Lincoln’s Wartime Theology II

Abolitionism was inherently militaristic, and it derived its militancy from its Christian elements. “[The] movement arose,” writes Eric Foner, “as the joining of two impulses: black anticolonization and white evangelicism” (Eric Foner, “Lincoln and Colonization,” Our Lincoln, ed. Eric Foner, W.W. Norton and Company, 2008, p. 142). Abolitionists diverged from the “white-dominated, gradualist” groups linked to colonization. They were “immediatist, interracial, and committed to making the United States a biracial nation.” Awareness of abolitionism’s Christian ethos makes Joshua Speed’s comment regarding border state emancipation in September of 1861 seem more pointed. “You might as well attack the freedom of worship in the North,” Speed had said, “as to wage war in a slave state on such a principle” (Foner, p. 153). Many of those who would wage war on such a principle took great pride in worshipping freely in the North.

During the Civil War, Lincoln coopted the narrative that abolitionists had been developing since the 1830s. By the time of his reelection, writes Manisha Sinha, “Lincoln had come to share the abolitionist and African American view of the Civil War as a providential, apocalyptic event that would not only end slavery but redeem the American Republic and vindicate its founding principles” (Manisha Sinha, “Allies for Emancipation? Lincoln and Black Abolitionists,” Our Lincoln, ed. Eric Foner, W.W. Norton and Company, 2008, p. 187). After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s task was partly to moderate the abolitionist’s tone in a way that promoted national reconciliation without compromising the integrity of the abolitionists’ narrative. The Second Inaugural is an eloquent, and largely successful, attempt to do just that.

Lincoln had to account for not only radical abolitionists. “[T]he Republican Party that captured much of the Whig vote…was even more evidently the inheritor of the millenialist, antislavery reformism of New School Protestants” (Carwardine, pp. 233-234). Though Republicans cohered around the territorial confinement of slavery, they were predisposed to distinguish divine significance in the events of 1861-65.

Lincoln was a conciliator by temperament. “In Lincoln,” writes Andrew Delbanco, “we encounter…a mind searching for transcendent meaning in the carnage and asserting that meaning for both sides” (Andrew Delbanco, “Lincoln’s Sacramental Language,” Our Lincoln, W.W. Norton and Company, 2008, p. 218). Abolitionism’s zeal for redemptive justice gave meaning to the Civil War, but Lincoln could not allow the movement’s vindictiveness to overrun the cathartic, progressive meaning he had imparted to the conflict. North and South had suffered for the “national sin” of slavery. Further talk of exacting revenge upon the South was gratuitous. Lincoln’s relationship to the militant Protestantism that suffused abolitionism was, therefore, necessarily ambivalent.

The most prudent commentary on Lincoln’s religion may have come from his close friend David Davis. Asked by Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon about the president’s religion, Davis replied, “I don’t Know anything about Lincoln’s Religion…don’t think anybody Knew. The idea that Lincoln talked to a stranger about his religion or religious views…is absurd to me…I Know the man so well: he was the most reticent-Secretive man I Ever Saw-or Expect to See” (Richard Carwardine, “Lincoln’s Religion,” Our Lincoln, ed. Eric Foner, W.W. Norton and Company, 2008, p.224). In religion, as in politics, Lincoln seems to have thrived on ambiguity. He created and to a remarkable degree inhabited a religious persona that cast him in the role of Jesus, one who suffered for the redemption of others. But we are limited in what we can say about his theology, by his own reticence as much as time.

What can be said with some certainty is that Lincoln was a man for whom questions of morality were of cardinal significance. Though “he warmed to Robert Burns’s poetry, including his satire on Calvinist self-righteousness,” continues Carwardine, “Lincoln’s immersion in the scriptures-alongside his keen appetite for Shakespearean soliloquies with anxious self-examination and moral wrestling-points to a man for whom profound private reflection on ethical matters was an essential part of his being” (Carwardine, p. 227). When Orville Browning suggested Lincoln emancipate the slaves as a in the wake of Lincoln’s post-Bull Run proclamation for a national day of fasting and prayer the president replied, “Browning, suppose God is against us in our view on the subject of slavery in this country, and our method of dealing with it” (Carwardine, p. 230). This response, reminiscent of his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” impressed Browning and indicated to hi, “that [Lincoln] was thinking deeply of what a higher power than man sought to bring about by the great events then transpiring.”

Returning to Lincoln’s ambivalent relationship with Northern Protestantism, the “Meditation” “indicated some movement toward the evangelical mainstream” as well as “hesitancy over equating the Union cause with God’s will” (Carwardine, p. 231). Above all else, Lincoln “showed more humility than did most Protestant preachers.” “Lincoln’s theology,” concludes Carwardine, with its humility and remarkable absence of self-righteousness, stands in some contrast with the theology of the mainstream Union pulpits, mostly confident that God was on their side” (Carwardine, p. 241). “The logic of Protestant evangelicals’ understanding of events,” appealing as it did to an American tradition of self-righteous millennialism, “culminated in the certainty that, as one Episcopalian insisted, ‘God is with us;…the Lord of Hosts is on our side’”(Carwardine, p. 243). As Lincoln wrote to New York political operative Thurlow Weed after giving his Second Inaugural, the speech was “not immediately popular” because “men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.”


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