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Two Biographies, One Question
August 28, 2012
I have been on yet another biography kick in the past few months. Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve digested two fantastic biographies of characters who are at once very different and yet in at least one way not entirely dissimilar—Queen Elizabeth II and Abraham Lincoln. As I read these two books I came to see that each pointed me to the same question. I had not set out asking this question, rather, it naturally arose from the story of a life. It is this: Has this person placed his faith in Jesus Christ?
Abraham Lincoln has long fascinated me and I have read several of the most notable accounts of his life. What has always perplexed me is the question of whether or not Lincoln was a Christian—a true Christian who truly believed in Christ as Savior. While it is obvious that Lincoln believed in a higher power and that he knew and treasured the Bible, the nature of his religious beliefs has long been in dispute. Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln: A Biography is a brilliant account of Lincoln’s life and brings a measure of clarity to my thinking.
I am increasingly convinced that Lincoln truly did come to understand the gospel at some point in life, though seemingly not until near the end. White shows that Lincoln’s understanding of God, gospel and providence were shaped at least in part by Phineas Densmore Gurley, the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Gurley’s chief mentor was the great theologian Charles Hodge. Thus there was much of Hodge—much of Presbyterian Calvinism—in Lincoln. As he wrestled with understanding the presence of God in the Civil War, as he sought to understand the purpose of this conflict, he drew from this theological stream and found great comfort in the God who is sovereign.
There is much we can learn from the life of Lincoln, many lessons that can be applied. He is endlessly fascinating. But when I look at Lincoln, I am more and more comfortable in seeing a man who at some point grew from understanding God as an impersonal force to a man who encountered a living, active God whose hand was visible even, or perhaps especially, in the nation’s darkest hour.
Rather on a whim I also picked up a copy of Sally Bedell Smith’s new biography of Queen Elizabeth II: Elizabeth the Queen. While I have no great love for the monarchy as an institution, I’ve long respected the Queen. She is in a near-impossible position, reigning as a monarch in a country and a world that has moved away from monarchial forms of government. Yet she understands that it is her role to serve her country and her commonwealth and she has done so very well over the years.
Smith portrays the Queen as a humble, caring intellectual who is a stickler for decorum, but who is also gracious and willing to change when necessity demands it. She also portrays her as a negligent parent who was far more dutiful to her country than to her family, a fact that goes a long way to explaining the constant scandal that has enveloped her children and, more recently, her grandchildren.
Of particular interest to me were the many references to Queen Elizabeth’s faith. I have often wondered if the Queen is portrayed as a Christian by necessity as the head (“Supreme Governor”) of the Church of England or if she truly believes. Smith often returns to this topic, showing that the Queen always worships on Sundays, that she worships using the Reformation-era Book of Prayer and King James Bible, that she quietly has spiritual mentors in her life.
The Queen also writes her own Christmas messages, many of which have been profoundly Christian. Her message from 2011 stands as an example: “God sent into the world a unique person—neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love. … It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.”
Obviously this question of whether or not the Queen has put her faith in Christ as Savior is between herself and the Lord, but if you were to ask her biographer, she would not doubt respond with a “yes.” Regardless, I enjoyed getting to know Elizabeth II through this account of her life and found my appreciation of her deepening.