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Study Guide: A Nation Reborn (Episode 3)

Cannon!How did religious beliefs shape the origins of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln's actions during the conflict? As Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders clashed over the question of slavery, each side turned to the Bible to argue its cause. Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist newspaper editor, despaired that people who called themselves Christians could defend the evils of slavery. Protestant denominations fractured, with each side declaring God was on its side. Meanwhile, Lincoln, who had put his faith in reason over revelation, confronted the mounting casualties of the war and the death of his young son. In his anguish, he began a spiritual journey that transformed his inner life and changed his ideas about God and the ultimate meaning of the Civil War.

The war was a theological as well as a political crisis. There were sharp disputes in America over what God might be doing in and through the war. For some, the turmoil of the war years called into question the belief that America was a chosen nation with a special destiny. The war also moved Lincoln to re-examine his own understanding of God's purposes and the role of divine Providence in human affairs. Six weeks after he delivered his stirring Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, with its sermonlike language, deeply moral sentiments and conciliatory closing words, Lincoln was dead. For many he became a martyred prophet, and the Second Inaugural Address has come to be regarded as American Scripture.

"Meditation on the Divine Will"

Watch "Meditation on the Divine Will" excerpt above.

View Lincoln's mediatation.

Yale historian Harry Stout has characterized these lines by Lincoln as "a moment of disturbed meditation" about whose side God was really on in the Civil War, while Mark Noll has described the president's private meditation as "the most remarkable theological commentary of the war" -- a combination of "confidence in Providence along with humble agnosticism about its purposes":

"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. 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 purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great 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."
"Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Watch "Battle Hymn of the Republic" excerpt above.

Read the lyrics.

This well-known abolitionist hymn is full of biblical references, many of them drawn from the book of Revelation. The hymn's apocalyptic language and messianic vision borrow greatly from expectations that had long been present in American religious and political thought. Written in 1861 by the author, antislavery supporter and woman's suffrage leader Julia Ward Howe, the words express sentiments that were popular in the North about the sacredness of human liberty and the righteousness of a war that served God's purposes. As historian Paul Boyer has written, "The simple yet moving lines with their Old Testament vocabulary and cadence captured the somber emotions of a country at war; President Lincoln is said to have wept upon first hearing them sung."

The Religion of Abraham Lincoln

Many writers, historians, theologians and Civil War scholars have pondered the subject of Lincoln's religious faith. Harry Stout has written that Lincoln grew steadily more spiritual during the war and that "along with spirituality came a sort of mystical fatalism." Mark Noll says Lincoln's singular faith required the president to hold himself "aloof from the organized Christianity of the United States." And Allen Guelzo identifies "pain and desertion and remoteness" as characteristic of the faith of Lincoln, as well as "a crushing sense of religious worthlessness which he transmuted into the extraordinary goal of a charity for all, a malice toward none."

The Christian theologian and social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential figure on the 20th-century American intellectual, political and religious scene, often turned to Lincoln as the model of a political leader -- "my hero in religion and in statecraft" -- who resisted the temptation to identify God with his own causes and who understood both the religious dimension and the moral drama inherent in human history. Lincoln's theological understanding of the Civil War, Niebuhr believed, was greater than that of any preacher or religious thinker of the time, and he described the president as a "theologian of American anguish." Some scholars have observed that in his use of biblical language Lincoln surpassed the eloquence of Puritan John Winthrop, employing religious speech in 19th-century America in a way that was "both insistently public and politically demanding in its implications."

For Discussion

How would you describe President Lincoln's political and spiritual achievements? How would you characterize him religiously? How would you describe Lincoln's God? How did his idea of God change over the course of the war? What surprises you about Lincoln's religious views and moral vision? Compare them with those of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

One modern writer has called Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address "the most eloquent response to the virus of religious self-importance ever written." Others have described it as "Lincoln's Sermon on the Mount" and "America's sermon to the world." The speech was rooted in profound religious beliefs. By the time he delivered it in 1865, how had Lincoln come to understand God's role in the Civil War and in American history? What do you hear in his rhetoric about the need for the war and at the same time the need for forgiveness and reconciliation? What connections can you identify between Lincoln's "Meditation on the Divine Will" and his Second Inaugural Address?

Historian Allen Guelzo says that many came to believe God was "doing something new in this war." What made emancipation and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 "a religious moment" and "an event for the soul," as scholar David Blight describes it? Why did freedom for African Americans mean freedom for everyone? What role did evangelical Christianity play in the abolitionist movement?

The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" can still be found in many church hymnals. Its words continue to be sung, and they are also heard in sermons and patriotic speeches. How do you think they speak to Americans today?

Themes of sacrifice and redemption were important during the Civil War. What did it mean then to understand death and suffering in a theological way? How and why did the war come to take on a transcendent meaning, or a "holy quality," as David Blight calls it?

Do you agree that America was and is a chosen nation, special in the eyes of God? In 1861, on the way to his inauguration in Washington, Lincoln said in a speech: "I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle." What do you think he meant by "almost chosen people"? Compare Lincoln's words with Stephen Prothero's concluding observation that "we have not achieved what we should have achieved" and that America's special destiny is "always out in front of us."

Learn More

Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout

Religion and the American Civil War edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo

Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White Jr.

A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll

Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller

Lincoln Revisited edited by John Y. Simon, Harold Holzer and Dawn Vogel

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills

Slave Religion by Albert J. Raboteau

The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible by Allen Dwight Callahan

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer

The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes

"Lincoln's Religion" by Richard Carwardine, in Our Lincoln edited by Eric Foner

Library of Congress: With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition
This exhibition commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of the nation's revered 16th president.


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Published October 11, 2010

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