Seven years after her husband was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln presented his friend and neighbor, the Reverend Noyes W. Miner, with a special gift: an 18-pound Bible, adorned with a hand-tooled leather cover and gilt-edged pages, that had once belonged to the president.
The Bible remained in Noyes’ family, unbeknownst to historians, for 150 years. But the precious the artifact has now been gifted to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, where it went on display for the first time this week.
“We see it as an important artifact to preserve for history’s sake,” Alan Lowe, executive director of the library and museum, tells Peter Baker of the New York Times, “but also the beginning of a conversation about the relevance of Lincoln and the role of religion in our lives today.”
Experts believe that the Bible was presented to Lincoln in 1864, one year before his death, when the president visited Philadelphia to raise money for the medical care of Union soldiers. He donated signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to the cause, and an inscription on the front of the Bible indicates that it was gifted by “the Ladies of the Citizens Volunteer Hospital of Philadelphia.” The book’s edges are inscribed, too, with the words “faith,” “hope” and “charity.”
Mary Lincoln’s decision to give the Bible to Miner may have been driven by sentiment. A Baptist minister, Miner had lived across from the Lincolns when they resided in Springfield, Illinois, and was “a friend very much beloved by my husband,” Mary once wrote. In the wake of the assassination, Miner was among those who escorted the president’s body from Chicago to Springfield, and he read from the Book of Job at Lincoln’s funeral.
But the gift may have also been a calculated move. Mary was, according to the library and museum, “furious” over claims by her husband’s former law partner, William Herndon, that Lincoln had been an atheist before he died. Perhaps, by presenting the president’s Bible to Miner, she hoped to encourage the minister to affirm her husband’s faith.
And so he did. “I never heard a word fall from [Lincoln’s] lips that gave me the remotest idea, that his mind was ever tinctured with infidel sentiments,” Miner wrote in 1881.
For a century and a half, the hefty Bible was quietly passed down through members of Miner’s family. “Some of my fondest memories of childhood were visiting my grandparents … and entering the living room where they proudly displayed Lincoln’s Bible and other family treasures,” says Sandra Wolcott Willingham, Miner’s great-great-granddaughter.
But last October, according to Marie Fazio of the Chicago Tribune, members of the family paid a visit to the Lincoln museum and were moved by the staff’s comprehensive knowledge of their ancestor’s life. They subsequently decided to gift the Bible, a precious family heirloom, to the institution.
“We feel that Lincoln’s Bible belongs to the American people as a national treasure,” Willingham explains.
Among contemporary historians, Lincoln’s religious beliefs remain a matter of complex debate. As an adult, he distanced himself from his parents’ Calvinist beliefs, and he never belonged to a church, though he did attend one in Washington. Some who knew him described him as an atheist, but biographers believe that as he grew older—and wrangled with the deaths of his two young sons, along with the immense casualties of the Civil War—he became increasingly devout.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” the president said in his Second Inaugural Address, delivered in 1865 and rich in religious themes. “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
According to John O’Connor of the Associated Press, the newly gifted Bible is bookmarked with multicolored ribbons that, Mary Lincoln reportedly said, had been placed there by her husband.
“The donation of this Bible offers a new opportunity to reflect on Lincoln’s religious beliefs,” says Ian Hunt, head of acquisitions for the library and museum. “It’s a tangible connection to the fascinating question of what Lincoln believed and how those beliefs evolved as he endured tragedy after tragedy.”