“You Must Kneel to God Only”

I recently came across an account from the life of Abraham Lincoln that illustrates an important evidence of the deity of Christ. Jesus accepted worship (Matthew 14:33; 28:9; John 9:38), but men and angels don’t (Acts 10:26; Rev. 19:10; 22:8). Jesus accepts worship because, as God, He is worthy of worship.

Abraham Lincoln understood that distinction and demonstrated that understanding in a humble manner as described in the report by Admiral Porter who took President Lincoln to Richmond (the capital of the Confederacy) immediately after its fall and the evacuation by the Confederate government (note my highlights):

I had never been to Richmond before by that route, and did not know where the landing was; neither did the coxswain, nor any of the barge’s crew. We pulled on, hoping to see some one of whom we could inquire, but no one was in sight.

The street along the river-front was as deserted as if this had been a city of the dead. The troops had been in possession some hours, but not a soldier was to be seen.

The current was now rushing past us over and among rocks, on one of which we finally stuck.

‘Send for Colonel Bailey,’ said the President; ‘he will get you out of this.’

‘No, sir, we don’t want Colonel Bailey this time. I can manage it.’ So I backed out and pointed for the nearest landing.

There was a small house on this landing, and behind it were some twelve negroes digging with spades. The leader of them was an old man sixty years of age. He raised himself to an upright position as we landed, and put his hands up to his eyes. Then he dropped his spade and sprang forward. ‘Bress de Lord,’ he said. ‘Dere is de great Messiah! I knowed him as soon as I seed him. He’s bin in my hear fo’ long yeahs, an’ he’s cum at las’ to free his chillun from deir bondage! Glory, Hallelujah!’ And he fell upon his knees before the President and kissed his feet. The others followed his example, and in a minute Mr. Lincoln was surrounded by these people, who had treasured up the recollection of him caught from a photograph, and had looked up to him for four years as the one who was to lead them out of captivity.

It was a touching sight – that aged negro kneeling at the feet of the tall, gaunt-looking man who seemed in himself to be bearing all the grief of the nation, and whose sad face seemed to say, ‘I suffer for you all, but will do all I can to help you.’

Mr. Lincoln looked down on the poor creatures at his feet; he was much embarrassed at his position. ‘Don’t kneel to me,’ he said. ‘That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy. I am but God’s humble instrument; but you may rest assured that as long as I live no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.’

His face was lit up with a divine look as he uttered these words. Though not a handsome man, and ungainly in his person, yet in his enthusiasm he seemed the personification of manly beauty, and that sad face of his looked down in kindness upon these ignorant blacks with a grace that could not be excelled. He really seemed of another world.

All this scene of brief duration, but, though a simple and humble affair, it impressed me more than anything of the kind I ever witnessed. What a fine picture that would have made – Mr. Lincoln landing from a ship-of-war’s boat, an aged negro on his knees at his feet, and a dozen more trying to reach him to kiss the hem of his garments! In the foreground should be the shackles he had broken when he issued his proclamation giving liberty to the slave.

Twenty years have passed since that event; it is almost too new in history to make a great impression, but the time will come when it will loom up as one of the greatest of man’s achievements, and the name of Abraham Lincoln – who of his own will struck the shackles from the limbs of four millions of people – will be honored thousands of years from now as man’s name was never honored before.

It was a minute or two before I could get the negroes to rise and leave the President. The scene was so touching I hated to disturb it, yet we could not stay there all day; we had to move one; so I requested the patriarch to withdraw from about the President with his companions and let us pass on.

‘Yes, Massa,’ said the old man, ‘but after bein’ so many years in de desert widout water, it’s mighty pleasant to be lookin’ at las’ on our spring of life. ‘Scuse us, sir; we means no disrespec’ to Mass’ Lincoln; we means all love and gratitude.’ And then, joining hands together in a ring, the negroes sang the following hymn with melodious and touching voices only possessed by the negroes of the South:

‘Oh, all ye people clap your hands,

And with triumphant voices sing;

No force the mighty power withstands

Of God, the universal King.’

The President and all of us listened respectfully while the hymn was being sung. Four minutes at most had passed away since we first landed at a point where, as far as the eye could reach, the streets were entirely deserted, but now what a different scene appeared as that hymn went forth from the negroes’ lips! The streets seemed to be suddenly alive with the colored race. They seemed to spring from the earth. They came, tumbling and shouting, from over the hills and from the water-side, where no one was seen as we had passed.

The crowd immediately became very oppressive. We needed our marines to keep them off.

I ordered twelve of the boat’s crew to fix bayonets to their rifles and to surround the President, all of which was quickly done; but the crowd poured in so fearfully that I thought we all stood a chance of being crushed to death.

[HT The Lincoln Institute citing: David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, p. 292-312]

As a side note, the text sung by the freed slaves is Psalm 47:1. The only metrical Psalter that matches the wording is A New Version of the Psalms of David by Nahum Brady and Nicholas Tate, first published in England in 1696. That is interesting to me. It shows the slaves of the south sang metrical Psalms (they knew them well if they could spontaneously sing together), but it was not the Scottish Psalter which I would have expected.

This comment by Terry Johnson offers some help:

The supplanting of the metrical psalms by hymns was gradual in American Protestantism. From 1620 to 1800, metrical psalmody dominated the American church scene. The Pilgrim fathers arrived with their Ainsworth Psalter, which gave way to the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the Psalter of American Puritanism. Presbyterians sang from the Scottish Psalter of 1650 and Anglicans from either Steinhold & Hopkins (1562) or Tate & Brady’s New Version (1696). In the 1750’s the churches of New England and beyond began to vote to adopt Watts’ Paraphrases (1719), the popularity of which, along with his hymns, could not be suppressed. [The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church by Terry Johnson Feb 26, 2009]

Apparently, the majority of slaves, at least in Virginia, were Baptist. [http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Religion_During_the_Civil_War ] Baptists came to America from English background. What Psalter did the Baptists use in America? What Psalter did the slaves use?

It appears the use of metrical Psalms in worship was so common and familiar among the slave population that when they were exhorted to worship the God Who had liberated them, the broke out in a Psalm.


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