By Duncan Newcomer
Excerpted from his book,
30 Days With Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire
“Boys, now I’ve got you!”
“Boys, now I’ve got you” doesn’t sound too spiritual, does it? Yet Lincoln gleefully surprised his young friends in southern Indiana one day with these very words—words not found etched on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.
But who were these boys Lincoln had gotten? We only know the name of one of them for sure—Joseph C. Richardson—because he told the story years later.
Lincoln may have cut a lonely figure out there on the American frontier, but he was, in fact, part of a community called Gentryville in Little Pigeon Creek. He had lots of friends, too. Within a mile of the Lincoln cabin there were nine families with a total of 49 children, and within five miles there were four times as many families.
But he figured out who it was that were stealing melons from the Lincoln farm, and he knew just where they’d be headed as they stole away with the melons.
Now, I’ve lived in southern Indiana, and the melons there are pretty famous. Today they’re called Posey County melons, though we’d call them cantaloupes—albeit big ones.
But, back to Lincoln. What do you suppose he did after he’d caught his friends melon-handed? Well, according to Joe Richardson, he cracked a few jokes and then sat down with them and joined in eating some of the contraband melons.
It is most likely that by this time, Lincoln was already over 6 feet tall and all big bones and muscle. It is highly likely that those young thieves never forgot being caught—and most likely that they never tried it again. Yet it is more than Lincoln’s powerful enforcement that these youngsters probably remembered most; you’d expect that they also always recalled how he let them off easy—and, even more astonishingly, how he’d joined them in sharing the fruits of their crime! Through his actions, Lincoln converted these young people from petty criminals to common friends.
The melon-thief story is a parable—a story teaching a spiritual lesson. Lincoln had a heart for such unique generosity: It was one of his spiritual values. Lincoln would often affirm people and then deal generously with them, even when those people would try to steal from him—like when South Carolina tried to “steal” the American Union by attempting to secede from the nation.
We can wonder how Abraham Lincoln became so generous of heart. Perhaps it is because he had a strong, kind and gentle mother, followed by an extraordinary stepmother who held together a very divided house. But Lincoln also had books—books that taught him lessons. In school, Lincoln learned to read aloud with the rest of his classmates. The school that Lincoln attended was actually called a blab school, or vocal school, and as a result of this schooling Lincoln did most of his private reading out loud all his life!
At school, one of Lincoln’s readers was called Murray’s English Reader. Here are two quotes that were bred into Lincoln’s bones by the time he caught his melon-thief friends:
“Revenge dwells in little minds.”
“To have your enemy in your power, and yet to do him good, is the greatest heroism.”
Now, Lincoln knew that he did not have a little mind. Therefore, revenge was not for him. But even more to the point of this spiritual virtue—both in how he dealt with his young friends and how he dealt with the southern states as the Civil War ended—is the second quote. Doing good by others is how Lincoln treated his friends, and it is also how he treated the South.
Lincoln certainly caught the South “stealing” the country. He was a hero not because his cause won the war, but because he planned to do good by the opposition.
Abraham Lincoln was a spiritual man, and his spirit continues to both teach and inspire us. The quiet fire of his generous spirit can continue to light us—down to the latest generation.
30 Days With Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire is a book selecting some of the best radio features on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln by Duncan Newcomer, preacher, teacher and psychotherapist from mid-coast Maine. Deep, creative and relevant, these brief reflections reveal Lincoln to be a secular and a sacred source for our political and personal lives now. A radio book, you can read or access the broadcasts for meditation, devotion and insight. More available on WERU.org or 89.9 FM under “Quiet Fire: The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln.”