What Killed Lincoln’s Mother (And Why it Matters to Us)?

by Tony Cooke

This article originally appeared on tonycooke.org, August 2014.

Who Killed Lincoln's Mother Tony Cooke

Some time ago, I was in Barstow, California, preaching for Pastor Bernie Samples. Both of us are originally from Indiana, and our conversation took us to discussing Abraham Lincoln, who lived fourteen years in southern Indiana (1816-1830). Bernie talked to me about a visit he had made to Lincoln State Park, where Lincoln’s mother died and is buried. I did not know this, but he mentioned that Lincoln’s mother had died of milk sickness.

He had read this information on a plaque near Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave when he visited (I visited there this past month as well). In the pioneer days, many people died of milk sickness, but back then, they did not know what caused it. It was later determined that when cows ate a certain plant (known as snakeroot) it did not harm the cow, but the poison in the plant was transmitted to humans who drank the cow’s milk.

Bernie made a great application of this story. He mentioned that as ministers, we have a sacred responsibility to give God’s people the pure milk of the Word. Unfortunately, he said, some ministers feed on junk—false teaching, erroneous ideas, and deception—and they end up poisoning the people of God. They transmit toxins to others.

1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT) says, “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.” Hebrews 5:12 (NLT) likens milk to “the basic things about God’s Word.” In the Message version, Hebrews 5:13 says, “Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways.”

What a solemn and sobering responsibility spiritual leaders have when it comes to teaching and modeling the right things, especially to God’s young ones (and this includes both the chronologically and spiritually young)! Consider the gravity of Jesus’ warning regarding negative influences toward those whom He loves.

Matthew 18:6-7, 10-11 (NKJV)
6 Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
10 Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. 11 For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.

If Jesus is determined to save people, I must ensure that I do not scatter people. If Jesus is intent upon redeeming people, I must be careful never to repel people. As a minister, I must give attention not only to my teaching, but also to my example. This is something that Paul addressed most passionately when he wrote the believers in Rome.

The church in Rome was comprised of people from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Because they had been raised in the things of God and had been brought up in the teaching of Scripture, the Jewish believers had a tendency to have an air of superiority about them. They felt themselves to be better than those who had come into the church from pagan backgrounds. However, their example was at times less-than-godly, and in some cases, had caused offense and stumbling in those who were new to the faith.

Romans 2:17-24 (NKJV)
17 Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. 21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? 24 For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ as it is written.

Later in Romans, Paul was dealing with dissension between the supposedly “stronger” members of the church and others who were considered “weaker.” He said, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:13, NKJV).

One of the earliest impressions I had from the Holy Spirit as a young Bible School student came as I read 1 Timothy 4:12 (KJV). I vividly remember reading those powerful words. “Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” I was impressed with the fact that Paul did not, in this verse, say to Timothy, “Preach thou, Teach thou, or Prophesy thou…” He said, “Be thou…”

Our example matters! I remember Brother Hagin saying that it seemed like some ministers felt that God had two sets of rules—one set for them, and one set for everyone else. He was referring to people who preached one thing, and then lived another way. May that not be said of us.

In dealing with the Corinthian church, Paul was dealing with people from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different levels of maturity. The point he made (again) was that we must be careful about our influence and our example, and we must not contribute to another person stumbling. The specific context in Corinth was that of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Though the issue is somewhat culturally and historically removed from us, the principle is an abiding one. Consider Paul’s counsel to the church.

1 Corinthians 8:9-12 (NKJV)
9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? 12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

Some Christians and ministers see no problem with drinking alcohol in moderation (I am not writing to debate that issue in this letter). However, I know of more than one example of young believers seeing high-profile ministers drinking wine, and saying to themselves, “Well, drinking must be OK because I saw Rev. So-and-So doing it.” Emboldened by the minister’s example, they began to drink, and before long, became alcoholic. Perhaps the minister was able to drink in moderation, but the example he set facilitated another believer’s drinking who had a propensity toward addiction. I think that’s a very serious issue.

Lincoln’s mother died because a cow had ingested a plant that brought it no harm, but was deadly to the people who drank its milk. The moment you and I become leaders in the Body of Christ, our influence, example, and teaching takes on greater significance. James said, “Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards”(James 3:1, MSG).

My prayer for myself is that through word and deed, I will never cause anyone to stumble. I want my example to draw people closer to Christ and to never repel them. I pray that through my influence, people will be gathered unto Him, and never scattered from Him. That’s my prayer for you, too.