Who has walked this ground before us

Recently, while giving some Atlanta friends a brief tour of New Orleans, I asked the teenagers in the back seat, “Did you know Abraham Lincoln came to our city?”  They didn’t.

Most people don’t.

The teacher in me kicked into overdrive.  I love telling people things about our city they didn’t know. And if it involves a celebrity–modern or ancient–so much the better.

Lincoln came twice, once in 1828 when he was 19 and again in 1831, at the age of 22.

In those days, people would built flatboats upriver and float down the Mississippi bringing crafts or produce to our city.  Once here, they would peddle their cargo, tear up the boat and sell it for firewood, then walk around for a couple of days and “see the elephant,” as they called it. Eventually, people from Illinois would book passage back to St. Louis on a paddlewheeler and walk the rest of the distance back home.

The first time, Lincoln came as a helper for his boss’ son, and the second time he may have been in charge himself.

Professor Richard Campanella of Tulane University has written “Lincoln in New Orleans,” published in 2010 by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.  It’s the best and most complete thing ever written on the subject, I feel confident in saying.  Subtitle: “The 1828-1831 flatboat voyages and their place in history.”

This is not a review of the book, even though I’m fascinated by it.  (In truth, the book is so dense, with tons of interesting insights on every page, reading it is a slow process.)  What I find most fascinating, however, is that Campanella tells us where the flatboat probably docked, where Lincoln and his friend may have stayed, which slave auction they may have watched.

I walked today where Lincoln walked.  Sort of.

You know where Canal Street hits the Mississippi River. That would have been “city center.”  However, flatboats were not allowed to come in that close, but had to tie up a mile or so upriver.  Close in were the steamboats, with two or three new ones arriving daily, according to Professor Campanella.  Further downriver you found the larger, ocean-going masted ships.  This was one busy place.

Slaves were auctioned at numerous places in what we now call the French Quarter. Hewlett’s Exchange on Chartres Street,being the biggest, was the one most likely to have drawn in out-of-towners wishing to see this cruel spectacle.  Campanella thinks Lincoln and his friends would have gone there.

I’ve walked the French Quarter, from one side to the other. Back in the 1960s, we seminary students preached on Decatur Street, right in the middle of what is now the grandest tourist section of the area but which back then was run down, seedy, and scary.

You wonder who has walked on this street where you are now standing.  What happened in this building or that one?  Where did Lincoln go and what did he see?  (The only reference, we’re told, that he ever made to this was in 1860 when he mentioned the slave auctions.)  Who else has been here?

Let your mind run on that track for a moment….

Newly 30 years ago, my wife and I were exploring the King’s Mountain park in North Carolina where a battle of the Revolutionary War took place.  Historical signs throughout the park told who fought here in this valley and how many died on yonder hillside.  The thought occurred, “What if we had markers at various places in the world informing future generations who lived here and who succeeded there and who failed at this place?”

Various places have been made sacred by the one-time presence of some august personage who came, did what they did, then moved on, leaving the spot forever changed.  “Washington slept here.” That sort of thing.

In Jerusalem, you can stand on the pavement where the Lord Jesus was placed on trial.  You can’t be sure of so many places, even the site of Golgotha or the exact placement of the tomb.  But there are some spots–Gethsemane is there–that impress themselves upon your heart in unforgettable ways.  “My Lord was here.”  The thought is too precious for words.

Perhaps all of this is a metaphor for “those who have gone before us.” Here are a few scriptures that come to mind…

1) The writer of Hebrews speaks of our  faithful predecessors who ran their race, did whatever they were able to do, and are now seated in the grandstand cheering us on:

“We have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us….” (Heb. 12:1)

2) Others before you were tempted in the very same way you are. 

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful….” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

3) There is a sense in which our Lord has even been precisely where you find yourself today. Consider this….

“We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

Think of that.  Jesus knows what you are going through because He’s been there and done that.

I can imagine our interceding Lord in Heaven.  He says to an angel, “Don’t be too hard on this one.  I’ve been where he is, and it’s really tough. Let’s give him a little extra help.”

You and I can take great comfort in knowing this.

An old gospel song says, “I walked today where Jesus walked.” It’s a good song.  But one wonders if up in Heaven, the Lord doesn’t look at you and me and instead of shaking His head in disgust, He says, “I walked right where you have walked.  Give it your best now. You can do this.”

Thank you, Lord Jesus.  Thank you for coming here and walking among us and showing us how it’s done. And then, thank you for not commanding us to do this perfectly and then abandoning us to our own resources.  You continue with us, “helping us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26).

You are the best of all possible Lords, and we praise You.




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