Lincoln and the Afterlife

Was the Great Civil War President Taking Directions from Another World?

“The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen—His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America.”—A Muslim chief in a remote corner of the Caucasus, as told to Leo Tolstoy

It was one thing researching and writing the book, The Psychic Life of Abraham Lincoln, and another thing “explain­ing” it to the media. Lincoln, having once been a common person, a child of the wilderness, but rising to mythic pro­portions in American iconography, still captures the public imagination like no other single figure. And because of his almost sainted fame, it has long been thought scandalous to taint that hallowed name with the stigma of what was once called “Spiritualism”—and, for that matter still is by its modern-day adherents. The subject touches a nerve or unnerves what has been a virtual conspiracy of silence orchestrated by historians who would “protect” the Lincoln mystique by inventing cover stories to account for the man’s clearly established deep interest in things psychic and the “upper country”— Lincoln’s own phrase for the Life Beyond.

Thus it is that the first great hurdle in speaking publicly on the spiritual Lincoln is getting past the whitewash, the taboo, the giggles and sneers, the embarrassment and surprise, the hesitancy and caution that is as predictable as the morning sun. For here is evidence that both the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation were placed in the hands of a man in direct contact with the higher powers and that an invisible force guided the destiny of this nation.

“He has shown an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat—The foundation of his character was mystical.”—Walt Whitman, a contemporary and great admirer of Mr. Lincoln

Once the documentation of Lincoln’s belief in the spirit world is tendered, many questions spring immediately to mind. Was there political fallout from his White House seances? (Oh, yeah) Why have there been so many Lincoln “sightings” (ghost, the phantom funeral train)? Did he predict his own death? Wasn’t it really his crazy wife Mary who dragged him to mediumistic sittings? Did Lincoln shape military strategy around “intelligence” received through spirit communications? Was Lincoln psychic?

Abraham Lincoln, as the bloody War Between the States—that “irresistible conflict”—dragged on, began to per­ceive that no mortal power could bring it to a conclusion; that he had been chosen, in the sacred sense, to steer the ship of state through this storm, yet that he was merely an instrument of Providence. Just as he was chosen, the country itself was chosen, somehow, to lead the world. And for all this he won the sobriquet—The Mystical Unionist. Another sobriquet was—the Trimmer, and this meant that he kept his cards close to his waistcoat. And so it was that the Emancipation Proclamation came as a surprise.

What really led up to the signing of that historic document which sounded the death knell to slavery?

Late in December, 1862, the president had one of his dreams—well, more like a vision. He couldn’t be sure of what he’d seen and heard. Was it possible, Lincoln asked himself, that, as in the Bible, angels could appear and make their requirements known?

… But then, he was given proof.

There was at that moment a reputed seeress living in Washington, and by a strange chain of “coincidences,” she was brought before the president and entranced by the same congress of spirits who had promised Lincoln, in the dream-vision, that “we will give thee proof tomorrow.” And the young medium, Nettie Colburn Maynard, repeated the words of the inspiring host while, fully entranced, lecturing the president and his small entourage.

Actually, it had been Mrs. Lincoln who, having sat in spirit circles in Georgetown, had been suddenly inspired to ask for a trance-medium. The best person in the District at the time who fit that bill was Miss Colburn. And though she addressed the president for a full hour and a half, it was not her own voice; a booming, sonorous tone came forth from this tiny and timid young woman, and it declared that there was a Spiritual Congress—composed of the men, gone before, who had founded and shaped this republic—that was now supervising the affairs of this nation. “You, sir, have been called to the position you now occupy for a great and mighty purpose. Thou art the man! The world is in universal bondage; it must be set free.” Strange to say, those words came forth in the deep bass tones and distinctive English parliamentary manner so typical of the late and great statesman, that passionate Unionist, Daniel Webster. All present (including Lincoln) who had known Webster, acknowledged that it was his voice coming through the entranced young woman.

It was “Miss Nettie’s” deathbed memoir, written in 1891, that revealed, almost 30 years after the fact, what had been profound state secrets: wartime seances in the President’s House (many of them), including sittings that were outright ESPionage—with Nettie, fully entranced, pencil in hand, map spread before her—pinpointing the precise disposition of Confederate forces on the ground. While research has uncovered the names of at least ten psychic-mediums consulted by President Lincoln during the war years, this is no more than the tail end of his lifelong inter­est in omens, oracles, prophecy, and messages from the invisible world. And although Lincoln biographers are well acquainted with his “death dream” (predicting his own assassination), little if any notice has been paid to his visions and even less to his altered states of consciousness.

The psychic door had opened early for Lincoln, in pain and loss, i.e., through tragedy, accident and abuse (beat­ings by his father). After losing his mother at age 9, young Abraham, at 10, fell off a horse, sustaining cerebral injury and remaining unconscious for hours—his father thought he was dead. More tragedies followed; gradually the spiri­tual eye was opening to what he himself variously dubbed “regions unexplored,” “Divine interposition,” “no earthly power,” “the upper country,” and most notably— “the new faith.” He was a sage in training.

“I have had so many—instances when I have been controlled by some other power than my own will, that I cannot doubt that this power comes from above.”—Abraham Lincoln

Much later, the same philosophy would sustain him through the difficulties of his war presidency and that seeth­ing volcano of slavery. In writing and signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he would declare: “I am wholly the agent of a special purpose—a servant.” Besieged on every side by conflicting advice and pressures, he would quell the great cacophony of opinions as to tampering with the peculiar institution—or with the Constitution, for that matter—by calmly repeating that “God will direct my hand that holds the pen.”

Poet and jokester, mime and orator, humanist and freethinker (the only U.S. president never to join a church); bookworm and seeker, clog-dancer and railsplitter extraordinaire, Abe Lincon’s NDE (near death experience) at ten presaged the “sensitive” life. Today it is a fact that 75% of NDErs—regardless of their prior beliefs—become spiritual­ists as a result of their fleeting but stunning contact with the other world. Is this what happened to Lincoln? It is hardly enlightening to be told time and again by Lincoln scholars that he was “complex” or “elusive.” Complex? Non­sense, he was a simple man. And if biographers have called him a mystery or “elusive,” this opinion might well be based, as one writer thought, on “their refusal to face and appreciate—his psychic nature.” Lincoln’s famous mirror vision, in which his double (doppelganger) appeared—ominously—occurred spontaneously: a form of scrying or crys­tal-gazing which others have gone to great lengths to induce.

Also spontaneous was his very frequent lapse into the alpha state, which everyone who knew him inevitably witnessed—the flatlanders among them supposing that the president had dozed off or gone dopey. Many were baffled by the otherwhereness of his demeanor, in a world by him­self, suddenly rejoining his visitors as one awakened from sleep. The long silences, the trancelike behavior, the “pecu­liar dreaminess of expression,” the “extraordinary moods of abstraction” —all convey the timeless, yogi-like, almost disembodied state so typical of the brooding Lincoln. He walked in both worlds. Many tried to wrap a word around those “waves of magnetic force” or that “phantom touch” that defined his persona; and at the Laurie Circle in Georgetown he became so influenced by spiritual forces that he admitted seeing his deceased son Willie while in that condition.

Willie. The death of eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln in the White House in 1862—right in the middle of the war— was so shattering for Lincoln as to become the turning point in his life.

“His heart was changed.”

It was a metamorphosis, it was an epiphany; for Lincoln, up to that point, was not yet fully convinced of the sum­merland of the departed. His faith was unfinished. But now, the cloud of doubt lifted and, according to writer Troy Taylor, he “began to look more closely at the spiritual matters which had interested him for so long.”

“I feel that he [Willie] is with me.”—A.L.

Life-after-death would now become more than a debatable concept, it would become a palpable reality. And as if to affirm or commemorate it, on the first anniversary of Willie’s departure Lincoln wrote of the highest interests of this life and of that to come. But confessing the afterlife implied more than personal conviction; with his growing respect for the immortals came his grasp of “the God of Nations” who deals with “national offences”: the nightmare war yet had a purpose!

“He will compel us to do right. He means to establish justice.”—A.L.

Many, not just the president, had felt the finger of God in the great rebellion, but with Lincoln’s “uncanny grasp of the popular mind” (Harriet Beecher Stowe), he took on the mantle of Father Abraham, man of destiny, and proph­et of the people. Yet his own prescience was not always a happy thing.

“I believe I feel trouble in the air before it comes.”—A.L.

Many times during the turbulent war of brothers did this foreboding kick in. Though far from the front, he could suddenly “see” (his own word) the Confederates crossing federal lines. Though hours away, he “knew” the Dahlgren raid (on Richmond) was a disaster. His young secretary John Hay was astonished that his beloved boss “repeatedly ut­tered—predictions which have become history.” And on the very day of his death, that morning, he could not con­vince his Cabinet of Gen. Sherman’s success in Raleigh, North Carolina, though he felt it of a certainty. (The trium­phant news had not yet reached the capital.) And though he did not generally advertise it, Lincoln’s informing spirit, it seems, had always been with him: “There never was a time that I did not believe that I would at some day be Presi­dent.”—A.L.

But the grandiose forecast also portended doom, as his dear friend and biographer, Ward Hill Lamon, would re­call, that the same omens which assured Lincoln’s rise to greatness also convinced him that “he would be suddenly cut off at the height of his career and the fullness of his fame;” for the star under which he was born was “at once bril­liant and malignant.” The closer the time came, the more explicit was the prognostication: 1864: as told to the Boston Journal: “I feel a presentiment that I shall not outlast the rebellion.” March, 1865: “I do not think I shall live to see the end of my second term.” And then, only hours before his murder, he felt the com­ing evil, telling his aide, William Crook, of his dream of assassination the past three nights running: “I have no doubt they will do it.”

Far-seeing, Lincoln reached into the future, bequeathing to posterity his vision of justice to come—men will pass away—die, die—but the principle will live—till the final triumph will come.

Prophet of this new era in the life of man, he gave voice to his innermost conviction—that we are inexorably “giv­ing up the old faith for the new faith.” Having come to grips, the hard way, with this new birth of freedom, Lincoln stands today as more than a memorable president or great statesman. He was a sage; and in the history of ideas and its hall of fame, he serves as living proof that mysticism and rationalism are not conflicting isms. Nor can politics and religion be forever held apart. Faith, as Lincoln himself once confided, was the overruling principle that kept “my rea­son in its seat” in those troublous times.

In the decade prior to his presidency, Lincoln was a “fellow traveler” in the burgeoning movement of modern spir­itualism. He shared this interest with many of his illustrious contemporaries—Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Bronte sis­ters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Queen Victoria, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mrs. Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, William Makepeace Thackery, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickenson, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain—to name a few. His favorite poets were also believers in the afterlife: Milton, Burns, Byron and Shakespeare.

And because his involvement and fascination with the “future state” was known—or at least rumored—he was given the option (by the Cleveland Plain Dealer) in 1860 to deny or contradict it. Instead, he declared that the article in the Ohio paper detailing his mediumistic forays— “does not begin to tell the wonderful things I have witnessed.”

Accused by his enemies of blindly following his “guides” and “spirit-rappers,” Lincoln was the dupe of neither man nor angel, but “master in logic,” stamped with the “trademark of close reasoning” (Douglas Wilson). Yet it is true that he hearkened to his most trusted “controls” (disembodied mentors) in certain state decisions taken to meet a crisis. Such is the hidden or unwritten history behind both the Freedmen’s Bureau and the unprecedented presidential three-day visit to the war front itself—Gen. Hooker’s great encampment, in April, 1863.

Called at first the “accidental president” (the insulting phrase disappearing after his re-election in 1864), Abraham Lincoln would collect a colorful array of epithets—The People’s President, The Gorilla, The Great Emancipator, Old Ape, widow-maker, Abraham the First, etc. But after his murder—his sacrifice, as some saw it—on Good Friday, the aura of savior and redeemer clung to the 16th president.

“Massa Linkum—walk de earth like de Lord”—a Negro praise-man

Even more persistent were pious comparisons to the prophet Moses who brought his people through the wilder­ness (read: the chaos and disunion of war) but lived not to see the Promised Land.

“Alas! Alas! He only saw the dawn.”—Rev. Gurley, eulogy

Curious that Vachel Lindsay, the Illinois poet (who, like many, would later sense the spirit of that “bronzed lank man”), also painted Lincoln as a spiritual harbinger: “—He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn—” As conjured by the poet, Lincoln is the mourning figure, cloaked in black, who walks at midnight, unable to rest until the wars and woes of the world melt before the throne of “long peace.” Poet Lindsay traces the spiritual footsteps of the immortal Lin­coln through Springfield town, near the old courthouse, pacing up and down—

“—the prairie lawyer, master of us all—And who will bring white peace, That he may sleep upon his hill again?”


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