. 23rd, '37, that Page [End Page 36] on Sangamon Circuit was a good camp-meeting and about 50 obtained religion."
William Rutledge's story is sincerely told as true and has a convincing air, both in outline and in detail. And since the principal actor in Akers's vision of a coming national drama was supposedly present and listening attentively, we would like to agree with Rutledge that the sermon occasioned a kind of epiphany for Abraham Lincoln—the narratives of biography and history are the more compelling for this kind of foreshadowing. But the last and most important part of Rutledge's testimony, concerning Lincoln's reaction to Akers, came at second hand, heard after the event from a "Brother Arnie Robertson." Riding back to Springfield that evening, Lincoln had sat in silence as the others, the doctor-preachers and the lawyers, mulled over Akers's discourse. Finally, when asked directly for his opinion, Lincoln "thoughtfully" responded:
Abraham Lincoln "strangely mixed up with" God's coming redemption of the world? This is a startling correspondence with something Orville Hickock Browning said about the early Lincoln. The young man he was coming to know had shown "a strong conviction that he was born for better things than then seemed likely or even possible." If Lincoln actually said these sentences, or something close to them, he was by 1837 far from the "infidel" he was said to have been in the New Salem and first Springfield years (and which Cartwright continued to accuse him of being a decade later in the congressional race). But before examining the possible consequences of this "religious" side of the man to Lincoln biography, we should examine Rutledge's report as skeptically as we can in order to see if it deserves credibility. Page [End Page 37]
Some of Rutledge's narrative details are indisputable: the camp meeting did occur when and where advertised, Peter Akers did speak, Rutledge and his fellow-students from Ebenezer were present (he even notes the names of the Chippewas). And his later character as a minister, Civil War chaplain and founding-member of the Grand Army of the Republic all bolster his claim to be a reliable witness. What he says he saw and heard we can therefore take as very probably true, including both the contextual details of the camp meeting and the scriptural texts and substance of Akers's long sermon.
Lincoln's place in the narrative is more problematic, however. In a negative sense, he could have been present, since he is not reported as being anywhere else.  The mention of Lincoln's facetiousness on the way out to Spring Creek sounds typical (his making fun of the poor nags drawing the bandwagon is a suggestive detail), for his friends often noted such joking as the yang to his melancholic yin, and his "betters" sometimes called him down for a lack of seriousness. But positive evidence, especially concerning Lincoln's surprisingly personal response to Akers's preaching, is hard to come by. Rutledge recalled that he learned that Lincoln had attended the meeting from "one of the number" who rode out from Springfield, but he does not name this source. Both of the men he does name, though, were bona fide Methodist ministers and physicians then living in Springfield, and one of them, Francis McNeill, is named in other sources as a Whig acquaintance and a political supporter of Lincoln, perhaps justifying to an extent Rutledge's remark that Lincoln "cherished a profound respect for Dr. McNeal."  As for what Lincoln allegedly said on the return trip to Springfield, Rutledge's information, as noted above, came from Page [End Page 38] a source who Rutledge implies was among the party (which Rutledge himself clearly was not). "Brother Arnie Robertson," while not yet conclusively identified, is very probably Arnold R. Robinson, a long-time Springfield resident, minor public servant, leader among the local Masons, and active Whig. From his many offices and civic activities in Springfield between the 1830s and the Civil War—crier of the United States courts, election clerk, militiaman, temperance society official, to name the most important—Robinson seems to have been the sort of person likely to have been included in the wagon trip to hear Akers at Spring Creek. Also in favor of his identification is Robinson's Masonic membership, which might explain Rutledge's referring to his "Arnie Robertson" as a "brother," even though he was not a fellow Methodist preacher.
Taken altogether, then, there is reason to believe that Rutledge's entire story, including the secondhand part is true as told. Would this mean that Lincoln, after his epiphany of August, 1837, saw Page [End Page 39] himself propelled toward a destiny of "changes and revolutions," ordained by a Christian, even a Calvinist God? Did Lincoln's strangely confessional response to his companions on the road back to Springfield indicate that the Akers sermon had somehow moved him from a belief in a blind sort of fatalism ("the doctrine of necessity," as Lincoln himself referred to it) to one of Christian providential design? And what was it about Akers's matter and manner of preaching that had inclined Lincoln toward him, where he had mercilessly ridiculed Cartwright in their pamphlet war over Illinois public schools in 1834, and showed not the slightest sign of taking his brand of Methodist evangelism seriously? Of the two "Uncle Peters," in other words, why was Lincoln susceptible to Peter Akers and impervious to Peter Cartwright?
Politics was surely basic to Lincoln's "visceral" reaction to Cartwright, the "Democracy's" local gadfly, whose irritating presence Lincoln could not escape as they both so frequently traveled through the same space in Sangamon and neighboring central Illinois counties—respectively circuit riders of man's and God's law. But Akers was evidently not much of anything politically, except polite. And he had no public persona outside the Methodist Episcopal Church. Just as adamantly anti-slavery, just as committed to Methodism, Akers kept a much lower profile than Cartwright, and to the extent that Lincoln knew of him it was through his reputation as an educator and a preacher. And that is why Lincoln could listen to him: as an avuncular teacher and a man of ideas. The religion Lincoln had heard from Cartwright emphasized individual conversion: personal, confessional, "experimental"—all awash in a torrent of emotion that was both cause and effect of self-surrender and the (temporary) annihilation of reason. To Lincoln this was ridiculous if not pernicious, and entirely unsuitable to his rationalist temperament. But what he heard from the Akers pulpit was general and intellectual: religion should be a matter of "rational belief," the application of which tended toward discovering what was true here and hereafter: in this case an allegorical reading of scripture in order to foresee how and when God's historical design would be fulfilled.
Cartwright insisted he could choose; Lincoln desired to be chosen. And Akers's flight of prophecy seemed to validate that desire ("Thou marshall'st me the way I was going.") through a providential scheme in which he could both lead and be led. It is interesting that some other accounts of the Akers sermon go so far as to say that the preacher made his allegory apply explicitly to slavery Page [End Page 40] and indicated that the chosen "Son" upon whose shoulders the civil task of purging the horrid institution from the land stood right there listening among the congregation. As Francis Grierson embellished the scene in Abraham Lincoln: Practical Mystic (1919), Lincoln is to be the "anointed one."
Prophetic sermons such as Akers's vision of an American apocalypse ran the risk of slipping into a vulgar Calvinism, which is probably why one encounters so few of the kind among Methodist preachers, and why Rutledge was so intent on denying that Akers presumed to be a prophet ("let none think that this humble man of God ever posed as a prophet—never.") But even if Akers was speaking as "a student of prophets" rather than as one himself inspired, his interpretation of scripture was undeniably prophetic and to his audience more important (because so close to home) than the texts themselves. And what Akers's medley of Old and New Testament prophets is covertly announcing, with Akers deciphering, is that God has foreordained a crucial intervention into American history and elected someone human to do this superhuman job.
During his boyhood days in Indiana, Lincoln had received regular doses of Baptist Calvinism at the Regular Baptist Church of Pigeon Creek, whose creed included an article of predestination: "we believe in Election by grace given in Jesus Christ Before the world began & that God Cawls regenerates & Sanctifies all who are made meat for Glory by his special grace." And if the Christianity of Page [End Page 41] Baptist Calvinism didn't take with the boy, the fatalism inherent in it did: Lincoln the young man brooded over the problem of free will and human action in a universe apparently determined; and as much as he wanted, in his "free thinking" New Salem days, to throw off the unreasonable burdens of a religion and a church that had him damned or saved, chosen or disregarded, "meat for glory" or meat for Satan, in accordance with "God's eternal decrees" given even before the world and time began, he did not yet know how to create a meaningful self from the existential fact of freedom and the power of the human mind to make something of it. Though drawn to Cartwright's doctrine of free choice for humankind and free grace offered from God, he could stomach neither the emotionalism associated with conversion nor the "group-think" of camp-meeting crowds; at the same time, though troubled by Calvinism's predestinarian tenet, so anti-democratic and socially unprogressive, he found its metaphysics fascinating and intellectually engaging. Throughout his life he remained a fatalist. And not just in theology: his "doctrine of necessity," as Allen C. Guelzo has pointed out, extended from "God's eternal decrees" right through the material universe and into the human mind, forming a consistent philosophy much like the radical determinism of Jeremy Bentham: everything was caused, and everything human caused by self-interest. Given this dark encroachment of fate, how could he live a life of autonomy in a self-authorizing democracy—something he wanted for himself and his fellow citizens—yet play an important part in a grand design transcendently set? Both of these "lives" required being elected, but only political office involved a vote of the people (though paradoxically in a Calvinist world the latter would determine the "democratic" outcome of the former). He would never be able to solve this philosophical dilemma, as who indeed could? 
Sometime in early September 1862, with the war going badly for the North, his commanding general McClellan driving him to distraction, and a decision to make on promulgating the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln, in a mood of profound depression, set down the following paragraph, perhaps as a note for his reply later in the month to the two ministers who presented him with a "Chicago Emancipation Memorial," or perhaps as a private "Meditation on the Divine Will:" Page [End Page 42]
Five and a half months after the Spring Creek camp meeting, on January 27, 1838, Lincoln stood before the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum—a kind of literary and debating society for the improving would-be leaders of the community—and delivered a sermon of his own. Known to historians as the "Lyceum Address," it was formally entitled "The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions," and was a sermon on political religion (a phrase he actually employed in the discourse) replete with a biblical text (though announced only at the end of the sermon), jeremiad, and prophecy.  Lincoln's text was Matthew 16:18, Jesus's declaration to Peter (here quoted in full), "And I say unto thee, That thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades [Lincoln: 'hell'] shall not prevail against it." Lincoln's "church" was the American Republic, Page [End Page 44] covenanted to the people by the blood of the Revolution and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The jeremiad warned that the outbreaks of "mobocracy" prevalent in the 1830s—all his instances are of violent injustice to those on the social margins, especially slaves and people of color: Lincoln denounces recent lynchings in Mississippi and St. Louis, though the unmentioned Lovejoy murder hovered over the audience like a ghost of conscience—direly threatened the rule of law, which was the essence of the republican covenant and which could be sustained only through "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason." And Lincoln prophesied that if the rule of law were not universally restored in the Republic, and soon, the people would become alienated from their government, indifferent to politics, and finally unwilling to keep vigilant in defense of freedom. Such a deplorable rending of the covenant would make America ripe for a dictatorship, for the appearance of some "towering genius" of vaulting ambition, one who might not be evil but would certainly act amorally:
Is it reasonable then to expect, that some men possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down. 
Many generations of readers of the "Lyceum Address" have naturally wondered whether Lincoln had any particular person in mind as his "loftiest genius" who would "spring up among us" and proceed to pull down the Republic. A few "depth psychologists" have thought that Lincoln was warning America against himself and his own ambition, which Herndon memorably described as "a little engine that knew no rest;"  others have argued that, Page [End Page 45] just as he knew his Springfield audience would be thinking of Lovejoy's martyrdom as he indicted "mobocracy," they would also readily identify Stephen A. Douglas as the nation-devouring beast-to-come from the "family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle."
But the valence of allegorical prophecy is always changing its sign: like a drawing-compass with one foot anchored in eternity, the other temporarily fixes its point in ever-new historical contexts; and reading an allegory entails that, for every compass-point in history, we measure and analyze both the distance between time and the timeless and the arc of circumference the compass describes between historical events—Lincoln at Spring Creek in August, 1837, Lincoln in Washington, in March and April, 1865. We may say therefore that Lincoln's genius of great ambition could be himself and any of several men of his acquaintance who, like Douglas, were driven by a will-to-power too anarchic to be in the harness of the Republican Covenant and its founding documents. Yet they can be so identified only because of their positive or negative relation to the archetype, in this case the civil-religious counterpart of Revelation's "Antichrist." Yet, again, as all three of our Spring Creek actors—Akers and Lincoln and Cartwright—knew, what makes prophecy so ambivalent is knowing whether any particular historical manifestation or interpretation of the archetype is positive or negative. "God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time." And what God could not be, humankind could not be: Lincoln's rationalism would not allow him to repeal the law of contradiction, though so many dilemmas in life and politics required "both/and" rather than "either/or." In the late 1830s we see in the young man in his late 20s the emergence of a kind of "active agnostic:" one who willed his mind to search despite the opacity of the subject, God's will, which in turn his humor and intelligence told him might well be willing him to will himself. Calvinist election is an occasion of hubris: the candidate cannot know, and for all Lincoln, or Akers, could tell, the Son soon to come might as likely be the Antichrist as the Savior. For his part, Cartwright satirized such rational pretension as moral blindness: the world had already been redeemed through Christ's atonement; but the only way to participate in this miracle was by experiencing conversion, Page [End Page 46] an emotional cleansing of the heart that banished doubt from the mind: "Who feels it knows it, Lord."
If Cartwright was a purer Methodist than Akers, the two Peters did have a patch of common ground on which they, and Lincoln, could safely stand together. This common ground was the field of republican ritual drama, where the paradox of Whitman's epigraph to Leaves of Grass, "One's self I sing, a simple, separate person,/Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse," can be held for a moment out of time in resolution (the law of contradiction not repealed but suspended). For Cartwright, it was a matter of tending to the health of individual souls—though they be multiplied by thousands at camp meetings—whose beautiful regeneration was expressed in a single spontaneous shout—though echoed and amplified throughout the crowd. For Akers, the work was introspective, the quiet and patient singular mind finding out God's will in order to do it. Surely Lincoln was here closer to Akers's Christianity than to Cartwright's. But in terms of civil religion, he was with his old antagonist: while Peter Akers's eyes were generally on heaven and transcendence, Peter Cartwright preached a continuous republican renewal based on the civil-sacred reenactments of the Revolution. After all, Cartwright's father had fought and bled for the new nation while serving in the Virginia Continental Line. As Harry V. Jaffa provocatively suggests, "for Lincoln ... the moral and political teaching of the Gospels had an apocalyptic fulfillment in the American founding."
In the progress of the American Republic, there would be lots of small-apocalypses along the way to the big A (if any). This is what William Henry Milburn meant when he said of Peter Akers that his "every sermon was an apocalypse"—from the Greek "to uncover," the revelation of a mystery, not the end of mystery: the fullness of time, time and again, rather than the end of time. In this sense, even the Civil War would be an apocalypse, though it consume its anointed Son. If Abraham Lincoln was really there at the Spring camp-ground on August 13, 1837; if he really said what Rutledge recorded about the effect of Akers's sermon on him; then we must conclude that the experience would have made an impor- Page [End Page 47] tant difference in his self-development. Dark doubts concerning his ability and purpose in life would of course continue to impinge. But to the extent that he now believed his was a special destiny, Lincoln could move forward as one elected, chosen: "It is wonderful that God has given such power to men." Page [End Page 48]
- Peter Cartwright, Autobiography, ed. W. P. Strickland (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1856), 387–88; "Nineteenth Century History," in Alice Martin, ed., Celebrate 1993! A History of the New Salem United Methodist Church, the Oldest Church in Sangamon County (Privately printed and distributed by the church), 1.
- William Rutledge, "Akers and Lincoln, or, a Sermon on Prophecies," Christian Advocate, July 17, 1890, p. 459, col. 5. Rutledge's is the most authoritative account of the events at Salem (Spring Creek), yet it does not give the date of Akers's sermon. Charles Henry Fowler, in Patriotic Orations (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1910), 89, notes the date as Aug. 11. But most sources that use the story have Akers preaching on the Sabbath. According to a perpetual calendar, Aug. 11, 1837, was a Friday; the nearest Sunday was the 13th, which is the date used here. It is likely that this was a three-day meeting (Friday through Sunday), and at least plausible that Akers was present throughout, but that he in fact preached—and Lincoln attended—on Sunday the 13th. Information on the Ebenezer seminary comes from an anonymous manuscript, "Ebenezer Manual Labor School," Illinois Great Rivers Methodist Conference Archives, Bloomington.
- Fowler, Patriotic Orations, 89. Because Akers wrote no autobiography (indeed, his only published work was Introduction to Biblical Chronology, 1855), we must entirely rely on secondary reports from Charles Henry Fowler and William Henry Milburn to get a sense of his matter and manner of preaching. Fortunately, these reports (particularly Milburn's) are consistent and detailed.
- Milburn, The Lance, Cross and Canoe (New York: N. D. Thompson Publishing, 1892), 407.
- Biographical information on William Rutledge from Russell Palmer, "A Folk-lore Study of George Rutledge Palmer (1834–1924) and His Wife, Adaline (Haney) Palmer (1842–1927), Their Ancestors and Descendants," typescript, Methodist Conference Archives, 45–6.
The Akers-Lincoln story first appeared in the New York City Christian Advocate in the Sept. 26, 1889, issue (64:618), reported as an "interesting incident" that had already been appearing in other papers. In this form, as told by "Rev. Dr. Haney, a pioneer Methodist minister of Canton, Ill.," Lincoln heard the Akers sermon on the "sin of slavery" in the company of "several other attorneys of Springfield." On the return trip home Lincoln's fellows treated Akers's talk as "the mouthings of a blatant Abolitionist ... and were laughing and joking about it," while Lincoln "remained silent and grave." When they asked him why he was so quiet, so far was he from joining their raillery that he praised the sermon and then made the statement that he had been "thrilled" to his "very soul with the conviction" that he was "in some way to have a tremendous responsibility" in the coming civil war that Akers had prophesied. The editor of the Christian Advocate was plainly suspicious of "Rev. Dr. Haney's" veracity: "This report of the conversation seems to have been somewhat doctored. The language attributed to Mr. Lincoln shows marks of an attempt to put what he did say into fine language. Abraham Lincoln would not have been likely to make a company of laughing lawyers on the verge of boisterous mirth an avowal of his expectations in connection with that war. Nor would he have delivered so stagy a speech as is here put in his mouth."
In the Oct. 24, 1889, issue of the Christian Advocate, a "Brother McKinley" weighed in with another version of the story that claimed to be more authentic, because it was vouched for by George Akers, Peter's son, who had been twelve years old at the time of the sermon (here given as 1838, but more likely 1837, as below) and had heard it spoken of in his family many times in the years following. Though young George did not hear his father speak on that occasion, he did recall that the sermon created a "sensation" and was "the town-talk of Springfield for days." What the Akers-McKinley telling principally adds is the claim that Peter Akers had insisted that the man whom God had chosen to overthrow slavery "was then living"—and the implication that Lincoln said that it might be he, not on the return trip to Springfield amidst laughing lawyers but the following day in his office, solemnly confiding to Stephen T. Logan, his law partner. (The trouble with this last is that in 1837–38 Lincoln's partner was still John T. Stuart.) To the McKinley article the editor of the Christian Advocate appended yet another skeptical tag. After doubting that Lincoln would have said any such things in 1838 (which was "before the serious side of Mr. Lincoln's nature was developed"), he dismissively concluded: "Probably the only thing true in the stories is that Peter Akers preached a most powerful sermon that impressed Mr. Lincoln as never before with the sin of slavery." Thus it may have been at least partly in response to these two earlier articles, and as a means of challenging the editor's doubts about the story, that William Rutledge published his own account in the Christian Advocate the following year (1890).
Lincoln scholars have not generally accepted this story, which was recounted in various forms in a number of early-twentieth-century books on Lincoln, including Ida Tarbell's Abraham Lincoln. The great Lincoln authority Paul Angle shared this skepticism. He wrote in a letter: "I have come across this story in various forms but never in one that seemed to be very well authenticated. On the face of it, it seems very improbable.... " Quoted in T. Walter Johnson, "Peter Akers: Methodist Circuit Rider and Educator (1790–1886)," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 32 (December 1939): 433n, 44. But no one, Angle included, has to this writer's knowledge ever traced it back to William Rutledge—an eyewitness (to the sermon, at least, if not to Lincoln's response to it) of reputable character and excellent memory. Still, because the Akers story is "uncanonical," the full text of Rutledge's account is here given, so that readers may judge of its veracity and authority for themselves:
A camp-meeting was held at the Salem Church, six miles west of Springfield, Ill., in August, 1837, on the old Sangamon Circuit, Peter Cartwright, presiding elder, and George Rutledge, pastor.
Peter Akers was then conducting a seminary near Jacksonville, Ill., and preaching each Sabbath at Beardstown. Being invited to attend this camp-meeting, he preached on Sabbath the sermon that attracted such general attention and is well remembered by many until now. Mr. Lincoln with nine others (among whom were Dr. M'Neal and Dr. Early, both eminent physicians and local preachers) went out from Springfield in the same conveyance, and one of the number told me that the band wagon in which they rode, the team, driver, and some of his comrades (all of them leading men) were in turn the subjects for a most humorous criticism by Mr. Lincoln. Dr. M'Neal, for whom Mr. Lincoln cherished a profound respect, reminded him of the grave errand on which they were going, which reminder he accepted kindly.
On their arrival at the camp-ground, the Rev. John T. Mitchell (then stationed at Springfield, afterward Book Agent at Cincinnati) was preaching a strong sermon on the Divinity of Christ, and it was a good foundation for the discourse that followed by Dr. Akers, whose text was Zech. ix, 9, 10: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation; *** and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from river even to the ends of the earth." Six of us that were his pupils then sat within the altar railing, three of whom were Chippewa Indians, then being trained for missionaries, namely, Geo. Copway, Jno. Johnson, and Peter Marksman.
From the notes I then took and from an excellent memory I could nearly reproduce the entire sermon, and though it was three hours long it was listened to with fixed attention. But I need only give that part which elicited from Mr. Lincoln for the first time (so far as is known) the expression, oft repeated afterward concerning his own life-work, that some regarded as superstition. The Scripture lesson, the hymn, the prayer were all in keeping with the theme—Christ's dominion. "The king set on the holy hill of Zion." Despite the heathen's rage and people's vain imagining, despite the opposition of wicked kings and rulers, the "Son" is anointed and enthroned, and henceforth "the government shall be upon His shoulders." He hath "a name above every name," "that in all things He should have the pre-eminence," for "He is God of all." Being thus invested with "all power in heaven and on earth," "He will overturn, overturn, till He shall come whose right it is" to reign. Then barriers were broken down, hindrances removed, helps furnished. mountains were tunneled or dug down and valleys were filled up to the grade of God's "summit level," the "crooked was made strait and the rough places plain," to "prepare the way of the Lord." Wherein the Church might be at fault he brought the Master once more to the temple saying, "Take these things hence." Bablyon of old was the synonym of civil and religious tyranny (Rev. xviii). So he led us to the heights that overlooked her overthrow and "the smoke of her burning." We heard "the kings and merchants bewail that in one hour her judgment had come." Never had we heard such an invoice of the merchandise of sin as culminated in the 13th verse: Of "wine and oil and fine flour and wheat, and beasts and sheep and horses and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men."
Then came what some have called the "prophetic" part of his sermon, yet none think that this humble man of God ever posed as a prophet—never. Though a noted scholar in Hebrew and Greek, and the author of a profound work on Chronology, yet he was so circumspect in scriptural interpretation that his seeming boldness in uttering the following views greatly deepened their impression.
No one can appreciate either the hazard or the accuracy of Dr. Akers's assertions without carefully studying them in the light of current events for the fifty-three years past. He continued: "If we interpret the prophecies of this Book aright there will come about a half-century hence such changes and revolutions as we have never seen. There will come a decade (possibly covering more time) about 1860 and 1870, when the head and front of this offending shall be broken; when the crime of caste in India, China, and Japan shall cease; when Turkish tyranny shall be trampled under the iron foot of war; when the civil dominion of Popery be overthrown; when serfdom shall no longer cramp the industries and crush the heart in Russia; a time when slave-ships, like beasts of prey, shall no longer prowl along the coast of helpless Africa; a time when we shall no longer trade in "slaves and the souls of men;" but the whip, the manacle, and unrequited toil shall be banished from our fair land."
Men cringed and cowered under words so plainly spoken, for it was near the time of the terrible Lovejoy tragedy in Alton, and a majority of that audience were from Southern States and had been directly or indirectly connected with slavery. But there was no bitterness in his denunciations, his heart yearned over and his tears fell for the offenders, hence "he spake as one having authority."
The high excitement under some of his sermons was like the breaking forth of many waters, but here men seemed dazed and overwhelmed as if they felt a heaving, rocking earthquake against which there was no resistance. On another occasion I think more than a thousand rose at once and rushed the stand weeping and shouting till they drowned his strong voice; here as many rose, but they stood in silence as though summoned to the "great white throne." "Coronation" was sung, and that multitude melted away, but the sermon was not forgotten. Men and women talked of it as they tearfully girded their boys for battle in 1861–62.
Brother Arnie Robertson described the return of their party to Springfield as very different from their going out. The two doctors, and preachers as well, conversed of the meeting with several lawyers, but Mr. Lincoln sat silent until one of them asked his opinion of the sermon. Then thoughtfully he gave this answer: 'It was the most instructive sermon, and he is the most impressive preacher I have ever heard. It is wonderful that God has given such power to men. I firmly believe his interpretation of prophecy, so far as I understand it, and especially about the breaking down of civil and religious tyrannies; and odd as it may seem, when he described those changes and revolutions, I was deeply impressed that I should be somehow strangely mixed up in them.' He then lapsed into silence again, but many times since, even to men that made light of it, he said he believed that a peculiar work and an important destiny awaited him. Writing this in sight of his monument, and surrounded by his intimate friends, I have no fear about their corroborating these statements.
- James Leaton, "Addendum to vol. 1 of Methodism in Illinois," 58, and Methodism in Illinois, 2:147–8, typescripts, Methodist Conference Archives.
- William Henry Milburn, "The Old Days in the Illinois Conference," Central Christian Advocate, June 30, 1897 (10), 818; "Peter Akers," Methodist Quarterly Review, n.s., vol. 10 (April, 1891), 3.
- Compare Rutledge's account of Akers's sermon with the fictional preaching of "Azariah James" in the opening chapter of Francis Grierson's marvelous narrative of ante-bellum Illinois, The Valley of Shadows (1909): "'En it shell be fer a sign, en fer a witness unto the Lord of Hosts in the land of Egypt: fer they shell cry unto the Lord bekase of the oppressors, en he shell send them a saviour, en a great one, en he shell deliver them.'" Francis Grierson, The Valley of Shadows (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 14–17. Grierson, who knew of the Akers sermon (and discusses it in his Abraham Lincoln: the Practical Mystic, 1919), sets his "philippic against slavery" in the Springfield area in 1858 and makes explicit the prophetic connection with Lincoln: "'Brethering, thar ain't but one human creatur' ekil to it, en thet air Abraham Lincoln. The Lord hez called him!'"(17)
- Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972), 184–88.
- "Sketches of Early Ministers; Laymen; Schools; Circuits; and Camp Meetings in the Illinois Conference 1809–1874," ms. book, Methodist Conference Archives.
- Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 120.
- Rutledge was the chaplain to the 14th Illinois Infantry 1861–64. While on Sherman's Expedition to Meridian in 1864, tenting with Major Benjamin F. Stephenson (surgeon to the 14th and also from Sangamon County), Rutledge proposed to Stephenson "... that the soldiers so closely allied in the fellowship of suffering, would, when mustered out of the service, naturally desire some form of association that would preserve the friendships and the memories of their common trials and dangers." From this and subsequent conversations came the idea and the plan for the GAR. Robert B. Beath, History of the Grand Army of the Republic (New York: Bryan, Taylor, 1889), 33–4, 47–8.
- Harry E. Pratt, ed., Lincoln 1809–1839, Being the Day-by-Day Activities of Abraham Lincoln from February 12, 1809 to December 31, 1839 (Springfield, Ill.: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1941), 94 (hereafter cited as Lincoln Day-by-Day).
- According to Wayne C. Temple Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet (Mahomet, Ill.: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995), 25, Francis A. McNeill was both an active Mason in Springfield and "a Whig and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln." And James Leaton, in the unpublished second volume of his Methodism in Illinois, 2:148, records that "While a resident of Springfield he [McNeill] took an active part in the politics of the day. In 1844 he was a delegate to the convention that nominated Henry Clay for the presidency. He was afterwards one of the delegates from Ogle county to the convention of 1856 which assembled in Bloomington, and gave birth to the republican party. Whilst living at Mt. Morris he edited a paper, and was one of the first to support Abraham Lincoln for president." Jacob Early, on the other hand, though an acquaintance of Lincoln's, was on the other side politically. In the mid-1830s he was a public speaker, a supporter of Stephen A. Douglas, and a sometime state legislative candidate for the "Democracy," and during the campaign of 1836 Early found himself the target of a political speech by Lincoln: "The speech that Lincoln made was made on the current politics of the day and Especially against Doct Early." The tone of Lincoln's criticism, however, was apparently mild, even "Courteous" toward his opponent. (Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon's Informants (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 203, 388.) In 1838 Early was shot to death by Henry B. Truett as the result of a quarrel that was both personal and political. Ironically, Douglas prosecuted the case against Truett for the state, and Lincoln handled the defense. Lincoln's argument that Early, a large man, had threatened Truett with "an upraised chair"—which functioned as a "deadly weapon"—and that therefore Truett was acting in self-defense when he shot Early, prevailed with the jury and Truett was acquitted. The trial and its result were helpful to Lincoln's career as an attorney, for in the Truett defense (which was similar to that in the P. Quinn Harrison murder trial twenty years later) he showed for the first time how effectively he could perform before a jury (Lincoln Day-by-Day, 1809–1839, lxiv, 124, 154).
- Arnold R. Robinson (born in 1807) resided in Springfield from 1835 on and was a leader among the local Masons (John Carroll Power, History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois [Springfield, Ill.: Edwin A. Wilson, 1876], 625); Springfield City Directory (1860), 124; Sangamo Journal index, "Robinson, Arnold R."
- Grierson, Abraham Lincoln, 43–4.
- Quoted in Louis A. Warren, Lincoln's Youth, Indiana Years (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1959), 113.
- Guelzo, Redeemer President, 119–20.
- The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy Basler, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 5:403–4. The question of whether this was a memorandum for a speech (or an essay) or simply a private "meditation" remains open, despite John G. Nicolay and John Hay's assertion that "Wearied with all the considerations of law and of expediency with which he had been struggling for two years, he retired within himself and tried to bring some order into his thoughts by rising above the wrangling of men and of parties.... In this frame of mind, absolutely detached from any earthly considerations, he wrote this meditation.... It was not written to be seen of men ..." Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York: Century, 1890), 6:341–2. Basler, dating the document "September 2, 1862?," believes it was written early in the month, possibly soon after the disastrous northern defeat at Second Bull Run (Aug. 28–30). But there is a stronger argument for an early Sept. date. On Sept. 7, a mass rally of Christians in Chicago determined to send a memorial to the President asking for immediate and universal emancipation of slaves in the United States. The group delegated two ministers, William W. Patton and John Dempster, to present their request to Lincoln in person. This they did at a White House audience on Sept. 13. Lincoln would have known for several days that the delegation was on its way—and what they wanted—so he may well have written the "Meditation" as a way of preparing for the visit. And in fact the first part of his reply to the preachers, published a week later in the Chicago Tribune, reveals some suggestive parallels with the language and logic of the "Meditation": "The subject presented in the memorial is one upon which I have thought much for weeks past, and I may even say for months. I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!" (Collected Works, 5:419–20).
- Abraham Lincoln, "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois," Collected Works, 1:115.
- Ibid., 1:114.
- William H. Herndon, Herndon's Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul Angle (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), 304.
- Representative cases for identifying the dictator with Lincoln himself and Stephen A. Douglas are, respectively, Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 59–60; and Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 365–68.
- The sentiment is Robert Nesta Marley's.
- Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 352.