Abe Lincoln Sightings in the South and a Trickster Jesus

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by Tim Widowfield

Until recently, I had never heard of the stories former slaves told regarding appearances of Abraham Lincoln in the antebellum South. But it turns out many freed slaves told stories they apparently believed to be true in which the president (or president to-be) showed up in person to find out what was really happening on Southern plantations.

In most cases, white Southerners who came in contact with Lincoln did not know who he was. And in this way, he appears to be playing the role of trickster. Sometimes he’d even sleep in the master’s house.
I think Abe Lincoln was next to [the Lord]. He done all he could for [the] slaves; he set ’em free. People in the South knowed they’d lose their slaves when he was elected president. ‘Fore the election he traveled all over the South and he come to our house and slept in the old Mistress’ bed. Didn’t nobody know who he was. (Bob Maynard, Weleetka, OK)
While sojourning there, the disguised future president observed the ill treatment of the slaves. He noted their meagre pay: “four pounds of meat and a peck of meal for a week’s rations.
He also saw ’em whipped and sold. When he got back up north he writ old Master a letter and told him he was going to have to free his slaves, that everybody was going to have to, that the North was going to see to it. He also told him that he had visited at his house and if he doubted it to go in the room he slept in and look on the bedstead at the head and he’d see where he writ his name. Sho’ nuff, there was his name: A. Lincoln. (Maynard)
Other times, Lincoln appeared in disguise.
Lincoln came [through] Gallitan, Tennessee, and stopped at Hotel Tavern with his wife. They was dressed [just like] tramps and nobody knowed it was him and his wife till he got to the White House and writ back and told ’em to look ‘twixt the leaves in the table where he had set and they sho’ nuff found out it was him. (Alice Douglas, Oklahoma City, OK)
Reading these tales, perhaps you reacted as I did, thinking of the appearance of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus:
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:28-32, NRSV)
Of the two followers on the road, why is it, we wonder, do we learn only one of their names (Cleopas)? Why is the other anonymous? I think the narrative invites us as readers or listeners to put ourselves in the place of the actors. We are telling our disguised traveling companion what happened to Jesus. We ask the stranger to eat with us. Finally, Jesus reveals himself to us. More than just a story about recognition, in the Road to Emmaus, the evangelist relates a story about our participation in the presence of Christ. The appearances of Lincoln in the South are similar kinds of stories. William R. Black, in a highly perceptive article in The Atlantic, writes:
Though there’s no evidence Lincoln actually made any of these incognito visits to the South—and ample documentation to suggest these visits were wholly fictitious—it’s important that many former slaves believed he did. Today, historical debates over emancipation often focus on whether it came from the top down or the bottom up—did Lincoln free the slaves, or did the slaves free themselves? But the stories of Lincoln coming down South suggest many freedpeople didn’t see this as an either/or question. Did they need Lincoln? Sure. But emancipation wasn’t something Lincoln could just decree from on high. He had to come down South and get his hands dirty. Some even described him as taking on the guise of the trickster popular in black folklore, a sort of Brer Rabbit in a top hat. When former slaves claimed Lincoln had paid them a visit, they weren’t just inserting a beloved president into their story—they were inserting themselves into his story. [emphasis mine]
To be sure, the visitations of the living Lincoln and the appearances of the resurrected Christ are not identical types of stories. However, some themes are similar. True, in the case of Lincoln, the tales are “recalled” after his death, with the appearances placed in the recent past, while he still lived. However, you may recall that several NT scholars have suggested that the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is a displaced resurrection story. The canonical New Testament may present Jesus as a clever fellow who outsmarts the establishment, but not as a trickster. Of course, some gnostic Christian communities did turn Jesus into a trickster — even to the point of tricking some hapless schmuck to die on the cross. African American Christians revered the stories of Moses and Jesus as deliverers, but they also told stories about tricksters. Sometimes these characters could blend together. In Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South, author Paul Harvey writes:
Sometimes, the trickster and Jesus could merge into a powerful figure. For African Americans especially, as historian Edward J. Blum has expressed it, Jesus could be a trickster of the trinity. Blum writes, “At first, African Americans who described Jesus used the language of lightness and brightness. It was not until into the nineteenth century that whiteness became the defining feature of visions of Christ. But even then, African Americans saw a distinct Jesus— one that whites could hear about but whom they would never understand. The white Jesus became the trickster of the trinity, able to enter the world of whiteness, defy it, and sometimes dismantle it.” [Blum and Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God & the Saga of Race in America, 2012] Jesus as trickster profoundly unsettled the social order. He roamed the land in white southern nightmares of murder and mayhem and induced the turn to a proslavery theology that, while profoundly powerful in its premises, was also deadly deluded. Slaves thus embraced a Jesus that the whites around them feared and tried to repress (as the following two chapters will explore in more detail), for Jesus’s own life and message were a trickster tale of how the powerless might overcome the powerful through parable and poetry. (Harvey 2012, pp. 35-36, emphasis mine)
Once again we see the malleability of the character of Jesus in popular conceptions. Now the meek and mild teacher, now the king and warrior, now the trickster — throughout history, people have created the Jesus they need.
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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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7 thoughts on “Abe Lincoln Sightings in the South and a Trickster Jesus”

  1. The canonical New Testament may present Jesus as a clever fellow who outsmarts the establishment, but not as a trickster.

    Well, Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but then went “in secret.” (John 7:8-10)

      1. I’m not sure if this is quite the same thing but I am reminded of Irenaeus’s account of the teachings of Basilides: Jesus changed forms so that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in his stead and Jesus stood by laughing. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth taught that Jesus slipped out of his body before it was crucified and stood aside laughing at those thinking they were crucifying him.

        1. In this connection, a possibility is that in the original Proto-Mark, who was seeing from a distance the scene of the man Jesus (before the sinedrites) was the divine Christ, once he had abandoned the man Jesus to his fate. A tradition arises that identified this divine Christ with Simon Magus, and not coincidentially Peter is portrayed as a parody of Simon Magus (‘the standing one’) and accordingly Peter is ‘sitting’ at the fire (note that the Magus adored the fire). Note also that while the divine Christ/Simon Magus was laughing about the man Jesus who is beaten, now we have his parody Peter who is wepting. In proto-Mark Peter was denying that the beaten man was the divine Christ.

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