How Americans rallied to find hope after the worst Good Friday in US history

by 24britishtvMarch 29, 2024, noon 18
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The worst Good Friday in U.S. history began with good spirits, as Americans rejoiced that the Civil War had essentially ended with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender five days earlier.

Two days after Lee met Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, jubilant crowds had gathered outside the White House, clamoring for a speech from President Abraham Lincoln, who delivered subdued words of reconciliation, not unaware of the long task of reconciliation and rebuilding that lay ahead.

Earlier that year, Lincoln had delivered one of the greatest speeches in the American canon, his second inaugural address: "With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. "

In the crowd at both speeches was a stage actor whom Lincoln had seen perform. John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, was not stirred toward reconciliation by Lincoln’s rhetoric but was provoked. His original plan to kidnap the president and hold out for ransom was thwarted by Appomattox, so he turned toward darker fantasies.

On Good Friday at a Cabinet meeting, the story goes, the president admitted to strange dreams. In this nightmare, he approached the White House only to see his aides mourning the loss of the president. It was an eerie premonition of his own death.

When the meetings were over, Grant pulled Lincoln aside and politely turned down a request to attend a play, "Our American Cousin," that night. The general and his wife were weary of the nation's capital, eager to see family in New Jersey and, according to many historians, not keen on a night out that included Lincoln’s mercurial wife, Mary.

Lincoln took Mary to the theater with guests Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. The news of the president's planned attendance had been published in the newspapers, giving Booth the perfect opportunity to carry out his attack.

Shortly after 10 p.m. April 14, 1865, Booth slipped into the presidential box and assassinated the man widely considered America's greatest president.

When news of the president’s death made its way across the country that weekend, pastors hurriedly changed their normally joyous Easter messages. Charles Hall, pastor of the Church of Epiphany in Washington, D.C., declared: “We gather now around an open grave, permitted to be opened on this Easter Day by the awful and wicked tragedy of this last Good Friday, to temper our pious gratulations as believers with the sorrow which has befallen us as citizens. The grave and gate of death open before us as a people, and we mourn the sanguinary crimes which have made our Good Friday so marked an event in the history of the world. … We are an afflicted nation, horrified by the darkest crimes which can befall a people.”

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What if Lincoln had lived?

Nearly 160 years later, Americans still wonder what could have been had Lincoln not died.

He would have faced the same challenges his incompetent and feckless successor, Andrew Johnson, faced, but Lincoln’s words and actions may have prevented much of the suffering endured by people of color over the next century.

Would the evils of Jim Crow have haunted America so deeply? Would progress toward America’s promise of “all men are created equal” have been realized sooner?

Historian Steven Lee Carson believes so: “The United States certainly would have been a better and more just nation, especially on matters of race, and in a far quicker fashion."

That Lincoln was slain on Good Friday is full of irony for a man who was raised by Calvinistic Baptists, quoted Scripture frequently and yet rarely attended church. Lincoln possessed a rare humility, shaped by his Christian upbringing.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln suggested that the Civil War was God’s divine judgment on America for tolerating the evil of chattel slavery. And the weight of the awful slaughter his countrymen pushed him to depend on God’s providence.

“The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance,” he wrote in a private letter in 1864.

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Easter is a reminder of tragedy and hope

The story of Easter, of course, requires us to both lament the tragedy of evils such as slavery and the assassination of a president and to look forward to a world in which Christ will make all things new.

In Good Friday, we behold on a Roman cross an innocent man put to death by his enemies and raised up by God as atonement for sinners.

Lincoln, circumspect about his own role in history, believed, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would later declare, that “the line separating good and evil passes ... right through every human heart.”

This is an echo of the prophet Isaiah who declared: “We all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished him for the iniquity of us all.”

Yet, unlike the tragedy in Ford’s Theater on the worst Good Friday in American history, Christians look to the death of Jesus as good only because when Christ whispered his final words, “It is finished,” and when he walked out of a borrowed tomb three days later, it signaled the death of death.

We can only endure Good Friday because we know, we believe, that Sunday is coming. Easter absorbs the lament of a cruel, senseless and violent world and declares that a better, just and beautiful world is coming.

Abraham Lincoln could only dream of this for the country he loved. Christians believe with confidence that the city whose “builder and maker is God” is a reality.

Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of several books, including "The Dignity Revolution" and "Agents of Grace."

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