Missing Lincoln link

The jury’s still out on area church’s claims, professor says

Untitled Document In April 1857, the Logan County Courthouse burned to the ground and court officials temporarily arranged to hold court in nearby Lincoln Christian Church. That fact is not in dispute. In the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln was a respected Springfield lawyer, trying cases all over the state, including in his namesake town, about 30 miles north of the capital city. That fact also is not in dispute.
But did Lincoln actually try any cases in the Lincoln Christian Church? The answer was unclear until recently, when church ministers announced they found evidence that he did.
Lincoln Christian Church officials have long believed in a special link to Lincoln, despite the absence of any primary records (records that are created by contemporaries of an event) to prove the case. In the late 1930s or early ’40s, church officials even dedicated a bronze plaque, declaring unequivocally that Lincoln practiced law at Lincoln Christian Church.
Historians treated the church’s claims, for the most part, as myth. In 1953, respected Lincoln scholar James Hickey concluded that Lincoln couldn’t have been in the Logan County Circuit Court in the fall of 1857 because he was involved in a high-profile case in Chicago. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, most likely handled matters in Logan County, Hickey suggested. That’s the way things stood until a few weeks ago when the church’s top two ministers announced they’d discovered a smoking gun: Four Logan County cases from the spring of 1858 in which Lincoln was a lawyer or judge.
They shared their findings with the area’s press, and many bought the story. Take the Lincoln Courier, which told readers on Sept. 8: “It’s official! Researchers at Lincoln Christian Church [. . .] have laid an urban legend to rest.” The Bloomington Pantagraph followed two days later: “The Lincoln Christian Church has verified its legendary claim to fame.”
Not so fast, says Leigh Henson. A professor emeritus of English from Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., Henson is a native of Lincoln with a special interest in the cultural history of central Illinois. He visits frequently, and has even devoted a Web site to his hometown. The Illinois State Historical Society named his www.geocities.com/findinglincolnillinois the best Web site in 2004. When Henson learned of the Lincoln Christian Church’s renewed claims, he began an  e-mail exchange with Todd Parmenter, executive minister of the church. There seemed, Henson says, a major problem with the church’s case: Despite the fact that the church located the four Lincoln-related cases, there wasn’t any proof yet that the Logan County Circuit Court met at the church in the spring of 1858. A 1911 history of Logan County said that temporary County Court offices were built and occupied by Oct. 1, 1857; it’s possible the Circuit Court was also held in those offices, and not the church, Henson says.
Henson isn’t interested in bursting the church’s bubble, and suggests it’s even possible that Hickey was wrong, in light of more recent research that puts Lincoln briefly in Springfield in late September 1857, within easy traveling distance of the Logan County courts. Henson’s just interested in making sure all the facts square up. His Web site has a link to an essay, explaining his position.
In the Land of Lincoln, it’s almost impossible to avoid some link to the Great Emancipator. Communities all over the state also can make legitimate claims to the historical Lincoln. Sometimes, the ties are stretched a bit; sometimes, they’re just ridiculous.
Parmenter says while he’s convinced Lincoln practiced law in the original church building, which burned to the ground in 1902, he appreciates the information that Henson provided. And he now agrees that additional proof is needed. “I acknowledge, before we can say that with 100 percent certainty, we need that last piece of primary evidence [confirming the court met at the church in 1858],” Parmenter says. “It’s the same kind of argument you can make for a lot of historical facts: there’s a lot of history we accept as fact, based on an abundance of secondary and weaker primary evidence. I think that’s what we have here — we may never find that piece of paper that pins down that date.”
Parmenter says the Lincoln connection is an immense source of pride to the church and the community it serves. It also, he says, has broader meaning, because it shows that the separation of church and state wasn’t as big a deal a century ago.
“In the modern era, this would never happen. They would never mingle, not even on this level,” Parmenter says.
The good ministers of Lincoln Christian Church have the right to draw whatever conclusions they want — after all, with 14,000 books about Lincoln and counting, it’s clear that Lincoln’s life and words are subject to wide interpretation. Given the hoopla that’s bound to grow in anticipation of his 200th birthday in 2009, expect to see many more Lincoln connections pop up in the next couple years. We should take all new revelations with an extra helping of skepticism.

Contact Roland Klose at editor@illinoistimes.com.

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