The Last Words of Abraham Lincoln

Author Stephen Mansfield breaks down the final moments of the life of Abraham Lincoln in this provocative excerpt from his new book Lincoln's Battle with God.

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“We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior,” the president said.

And then, nearly as the Derringer ball cracked the air, “There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”

These, then, are the final, surprising words of Abraham Lincoln in this world.

Or are they? It is natural that some should doubt. The words are rarely included in accounts of Lincoln’s assassination. Schoolchildren do not learn them as they do the other facts of Lincoln’s life. Indeed, the sentiments are too religious for most teachers to dare include in their lessons. Scholars tend to exclude this episode also, usually because of a similar hesitation about religion.

It is understandable. Lincoln was, after all, a religious oddity. He never joined a church. In fact, he went through periods in his life when he was openly antireligion—even anti-God. In his later years, he spoke often of God but rarely of Jesus Christ. That he was attending a bawdy play on Good Friday—the day Christians set aside to contemplate the crucifixion of their Savior—seems perfectly consistent with the image of Lincoln that has come to us through the years. It is reasonable to doubt that he would call Christ the Savior and declare himself eager to see the Holy Land in the last moments of his life.

Surely, critics will say, to insist that these words are true or that they are any reflection of Lincoln’s faith is part of a religious re-working of his life, part of a misguided attempt by the pious to refashion him into a gleaming religious icon of some imagined national religion. Surely this is the fruit of bad research and pitiful scholarship—more myth than history.

Yet there the words are, and they are no invention. They come to us, indirectly, from the only person who could know with certainty: Mary Lincoln. Apparently, in 1882, Mrs. Lincoln reported her husband’s last utterances to Noyes W. Miner, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Springfield, Illinois. Miner reported his conversations with Mary Lincoln in a manuscript entitled “Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,” now kept at the Illinois State Historical Library. We might be suspicious of such a religiously charged remembrance retold by a clergyman were it not that respected scholarly volumes, such as the oft-consulted Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, include the Lincoln/Miner version of Lincoln’s final words in its pages. Eminent Lincoln scholars—such as Allen C. Guelzo in Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Wayne Temple in Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet—regard the words as true. The popular Doris Kearns Goodwin alludes to them as well in her best-selling Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As important, Dr. James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, in referring to Mary Lincoln’s account of her husband’s final utterances, has said, “We believe the words to be substantiated.”

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Stephen Mansfield
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