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Fighting for Lincoln’s Soul


ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

Good Friday fell on April 14 in 1865. At 10:13 that evening Abraham Lincoln was shot by the Confederate partisan John Wilkes Booth. He died nine hours later, at 7:22 on Saturday morning.

It took almost no time at all for pious and patriotic people to transform Lincoln into the American Christ. Easter Sunday became the occasion for sermons on this theme. “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader. . .,” said Reverend Henry W. Bellows in New York, “dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” University of Virginia historian Merrill D. Peterson, in his book Lincoln in American Memory, notes the ingenuity of Boston’s Edward Everett Hale, who extended the comparison back a few days to when Lincoln, like Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, had toured the Confederate capital of Richmond to loud hosannahs. “Bress de Lord, dere is de great Messiah. . .,” exclaimed one black laborer, “come at las’ to free his children from deir bondage. Glory hallelujah.” Others noted Lincoln’s humble birth, and his father’s work as a carpenter. In 1868 Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, brought Republican rallies to an emotional climax by dramatically reading the Gettysburg Address, then issuing this tearful altar call: “That is the voice of God speaking through the lips of Abraham Lincoln!. . . You hear the voice of Father Abraham here tonight. Did he die in vain?. . . Let us here every one, with uplifted hand, declare before Almighty God that the precious gift of this great heritage, consecrated in the blood of our soldiers, shall never perish from the earth. Now all hands to God”—Stanton lifted his hands—”I SWEAR IT!”

Although few today would equate Lincoln with Christ so explicitly, our casual ways of talking about the slain president embody something of the old idea. Think of the verbs that first come to mind concerning Lincoln: save (Lincoln saved the Union) and free (he freed the slaves). Think of the images: the common man of uncommon wisdom, the “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” the teller of simple stories dense with meaning. Driving through the square in Hodgenville, Kentucky, last Christmas, I noticed that this town of Lincoln’s birth had draped his statue with holly and ivy. Without thinking a thing of it, the good people of Hodgenville had merged one humble but redeeming birth into the other.

An inconvenient question plagued efforts to identify Lincoln with Christ in 1865 and preoccupies us in other ways today: Was Lincoln a Christian? The evidence, then and now, is unclear. On the one hand, Lincoln spoke more frequently and seriously about God and quoted the Bible more extensively than any other president—never more so than in his last major speech, the second inaugural address. On the other, he joined no church, was never baptized, never took communion.

The round of biographies that were published within a few years of Lincoln’s death did little to clarify matters. His first biographer, Josiah Holland, described Lincoln in his wildly popular 1866 book, Life of Abraham Lincoln, as “savior of the Republic, emancipator of a race, true Christian, true man.” Holland, a Springfield, Massachusetts, newspaper editor and a devout Christian, relied heavily on an account by Illinois superintendent of education Newton Bateman of a conversation with Lincoln in October 1860. “I know that liberty is right, for Christ teaches it and Christ is God,” Lincoln reportedly said, clasping a Bible and calling it “this rock on which I stand.” Holland’s book concluded with a kind of prayer to Saint Abraham: “Humble child of the backwoods. . .we receive thy life and its immeasurably great results, as the choicest gifts that a mortal has ever bestowed on us; grateful to thee for thy truth to thyself, to us, and to God; and grateful to that ministry of Providence and grace which endowed thee so richly, and bestowed thee upon the nation and mankind.”

Outraged by this pious account, Lincoln’s law partner in his adopted hometown of Springfield, Illinois, the freethinking William Herndon, wrote that Lincoln “held many of the Christian ideas in abhorrence. . . . I never heard him use the name of. . .Jesus but to confute the idea that he was the Christ.” Another Lincoln associate, Ward Hill Lamon, wrote in his own Life of Abraham Lincoln that Lincoln “was never a member of any church, nor did he believe in the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures.” This was so not just during Lincoln’s youth, when if “he went to church at all, he went to mock,” but also in his later years, however discreet about his irreligion he may have become for professional and political purposes.

The uncertainty about Lincoln’s views on religion continues with two recent and, each in its way, excellent books. Ronald C. White, Jr., a historian of religion, uses Frederick Douglass’ judgment that Lincoln’s second inaugural address “sounded more like a sermon than a state paper” as the epigraph to Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. White regards Lincoln as a deeply spiritual man whose conduct of the presidency was governed by his evolving Christian beliefs more than that of any other president in history. The title of historian Allen C. Guelzo’s biography, Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President, sounds as if it portends a similar argument.(So does the name of his publishing house, the religiously conservative William B. Eerdmans.) For Guelzo, however, the sad irony of Lincoln’s life is that he who redeemed the Union from secession and slavery could not “believe in the possibility of redemption for himself.”

Perhaps the best way to explore the question of Lincoln’s spirituality is to proceed chronologically through his life. Without prejudging the issue of whether he ever embraced Christianity, there is no question that his way of talking and writing about matters of faith changed profoundly.

II

Lincoln grew up on small farms near small frontier communities in Kentucky and Indiana. He was born on February 12, 1809, a date that is significant less for what was ending, the second Jefferson administration, than for what was under way: the Second Great Awakening, an outbreak of evangelical, free-church, Bible-based fervor with Kentucky at its epicenter. Lincoln’s father, Thomas, an itinerant small farmer, was caught up in this spirited outpouring of faith. He, his wives (when Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham’s mother, died in 1818 Thomas promptly married the recently widowed Sarah Bush Johnston), and all the children in their blended family joined and, in Thomas’ case, became prominent in the Separate, or Primitive, Baptist Church. All, that is, but one: Abraham.

William Lee Miller, the University of Virginia historian, has done a marvelous job, in his recent book Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, of showing all the ways in which the young Lincoln grew up independent of his father and, it seems, of nearly everyone else he encountered as a boy. “In a society of hunters,” Miller notes, “Lincoln did not hunt; where many males shot rifles, Lincoln did not shoot; among fishermen, Lincoln did not fish.” Nor did Lincoln, in sharp contrast to the men of his time and place, swear, smoke, chew, drink, hate blacks and Indians, pick fights, or join the Democratic Party. “[S]urrounded by farmers,” Miller adds, “Lincoln fled from farming; with a father who was a carpenter, Lincoln did not take up carpentry; in a frontier village preoccupied with physical tasks, Lincoln avoided manual labor;. . .in an environment indifferent to education, Lincoln cared about it intensely.”

In few ways was Lincoln more thoroughly estranged from his father than with regard to religion. The Separate Baptist Church that so appealed to Thomas espoused what one scholar has called “a Calvinism that would have out-Calvined Calvin.” So convinced were Separate Baptists (around 20 percent of all Baptists at the time) that God had predestined everything before creating the heavens and the earth that they sponsored no mission boards or Sunday schools. What good, after all, were missionaries? If God had resolved eons ago to save someone for eternal glory, preaching was unnecessary, and if God had decided to condemn someone to eternal damnation, preaching would be ineffective. As for Christian education, what more did believers need to know than that they were saved by the blood of the Lamb?

Lincoln found everything about his father’s religion ridiculous and repulsive from an early age. Dragged to church on Sundays, he would regale his siblings afterward by mounting a tree stump and mimicking the minister’s overwrought style. More disturbing to Lincoln was the doctrine that underlay the histrionics—namely, the belief that a God worth praising would create people with the intention of condemning them to hell for all eternity. One of Lincoln’s favorite poems was “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” a satirical verse monolog written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (like Lincoln, the estranged, bookish son of an intensely religious farmer).

In the poem, Willie begins his ramblings on a complacently Calvinist note:

O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
Wha, as it please best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ to hell,
A’ for Thy Glory,
And no for onie guid or ill,
They’ve done afore Thee!

Willie soon turns to his favorite subject, himself, whom he regards with great satisfaction (“Yet I am here a chosen sample, / To show thy grace is great and ample”). Even when he behaves badly (“O Lord! Yestreen, Thou kens, wi’ Meg / Thy pardon I sincerely beg; /. . . An I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg / Again upon her”), Willie finds comfort in his fundamental goodness (“Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn / Buffet Thy servant e’en and morn, / Lest that he owre proud and high shou’d turn, / That he’s so gifted”). But when it comes to Willie’s rivals, “that Presbyt’ry of Ayr,” especially the “glib-tongued Aitken,” it is God’s wrath, not God’s mercy, that Willie invokes:

Lord, in Thy day o’ vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha’ did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their pray’r,
But for Thy people’s sake destroy them,
An’ dinna spare.

Lincoln loved performing this poem when, soon after he reached his majority, he left his father’s house for the small river town of New Salem, Illinois. There Lincoln found a congenial setting for his religious skepticism. Working a variety of jobs and spending his free time at the general store, he was drawn to a crowd of cracker-barrel freethinkers who passed around well-worn copies of two popular works of the Enlightenment, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Constantin-François de Volney’s Ruins, or A Survey of the Revolution of Empires. Both writers were eager participants in the Enlightenment enterprise of detaching morality from religion and replanting it in reason. As part of their assault on Christianity, each undermined with ridicule the truth claims of the Bible. “The Christian Mythologists,” wrote Paine, dripping with sarcasm, “after having confined Satan in a pit, were obliged to let him out again. . .into the Garden of Eden, in the shape of a snake or serpent, and in that shape he enters into familiar conversation with Eve, who is in no way surprised to hear a snake talk; and the issue of this tête-à-tête is that he persuades her to eat an apple, and the eating of that apple damned all mankind.” Volney tinged his own indignation at the story of the Fall with scorn: “What! Because a man and woman ate an apple six thousand years ago, all the human race are damned? And you call God just? What tyrant ever rendered children responsible for the faults of their fathers?”

Paine and Volney’s shared disdain—and that of Lincoln’s new friends—for a doctrine that tarred people with sins they were foreordained to commit confirmed Lincoln in his contempt for the religion of his youth. In 1834, at age 25, he wrote a long essay attacking the divine character of the Bible and of doctrines as various as the Virgin Birth and the Trinity in hopes of having it published. The owner of the store in which Lincoln brandished his manuscript, Samuel Hill, seized it from Lincoln’s hand and threw it in the fire. Hill’s concern was less religious heresy than political viability. Lincoln was a candidate for the state legislature. Thanks in no small measure to Hill’s saving him from himself, he was elected.

None of Lincoln’s biographers doubt that in his growing up and New Salem years, which lasted until he moved to Springfield in 1837, Lincoln was avowedly, even aggressively, irreligious. In Springfield, he remained for a time what James Matheny, a friend and (after Lincoln read law and was admitted to the bar) a fellow lawyer, called “enthusiastic in his infidelity.” Matheny described Lincoln’s new circle of young male freethinkers, who would gather to hear him read aloud a passage of the Bible, then show “its falsity—and its follies on the grounds of Reason—would then show its own self made & self uttered Contradictions and would in the End—finally ridicule it and as it were Scoff at it.”

Yet for all of his efforts at independence, Lincoln remained, in important and no doubt unsettling ways, his father’s son. He carried into adulthood not just Thomas’ physical strength and great story-telling ability—two qualities that made it easy for him to fit into the rough, mostly male society of the frontier town. He also took with him a sense that, even if God was not causing things, the lives of men and nations were preordained in ways that had little to do with free will and individual choice.

III

As Lincoln’s self-education continued in Springfield, he came to call his secularized brand of predestination the “Doctrine of Necessity.” Lincoln thrived in Springfield: he lived there for 24 years, longer by far than in any other place. In Springfield, Lincoln became a successful lawyer, married, fathered four sons, and pursued a flourishing political career that culminated in his election to the presidency in 1860. A milestone in that career—Lincoln’s race for Congress in 1846—provided the occasion for his first published airing of his views on religion and his only public statement about the Doctrine of Necessity.

Lincoln’s opponent in the 1846 election was Peter Cartwright, an iron-lunged, circuit-riding Methodist preacher renowned in the region. Cartwright and his Democratic supporters labored mightily to replace “Whig” with “Infidel” as Lincoln’s party label, prompting Lincoln to answer the charge that he was “an open scoffer at Christianity” in a widely distributed handbill. The first part of Lincoln’s response was nothing short of (forgive the anachronism) Clintonesque, consisting of sweeping statements whose bold words masked their deceptive meaning. “That I am not a member of any Christian denomination is true,” he began; “but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures” (well, maybe not the Scriptures as a whole, but he had denied many of their most important parts); “and I have never spoken with any intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.” Of any Christian denomination? Perhaps not. Of religion in general? Hard to say. Of Christianity in general? All the time.

With Cartwright’s charges “answered,” Lincoln became more forthcoming:

It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”—that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, or two, or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely, left off for more than five years.

Lincoln concluded his response to Cartwright by asserting that “this same opinion [is] held by several of the Christian denominations,” another statement that concealed more than it revealed. To be sure, most American Protestant churches accepted the Calvinist understanding that God rules the lives of individuals and nations— their name for these superintending actions of the living God was Providence. But, as Guelzo demonstrates in Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President, the real source of what Lincoln calls the “Doctrine of Necessity” was British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s theory of “philosophical necessity.” Like Lincoln, Mill believed that people’s actions were the product of neither free will nor divine Providence. They were, instead, the fruits of philosophical necessity—a kind of Calvinism without God. In Mill’s view, the forces governing human behavior were not supernatural, but natural—the outworkings of natural forces and the natural laws governing those forces. Jeremy Bentham, another philosopher whom Lincoln admired, called the forces “motives” and equated them with undiluted and altogether predictable self-interest.

Few found Mill’s theory persuasive, then or now—it smacked too much of fatalism, which lacks both the rational rigor of philosophy and the revelatory grandeur of faith. It probably wasn’t just political prudence, then, that by 1846 had gotten Lincoln off “this habit of arguing. . .for more than five years.” With the passage of time, Lincoln seems increasingly to have regarded his lack of faith as a spiritual burden. “He never gave us to understand, it is true, that he entertained a belief in the being of God, or in a moral government of the world, much less in the truth of Christianity,” wrote Albert T. Bledsoe, who knew Lincoln from 1839 to 1849, in an 1873 essay. “But he always seemed to deplore his want of faith as a great infelicity, from which he would be glad to be delivered.” Joshua Speed, the only intimate friend Lincoln ever had, reported in 1866 that Lincoln’s reading list during his early years in Springfield included books by Thomas Browne and William Paley, two of the most widely read Christian apologists of the day. Neither Bledsoe nor Speed had any reason to make Lincoln out to be more of a religious seeker than he was. Bledsoe was an embittered southerner by the time of the Civil War and Speed’s views of religion remained as skeptical as Lincoln’s once had been.

Did Lincoln become a believing Christian while living in Springfield? At least two claims have been made that he did. One can be dismissed outright—that of the Methodist preacher James F. Jacquess, who said that Lincoln had “pray[ed] with him for hours” after hearing him preach in 1839 and that “if ever a person was converted, Abraham Lincoln was converted that night in my house.” As Merrill Peterson notes, “nothing in Lincoln’s subsequent life tended to support that claim,” and much refutes it. The second conversion account is more difficult to disregard, in part because it dates to the 1850s, Lincoln’s final decade in Springfield, when one would expect that any manifestation of the quickening spiritual interest that Bledsoe and Speed had detected in him would occur.

In 1849 the Reverend James Smith became the pastor of Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church. The following year Smith was of great comfort to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln when their three-year-old son Edward died, an enormously difficult loss for both of them. Smith provided Lincoln with sustenance as well as solace. He had more impressive intellectual credentials than Lincoln was used to in a clergyman. Smith, like Lincoln, had been a young admirer of Paine and Volney, but he had turned to Christianity on rational grounds. In 1841 Smith faced down a popular freethinking author, Charles G. Olmsted, in a series of 18 debates, then published his arguments in a substantial book called The Christian’s Defence, Containing a Fair Statement, and Impartial Examination of the Leading Objections Urged by Infidels Against the Antiquity, Genuineness, Credibility, and Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. Lincoln read portions of Smith’s book, and Mary’s Springfield brother-in-law, Ninian W. Edwards, reportedly said that Lincoln told him that the book had “convinced [him] of the truth of the Christian religion.” One need not accept this report at face value to see how Smith’s reliance on “judgment and reason” and his disavowal of “sentiment” was the only approach that stood a chance of getting Lincoln to take seriously a faith that he previously had scorned as unreasonable and grounded in emotional weakness.

Lincoln’s behavior certainly changed during the 1850s but, again, not so straightforwardly as to settle the longstanding disputes about his faith. He bought a family pew at First Presbyterian.(Was that just to please Mary, who, unlike Abraham, had joined the church?) He stopped speaking provocatively about religion, even in conversation—so much so William Herndon, who became Lincoln’s law partner in 1844, was unaware until after Lincoln died that he had ever spoken in this way.(Was that to head off further Cartwright-style political attacks?) He began to quote the Bible frequently and appropriately in his speeches. For example, defending the Constitution against abolitionists who scorned its acknowledgement of slavery as a betrayal of the Declaration of Independence’s doctrine that “all men are created equal,” Lincoln offered an apt Biblical analogy. Just as “the Savior” had offered “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” as a goal rather than a command, so had the Declaration set a standard for the nation that the Constitution was designed to as “nearly reach as it can.” But don’t all ambitious politicians quote the Bible?

Whatever else Lincoln’s belief that forces outside us, whether necessity or Providence, govern our actions may have done, it made him slow to condemn and quick to empathize with others. In an 1842 speech, for example, Lincoln spoke in favor of temperance but against attacking drunkards. Those who “have never fallen victim” to alcohol, he declared, should realize that they “have been spared more from absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.” In a historical discussion with Herndon, he excused Brutus from killing Caesar, arguing “that the former was forced by laws and conditions over which he had no control to kill the latter.” Most important, from 1854 until his death, the period when Lincoln’s speeches dealt with the slave question and little else, he repeatedly made clear that although he hated “the monstrous injustice of slavery,” southern slaveholders “were neither better, nor worse than we of the North” because “if we were situated as they are, we should act and feel as they do; and if they were situated as we are, they should act and feel as we do.”

IV

Lincoln’s election as president in 1860 placed a weight on his shoulders that never lifted. His nomination by the Republican Party had been an artifact more of geography than biography—Lincoln’s main appeal as a candidate was that he was from the Midwest, whose electoral votes the party needed to expand on its solid but insufficient northeastern base. It took the unprecedented alchemy of a complete rupture between the northern and southern wings of the Democratic Party to transform Lincoln’s 39.8 percent of the popular vote into an electoral vote majority. As the established leaders of his party never tired of reminding him, Lincoln was the least credentialed president in history. His resume consisted of one undistinguished term in the House of Representatives. The largest executive responsibility he had wielded was as senior partner in a two-lawyer firm.

Add to these personal limitations the burden of seven slave states seceding (and the other eight considering secession) before he was even inaugurated, and it is no surprise that Lincoln began publicly casting his cares upon the Lord not just more frequently than he ever had, but more frequently than any president ever had—or has in the years since. Saying farewell to a crowd of friends and admirers in Springfield, Lincoln identified the challenge that awaited him as “greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting with Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.” Approaching the peroration of his first inaugural address, Lincoln pleaded with the South to reconcile in overtly sectarian terms: “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never forsaken this public land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.”

With rare exceptions—most notably, the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that bracketed Independence Day in 1863— the war news was burdensome for Lincoln almost until the very end. (In Summer 1864, for example, the fighting went so badly that Lincoln predicted the voters would repudiate his bid for reelection.) Even victories came at terrible cost—more men died in two days of fighting at Shiloh in April 1862 than in all of America’s previous wars combined. By war’s end 623,000 Americans soldiers were dead, considerably more than died in World Wars I and II. Lincoln felt these losses deeply. In early 1862 he suffered the passing of another young son, Willie.

Lincoln continued to lace his public utterances with the language of faith, usually to acknowledge both the inscrutability and ultimate goodness of God’s providential purposes. Consider these few examples:

1861: [I]t is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes, as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him and to pray for His mercy. . .(Proclamation of a National Fast Day, August 12)

1862: And while it has not pleased the Almighty to bless us with a return of peace, we can but press on, guided by the best light He gives us, trusting that in His own good time, and wise way, all will yet be well (Annual Message to Congress, December 1)

1863; [Citing progress in the war, in industry, and in population growth] No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy (Proclamation for Thanksgiving, October 3)

1863: It is rather for us here to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—. . .that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth (Gettysburg Address, November 19: Note that adding “under God” was Lincoln’s only spoken change to the written text.)

In addition to these formal statements, all of which he composed with his own hand, Lincoln also discussed God in other public settings. One of his favorite media for communicating with the American people was letters to individuals that he intended to become public knowledge. Lincoln sent two of the most remarkable of these letters to the English Quaker Eliza P. Gurney. In October 1862, conceding that his efforts to restore the Union might fail, he wrote, “I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. . .and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we might not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe it, that He who made the world still governs it.” Two years later, in September 1864, Lincoln sounded a similar note in another letter to Gurney: “The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. . . . Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.” A few months earlier, in April 1864, Lincoln had written to the Kentucky newspaper editor Albert G. Hodges that “If God now wills the removal of a great wrong [slavery], and wills that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.”

A skeptic could fairly ask: Aren’t all presidents pious in public, usually for reasons that have nothing to do with piety? Looking at things this way, one might dismiss as political boilerplate all of Lincoln’s public statements about religion, including his September 1864 remarks to a delegation of African Americans from Baltimore who came to present him with a Bible. “In regard to this Great Book,” Lincoln told his visitors, “I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book.”

It becomes harder, however, to discount Lincoln’s public remarks when one considers the entirely private visit of his closest friend, Joshua Speed, in the summer of 1864. Lincoln was staying at the Soldiers’ Home, a kind of former-day Camp David on the outskirts of Washington. Speed found Lincoln reading the Bible. “Well,” Speed told his friend, “if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.” By Speed’s account, Lincoln looked him “earnestly in the face and, placing his hand on my shoulder, he said, “You are wrong, Speed; take all of this Book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.”“

Nor can one easily gainsay a document that Lincoln wrote entirely for his own eyes—”It was not written,” said his secretary John Hay, who discovered it after Lincoln died, “to be seen of men.” Commonly referred to by the name Hay gave it, the “Meditation on the Divine Will,” Lincoln wrote the paragraph-long reflection in September 1862, soon after the second of the Union army’s disastrous defeats at Bull Run:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His [interestingly, Lincoln crossed out “this” before writing “His”] purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

Later that month, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded in his diary, Lincoln told the cabinet of “a vow” he had made on the eve of the mid-September battle of Antietam that “if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of the divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the treasury, noted in his own journal that Lincoln said he had made the promise to “myself and”—Lincoln paused—”my Maker.”

V

Did Lincoln embrace Christianity while he was president? There is a way of answering this question in the negative, but it requires considerable heavy lifting. If one defines being a Christian in the narrowest terms—joining a church (which Lincoln never did, although he frequently attended Washington’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church) or claiming with certainty that one had been saved—then Lincoln was not a Christian. Outside this strained and narrow construction, however, it is hard to deny the frequency and depth with which Lincoln turned, both publicly and in private, to Christian study, reflection, and discourse. The more straightforward answer to the question is, simply, yes.

The culmination of Lincoln’s faith journey was his extraordinary sermon (Frederick Douglass got that right) on the occasion of his second inauguration as president. Here’s what the tens of thousands gathered outside the Capitol expected from their president: a war whoop, a victory dance. For the first time in 32 years, a president had been elected to a second term. For the first time ever, a Republican had. For the first time, not just ever but anywhere, a republic had held a free election to choose its government in the midst of a civil war. Now worn down by the strongest army ever assembled on the earth, the enemy in that war was teetering on the edge of defeat. Henry Ward Beecher, the most influential clergyman in the country, knew what people wanted to hear. “I charge the whole guilt of this war on the ambitious, educated, plotting leaders of the South,” Beecher had declared at a recent ceremony marking the recapture of Fort Sumter. “A day will come when God will reveal judgment and arraign these mighty miscreants. . . . And then these guiltiest and most remorseless traitors . . . shall be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and ever in an endless retribution.”

What people heard instead from their president was a deeper, more profound version of the Meditation on the Divine Will, which Lincoln clearly thought was as true an effort to understand God’s purposes when things were going well as it had been when things were going badly. In 703 words, the length of a modern op-ed column, and with none of those words organized into applause lines, Lincoln began by reminding his audience that exactly four years ago “all” had dreaded war, “all sought to avert it,” and “[n]either party expected for the war, the magnitude or the duration, which it has already attained.” “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.” Not us and them, Lincoln was saying, not good guys and bad guys, but all, both, neither. And, of course, “All knew that [slavery] was, somehow, the cause of the war.”

In September 1862 Lincoln had privately assessed the Northern and Southern claims to act in accordance with God’s will: “Both may be, and one must be wrong.” Now, 30 months later, he said, “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.” Then came the second most terrifying passage ever uttered by an American president. “The Almighty has his own purposes,” Lincoln said, quoting Jesus’ fiery words in the Gospel of Matthew: ” “Woe unto the world because of offences!” . . . If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”

And then Lincoln spoke, to his increasingly uncomfortable audience, the most terrifying passage an American president has ever uttered: “[I]f God wills that [this war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, so still it must be said the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

We are guilty too, Lincoln told the assembled crowd of pro-Union, Northern Republicans that had won the election and were winning the war. Like our Southern brethren we stand, our own hands stained with the blood of complicity in centuries of slavery, where we deserve to stand: before the judgment seat of God. But, Lincoln concluded, despair is no more appropriate a response than triumphalism. Judgment may belong to God, but it is for us to act as agents of God’s grace and mercy. Show “malice toward none,” he urged, and “charity” (the greatest of the Christian virtues, according to St. Paul) for all.” In order to “bind up the nation’s wounds,. . .care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,” and “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The historian David Herbert Donald, in an essay called “Getting Right with Lincoln,” pointed out a half-century ago that Lincoln’s iconic status in American culture inspires all of us to define him in our own image. In a “ghoulish tugging at Lincoln’s shroud,” Democrats recast Lincoln as a New Dealer, Communists once held Lincoln-Lenin rallies, conservatives claim him as a champion of capitalism, and so on. Modern American historians, children as they are of the Enlightenment, have been loath to see Lincoln as a man of deep spirituality. Contemporary Christians, with their emphasis on personal salvation and reward, have not known what to make of Lincoln’s dark breedings about Providence. Few, it seems, have had the right lenses through which to see Lincoln as he eventually became: the humble, willing, Christian servant of a God whose hand in history was no less good for its sometimes being terrible.

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