Lincoln’s Wartime Theology

Lincoln spoke of humility in a theological context in his August 12, 1861 “Proclamation of a National Fast Day.” In that edict, the president declares it “fit and becoming in all people” “to bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offenses” (Basler IV, 482). On the one hand, such a confession of sin was formulaic. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer exhorts parishioners to “acknowledge and bewail their manifold sins and transgressions” every Sunday. Lincoln, whose marriage was officiated by an Episcopal priest and consummated by an Episcopal liturgy, may have had some knowledge of that text because of his in-laws’ affiliation with the Episcopal Church, his own relatively sparse church attendance notwithstanding.

However, Lincoln’s rhetorical contribution to the Proclamation is distinguishable. Proverbs 1:7 asserts, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Lincoln’s familiarity with the Authorized Version and his emotional struggles would have predisposed him to biblical passages that establish a connection between humility and insight, and to employ them in his public addresses. One of Lincoln’s talents as a president was to make theological insight pay political dividends. In the Proclamation, he begins to impart theological meaning to the Civil War, an effort that would culminate with his Second Inaugural Address. “[I]t is peculiarly fit,” he says, “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.” Lincoln’s theology was introspective. His use of the first-person plural in the August 12 Proclamation is characteristic. The aim was to implicate as many Americans as possible in bringing on the war, thereby maximizing the practical benefits of national repentance and reconciliation.

Lincoln’s theological impulse towards modesty was not shared by all Northern commentators. A dispatch from the London Star reprinted in the New York Times April 2, 1865 calls the Second Inaugural “very remarkable” “from [sic] the manner in which he holds the slave interest as responsible for the war” (“Mr. Lincoln’s Inaugural;” Apr. 2, 1865; New York Times; accessed via Proquest Historical Newspapers). The piece likely alludes to the excerpt in which Lincoln declared, “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” By fixating on this passage, the Times glosses over the reconciliatory tone of the address’s penultimate paragraph, which distills Lincoln’s understanding of the war’s meaning into a few sentences. Said Lincoln, “He [i.e. God] gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” The London Star dispatch overlooks this sentence, saying only, “the people of England…cannot but regard with warm admiration the tone in which the war is recognized as a judgment of God because of the offense of slavery.” Where Lincoln is explicit on who was responsible for that offense, the Star dispatch is mute. The tone is sanctimonious, not humble. It bears the exact relation to the South that self-righteous temperance activists bore to alcoholics during the first half of the nineteenth century, a relationship that Lincoln criticized in his 1844 address to the Washington Temperance Society.

Not all of the Times’ journalists indulged in triumphalism, though. A report concerning the arrival of mail packets in Canada, published May 30, 1865, said of the Second Inaugural, “This address appears to be intended to repress the more sanguine expectations of the Northern people” (“Four Days Later From Europe: Arrival of the Asia and Damascus;” New York Times; May 30, 1865; accessed via Proquest Historical Databases). This author had a much better understanding of what Lincoln was trying to accomplish with the speech. He wanted to mitigate the crusading impulse of Northern abolitionists and appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

The extent to which the narrative of the Civil War established in the Second Inaugural derived from Lincoln’s personal odyssey becomes evident in a eulogy delivered by Bishop Simpson at Lincoln’s Springfield funeral. Simpson begins by noting that the North did indeed have reasons to exact revenge on the South. Referring to the abysmal conditions of Confederate prison camps such as Andersonville, he said, “Then came a feeling to deepen sadness, as the story came of prisoners tortured to death or starved through the mandates of those who are called the representatives of chivalry” (Ibid.; accessed via Proquest Historical Databases). Lincoln, however, was not susceptible to this animosity. “His early life,” continued Simpson, “with its varied struggles joined him indissolubly to the weeping masses.” The ultimate effect was to vest “the deepest affections of our hearts…around some human form in which are incarnated the loving thoughts and ideas of the passing age.” Whereas some have said (surely, somewhat truthfully) that Lincoln’s reconciliatory image arose because he was spared the torment of Reconstruction, Simpson here provides an explanation for Lincoln’s magnanimity that derives from his intense personal suffering.

Lincoln’s magnanimity also had political implications for postbellum America. As Carwardine notes in his essay on “Lincoln’s Religion” (Foner 2008, pp. 223-248), Lincoln knew he needed to mobilize Christians around the Union war effort, and, subsequently, Reconstruction. In a letter to Winfield Scott dated September 30, 1861, Lincoln notes the “direct practical value to the nation” of the Sanitary Commission’s effort to provide blankets to beleaguered hospitals (Basler IV, 543). The Sanitary Commission, though primarily concerned with providing medical care to soldiers, enjoyed a close relationship with evangelical Protestantism in the North. Similarly, in a letter to Catholic Archbishop John J. Hughes, Lincoln writes, “I find no law authorizing the appointment of Chaplains for our hospitals; and yet the services of chaplains are more needed, perhaps, in the hospitals, than with the healthy soldiers in the field” (Basler IV, 559, emphasis in the original). In October of 1861 Reverend Marble N. Taylor was introduced to Lincoln under the auspices of General John E. Wool. Taylor was reportedly “on an errand of charity and humanity” that was never precisely defined (Basler V, 3). However, Taylor and his partner Chaplain T.W. Conway were active in organizing North Carolina Unionists, eliciting the following expression of approval from their president: “I have no doubt that the gentlemen named within, are true and faithful; and that their mission of charity is most worthy, and praiseworthy.”

Lincoln also made a push to supply professional chaplains to hospitals that served volunteers. Writing to F.M. Magrath on October 30, 1861, Lincoln says, “I will recommend that Congress make compensation therefor at the same rate as Chaplains in the army are compensated” (Basler V, 8-9). This proposal would make it into his annual address to Congress on December 3, 1861, in which the president said, “By mere omission, I presume, Congress has failed to provide chaplains for hospitals occupied by volunteers…These gentlemen, I understand, entered upon the duties designated, at the times respectively stated in the schedule, and have labored faithfully therein ever since. I therefore recommend that they be compensated at the same rate as chaplains in the army” (Basler V, 40). There is little doubt that Lincoln saw the auxiliary role Christian philanthropists had to play in the conflict. His support for that role was both rhetorical and substantive, as his form letter to the chaplains who had been appointed to volunteer hospitals demonstrates (Basler V, 53).

Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln managed to forge a meaningful narrative of national suffering and repentance. Furthermore, he capitalized on the Christian ethos that undergirded the society in which he lived. In this respect he was a masterful politician and a good man.


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