WASHINGTON >> In 1864, Abraham Lincoln made a rare wartime trip out of Washington to visit a charity event in Philadelphia raising money to care for wounded soldiers. He donated 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to be sold for fundraising.
But it turns out he received a gift in return: a Bible whose pages were edged with gilt and decorated with the words “Faith,” “Hope” and “Charity” after I Corinthians 13:13 — a holy book at a time when Lincoln was turning increasingly to Scripture to understand personal tragedy and national trauma.
Now, more than 150 years later, historians have discovered the Bible for the first time, a unique artifact of the 16th president’s life that they did not even know existed. Given by his widow to a friend of Lincoln’s after his assassination, it has remained out of sight for a century and a half, passed along from one generation to another, unknown to the vast array of scholars who have studied his life.
As of Thursday, it will go on display for the first time at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, a bequest from the family of the Rev. Noyes W. Miner, who lived across the street from the Lincolns in the Illinois capital and spoke at the slain president’s funeral. After preserving the Bible over the decades, Miner’s descendants recently came forward to disclose its existence and donate it to the public.
“For me, it’s a physical connection with Abraham Lincoln,” said Alan Lowe, executive director of the library and museum. “We see it as an important artifact to preserve for history’s sake, but also the beginning of a conversation about the relevance of Lincoln and the role of religion in our lives today.”
The Bible is now the sixth known to historians at the library to have been owned by Lincoln and his family. The most famous, the one on which Lincoln placed his hand at his inauguration in 1861, is held by the Library of Congress in Washington and was used by Barack Obama to take the oath of office in 2009 and 2013 and by Donald Trump in 2017.
The newly discovered Bible is more than twice as large, about 14 1/2 inches long by 11 5/8 inches wide. On its cover, it says, “Presented to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by the Ladies of the Citizens Volunteer Hospital of Philadelphia.”
Mary Lincoln, who gave it to Miner seven years after her husband’s death, had it inscribed on the back: “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln to N.W. Miner, D.D., Oct. 15, 1872.”
Miner, a friend of the president’s, was “very much beloved by my husband,” according to Mary Lincoln. During his years in Springfield, Lincoln regularly stopped by Miner’s house to visit. After the assassination, Miner was among those who escorted Lincoln’s body to Springfield from Chicago and read from the Book of Job at the funeral. He remained in contact with Mary Lincoln in the years that followed.
Historians at the library speculate that the former first lady gave the Bible to Miner, a Baptist minister, as part of her post-White House campaign to protect her husband’s legacy. She angrily rejected assertions by his former law partner William Herndon that Lincoln had been an atheist, and the gift may have helped encourage Miner to testify to that effect.
Indeed, Miner did. “I never heard a word fall from his lips that gave me the remotest idea, that his mind was ever tinctured with infidel sentiments,” he later wrote. Instead, Miner said he was convinced that Lincoln “believed not only in the overwhelming Providence of God, but in the divinity of the Sacred Scriptures.”
And while some doubt the account, Miner wrote that Mary Lincoln once told him that at Ford’s Theater, her husband was thinking ahead to life after office, and his last words to her expressed a desire to visit Jerusalem to “see the places hallowed by the footsteps of the Saviour.”
Lincoln’s faith has long been a source of debate among scholars. Growing up, he rejected his parents’ Baptist religion, seeing it as too emotional. He never joined a church, and as a young man, he was viewed as the “village atheist.”
But biographers say he evolved as he grew older, influenced by the deaths of his son Edward at age 4 and later Willie at age 11, as well as by the horrific slaughter of the Civil War. He attended services at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington and often quoted the Bible.
By the time he received the newly discovered Bible in June 1864, scholars say, he was growing more overtly religious. His second inaugural address, in March 1865, was infused with biblical allusions and mentions of God and was often called the most explicitly religious speech ever given by a president while taking the oath.
After his death, his White House secretary, John Hay, found a written rumination on the role of God amid the battlefield carnage. Hay gave it the title, “Meditation on Divine Will.”
Ronald C. White, a prominent Lincoln biographer who also wrote a volume on the second inaugural address, said the Bible given to Miner was a significant discovery. “This is one more marker or signpost that Lincoln is on a journey, and that journey will not finally come out until the second inaugural,” White said.
The Bible remained in Miner’s family through the years. Sandra Wolcott Willingham, Miner’s great-great-granddaughter, said her grandparents displayed it on a Victorian tall table in the corner of the sitting room in their house in Oyster Bay, New York.
“It was almost like wallpaper — it was just there,” she said. “But it also had an aura about it that was special because it was elevated. It wasn’t just on the coffee table. It wasn’t in the bookcase. My grandmother and grandfather obviously very much loved it and appreciated it. But it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, look at us, we have Lincoln’s Bible.’ “
In 1994, the Bible was left to Willingham’s son, William Prescott Wolcott Jr., who works in private wealth management for Morgan Stanley in San Francisco. Willingham, who lives in a small mining town in Idaho, recalled being sent the Bible and then wrapping it in a beach towel to drive it to her son’s house in California, where it was displayed on a mantel.
During a cross-country trip last year, Willingham and her husband stopped in Springfield and visited Lincoln’s home. Shown the lot across the street where her relatives’ house once stood, they decided to visit the museum, which is run by the Illinois state government, and told Ian Hunt, head of acquisitions, about the family keepsake.
When the family agreed to donate it, Lowe and Hunt flew to San Francisco to authenticate it. “They came in with their white gloves on, and they’re looking at it,” Willingham recalled. “‘Is this the real thing guys?’ They were speechless. ‘Yeah, it is the real thing.’ “
When it was removed from the mantelpiece, it was stuck at first, but Lowe said the Bible was in “really good shape.” When they took it to the airport to return to Illinois, Lowe said, a representative from United Airlines who helped them through security grew emotional at seeing it. “She completely broke down crying,” he said.
Willingham, 73, a retired floral designer and volunteer firefighter, said the family was inspired by Obama’s election as the first African American president and initially tried to give the Bible to his family but never heard back.
Either way, his election moved her, and she thought Lincoln had paved the way. “It’s just come to me — yes, that man was incredible and we need to share this with the nation,” she said. “It needs to go back to the country.”