Mythbusting the Message: “A Pardon is Not a Pardon”

Mythbusting the Message: “A Pardon is Not a Pardon” February 3, 2011
Civil War era cannon
A Civil War era cannon.

William Branham told a lot of stories to illustrate his points. I suspect that he did this in imitation of Jesus, actually. It’s not a bad thing. Storytelling is a great way to get your point to stick in the minds of your listeners, especially when it’s a group of mixed ages.

When stories purport to be historical, though, it’s worth revisiting them to see whether the facts line up with the interpretation. Otherwise we run into gross misunderstandings like people in the past were very short or they used spices to cover up rotten food. Let’s give our ancestors more credit than that, and let’s put one of Branham’s stories to the test. This one concerns the informal (but legal) pardoning of a prisoner by Abraham Lincoln for the crime of desertion during the American Civil War.

Branham’s story was probably always meant to be allegorical, as he told it in many different variations. Abraham Lincoln appears in the version told in The Mighty Conqueror (March 29, 1958):

Some time ago, there was a man going to be shot. He had committed a crime in military. And he–he was sentenced to die. And some good friend went to Abraham Lincoln which was President of the United States at the time. And he begged for mercy for his friend.
And Mr. Lincoln, being rather in a hurry, he grabbed up a piece of paper and a quill, and he wrote, “I, Abraham Lincoln, pardon this man.” And the man thanked him and rushed back to the prison.
He said, “Oh, I don’t believe that. That don’t look just right. It should come in some great classical thing. It should come with great gold seals on it. I don’t believe it’s a pardon.” And he could not persuade him to believe it. He could not believe it.
And the next morning he died under a firing squad. And then here’s a dead man, and the President’s name signed on a paper the day before that he was pardoned. That was tried in Federal Court. And here was the decision: A pardon is not a pardon, unless it be received as a pardon.
And the Holy Spirit, It may not come in classical places; It may not come through great denominations; It may not come through well trained and polished preachers; but It’s a Pardon. It’s salvation that’s freedom from sin. It’s a ticket to heaven. It’s healing for the sick to those who will receive It as a pardon.

It’s clear that this version is an indictment of Branham’s fellow ministers and the churchgoers who objected to his preaching style. Branham frequently alluded (one might say, self-consciously) to his own poor speaking ability and lack of education, turning around what would have been an obstacle to make it a virtue instead. He saw himself as the scrap of paper on which the pardon was hastily written: a humble conduit for a saving message. The allegory here is blindingly obvious.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

But did Lincoln ever pardon a man in this manner?

In Hear Ye Him (1956), Love (1957) and What Think Ye of Christ (1957), Branham referred to the pardoner not as Lincoln, but as a “governor” of an unspecified city. In a later version of Hear Ye Him (1960) and in Behold a Greater than Solomon is Here (1962), he reaffirmed that it was Lincoln. Based on these few examples, it seems as though Branham began to refer to the pardoner as Lincoln late in his career (from 1958 to the 1960s). Did he do this deliberately, in order to achieve maximum dramatic effect?  The story certainly appears more dramatic in this 1961 account, with the conversation between Lincoln and his friend fleshed out and the detail of only 24 hours elapsing between the pardon and execution added in. Here, too, the man is innocent (of what, we apparently aren’t told, as Branham claims that the man did desert during the Civil War):

You remember the pardon that the man was shot, that I sometimes tell, during the civil war when he was a good man? He was innocent, and they found him guilty, although he was guilty in a way, that he run away in time of battle. And they found him guilty and was going to shoot him. And a man went to President Lincoln and said, “Mr. Lincoln, this is a Christian man. He was scared, the boy. I know his people. He was just afraid. He didn’t mean no harm. He run away.” Said, “Mr. Lincoln, it’s in your hands. You’re the only one can pardon him.” Mr. Lincoln picked up a piece of paper and his pen and signed, “Pardon this So-and-so. Abraham Lincoln.”
He ran back to the jail, and he said, “Here it is. I got your pardon.”
And the man said, “I refuse to look at it. It would have a big seal on it. It would be everything. You’re only trying to make me a laughing stock. It is not Abraham Lincoln. Anybody could sign his name, but it would have to be documented by his seal and so forth if it comes from him.” And the man persuaded him, though the man in the prison thought he was kidding, and just walked away. The next morning he was shot. And then after he was shot, then there was a Federal Court trial, because Abraham Lincoln, twenty-four hours before the man was shot, signed his name that this man was pardoned. And then the government shot him anyhow. Then what? Then the Federal Court of the United States said–come to this decision of the Federal Court, said, “A pardon is not a pardon unless it be received as a pardon.”

I suspect that Branham didn’t intend to be quite so conniving. He was wrong on many counts, but he was usually (as he himself liked to say of others) sincerely wrong. Branham’s gradual attribution of the story to Abraham Lincoln may be a sort of false memory syndrome: he might have recalled that the story took place some time in the 1800s, and have “recalled” that it happened during the Civil War because that was the major event of the century for Americans. On the other hand, Branham might have heard the story told by another preacher, as Message believers do not have a monopoly on the story. Branham’s own personal embellishment seems to be the quality of the paper on which the pardon is written, for reasons already mentioned.

So what actually happened? Who pardoned whom? Where? When? Why?

US Supreme Court
US Supreme Court

According to United States v. Wilson, 32 U.S. 150 Vol. 32 (1833), the facts are these:

In April 1830, George Wilson and James Porter were indicted for obstructing and robbing the mail several times in 1829, and for endangering the life of a mail driver in the process. Both pleaded not guilty, and Porter was executed. Wilson then withdrew his plea and instead pleaded guilty. In June 1830, President Andrew Jackson issued a pardon to Wilson (quite ceremoniously, judging by the full text transcription). Wilson, however, declined to accept the pardon in October 1830, and did so without further comment. There is no evidence that he disparaged the form of the pardon.
The Supreme Court did indeed consider the odd case of a presidential pardon rejected by its intended recipient, but it is possible that this took place while Wilson yet lived. A snippet of text from the Court’s decision is as follows:

A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. It is the private, though official, act of the executive magistrate, delivered to the individual for whose benefit it is intended, and not communicated officially to the court.

A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him. It may be supposed that no being condemned to death would reject a pardon, but the rule must be the same in capital cases and in misdemeanors.

My internet research leaves Wilson’s ultimate fate indeterminate: Wikipedia only states that he was not released early from prison, and the full text court records do not explicitly spell out the conclusion of the tale. If you find the answer, drop me a line and I’ll update my post (please, only reasonably verifiable sources, not “Brother Bill’s Meat for the Bride” or anything!). The facts may not change much about the moral: a pardon still requires acceptance to be enacted. But I think being aware of the true story is worth something. The written record anchors it in the real past, free of embellishments like Abraham Lincoln, firing squads, 24 hour execution stays and little scraps of paper.

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