Famous Eulogies: Rev. Matthew Simpson on Abraham Lincoln

Some eulogies provide a profoundly meaningful, lasting tribute to the deceased

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The assassination of President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, April 14, 1865, as depicted in this lithograph by H.H. Lloyd & Co. Photo © Library of Congress

Ideally, a well-crafted and -delivered eulogy illuminates and elucidates special qualities about the deceased that enhance the existing emotional and spiritual connections between the person who died and the living, thereby focusing and increasing a listener's appreciation of the life lost. In some cases, the eulogy itself proves a memorable and meaningful embodiment of both the unique nature of the departed and the depth of feeling that endures in the hearts and minds of those who remain.

This article presents the (partial*) text of just such an enduring remembrance speech: the eulogy by Rev. Matthew Simpson, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Springfield, Illinois, for America's slain president, Abraham Lincoln.

Assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in the Presidential Box of Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, on April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died the following day at 7:22 a.m. at age 56. His death marked the first time an American president died at the hands of an assassin.

While a shocked and horrified nation grappled with the grief caused by the death of its slain leader, Lincoln's body was placed on a train April 21, 1865, for a lengthy journey from Washington, DC, to the president's hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Arriving almost two weeks later, an ornate, horse-drawn hearse carried the president's coffin through Springfield to Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Lincoln was interred following a solemn funeral ceremony on May 4, 1865.

On that day, Rev. Simpson delivered the following eulogy of President Lincoln.

* Author's note: The text below offers excerpts from Simpson's moving-but-lengthy eulogy. A link to the full text of the sermon is provided at the end of this article.

The Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln by Matthew Simpson
May 4, 1865

FELLOW-CITIZENS OF ILLINOIS, AND OF MANY PARTS OF OUR ENTIRE UNION:

Near the capitol of this large and growing state of Illinois, in the midst of this beautiful grove, and at the open mouth of the vault which has just received the remains of our fallen chieftain, we gather to pay a tribute of respect and to drop the tears of sorrow around the ashes of the mighty dead.

A little more than four years ago, he left his plain and quiet home in yonder city, receiving the parting words of the concourse of friends who, in the midst of the dropping of the gentle shower, gathered around him. He spoke of the pain of parting from the place where he had lived for a quarter of a century, where his children had been born and his home had been rendered pleasant by friendly associations; and, as he left, he made an earnest request, in the hearing of some who are present at this hour, that, as he was about to enter upon responsibilities which he believed to be greater than any which had fallen upon any man since the days of Washington, the people would offer up prayers that God would aid and sustain him in the work which they had given him to do.

His company left your quiet city, but as it went snares were in waiting for the chief magistrate. Scarcely did he escape the dangers of the way or the hands of the assassin as he neared Washington; and I believe he escaped only through the vigilance of officers and the prayers of the people, so that the blow was suspended for more than four years, which was at last permitted, through the providence of God, to fall.

How different the occasion which witnessed his departure from that which witnessed his return! Doubtless you expected to take him by the hand, and to feel the warm grasp which you had felt in other days, and to see the tall form walking among you which you had delighted to honor in years past. But he was never permitted to come until he came with lips mute and silent, the frame encoffined, and a weeping nation following as his mourners.

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But never was there in the history of man such mourning as that which has accompanied this funeral procession, and has gathered around the mortal remains of him who was our loved one, and who now sleeps among us. If we glance at the procession which followed him, we see how the nation stood aghast. Tears filled the eyes of manly, sun-burnt faces. Strong men, as they clasped the hands of their friends, were not able in words to find vent for their grief. Women and little children caught up the tidings as they ran through the land, and were melted into tears. The nation stood still. Men left their plows in the fields and asked what the end should be. The hum of manufactories ceased, and the sound of the hammer was not heard. Busy merchants closed their doors, and in the exchange gold passed no more from hand to hand.

Though three weeks have elapsed, the nation has scarcely breathed easily yet. A mournful silence is abroad upon the land; nor is this mourning confined to any class or to any district of country. Men of all political parties, and of all religious creeds, have united in paying this mournful tribute. The archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in New York and a Protestant minister walked side by side in the sad procession, and a Jewish rabbi performed a part of the solemn services.

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Standing, as, we do today, by his coffin and his sepulcher, let us resolve to carry forward the policy which he so nobly begun. Let us do right to all men. Let us vow, in the sight of Heaven, to eradicate every vestige of human slavery; to give every human being his true position before God and man; to crush every form of rebellion, and to stand by the flag which God has given us. How joyful that it floated over parts of every state before Mr. Lincoln's career was ended! How singular that, to the fact of the assassin's heels being caught in the folds of the flag, we are probably indebted for his capture. The flag and the traitor must ever be enemies.

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Chieftain, farewell! The nation mourns thee. Mothers shall teach thy name to their lisping children. The youth of our land shall emulate thy virtues. Statesmen shall study thy record and learn lessons of wisdom. Mute though thy lips be, yet they still speak. Hushed is thy voice, but its echoes of liberty are ringing through the world, and the sons of bondage listen with joy. Prisoned thou art in death, and yet thou art marching abroad, and chains and manacles are bursting at thy touch. Thou didst fall not for thyself. The assassin had no hate for thee. Our hearts were aimed at; our national life was sought. We crown thee as our martyr, and humanity enthrones thee as her triumphant son. Hero, Martyr, Friend, FAREWELL!

Related Articles of Interest:
The Full Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln
Recreating President Lincoln's Funeral 150 Years Later
President Lincoln's Last Words
5 Tips for Writing a Successful Eulogy
How To Write a Eulogy or Remembrance Speech

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