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People & Ideas: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Born on the Kentucky frontier, Abraham Lincoln was raised in his parents' "hard shell" Baptist faith that flourished along the western borders of the nation. Here evangelistic fervor combined with a stern Calvinist theology of predestination -- the belief that the fate of all men and women had been predetermined by God. Lincoln rejected this Calvinist view and shunned emotional excess, but the Calvinism of his youth left him with a lifetime sense of fatalism.

Inaugurated president two months after South Carolina and six other states seceded from the Union, Lincoln hoped to reconcile North and South without resorting to warfare, but the first shots of the Civil War were fired a month later, in April 1861. As the war dragged on, the toll of the war led Lincoln to undertake a profound spiritual journey. This journey ultimately transformed his inner being, his conduct of the war, and his understanding of divine Providence.

Before the war, Lincoln had imagined Providence, the power sustaining and guiding human destiny, as a remote and mechanistic force. "Man is simply a simple tool, a mere cog in the wheel, a part, a small part, of this vast iron machine, that strikes and cuts, grinds and mashes, all things, including man, that resist it," he wrote.

During his presidency, however, Providence began to emerge in his mind as an active and more personal God, a mysterious presence whose purpose eluded human understanding. Lincoln received the casualty lists and toured military hospitals. In February 1862, his son Willie died of typhoid fever.

The eulogy delivered at Willie's funeral by the Rev. Phineas Gurley spoke to Lincoln. He asked for a copy. Gurley had said, "What we need in the hour of trial, and what we should seek by earnest prayer, is confidence in Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well."

Lincoln's biographer Ronald White observes: "This sermon is a real pivotal moment in Lincoln's life. Your son has died; you listen to this sermon; this pastor whom you have respected comes into the White House and suggests to you that you need to trust in a loving God with personality, who acts in history."

In September 1862, one of the darkest moments of the conflict, Lincoln committed his thoughts about God on a small piece of paper that his secretary later titled "Meditation on the Divine Will":

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 cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. ... 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.

Lincoln began to search for signs of God's will on the question of emancipation. He had resisted freeing the slaves, convinced that he did not have the authority to do so. But abolitionists, including former slave Frederick Douglass, urged Lincoln to move forward. He gradually recognized a practical as well as a moral reason for emancipation: depriving the South of free labor would make it more difficult for Confederate troops to fight the war.

He searched for a signal of God's plan. In September 1862, Union forces drove Southern rebels from Antietam Creek in Maryland. It was not a rousing victory for the Union, but Lincoln took it as the sign he had waited for. He gathered his cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln's startling announcement: "God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied that it was right, was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results."

Lincoln had taken the victory at Antietam as the divine signal he'd been looking for. On New Year's Day 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederacy.

On March 4, 1865, Lincoln once again took the oath of office. While the war was not yet won, victory was near. Yet Lincoln did not gloat, nor did he scold the South. Instead, he drew upon his knowledge of Scripture and the wisdom gained in his own spiritual journey to offer a profound theological reflection on the meaning of the war, America's destiny and God's purpose.

Neither 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, and each invokes His aid against the other. ... The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

In his Second Inaugural Address, which would be his final address to the American people, Lincoln endowed the Civil War with sacred meaning, creating an American Scripture and articulating an American civil religion that still suffuses the idea of the nation with religious significance.

Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, ... as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'

Lincoln himself became a casualty of the conflict. Slain on Good Friday, he died the day before on Easter Sunday. Mourned and honored, he was compared to Jesus. Some ministers privately lamented the fact that he had never formally joined a church. Yet Lincoln had nonetheless become one of America's most theological presidents.

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Published October 11, 2010

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