LINCOLN'S PASTOR: OWEN LOVEJOY

Sermon By Rev. William F. Moore

Pilgrim Congregational Church

Oak Park, IL

February 10, 2002

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On Tuesday, February 12th, we celebrate the birth of a man whom the vast majority of people consider the greatest President of the United States-Abraham Lincoln. From the time of his death to this day, in memory of him, millions of people have taken increased devotion to the cause of liberty and justice for all. Not only in America but also throughout the world, people like Nelson Mandela give tribute by their reading and rereading of Lincoln's words

Yet during his political life he was not understood or appreciated by large numbers of people on both sides of the slavery issue. They considered him a good storyteller and a likeable chap but not experienced enough for the job of President. Many of his Cabinet members were sure they were better prepared for the position than he was. Some of his Generals did not support his aims for the war. His loving wife Mary was often depressed, especially after losing a second son to death. The press gleefully printed awful caricatures of him. He was a lonely man.

Though he had acquaintances and political supporters, he had few intimate friends. One of them was the Hon. Rev. Owen Lovejoy, Congregational pastor in the frontier town of Princeton, Illinois (1839-1856) and a Radical Republican Member of Congress (1856-1864). Lovejoy invited Lincoln to join the fledgling Republican Party. However, in 1854 the conditions were not ready for Lincoln to join; so Lovejoy diligently prepared the way to make it possible for Lincoln to get involved in 1856. When Lincoln was running against Stephen Douglas for the Senate in 1858, Lovejoy said, "I'm for Lincoln because he is a true hearted man; and unterrified by power and unseduced by ambition he will remain true to the principles…of the love of freedom and hatred of oppression." He told his antislavery friends, "Have faith in Abraham; he's going in the right direction." As a gifted and popular orator, Lovejoy made over 100 speeches on behalf of Lincoln for President to tens of thousands of people.

When Lincoln arrived in Washington D.C. for his inauguration, under threat of assassination, Lovejoy was one of the first to welcome him. In the dark days of 1862 Lovejoy bathed Lincoln in the light and glories of heaven when so many were sure he was going in the opposite direction. Lovejoy said in Congress, "If Abraham Lincoln pursues the path evidently pointed out to him in the Providence of God, his name…will be traced on the living stones of the temple which rears itself amid the thrones and hierarchies of Heaven."

Lovejoy had been Lincoln's trusted political cheerleader and supporter, a standard pastoral role. After Lincoln's son Willie's death in 1862 he became a sharer of deep concerns, and a listener to yearnings, another pastoral role. Together they visited wounded soldiers in the hospital. The White House door was open to Lovejoy. He visited Lincoln when he was ill. Mary referred to Lovejoy as "our dear friend whom we all so loved and esteemed." From Lovejoy's grandson we learn that the Psalms were Owen's favorite scriptures, and on Sundays he would go to the White House and read the scriptures with the President. They probably read the 19th Psalm, which includes the words, "the judgments of the Lord being righteous all together." Lovejoy hoped that religion would become less entangled with doctrines, tenets and rubrics and more absorbed in following the ways of the Master having "charity for all." Lincoln obviously was aware of these sentiments, for he included them in his Second Inaugural Address. Together these two men shared their religious convictions and continued to grow in spiritual strength for their perplexing times.

Did Lincoln talk to Lovejoy about the address at Gettysburg? We don't know of any direct influence. But we do know Lincoln's eloquence grew as he became more acquainted with Lovejoy's gifted use of religious language on behalf of human compassion. They need not have talked about the Address for Lovejoy to have had an influence. For Lincoln well knew, along with many others, that Lovejoy on Nov. 8th 1837 vowed beside the prostrate body of his murdered brother Elijah "never to forsake the cause for which his brother's blood was sprinkled." And no person took more "increased devotion" to the cause of ending slavery, for which his brother gave his "last full measure of devotion", than Owen Lovejoy. Pastoring by example is the ultimate witness.

Lincoln visited the dying Lovejoy in his boardinghouse and reflected upon his own mortality. After Lovejoy died, Lincoln wrote, "My personal acquaintance with him commenced only about ten years ago, since then it has been quite intimate: and every step in it has been One of increasing respect and esteem, ending with his life, in no less than affection on my part…So let him have his marble monument along with the well assured and more enduring one in the hearts of all those who love liberty unselfishly and for all."

As Owen Lovejoy pastored with such love, power and justice during a critical time, so may we. As he would conclude, "Let us be true to our principles, and God will crown our efforts with success."