God in America
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Interview: Margaret Washington

Margaret Washington

Washington is a professor of history at Cornell University. Her most recent book is Sojourner Truth's America. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2009.

How is religion central to thinking about and understanding the Civil War?

I don't think you can really understand the Civil War without realizing that at its core is the whole construction of American religion and the way in which Americans see Providence, the way in which the North saw religion, the way in which the South saw religion. Both sections considered their spirituality, their faith -- faith being plural -- as the cornerstone of everything they were doing. ...

“Lincoln sees God as really not favoring either side. God is favoring right. … The question is, what is right? I think Lincoln comes to the conclusion that what is right is to end the sin of slavery, and that that is the divine will of God.”

In the North, they were guided by this idea that God was an integral part of the formation of the nation and that the whole construction of Union was itself providential.

In the South, their opposition to what was happening was based on their attitude toward slavery. And as far as they were concerned, their peculiar institution -- that is slavery -- was sanctioned in the Bible. And even though they were part of the national compact, and indeed had been central to bringing it about, it was a compact of equals, North and South. They felt that their position in that compact was being undermined by the North simply imposing this idea of the possibility of slavery not being something that the South had a right to. ...

Who is religion important to, individually? Does it cut through all parts of society?

Religion was something that pervaded American society in general. Certainly it was significant for the African Americans. And in a way, if you think about slavery, it's not so much religion as it is spirituality.

With whites, it was religion. Denominational affiliation was extremely important, whether it was high church, such as Episcopalian or Presbyterian, or what was called low church, which was Baptist and Methodist, which consisted of the majority of people.

No one, even people who actually didn't belong to a church, would consider themselves an atheist. Or if they did, they didn't want to talk about it. ...

[People] believed very strongly in Scripture, and God was a presence: God spoke to them; God guided them; God was everywhere. And this was central to the way they behaved. This was central to the way they interacted with each other. This was central even to their politics.

How pervasive was the notion that God made America special? What did it mean for people?

The idea that this was a chosen nation certainly came over with the Puritans, and it pervaded American society for a number of reasons.

First of all, the United States, in a practical way, never should have won the American Revolution, so that was part of this sense of specialness, that even though they had come to America with different motivations as to why they wanted to settle, the pervading motivation became one that dictated to them that they were chosen, and that was proven by their defeat of the greatest power in the Western world, which was Great Britain.

Then if you go through the trajectory of American history up until 1861, they had basically conquered the North American continent, and they saw God's will in that. So there was this providential sense that God was, so to speak, on their side.

This had a great deal to do with the idea of feeling that they were a new Israel, a chosen people, and they had created this beacon of so-called democracy and egalitarianism, so much so that immigrants from Europe were dying to come and be a part of this great experiment.

This experiment, however, was twofold. On the one hand, it was a blessing from God. On the other hand, it was a covenant, an agreement between the people and God. They had a responsibility to live up to God's covenant. ...

If there's a covenant and then the country starts to fall apart, what is that crisis?

... If the North was breaking that covenant, especially by the agitation for ending slavery, then the onus was on the North. The South was breaking the covenant, as far as the North was concerned, by maintaining slavery, because this was essentially a contradiction to democracy and to what the nation was founded on. ...

So it was a question of a disintegration of the compact and each region blaming the other for breaking this agreement that they had with God.

If the covenant is with this nation, and the nation is founded on these ideals, how does the debate over slavery call all those ideals into question?

The debate over slavery calls the ideas of a covenant into question because part of the covenant, in terms of human agency, comes through very clearly with the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by [their] Creator" -- God --"with certain unalienable rights, [that] among these [are] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

So who's interfering with that? In the North, they said slavery was interfering with that. In the South, they said: "But the Declaration of Independence didn't mean everybody. It didn't mean black people. It was never intended to be that." So when they created this compact, it was essentially a compact among white people.

Why is it important to understand Lincoln's spirituality in thinking about his presidency and his leadership?

Lincoln's leadership was intricately wrapped up in American religion and American spirituality. We don't tend to think of Lincoln as a very spiritual man, certainly not a religious man, but he was.

He was born in Kentucky. The majority of Kentuckians were Baptists and Methodists. That was what we today would call evangelical religion. So he was nurtured in that as a child, and he probably grew out of that as a young man and as a young lawyer, and of course he married a woman who was a Presbyterian. But he was still very close to religiosity because it pervaded American society. ...

Even as he was beginning to think about higher office, when you consider his "house divided" speech which is also quite biblical, when you consider his rhetoric before he even gets to Washington, there is almost a sermonlike ring to the way in which he speaks. So we have to position Lincoln in his times, in this very religious construction of American society.

Also, you have to consider Lincoln's attitude toward slavery. Philosophically, he was anti-slavery. He didn't take it any further than that. He thought slavery was wrong. And of course in the White House he said, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."

He thought it was wrong from the perspective of taking someone else's labor and using it for your own. He thought it was wrong in the sight of God. He thought it was wrong from the perspective of the Declaration of Independence. He thought it was wrong from the trajectory of what the Constitution allowed the nation to do later on, which was to get rid of it.

He did not expect that he would be the one to attack it, but he was. And when that responsibility was thrust upon him, he embraced it from a spiritual perspective. Once he made that decision that liberation was going to be something that he was the instrument of, he constantly referred to "divine will." He constantly referred to "Providence." He constantly sought to find meaning behind this "fiery trial," as he called it. ...

During the Second Great Awakening, the 1830s, ... why were slaves targeted for conversion?

The churches began to focus on African American conversion during the Second Great Awakening, which in the South begins around 1829-1830. That really is the beginning of the first generation of African Americans who really considered themselves Christian, and it is a result of these conversion movements that are taking place, particularly among the Methodists but also among the Baptists.

This is important, because in the North, there is a tremendous uproar among the abolitionists over the fact that there is no concerted effort to bring religious instruction to the enslaved population. ... This is one of the opprobriums that the South has to answer.

The Southern churches are as complicit in slavery as the slave owner who has a plantation or three plantations. They support this institution. The churches, North and South, are embroiled in this argument, and the Southern churches, as a way of answering this, began to insist that religious instruction be practiced among the enslaved population.

This movement is sporadic. It's not hitting every plantation. It's not hitting every enslaved population, but it is a beginning. And [by the Civil War], it creates this population of African Americans who, for the most part, have had some exposure to Christianity. ...

Why does Christianity appeal to slaves in the South? Why do they convert?

Number one, African Americans came from societies in which some of the tenets of Christianity were not new to them. ... They believed in a supreme being. They had a concept of the soul. They had a concept of the afterlife. ... So they came to America with certain tenets that were not incongruous with Christianity. Once they were exposed to Christianity, even on a rudimentary level, they found aspects of it that they could identify with.

In addition to that, as they became more and more aware of other basic tenets of Christianity, they actually could identify with it. They could identify with Jesus Christ. The example of a noble sufferer who was guiltless, that was them. The idea from the Old Testament that people who were born and bred over generations in bondage were ultimately going to get their freedom, that gave them something to hope for. ...

Why do slaves have to worship in secret?

... African Americans saw Christianity as liberating, not just spiritually liberating but humanly liberating, so they saw this as a means toward eventual emancipation.

This concept was not lost on slaveholders, and so they -- not all of them, but many -- tended to try and keep Christianity away from [slaves], sometimes even violently. Henry Bibb, a former slave who got his freedom, said that his master threatened him with 500 lashes on his naked back if he caught him at a prayer meeting. ...

They would steal away, and they had various mechanisms for this. We call this the arbor church, "arbor" referring to the trees, so these were hidden churches, hidden institutions. They were hidden both symbolically and they were hidden in reality, because on some plantations, when masters forbade the enslaved from practicing religion, they would go into the brush, around trees, and they would sing and pray and rejoice. ...

How are slaves making Christianity their own?

African American Christianity in some ways, in this particular time, is almost not Christianity. We like to call it folk religion, or African Christianity, because aside from not being allowed to practice Christianity in many quarters, African Americans didn't even want to practice their version of Christianity around whites, because it was different.

First of all, they believe in the call-and-response. That is to say, it was a joyful noise, and if you had a black leader whose sermon was really touching you, then you had to answer him. ...

There was also loud singing in their worship. It was not very quiet and staid, where you listened and then you got up and left. You had to participate. It was also a religiosity in which performance was important. ...

And of course they wanted their own leaders. They wanted black leaders. This was something that even the missionaries who went among them were constantly pulling their hair about, because as soon as [the missionary] would go to another plantation, when he came back, he would find that the spiritual father whom the slaves had chosen had taken over and completely changed the doctrines that the missionary had left the enslaved with. ...

Does the Exodus story have particular significance to enslaved people?

African Americans in slavery were an oral people. Imagery and narrations were extremely important, and that's how they understood Scripture. ...

Nothing was more graphic for them than the story of the children of Israel being led out of bondage. [It] was right out of their own human experience, and when these stories were recounted to them, they couldn't help but look around at each other and say, "This is going to be our hope, that we are going to be freed of this bondage." ...

They heard this story long before the white Methodist missionaries came among them. These are the kinds of stories that their own people had told them over the generations, that a great time is coming when we will sit under our own vineyard and fig trees. It says so in the Scripture. ...

So the story of enslaved people being led out of bondage, into freedom, into a land of milk and honey, was something that was very dear to them. And certainly when the Civil War began, while the North didn't think that the end of slavery would be the result, African Americans really did.

What are people praying to God about?

African Americans pray to God for freedom. That is their hope, and it's a hope that they have throughout their bondage, that freedom is going to come to them. "It may not come in my generation," they would tell their children, "but it is going to come."

That was the beauty of Scripture to them. You had the story of the children of Israel, the Exodus. You had the prophets predicting the wrath of God being visited upon a guilty nation. You had the suffering of Jesus, who was guiltless, and you had spiritual egalitarianism. So everything in Scripture, as far as they were concerned, pointed to their eventual freedom. ...

... Why do the abolitionists start when they do? What is their crisis?

American society is built on progress; it's built on optimism; and it's built on a sense of moral rectitude, and this was probably most true with the abolitionists.

They had great expectations for American society, because a lot of the abolitionists were the descendants of people who had fought in the Revolution. They were descendants of people who had come on the Mayflower and the Arabella and had embraced this idea of a chosen people, new Israel, a "city upon a hill" for all the world to behold, the compact.

They were also a very religious people, so they saw the merging of the sacred and the secular. They saw the idea of living out the compact with God. And they saw slavery as a fragmentation of that compact.

It was John Brown who said, "I believe in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence." And when those two documents were being trampled upon, as far as they were concerned, then it was important for them to act. ...

Many Americans were gradualists. Where do the abolitionists split?

... Other people felt you gradually get rid of [slavery], but the abolitionists said, no, wrong is wrong, and you do not compromise with wrong. The way to end slavery is immediately. You don't say, we'll end it in 1850; we'll end it in 1860; we'll end it in 1900. You end it because otherwise you are making a compromise with wrong.

That's what the Constitution was, they said. It was a compromise. It was an agreement with hell and a covenant with death. It compromised on slavery. ...

That's where the radical abolitionists such as [Frederick] Douglass and [William Lloyd] Garrison disagreed with moderate abolitionists and colonizationists, who felt that yes, it is a wrong, but you just can't eradicate it immediately. It would just cause too much havoc in the nation.

Is the abolitionist movement a religious movement?

I think abolition was probably the most spiritual movement in the country. I think they were far more spiritual than the churches, and you can't understand abolition unless you understand its religiosity.

Many of these people were ministers. They had left the ministry, but they were trained in the ministry. Those who weren't were raised by very devout parents. So religion was very important to the abolitionists. This was a holy struggle as far as they were concerned, and they constantly talked about it as a holy struggle. They began all their meetings with a prayer, and they invoked Isaiah; they invoked the prophets; they invoked Jesus. ...

At the same time, because they saw aspects of the Bible as contradictory, they questioned aspects of the Bible. ...

How radical is it in this period to say that parts of the Bible are wrong?

... The churches were outraged at this, that you would actually question the Bible. ... This caused a tremendous uproar in the North. ... Of course what this meant for the abolitionists was that churches would not allow them in their pulpits, and even some of the most famous abolitionists were not allowed. ... For the most part, the abolitionists had to speak at public halls, and of course in the open air. ...

... How do you see Douglass' affiliation with the AME [African Methodist Episcopal] Zion Church as important to his development as an adult, after escaping slavery?

Frederick Douglass cut his oratorical teeth in the AME Zion Church. ... That's where he really got his voice.

It's important that this voice that we know as Frederick Douglass' began in the AME Zion Church, because it began among his own people. That's where he got his confidence, and when the Quaker who took him to Nantucket, [Mass.], where he made his first anti-slavery speech among whites, heard him in the AME Zion Church, that's where he tapped him. He was at his best when he was among his own people. ...

How important is the black church to free people living in the North?

The black church in the North is everything to African American people. It's where the leadership comes from; it's where the protest comes from; it's actually where the middle class comes from. ...

African Americans' lives revolved around the church. The leadership revolved around the church. Virtually every African American leader of note, whom we remember today especially, came out of the church. ...

Douglass had converted to Christianity in slavery at [age] 13. What kind of God was Douglass worshiping when he's about to join the abolitionist movement?

I think Douglass' concept of God is complex and maybe in flux, and probably in a little bit of turmoil, because this is a man who had come out of slavery, where he had witnessed, in his own words, complete hypocrisy on the part of churchmen. ...

So he comes North, and he is embraced by the black community, and ... I think some settling of that turmoil is when he is licensed by Rev. [Thomas] James of Rochester, [N.Y.,] in New Bedford, [Mass]. It's settling for him because he's around people who practice Christianity in the way he thinks it ought to be practiced. That is, you live by Christianity. You don't just live Christianity on Sunday; you live it on a daily basis. That's what African Americans and some of the Quakers whom he met were doing. ...

And then of course when he meets Quakers, and then he meets Garrison and he meets these whites who themselves are Christian, ... he sees that not every white Christian is hypocritical, and I think it makes him closer to the church and gives him a stronger sense of religiosity than he had in Baltimore. ...

What did [Garrison's newspaper] The Liberator mean to him?

When Douglass begins to read The Liberator, he calls it his meat and drink, and he places it right next to the Bible. ...

The Liberator is like reading a secular aspect of the Bible, and it has one aim, and that is the immediate emancipation of the slaves. It is written in a moral way; morality and rectitude is the cornerstone of The Liberator.

The Bible is a very moral book, and so you can see how Douglass, thinking about the Bible and thinking about The Liberator and thinking about slavery, having just left bondage, can actually compare the two in a way that other people, especially white churchmen, would say he's a heretic. ...

How would you describe Douglass' writing when he's become an abolitionist?

... It's almost like his voice is unleashed by The North Star. It is his rhetoric. It is the rhetoric of the black community, because he takes in all the things that are happening in the black community.

There are no other African American newspapers at this time, as astonishing as that may seem, so it's an incredible weight on his shoulders. ... He becomes the voice of the people. He can talk about what's happening in the anti-slavery movement. He can also bring in some of the experiences that he had as a slave. In one editorial he talks about his grandmother and how she was basically left to die.

He's like a minister, and I think that once he gets his newspaper, the flowery language that we know Douglass is capable of comes through. It's almost like he uses that as his sermon. ...

How does he view Christianity as it's being practiced in America?

Douglass is very critical of Christianity as Americans practice it. He calls it hypocrisy, and he is very much taken aback by the churches and their role, their complicity in slavery. He wants very much to attack that.

At the same time, he is a minister, and he does recognize the importance of Christianity. But part of the hypocrisy of Christianity, I think, is one of the reasons that Douglass basically embraces violence, because the moral suasion that he began his anti-slavery struggle with is not working in his mind and in his opinion. ... If you can't convince people of the wrong of slavery from a moral and a Christian perspective, then what alternative do you have?

It's not that he is opposed to moral suasion and opposed to the role of pacifism that is the Christian role in change, but he believes you've got to go further. ... You've got to do this in any way you can. ...

Does Douglass buy into the notion that America is a special place in God's eyes?

I don't think Douglass buys into this idea of a chosen people at this point, because he has seen too much that is the antithesis of that. ...

Does he feel American? Does he want to do something about it?

Douglass is conflicted over the concept of the chosen people, the new Israel. ... At the same time that he is condemning American Christianity and condemning this idea of America being a noble experience, there is a side of him that believes this. He wants to believe it, and he acts on it.

That's why he challenges. That's why he sets up The North Star. That's why, every chance he gets, he [sits] in the first-class section of a car instead of the Jim Crow car and actually has to be kicked out. That's why he walks down the streets of New York City arm in arm with two white women, because he is challenging America and saying, OK, if you're a city upon a hill for all the world to behold, then I am a citizen of this. ...

How does Douglass feel about pious slaveholders?

I think that Douglass believes that the religious slaveholder, the pious slaveholder, is probably the most hypocritical person in America.

If you take his master, Thomas Auld, as an example, ... whom he watches go through his conversion and watches get religion, and says, OK, then this is going to be not only his spiritual transformation but his human transformation, and it's going to mean that there's going to be some amelioration in the way we, his enslaved people, are treated.

If anything, according to Douglass, it's as though his owner doesn't want him to see this conversion as an indication of weakness. He becomes more harsh. And it's at this point that Douglass, who's already questioning slaveholders as religious people, his despair is extreme, because he realizes that slaveholders are totally incongruous in terms of the true meaning of Christianity. ...

If you're anti-slavery, does it mean you're an abolitionist?

... There were people who were anti-slavery who did not want ... slavery to end in their lifetime, but gradually. And there are some very prominent people who figured into this. Henry Clay would have considered himself anti-slavery. Some people would have considered Abraham Lincoln anti-slavery before he took office.

But people who considered themselves anti-slavery would support the Fugitive Slave Law; they would support compromising with the South after Lincoln's election; they would support ... not issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. So you could be anti-slavery and not be anything close to being an abolitionist.

When the denominations split over slavery, does that forecast things to come?

The splits in the denominations over slavery in the 1840s were central to the coming split in the nation.

We have to remember how religious American society was. If you take the Methodist church, for example, ... you can see how significant this was. ... The Methodists in the North decided that they were not going to condone slavery anymore. This didn't mean that they were going to become abolitionists, but it meant that they were going to challenge it. And the Methodist Episcopal Church South said, "We are not going to be a part of a denomination that questions our peculiar institution."

So you had this incredible split in a major denomination, probably the biggest denomination in the country at this time, ... and it reflected what was going to happen in the nation in the future. Then if you think about the Methodist Church and you compound that with the Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention, and then the Presbyterians, it's like the nation splitting years before the actual Civil War begins. ...

In the 1850s, how does Lincoln view slavery?

... By his own admission, "I am not an abolitionist." But you can be opposed to slavery and not be an abolitionist.

I think he honestly thought slavery was wrong. That didn't mean that he intended to attack it; that didn't mean that he was going to support legislation that was going to end it; and that didn't mean that he was not going to support legislation that would further its cause and preserve the Union, such as the Fugitive Slave Law. But it did mean that philosophically he was opposed to the institution.

Did he feel constrained by the Constitution?

I think that his belief in the Constitution had a lot to do with his not wanting to attack slavery, and I think that his desire to keep the Union together as well was paramount to his position on slavery. So I don't think that he wanted to tamper with the national compact. I don't think he wanted to tamper with the Union dissolving over this institution. I think he felt that it was sanctioned by the Constitution. I think in the 1850s he really felt that this was an institution that was preserved by this document that both the North and the South had entered into.

Would you describe Lincoln as a writer? What was his process?

Lincoln was a very deliberate writer. A lot of his writing is inspirational, but also he's a lawyer, so he writes very deliberately. ...

I think he was inspired by the moment in the First Inaugural and it was a very trying moment for him. ... It must have been agony to write that address, in which he was pleading with the South to not leave the Union. And he had to have that just right. So draft after draft, showing it to people, getting opinions, but ultimately it was his document. ... He brought all of his eloquence to bear on that document, and it wasn't enough.

How does Douglass react to that?

Douglass was a Republican. Douglass voted for Lincoln. When Lincoln was elected, Douglass rejoiced in that, and he wanted something in this inaugural -- certainly if not ending slavery -- something that would reflect what the Republican platform reflected. He really didn't get any of that, so this was a big disappointment. ...

Lincoln wants to do everything he can to avoid war. How does Douglass feel?

Lincoln and Douglass at this point, in 1860, are at different purposes. Douglass is looking for emancipation. Douglass is hoping for war; Lincoln is hoping for peace. He's hoping that the nation will come together.

Douglass says later that Lincoln was pre-eminently the white man's president, and I think that was true, that he was hoping that this white nation would stay together. Douglass was hoping that this institution of slavery would tear this white nation asunder. ...

What is Douglass' response to the coming of war?

When war comes, when the firing on Fort Sumter happens and the North is forced into war, Douglass is absolutely joyous. "God be praised!" is his expression, because he knew at that point that this was the beginning of the end, and nothing was going to stop this momentum, as far as he was concerned.

Is this about God actually doing something about slavery?

... His expression, "God be praised," is really, in a sense, going back to Douglass the minister, Douglass, in some ways, the theologian, orator, that God is in this after all. He was at probably his lowest moment just six months earlier, when Lincoln was elected and basically was doing everything he could to keep the South in. But God took over.

Is it a typical view to see God as creating bad things to bring about good things?

I don't think most people in America saw the firing on Fort Sumter the way Douglass did, because at that moment, Americans did not see anything holy about what was going to happen. They saw this as defiance on the part of the South that had to be put down. They saw this as a rebellion that would be quickly suppressed, and they had not yet put anything spiritual or religious or providential on the firing on Fort Sumter. ...

Both sides say God is on their side. For Lincoln, does God choose sides?

Lincoln sees God as really not favoring either side. God is favoring right. God is favoring the will of God, not the will of man or woman, so God is not taking sides. God is in the struggle and wants the struggle to come out on the side of what is right.

The question is, what is right? I think Lincoln comes to the conclusion that what is right is to end the sin of slavery, and that that is the divine will of God. ...

Does the war go as people expected it to?

When people rallied so fully behind the war when it began, no one expected the war to last that long. No one expected that incredible magnitude of death and destruction that lasted. So the second year into the war, 1862, people were very distressed about the loss of life, the destruction in the South, the changing of generals, the fact that the Union couldn't seem to win a decisive victory. This gave them pause. They were tired; they were angry; they were frustrated; and of course they looked to the leadership.

How does Lincoln feel in 1862?

By 1862, Lincoln is probably the most frustrated man in America. If the average American citizen is frustrated, if the Cabinet is frustrated, Lincoln is doubly frustrated. He expected the war to last half as long as it had already lasted. And when it went on and on, and he could see no confidence in his generals especially, no victories, then he began to despair. And in his despair, he began to ponder the meaning of the war. ...

Why does he turn to spirituality?

... At the moment when Lincoln is in crisis, his son dies. This is Willie, the son that people said was most like Lincoln. He's bright; he's witty; he has a lot of foresight. He's almost a prodigy. And he dies in the midst of all this carnage. He's only [11], so he's not old enough to go war, but there are young men on the battlefield not much older than Willie who are dying. It's almost as though this death brings the war to the White House in a way that perhaps nothing else did.

So if you've got all of these forces compounded, all of this death, and all of these anti-slavery folk from all walks of life, and the churches and the press -- in the form of Horace Greeley -- coming at you saying, "You've got to do something. What's going on?," and then your son dies in the midst of all this, then it can't help but bring any spiritual man to his knees. And I mean "to his knees" in the sense of prayer.

Lincoln, pondering, praying and meditating, had to find meaning. In order to go on in the midst of all these crises -- personal, national, spiritual -- you had to find something. And what he was looking for was meaning. Why?

Whatever moments of meditation that he was experiencing, one had to come down to slavery. ...

... How does the "Meditation on the Divine Will" reveal that Lincoln's notion of God and relationship to God is in flux?

I think that the meditation gives us a sense of the transformation in Lincoln's spiritual thinking. He's talking more about the will of God. He's talking more about Providence. He's talking more about "God willing that this war continue," because the magnitude of the war, the fact that it's going on and on and that the North is not winning at the point where we think he's writing this meditation, suggests that he has come to terms himself with the idea that this is going to be a protracted struggle. ...

He's reconciling himself to that, because he has come to terms in his mind with the idea that this is God's will. ... I think that it is revealed to him that this is something that in a spiritual sense he has no control over, that he is the mechanism through which God is going to make divine will made manifest.

What does it tell us about his understanding of predestination and fate? Does he believe in man's free will?

Lincoln is questioning the doctrine of free will on one level, but I think that he is also embracing the idea that human agency has a role in divine will, and he is the human agent of divine will. So he does have a role, but he's not at the helm. There's a being in front of him that is driving this. ...

I think it's key to understanding his changing notion of God and his leadership.

Yes, because I don't think he rejects his power, and the power of the nation and the power of the Army, to bring to fruition what God has ordained. At the same time, he doesn't want to take away the divinity of what's happening.

What does it mean to enter into a covenant with God?

The idea of a covenant was the conception of an agreement. The Christian had a role to play, and God had a role to play. And God's role, from a national perspective, was to bless the nation because the nation was founded for good, moral reasons, both from a sacred and a secular perspective. And the Christian, from a national perspective, had a responsibility to live up to and to be worthy of the blessings. ...

So when Lincoln enters into a covenant with God over the battle of Antietam [1862], what does he decide after Antietam?

Antietam was in some ways a very significant turning point, not only militarily but also in Lincoln's thinking, because he had decided that if the Union won a victory, then that was going to be a sign from God that he wanted the slaves liberated.

In a real sense, Antietam was not a victory, but it was not a defeat either. ... It was enough of a victory to give the Army the sense that they could win this thing, and it was enough of a victory for Lincoln to see it as a sign from God ... that the slaves should be liberated. And what happened after that -- in terms of Gettysburg and in terms of Vicksburg -- basically gave Lincoln the assurance that he was doing God's will.

... How does the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation change the nature or the purpose of the war? And how does that merge the secular and sacred?

The Emancipation Proclamation when it is announced -- before it actually happens but when it is announced in September -- is an amazing catharsis for the nation. ...

I think that it is a profound spirituality, because it means the nation is going to be different. The nation is going to be different because they are going to eventually ... include over 4 million people who had once been in bondage. It's just an incredible transformation. We can't even imagine what it's like.

To prepare the nation for that, both spiritually and secularly, it's almost as though [Lincoln] had to announce it ahead of time and take them along gradually. And it represented an incredible spiritual awakening for the nation. Not everybody wanted that. We know the South didn't want it. But I think more significantly, because they're the ones who are carrying out the war from an offensive perspective, many people in the North didn't want it for a lot of reasons, not just race but fear of what it would mean for their own societies.

It meant that the North had to come to terms with race, and they had to come to terms with what their own religion meant to them. Was it a religion that was spiritually egalitarian? Just like the question of whether or not the society was going to be secularly egalitarian had to be grappled with. And it meant that they had to accept the idea that they were fighting and dying for another people. ...

When the news [that Lincoln has signed the proclamation] finally arrives, how is this a religious moment for Douglass?

I think that the word that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and was actually law was probably the most spiritually uplifting moment for black people in their history, bar none to this very day, and we can't even imagine what it must have been like. But the song that they sang, the first song that they sang when they got the news, [was] "Jehovah has triumphed/His people are free." So that said everything.

For someone like Douglass, ... it was the crowning achievement of his life, and he had worked diligently for it. ... All he had worked for -- getting his freedom, working for abolition, working with his people, the ups and downs of the last couple of years -- seemed to come to light. So they looked to God for this. This was the fulfillment of God's will. This was indeed the coming of the Lord, and they were just absolutely elated. ...

Did word of emancipation spread across the country? How was it received in the Deep South?

... There's an incredible grapevine among enslaved people, so they knew that emancipation had occurred. And of course this begins the massive exodus of African Americans out of the slave states. ...

This didn't filter down to parts of Texas, and even parts of Alabama, but everywhere there was any news that could be gotten to the enslaved people, "Freedom, Lincoln had decreed freedom!" was something that they were able to hear and they were able to act on.

In their minds, in the minds of the African Americans, this was indeed the coming of the Lord. This is what they had prayed for. This is what they had hoped for. This is what they had taught their children was going to happen at some point, in someone's lifetime, so they were ready to go.

... What has changed for Lincoln that he expresses in the Gettysburg Address?

I think that the Gettysburg Address represents Lincoln's transformation in a number of ways: its inclusiveness, in the sense that he reflects on a new birth of freedom. They had had, as a nation, one birth of freedom with the American Revolution and founding of the nation. ... Even though the nation had been conceived in liberty, it had been a limited conception of what liberty was, and now he was going to basically be the instrument in which this birth of freedom was going to be one that was not limited, that it was going to be one that all people were going to partake in, and that was going to be in terms of the government and in terms of the people. ...

... In the Gettysburg Address, is Lincoln articulating something that Douglass has been talking about for a long time?

I think that Douglass has been where Lincoln is in November 1863 for a long time, that the nation has a creed that it ought to live up to and that it had not been living up to. ... This is what [Douglass] says in that famous speech in which he says: What is your Fourth of July to me? You can celebrate. I have to mourn, because it doesn't include me. And it should include me. ...

When Lincoln decided to do whatever it took to win the war, how was that decision tied to his spirituality?

I think that Lincoln decides that the war has a noble purpose; the war is a crusade. ... So with those kinds of themes in mind, it was important to Lincoln, it was essential that this war be played out into its end and that the surrender of the South be unconditional so that there would be no mistake that slavery was over. ...

If you're sure that it's a noble cause, how does that free you to do whatever it takes to win? What does that tell us about Lincoln? ...

I think that Lincoln decided that the war was a providential war, and the war had been decreed by God and, again, that he was an instrument of God, so he had no choice but to see it through to its fruition. ...

He talks about the amount of pain and suffering that the bondmen and -women went through and compares that to the sword. He says that for every drop of blood that the bondman shed, and every sword that is drawn, if this continues on, then the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, which was something that was said in the book of Isaiah 3,000 years before. But it is God's judgment; it's not him that's doing this. And this is what Lincoln is emphasizing.

This is what he believes, that this is the judgment of God. And I don't think anyone says it -- except for Lincoln -- any better than Julia Ward Howe in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," that this is the coming of the Lord. This is "the glory of the coming of the Lord," and "As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make men free." Those words contemporarily have been changed, but the actual words were, "Let us die to make men free."

So you can see the apocalyptic holiness of this war. This is a struggle between good and evil. And if we are right, says Lincoln, and if what we are doing is good in the sight of God, then we have to carry it through to its fruition, because in the process of making African Americans free, we are freeing ourselves. And once we free ourselves, then we can begin again. ...

How do you imagine Lincoln's state of mind when writing the Second Inaugural?

He's writing the Second Inaugural after he has won a pretty substantial victory, which he sees as a mandate from the nation. So he has won over his people. The fact that he won means that what he is doing is pleasing in the sight of God. He's reading the Scripture, so he's inspired. ...

It's not like a victory inaugural speech, and it's not flaunting the Northern victory. It's measured. It's almost like an olive branch: "With malice toward none, charity for all." He says that they pray to the same God, they read the same Bible, they both pray for victory, so he recognizes the commonality. ...

It's messianic; it's noble; it's generous; it's scriptural; and it is liberating. He's got the bondmen in there. He wants the nation to understand this war was about slavery. Now, he wouldn't have said that in 1861, but he says we have to recognize what this war was about.

The Second Inaugural is also a challenge to the nation, and it's a challenge to the world, that like the Gettysburg Address, he is trying to show that we as a people want to live up to our creed so the world will see the United States as still the last best hope. It's a national charge, and it's a recognition that the nation still has a role to play in the international spectrum.

This is probably aimed toward Great Britain and France, that wondered about a nation that called itself free and at the same time had slavery. In a way, he's saying at the end, we're reclaiming our role as the last best hope of the world for freedom and democracy.

Is the Second Inaugural a religious speech?

I think the Second Inaugural is more a sermon than a speech. It is Lincoln sermonizing about the war, the meaning of the war, the role of Providence in the war, the role that the nation has to play in the future, and in a way, getting the nation to come to terms with this crusade that they embarked upon without really wanting to.

[Lincoln is] trying to make the nation see this war as a crusade and to see the war as something that is ordained by God, and to see the liberation of African Americans as something that is not just positive but providential, and to recognize their own guilt in this.

It's not Southern guilt or Northern guilt; it's national guilt. He really does, I think, want them to see this. And he's adamant about it, that this is the coming of the Lord, and we are being purged. He uses the word "purgation." He uses the word "redemption." He uses the word "regeneration." This is all biblical. ...

Tell the story about Douglass going to the White House after the address.

... In Douglass' mind, if the Gettysburg Address is true, if the Second Inaugural is true, then he has a right to go to [the inaugural] reception. Now traditionally, African Americans are not allowed in White House receptions. They don't even dare think about going. ...

Douglass goes, and he points out in his narrative that he couldn't find anyone among the people of color willing to go with him. He finally gets a Mrs. Dorsey to go, and they go to the door, and they are turned away, with the words that the president does not allow black people in the reception. And Douglass makes a fuss about it, insisting that he has a right, as a citizen of the United States, to go to this open reception, and says, "Ask the president if he will not allow Frederick Douglass into this reception." And someone does indeed go and ask Lincoln, and of course Lincoln says yes.

So Douglass does get into the reception, and as far as we know -- or according to him, although some people dispute this -- he is the first African American to be allowed into a White House reception. And even though there's a long receiving line, Lincoln shakes his hand and calls him "my friend," and says: "I saw you in the audience. What did you think of my speech?" ...

Douglass' response was that it was a "sacred effort." And Lincoln says, according to Douglass: "I am so happy to hear you say that. I am glad you were pleased with it." Of course this makes Douglass feel very, very good.

... What does it mean to African Americans that Lincoln is killed?

For African Americans, Lincoln was the emancipator. ... When he was assassinated, they sang; they wept; some of them filed by the coffin in tears, those who were allowed in. This was a singular moment of tragedy for them, because in their minds, Abraham Lincoln was their best friend.

And can one wonder? After 252 years of bondage they were set free, and the road to emancipation really began with Abraham Lincoln. So this was a major tragedy for them in 1865. ...

... Tell me about [how African Americans equated Lincoln with Christ].

... Christ was the personification of their sacred freedom. Make no mistake about it: Their freedom came from God, and Christ was the son of God. And they said this: We were liberated by God, but the secular arm of God was Abraham Lincoln. So they equated the two. Many African Americans said this was the murder of Christ. The assassination of Lincoln was like the killing of Christ.

What is Lincoln's legacy in terms of religion in America?

I think that Lincoln's legacy as far as religion in America is concerned is important, even from his own perspective, because he saw the Civil War in its finale, its last two years, as a holy war. He saw it as the fulfillment of God's will, God's word. He saw it as the removal of a great sin, some people would say this nation's greatest collective sin. He saw it as absolving the guilt that the nation felt.

It was a Christian crusade. It was the crusade that brought the nation back to God, because the nation had been on a trajectory that had moved it further and further away from the meaning of its creed and its founding as a religious and a spiritual nation.

So the war, in Lincoln's eyes, was bringing the nation back. ...

As time goes on, how does Lincoln's vision of rebirth of this new country become part of our identity as Americans? Is there a merging of sacred and secular?

The American vision of a sacred and secular nation really reaches its zenith with the Civil War. ... With the Civil War, it was almost like a reminder that as the nation progressed and prospered and became wealthy from a temporal perspective, it could not forget its founding. ...

It was important that the nation be brought back to the idea that it was a nation founded for sacred as well as secular reasons, and that if you tamper with the sacred, then the secular realm is going to pay for that.

Does Lincoln articulate that?

Lincoln articulates the merging of the sacred and the secular in a profound way in his Second Inaugural. ...

The nation has embedded slavery into its very fiber, into the fabric of life, and it's like having a sore, or essentially it's like having the devil in your heart. If you have that, then how in the world are you going to call yourself a sacred nation, a redeemer nation? ...

So slavery is the sin, and that is the sacred. The secular, of course, is God visiting wrath upon the nation.

Above all, Lincoln talks about what's going to happen afterward. First you've got to continue this war until it's done, which is going to be more bloodshed in the next few months. Then you've got to pick up the people who have been so brutalized and suffered so much by the war, and then you've got to move on. And in the process of purging and picking up, then we get regeneration.

Regeneration is the ultimate for Lincoln. It's the ultimate form of sacred and secular coming together.

Does his assassination cement those ideas, the mythologizing of Lincoln?

... He dies after leaving this message to the nation of what it had been, what it had overcome, and what it can be.

Wendell Phillips, the great Boston abolitionist, said that Lincoln told him when they met once that Moses did not reach the promised land with his people, but he made it possible. It was almost like a foreshadowing of his own death, that he was putting the nation on a firm footing in terms of what it could be and what it ought to be, from a sacred and a secular perspective, as an inclusive nation. So it didn't really matter that he didn't see it through, because his role, as it was envisioned by God, was pretty much up. ...


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Published October 11, 2010

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