The Civil Religion of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln used religion to understand the Civil War. He saw the conflict as one of national atonement. Lincoln blamed North and South for perpetuating slavery. The Civil War, he said, was God’s punishment for this sin. This explanation was different from the one adopted by most Union supporters. They saw the war only as God’s vengeance upon the South. In this they took part in the American tradition of enlisting God on one side of a conflict. Patrick Henry had done this in his famous ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ speech. By comparing Lincoln’s rhetoric with that of militant Unionists and of Patrick Henry, we can get a sense of Lincoln’s magnanimity.

There was a Christian militancy about a lot of Union supporters. Many in the North saw themselves as agents of God’s retribution on the South. Edmund Wilson has noted that ‘the minds of nations at war are invariably dominated by myths, which turn the conflict into melodrama and make it possible for each side to feel that it is combating some form of evil.’[1] ‘This vision of Judgment,’ he continues, ‘was the myth of the North.’ William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist whose Boston-based paper achieved national renown during the 1830s, was told that the Constitution guaranteed the right to own slaves. He responded by calling the document ‘a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.’ The expression comes from Isaiah 28:18.[2] Wilson sees this as a manifestation of the apocalyptic fervor that would pervade the North during the War.

Julia Ward Howe added to this fervor by composing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. In John Brown’s Body, a popular soldiers’ ballad from which Howe took her lyrics, the abolitionist martyr is characterized as ‘a soldier in the army of the Lord’ (Wilson, p. 92). In lending to the tune what Wilson calls ‘a more dignified set of words,’ she, like Garrison, took her cue from Isaiah. Isaiah 63:3-4 reads:


I have trodden the winepress alone…for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come (Wilson, pp. 92-93).


Ward borrows from the imagery of the passage in her opening lines: ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord./ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.’ ‘The advent of the Union armies,’ Wilson comments, ‘represents…the coming of the Lord, and their cause is the cause of God’s truth’ (Wilson, p. 94). At one point Ward prays that ‘the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel.’ The Confederacy in this stanza is a serpent, an agent of Satan’s will in the world. It is the North’s duty to vanquish it.

Ward’s use of the Holy Trinity intensifies the militaristic tone of the song. Jesus’ role in the Battle Hymn is interesting. It is peripheral. ‘As he died to make [men] holy,’ so ‘let us live to make them free.’ Wilson sees in this verse a vestige of New England Calvinism, which had by the 1820s given way to more liberal strains of Christianity like Unitarianism. Jesus’ redemptive role isn’t as important as what God is telling us to do in the here and now: enlist. ‘He is a militant, a military God,’ says Wilson, ‘and far from wanting us to love our enemies He gives “the Hero” orders to “crush the serpent with his heel”’ (Wilson, p. 96). Jesus is relegated to ‘the beauty of the lilies,’ born ‘across the sea.’ His role as savior of mankind became relevant only after Lincoln’s assassination, when the late president was cast in an analogous role.

There was some precedent for the rhetoric of Garrison and Howe. Patrick Henry’s famous ‘Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death Speech’ is shot through with militaristic appeals to his audience’s Christianity.[3] The speech, delivered to the Virginia legislature on March 23, 1775, came almost a month before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. His tone is foreboding. He invokes ‘the great responsibility which we hold to God’ in his prefatory paragraph. Addressing those who would be more tactful towards Great Britain, Henry says, ‘Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?’ The allusion, as most if not all of his auditors would have known,[4] is to Mark 8:18, in which Jesus rebukes the Pharisees after they reprimand his disciples for eating leavened bread. Henry does not equivocate over God’s sympathies in the impending Revolution.

He becomes even less equivocal as the speech reaches its conclusion. Reviewing the British ministry’s preparations for war and concluding that ‘There is no longer any room for hope,’ he insists that ‘An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!’ Dr. Steven White used passages from both Testaments to demonstrate how loaded the title ‘God of hosts’ is; it refers to the tradition, popular in the Psalms of David, of appealing to God to annihilate one’s enemies. It was natural for Lincoln, whom Lord Charnwood called ‘a master of language and…a life-long peacemaker,’ to shy away from such a phrase.[5] Yet once he has made his appeal to the ‘God of hosts,’ Henry goes on to sanctify the Revolution by framing it in terms of a crusade. Responding to concerns that Great Britain was ‘so formidable an adversary,’ Henry declares, ‘we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power.’ He even exhorts the Virginia legislature to support the ‘holy cause of liberty’ by arming themselves. A suitable juxtaposition is Lincoln’s skepticism, expressed in the Second Inaugural, over anyone who would ‘ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.’ Henry’s ‘just God’ ‘presides over the destinies of nations…and raise[s] up friends to fight our battles for us.’ Lincoln never presumed to speak on behalf of God.

This may have had something to do with his religious skepticism. ‘He was not a member of any church, and it is plain that in his earlier days, before he had become a great public figure, he has what was called a free-thinker’ (Wilson, p. 99). William Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield law partner and one of his first biographers, tells us that during his early adulthood in New Salem Lincoln had been influenced by eighteenth-century skeptics like Voltaire. To this he added a strong belief in evolution that he got from the copies of Darwin that Herndon brought with him to the office. When he first ran for Congress against a Methodist preacher in 1846, he was forced to defend himself in print against a charge of infidelity. The relevant document takes no definitive stand on the tenets of Christian faith. Lincoln simply says, ‘I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular’ (Wilson, p. 101). No positive declaration about his faith in Jesus, or even in a personal God, appears.

His cautious language is important. If Lincoln did not believe in orthodox Christianity, he understood that many of his constituents did. Like Henry, he wasn’t above invoking God’s power over the nation’s political fortunes. Where he differed from his predecessor (and, as we have seen, many of his contemporaries) was his refusal to associate God’s will with a particular side. His First Inaugural address, a legalistic argument against the constitutionality of secession, does contain a reference to ‘universal law’ and its support of a perpetual Union.[6] This is perhaps his only recorded utterance that doesn’t emphasize God’s neutrality in the war. In the same address he goes on to say, ‘If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.’

The latter statement is more representative of Lincoln’s pragmatic use of religion prior to 1861. In 1858 he was chosen by Illinois Republicans to run against Democrat Stephen Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Speaking in the state legislature to those who had appointed him, Lincoln used his famous ‘House Divided’ line, lifted directly from Matthew 12:25, to explain the state of the Union. He had given the speech to Herndon, who tried to dissuade him from using what he thought was inflammatory language.[7] Responding to Herndon’s concerns, Lincoln said:

The proposition is indisputably true, and has been true for more than six thousand years. And I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language, that may strike home to the minds of men, in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.[8]


Lincoln, who had learned to write in the language of Euclid and the King James Bible because of the limited access to books his impoverished childhood afforded him, saw his audience’s familiarity with biblical language as a rhetorical resource to be tapped. Wilson insists that ‘he must now have deliberately adopted the practice of stating his faith in the Union and his conviction of his own mission in terms that would not be repugnant to the descendants of New England Puritans and to the evangelism characteristic of the time’ (Wilson, p. 103). He discusses how ‘history’ as an inexorable and interdependent chain of events had assumed a religious aspect for Lincoln, referring to this address to Congress in December of 1862: ‘Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and of this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us’ (Wilson, p. 103). But, Wilson adds, ‘he needed something more in keeping than this doctrine of historical necessity with the Scriptural religious conceptions of most of his fellow Americans.’ He would find it in the Second Inaugural.

His response to Herndon and the ‘House Divided’ speech itself might be construed as an attempt to place God firmly in the Northern camp. Before the soaring coda to his First Inaugural three years later, Lincoln would say, ‘You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”’ In the context of this and other speeches, however, the reference seems to have been part of a larger attempt to play on Americans’ religious sensibility to avoid bloodshed. In addition to his conditional statement about the ‘Almighty Ruler of Nations,’ Lincoln noted in the First Inaugural that ‘Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way possible all our present difficulty.’

As the conflict progressed, however, Lincoln relied more and more on religion as a way to understand what had happened to the country rather than as a convenient rhetorical device. ‘As the struggle continues undecided,’ notes Wilson, ‘he becomes a good deal less sure that the moral issue is perfectly clear, that the Almighty Ruler of nations is committed to the side of the North.’ In September of 1862, by which time he had decided to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote a short memo to himself in which he reflected on the course of the conflict up to that point. The battles of Shiloh and Antietam had dispelled any notion that the war would be swift and bloodless. The document, which has since been called Lincoln’s ‘Meditation on the Divine Will’ after his secretary John Hay removed it from his desk in the wake of his assassination and published it, portrays an intelligent and deeply introverted man trying to grapple with tremendous carnage:


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 purposes of either party-and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to affect 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.[9]


Hay’s commentary on the ‘Meditation’ also bears quoting at length:


Mr. Lincoln admits us into the most secret recesses of his soul…Perplexed and afflicted beyond human help, by the disasters of war, the wrangling of parties, and the inexorable and constraining logic of his own mind, he shut out the world one day, and tried to put into words his double sense of responsibility to human duty and Divine Power; and this was the result. It shows-as has been said in another place-the awful sincerity of a perfectly honest soul trying to bring itself into closer Communion with its Maker.


The religious idiom had always been there for Lincoln. ‘It was not really easy for Lincoln’s public to suspect him of a critical attitude towards the Scriptures,’ says Wilson, ‘for the Bible was the book he knew best’ (Wilson, p. 103). ‘He had it at his fingertips and quoted it more often than anything else.’ Lord Charnwood, who understood Lincoln and the Civil War, relates this passage from Lincoln’s private correspondence: ‘[After his election in 1860] Lincoln indeed refused on several occasions to make any fresh public disclaimer of an intention to attack existing institutions. His views were “open to all who will read.” “For the good men of the South,” he writes privately, “-I regard the majority of them as such-I have no objection to repeat them seventy times seven…”’[10] The expression comes from Genesis 4:24, in which Lamech speaks to his wives after killing a man. ‘If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.’[11] In addition to having been discussed by Jim Adams as an instance of ‘Old Testament justice’ prior to the promulgation of the Decalogue, it also shows the degree to which biblical imagery and language had permeated Lincoln’s intellectual life. His great gift was to deploy this language in a way that facilitated reconciliation rather than retribution.

This shift in Lincoln’s religious sensibility is reflected in the differences between his First and Second Inaugural addresses. As has been previously noted, the First Inaugural was an historical and constitutional defense of the Union’s perpetuity. With the exception of his appeal to ‘every patriot grave across this broad land’ (which, incidentally, was added only after consultation with Seward), the document runs to three printed pages of references to the nation’s founding and its development. He enlists the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in his defense. Lord Charnwood comments that:


By Seward’s advice Lincoln added to an otherwise dry speech some concluding paragraphs of emotional appeal. The last sentence of the speech, which alone is much remembered, is Seward’s in the first conception of it, Seward’s in the slightly hackneyed phrase with which it ends, Lincoln’s alone in the touch of haunting beauty which is on it.[12]


The Second Inaugural, like the ‘Meditation,’ is the work of a mind that had been driven into deep thought by four years of war. It runs to only one printed page. After some prefatory remarks that, quite in contrast to his First Inaugural, identified slavery as the cause of the conflict, he said of the North and the South:


Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.[13] The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’[14] If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.[15]


The question of whether or not Lincoln believed in what he was saying, and to what extent, is an interesting one. Wilson has this to say:


If the need on Lincoln’s part, as a public man, to express himself in phrases congenial to his public may have had some part in inducing him to heighten and personify the formulas of his eighteenth-century deism, if it is true that as the war went on and gave rise to more and more disaffection, it became more and more to his interest to invoke the traditional Lord of Hosts, it is nevertheless quite clear that he himself came to see the conflict in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect. The vision had imposed itself (Wilson, p. 106).


He then imposed it on the United States. ‘The molding by Lincoln of American opinion,’ says Wilson, ‘was a matter of style and imagination as well as of moral authority, of cogent argument and obstinate will’ (Wilson, p. 123). Shelby Foote, a narrative historian of the War interviewed in Ken Burns’ documentary, has noted that ‘everything he did was calculated for effect.’[16] Perhaps that’s why he performed his role so effectively. Wilson argues that ‘the poetry of Lincoln has not all been out into his writings. It was acted out in his life’ (Wilson, p. 122). The most chilling parts of his essay on the sixteenth president come when he discusses Lincoln’s recurrent premonitions of his own assassination. Lincoln would often relate these to his friends and family. The recent Spielberg biopic opens with one of them, Lincoln’s dream of traveling on a boat towards some indiscernible shore at an incredible rate. The day before his assassination he told his cabinet of a dream in which he followed a frantic crowd into the East Room of the White House to look upon his own corpse. All of this should be read as dramatic scaffolding. During his presidency, Lincoln created a narrative about the Civil War and about himself, one in which the War accomplished some higher purpose with him playing a redemptive role. He adhered to the narrative fiercely. Heavily present throughout was religion.


[1] Edmund Wilson. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. Oxford University Press, 1966. p. 91. Now on, citations from this source will appear parenthetically.

[2] KJV: ‘And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not last. When the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be trampled.’

[3] n.b. The speech as we have it today is actually a creation of William Wirt, Henry’s first biographer. He pieced together the Virginian’s words from conversations with people who were in the Virginia legislature-such as Thomas Jefferson-when he delivered it. No transcript of the speech was taken at the time that it was given. A copy of Wirt’s reconstruction was culled from the Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. It can be read via the following link:

[4] Recall that Anglicanism was the official religion of the colony of Virginia.

[5] Charnwood, p. 162.

[6] A copy of Lincoln’s First Inaugural was culled from the Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. It can be read via this link:

[7] After the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, Lincoln’s future Secretary of State William Seward (then a prominent New York politician and a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination) had said to a crowd at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall: ‘It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.’ cf. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (Simon & Schuster, 2005, pp. 191-192). This elicited great criticism from Seward’s opponents in the press, who feared such rhetoric would usher in a war over slavery.

[8] cf. Francis F. Browne’s The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln (N.D. Thompson Publishing Co., 1886, pp. 273-274). An electronic copy of the relevant passage can be found via the following link:

[9] This passage and the Hay quote that follows were taken from an electronic copy of Lincoln’s ‘Meditation on the Divine Will’ on The veracity of the Hay quote has not been confirmed, though I’ve cross-referenced the ‘Meditation’ with an identical copy provided by the library at Boston College.

[10] Charnwood, p. 120.The emphasis is mine.

[11] Genesis 4:24 (KJV).

[12] cf. Charnwood, p. 128.

[13] cf. Matthew 7:1, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (KJV).

[14] cf. Matthew 18:7 (KJV).

[15] cf. Psalm 19:9 (KJV).

[16] cf. Episode 1 (‘The Cause’) of Burns’ The Civil War.


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