Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

But for the Grace of God: How Abraham Lincoln Used Faith to Overcome Depression

Abraham_Lincoln 2.jpgAbraham Lincoln is a powerful mental health hero for me. Whenever I doubt that I can do anything meaningful in this life with a defective brain (and entire nervous system, actually, as well as the hormonal one), I simply pull out Joshua Wolf Shenk’s classic, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.” Or I read the CliffsNotes version: the poignant essay, “Lincoln’s Great Depression” that appeared in “The Atlantic” in October of 2005.



Every time I pick up pages from either the article or the book, I come away with new insights. This time I was intrigued by Lincoln’s faith–and how he read the Book of Job when he needed redirection.

Following I have excerpted the paragraphs from The Atlantic article on Lincoln’s faith, and how he used it to manage his melancholy:

Throughout his life Lincoln’s response to suffering–for all the success it brought him–led to greater suffering still. When as a young man he stepped back from the brink of suicide, deciding that he must live to do some meaningful work, this sense of purpose sustained him; but it also led him into a wilderness of doubt and dismay, as he asked, with vexation, what work he would do and how he would do it. This pattern was repeated in the 1850s, when his work against the extension of slavery gave him a sense of purpose but also fueled a nagging sense of failure. Then, finally, political success led him to the White House, where he was tested as few had been before.


Lincoln responded with both humility and determination. The humility came from a sense that whatever ship carried him on life’s rough waters, he was not the captain but merely a subject of the divine force–call it fate or God or the “Almighty Architect” of existence. The determination came from a sense that however humble his station, Lincoln was no idle passenger but a sailor on deck with a job to do. In his strange combination of profound deference to divine authority and a willful exercise of his own meager power, Lincoln achieved transcendent wisdom.

Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, once told of watching the president drag himself into the room where she was fitting the First Lady. “His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad,” Keckley recalled. “Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection.” He had just returned from the War Department, he said, where the news was “dark, dark everywhere.” Lincoln then took a small Bible from a stand near the sofa and began to read. “A quarter of an hour passed,” Keckley remembered, “and on glancing at the sofa the face of the president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone; in fact, the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope.” Wanting to see what he was reading, Keckley pretended she had dropped something and went behind where Lincoln was sitting so that she could look over his shoulder. It was the Book of Job.


Throughout history a glance to the divine has often been the first and last impulse of suffering people. “Man is born broken,” the playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote. “He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!” Today the connection between spiritual and psychological well-being is often passed over by psychologists and psychiatrists, who consider their work a branch of secular medicine and science. But for most of Lincoln’s lifetime scientists assumed there was some relationship between mental and spiritual life.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes of “sick souls” who turn from a sense of wrongness to a power greater than they. Lincoln showed the simple wisdom of this, as the burden of his work as president brought home a visceral and fundamental connection with something greater than he. He repeatedly called himself an “instrument” of a larger power–which he sometimes identified as the people of the United States, and other times as God–and said that he had been charged with “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” When friends said they feared his assassination, he said, “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”


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  • John McManamy

    Hey, Therese. Abe is one of my heroes and reading Lincoln’s Melancholy was a religious experience for me. Two years ago, when I was in DC, I visited the Lincoln Memorial at night. I can’t begin to describe how profoundly moving it was for me. I know you live within a short drive of DC, but you’re probably like me and every local who lives everywhere – you don’t go to the things tourists go to unless you have an out-of-town visitor to entertain. So, abduct an out-of-town visitor and make this visit.
    You’ve posted on Abe before and so have I. We think alike on this and similar issues. Make the visit and bring a large hankie.

  • Ben

    I can personally testify to how faith can pull you up from the depths of depression. I spent years battling depression. Every single day was a struggle. I contemplated suicide many times. The thought of spending the rest of my life in this mental state was almost too much to bear. The only thing that kept from actually doing it was the thought of my family suffering through it. I sought professional help once, but they didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I refused medication because I had known others that were sent into a tail spin from it. It wasn’t until I hit my knees and turned my life over to Christ that things began to change. I started to notice changes in the way I felt inside and the thoughts that I had. I no longer felt the heaviness and pain inside that had plagued me. I no longer had suicidal thoughts. The depression that I had fought so hard alone, was finally gone. To say that I don’t have bad days or down days would be incorrect. I do, just like everyone else. But the deep, dark, depression that I had lived with for years was gone. I have not experienced it since then. I firmly believe that a life in Christ can heal anything that is within His will to heal. No one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.

  • Amelia Barnes

    Awesome testament to Christ’s power to save.

  • Joel

    I think I need to read this….soon….very soon. Did you know that Lincoln’s supposed birthplace was within 50 miles of where I was born? (Rhetorical question, of course you did not know that.) I say supposed because recent research shows he may have been born in North Carolina and then moved to Kentucky. Nevertheless, he did live nearby. I remember visiting my “melancholic” Grandmother’s chiropractor in nearby Hodgensville, Kentucky, as a small lad and him telling me that like Lincoln, I could overcome obstacles and climb to the highest level, even the presidency of the United States.
    OK, I will never be president, but there high goals to be sought. I really needed this one, today.
    (OK, I looked it up on Mapquest. I actually found the house where I was born and mapped it to Lincoln’s place. 30 miles. And there was actually a picture of my birthplace, the home in which I was born.)

  • LeslieRobin

    …Somehow, when I read this post about Lincoln’s despair, I felt a resonance deep inside. I am suffering right now, with a depression (that Ben also writes so eloquently about here): I see no escape from it, except death. But I also know, and have known my entire life, that lows are followed by less-lows, and then highs. Today I see my psychiatrist, and thank god for that. Gratitude is a pathway towards Hope. I am grateful, Therese, for your blog, and for all who dare to come into it, bringing their own special Light. We look forward………

  • Teresa Stoll

    I appreciate this message. My 30+ son lost his wife to brain cancer in January ’10. He is fighting depression. He lost the care of her 7 year daughter because it was previously decided that is what was best, so the child is with my daughter-in-law’s mother. But, my son still misses caring for this child as he did before his wife died. His world seemed to collapse. My response, especially since I too lost this daughter-in-law and also my DAD, grandmother, close friend and my brother has traumatic brain injury this year due to a severe fall (he was in a coma for 3 months)… All of these circumstances and loss make me want to get very close to GOD and ask his presence (my awareness of his Presence) every moment. I look at those around me not knowing when GOD will take someone… Appreciate NOW while you can those in your LIFE..

  • Cecil Jones

    I also suffer from major clinical depression which I have had since 2002 as the result of open heart surgery. The drugs which I use to keep at bay took six years to become effective. I have read a great deal about Lincoln and his depression. It is true that Lincoln believed in God, but on the whole he did not believe in Christianly as we understand it. I tried prayer. I tried laying on of hands. I went to a Christian counselor. None of these things helped. Only when I went to a Psychiatrist did I find any help. My depression was continous whereas Lincolns were episodic like Churhills. He never overcame his depression. Like me, he just lived with it. Also, like many others sometimes, overtime it grew less and less strong and may have gone completely away as in the case of the writer William Stryron.

  • Lorna Gutierrez

    To the depressed from someone who visits there-and didn’t know I
    had been invited!
    I know a few factors which cause my depression-& helps to overcome it.
    1. getting ill or feeling overwhelmed-or extra stressed out!
    2. the “feeling” comes upon me- I rebuke it and look for joy
    and tell myself “This too shall pass”.
    3. Needing to rewrite goals-resetting priorities.
    4. Practising smiling-remembering good jokes!
    5. Reading the Bible and believing it’s promises.
    6. Knowing that in all my imperfections God loves me anyway!
    (and having the faith to believe that He will finish the work
    in me that He started).
    7. Praying and practising loving others-including yourselves!Luv-LG

  • Sinclaire

    This post was very much needed! It is always great to be reminded, as often as possible, that I am a beautiful being that God created and the gifts that He has given me should be celebrated by self. I’ve found that works best in the midst of my depressive states. Depression doesn’t feel good. It is very consuming and predictable. When I ALLOW things to stress me out, over-work myself, stretch myselft thin and don’t practice a healthy, balance life…oh boy…I know that I will snap at any given moment!
    Lorna gives some excellent tips in managing depression. The best on is seeking God. Your faith in Him will sustain you. Drugs will only numb you thoughout your ordeal or situation, but the faith that you have and having a very positive outlook on life and your own situations will help the greatest.
    God loves us so much…with all of our flaws, insecurities, mistakes and wrong-doings, He will always be here for us. When I talk to Him [after I have told myself to settle down and stop thinking about the past and look to the future], I feel a sense of peace. That peace comes from Him and nothing else. In the midst of our depression, highs and lows, we’ve got to find that inner-peace that will carry us through.
    Be blessed to all of the bloggers!

  • Michael

    I find great inspiration in Lincoln’s approach. I often go back to my spiritual roots when I am in a deep funk of depresssion and anxiety. Matthew 6: 25-34 reminds that God is control and that he will see me through difficult times.

  • Boysmom

    Thank you so much for publishing this account of Abraham Lincoln’s dance with depression. I’ve always appreciated (sometimes more than others) his famous quote to the effect that “most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be”. Reading about how such a great man dealt with lifelong depression gives me hope and inspiration.

  • Christie Dunn

    Great article. Recently, I finished a bio on Mary Todd Lincoln, known most notably as a bipolar lady given to hysterics and big shopping sprees. The bio, very well sourced gave her credit for being a source of consolation and strength to Lincoln, as well as his faith, through they may have had some quibbling due to denomination. Mary had her deep difficulties with grieving, but there Lincoln helped her pull it together.
    both Lincolns were involved with the wounded troops, they had a residence close by a soldiers hospital. this was Lincolns unending burden. What an inner conflict. To have to sacrifice those young men for the sake of this country. Irony think you could be in Lincolns shoes and not feel crushed. Maybe depression was better than psychosis!
    anyway, for more about this fascinating family, historical context and certainly Gods threading things together I suggest reading “Mary Todd Lincoln: A Life”.

  • DR PHIL1234

    Thanks for the blog, Therese (your name reminds me of St. Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower of Jesus.” Abe and Mary suffered greatly, together.
    I still feel sad when I think of his assassination, and angry (though not bitter) over the cowardice and treason of James Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.
    Another fine source I’ve found is the New York Times’ “opinionator” blog at
    Thank you all.

  • Paul Moore

    The blog today is great. Lincoln is a personal hero.
    However, my comment today is on the blog comment above from Sinclaire
    (July 8, 2010 11:51 AM)
    Sinclaire wrote:
    “The best on is seeking God. Your faith in Him will sustain you. Drugs will only numb you throughout your ordeal or situation, but the faith that you have and having a very positive outlook on life and your own situations”.
    This hits me hard now because I am just about to visit my doctor this afternoon to ask her about getting some drug medication for anxiety. I’m just not sure. I pray to God I will arrive at the right answer in this matter. Thank you and God Bless all of you.

  • Liberty Seeker

    Thank-you for sharing this invaluable information. When I was younger I had a stroke which damaged the brain cells responsible for healthy emotions. Therefore medication doesn’t always help as much as it would with normal brain cells, but thank goodness I still have the ability to reason so I have to come at things from an intellectual perspective and this article is exactly what I need.
    Thanks also to everyone here as your posts are also helpful!!

  • Violet rose


  • S

    I have so much respect for Mr. Lincoln after reading this post. let alone battling depression without medication but just banking on prayers and Hope to run Presdential office of one of the most powerful nations is truly splendid. I just want to hug this man and let him know how truly inspiring his life is to ppl like me even today!! May his soul rest in peace.

  • Aunt Allie


  • sjones3

    Thanks for this about Abe Lincoln. He had a strong life story. Not going into detail, but this info comes at the right time.

  • A

    Just wanted to say “thank you” for all you do for folks that have depression. You have helped so much by sharing your story. You get it and therefore get me. I am not alone. I’m definitely going to check out the Abraham Lincoln book. He has always fascinated me. Wishing you continued good mental health and the best life has to offer.

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