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Abraham Lincoln Movie: Lessons in Leadership

By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service, Feb. 25, 2013

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) – Daniel Day-Lewis did it again: his third Academy Award was bestowed upon him on Sunday at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood for his role as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Lincoln’s final years as President leading up to his murder on April 15, 1865.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

This Academy award was the first given to any actor portraying an American president, a milestone of sorts for Hollywood. But what would you expect from someone who many consider the world’s greatest living actor portraying America’s favorite president? A shoe-in? A match made in heaven? Who knows, but the English-Irish actor, Daniel Day-Lewis (born 1957), walked away triumphant.

And, to a certain extent, the triumph of Daniel Day-Lewis is a triumph for Abraham Lincoln, helping bring attention to Lincoln’s life and accomplishments.

Yet the movie Lincoln is not the only game in town. Other media outlets are following the success of Lincoln by offering books, documentaries, articles, and essays of the 16th president.

Book cover

Take for instance Harper One Publishers re-release of Christian author, Elton Trueblood’s book, “Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership” (Harper One, 2012). First published in 1973, Trueblood writes six essays (The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Abraham Lincoln, The Agonizing Interlude, Lincoln and the Bible, Lincoln at Prayer, Lincoln and the Church, and the Final Paradox) focusing in on Lincoln’s inner life, showing the President as both pious but non-religious.

George Mason University’s History News writer, Jim Cullen, points out this fascinating characteristic of Lincoln’s life in his review of Trueblood’s book, writing, “Trueblood notes what many observers of the Great Emancipator’s inner life have considered a conundrum: ‘Being neither a church member nor antichurch, Lincoln’s behavior was often perplexing to both the orthodox and the heretical. While one group was shocked to find him so pious, the other was surprised to find him unimpressed by ecclesiastical rules and practices.’

“But Trueblood finds no paradox here. He notes that only 23 percent of the U.S. population called themselves church members in 1860; if Americans were religious, they weren’t necessarily doctrinal. Indeed, he argues that by the end of his presidency, Lincoln’s loose denominational affiliation (he paid dues at a Presbyterian church) actually gave him more credibility among clergy who admired his ecumenicalism.”

As a Quaker author and minister, Trueblood (1900-1992) valued and admired ecumenicalism—so it is no wonder he highlights this attribute in his book about Lincoln’s spiritual life. In the chapter entitled, “Lincoln and the Church,” Trueblood points out that Lincoln worked with Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Quakers, Presbyterians, and other religious groups, stating, “Lincoln was sufficiently ecumenical in spirit to have connections with a great many different movements, but he was never much of a joiner.”

Another of Trueblood’s books

In his autobiography—“While It Is Day”—written a year after (1974) he wrote the book on Abraham Lincoln, Trueblood writes concerning himself, “Though the Religious Society of Friends has provided me with a base, my field has not been limited by sectarian considerations. In short, I believe in ecumenicity, and have seriously tried to practice it. I have said in many sermons that while I do not know how big Christ’s Church is, I at least know that it is bigger than my own. It gave me both surprise and delight when I was invited to preach from a Roman Catholic pulpit in Connecticut and to share in the leadership of retreats in Franciscan Centers in both Florida and Arizona.”

It appears that an ecumenical mindset was key to understanding Lincoln, as well as Elton Trueblood.

Another recent book release on Lincoln’s understanding of God is Stephen Mansfield’s (born 1958), “Lincoln’s Battle With God: A President’s Struggle With Faith and What It Meant For America” (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2012). In five chapters, Mansfield outlines the fact that some of Lincoln’s faith remains a mystery. Mansfield writes, “The silencing of Lincoln’s faith by the secular and the exaggerating of Lincoln’s faith by the religious have given us a less accurate and less engaging Lincoln.”

Book cover

Mansfield earlier points out “That the search for Abraham Lincoln’s faith disappoints only if we begin that journey assuming there will be a dramatic resolution, that at some point in the story Abraham Lincoln will kneel at an alter and satisfy us with a verifiable spiritual experience. It does not happen.”

So what is it that author’s like Trueblood and Mansfield, and actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis, and esteemed directors such as Stephen Spielberg find in President Abraham Lincoln? If his faith was a mystery, and his life was clouded with apparent non-commitment to certain facets of belief, why such esteem for the man?

Though many plots and sub-plots can be found in the life of Abraham Lincoln, to my mind one overarching theme arises: a man, who loves someone—or something—so much that he is willing to give his life for its cause and wellbeing, dies at the hands of an antagonist. It’s a theme of sacrifice, leading to freedom.

For Lincoln, his love of America and individual freedom led to his murder. But this great theme of sacrifice and freedom has greater implications, pointing to something more transcendent and far-reaching.

Jesus, the God-man, suffered a similar act, but on a much greater scale. Jesus states, “No greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice; He was sacrificial-love incarnate. Yet his sacrifice wasn’t for country or a particular group of people. Rather, Jesus’ sacrifice was for the world—all humanity; the flesh and blood of love came to provide freedom and life for all who believe. No borders, no barriers; Jesus’s sacrifice was an unmitigated sacrifice, wholly pure, purely absolute.

So maybe—subconsciously—people like Spielberg, Lewis, and others hear the echo of sacrifice and freedom in the life of Lincoln. And they’d be right.

But my hope is that the current popularity of Lincoln’s life will lead people to consider ‘the Life’ that brought about true freedom and ultimate sacrifice, one that continues to bring lasting liberty, purpose, and meaning.

Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him at

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