Every Thought Captive

Lincoln’s Melancholy

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:5

“And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, against our will, comes wisdom to us, by the awful grace of God.” 

When it comes to wisdom and depression, Abraham Lincoln was no stranger. What you may not know is how the scriptures, like the book of Job, buoyed him. Recent focus on his life in film and literature highlight how he suffered as president during the Civil War. While living in the White House, his wife was emotionally and mentally unstable, and their young son died of dysentery from feces-tainted drinking water drawn from the Potomac. Union Army troops had been called to defend Washington D.C. and unfortunately made camp alongside its river. And need one mention the almost 600,000 soldiers whose blood was shed during his tenure? It was a body count no one estimated; everyone loathed, and was ultimately seen by Lincoln as a judgment of the Lord, “just and righteous altogether.”

For those unfamiliar with his early life, Lincoln’s sorrows started long before his time in office. He grew up with a mother he described as, “intellectual, sensitive, and somewhat sad.” His moody father had “strange spells,” and his cousins and uncle were mentally ill, some of whom were committed to the state hospital. His only brother died in infancy when Lincoln was eight. When he was nine, his mother, aunt, and uncle died from “milk sick,” a disease traced to a poisonous root eaten by cows and passed into the milk. After his mother’s death, he and his sister, Sarah, were left alone for months with a neglectful cousin while his father traveled hundreds of miles to court another bride and bring her home. Sarah grew and left the house to marry, but quickly became pregnant, gave birth to a stillborn, and died soon afterward. A neighbor described Lincoln after he heard the news, “He sat down in the door of the smoke house and buried his face in his hands. The tears slowly trickled from between his bony fingers and his gaunt frame shook with sobs.”

In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How depression challenged a President and fueled his greatness, biographer Joshua Wolf Shenk puts Lincoln’s experience into historical context. In the early nineteenth century, one out of four infants died before their first birthday, and close to one-fourth of all children lost a parent before the age of fifteen. “Of the eighteen American presidents in the nineteenth century, nine lost their mother, father, or both while they were children,” Shenk writes.

The first record of Lincoln feeling suicidal was when he was twenty-six, and typhoid spread through the community. It took the life of a young woman he liked to visit, Anna Mayes Rutledge, and many commented on his fragile state. One friend recorded that he, “told me that he felt like committing suicide often.” Lincoln was watched and often locked up by friends to prevent derangement and suicide. Throughout his life, Lincoln didn’t manifest swings into mania, but he did have bouts of deep depression. At the time, the treatment was bloodletting along with ingesting mercury and strychnine. Lincoln also struggled with anxiety. At the time of his late twenties, about half of all men had some kind of sexually transmitted disease, and Lincoln feared he had syphilis. Side effects of syphilis include hypochondriasis or being a hypochondriac.

When Lincoln’s young son Willie died in February of 1862, the Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, a Presbyterian minister from the church the family attended, delivered the eulogy. “Gurley preached that ‘in this hour of trial’ one must look to ‘Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well. Our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing, “It is good for us that we have been afflicted”.’ Lincoln asked Gurley to write out a copy of the eulogy. In the trials ahead, he would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.”

Back when Lincoln was only thirty-two he wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living.” At times he believed he was born with a temperament that would cause life-long suffering, but also believed he was born with deep purpose and had periods of great joy. According to Shenk, he “learned how to articulate his suffering, find succor, endure, and adapt. Finally he forged meaning from his affliction so that it became not merely an obstacle to overcome, but a factor in his good life.”

Jesus said something similar about affliction in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). The word translated from Greek as “meek” confuses many today. Perhaps it helps to know that in Hebrew, the word translated as “meek” also is translated as “afflicted,” which was Jesus’ condition—and now is ours as well.

And maybe with Lincoln, Job, and Christ, we can all say, “Blessed are the afflicted, for they shall inherit the earth.”

About the Author

Photograph of Shannon Geiger

Shannon Geiger

Women’s Spiritual Formation and Counseling

Park Cities Presbyterian Church

Shannon received a Masters of Divinity, with a counseling emphasis, from Westminster Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Josh, have four children and are church planting in the Dallas Latino community. Life experience, studying God’s Word, and counseling training contribute to the couseling she does with individuals and married couples on a variety of issues including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, parenting, marriage, abuse, and addictions.