Lincoln believed the United States had a redemptive role to play in world history. Writing to the Salvadorian minister Lorenzo Montufar on April 24, 1862 Lincoln said of the Civil War, “On the result largely depends the progress, civilization, and happiness of mankind” (Basler V, 198). Responding to a petition presented to him by a delegation from the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lincoln said in May of the same year, “ [the war] involves…in a large degree the civil and religious liberties of mankind in many countries and through many ages” (Ibid., 212). In a July 12, 1862 “Appeal to Border State Representatives to Favor Compensated Emancipation” he said, “Our common country is in great peril” (Ibid., 319). He continued, “Once relieved, it’s [sic] form of government is saved to the world.”
Lincoln always viewed the conflict as a test of whether republicanism was practicable. In January of 1838, the future president spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Likely alluding to the murder of the abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy by a band of proslavery activists the previous year Lincoln said:
“…there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice (Basler I, 109).”
Later in the address he hoped that a “reverence for the laws” would “become the political religion of the nation” (Ibid., 112, emphasis in the original). As he would do a quarter century later at Gettysburg, he defined the American project as the “practical demonstration of a proposition…namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves” (Ibid., 113, emphasis in the original). He viewed the principle of secession as anarchical, and said so in his First Inaugural. For Lincoln, the Civil War was about America’s role as a beacon of self-government. In that sense he subscribed to the tradition of American providentialism that began with John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella.
Lincoln contributed to this myth a tone of humility. As he saw it, humiliation and repentance were central to America’s redemptive role. In his response to the Evangelical Lutherans, Lincoln claimed that the American people would “make their prolonged national existence a source of new benefits to…all classes and conditions of mankind” by “humbly seeking the Divine guidance” (Ibid., 213). In June of 1862, about a month before Lincoln presented a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, William Barnard, representing a delegation of Progressive Friends that had given a memorial to the president insisting that he free the slaves, expressed “an earnest desire that he might, under divine guidance, be led to free the slaves” (Ibid., 279). Lincoln’s reply, the theme of which he returned to in his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” was notable for its balance between providentialism and equivocation:
“The President responded very impressively, saying that he was deeply sensible of his need of Divine assistance. He had sometime [sic] thought that perhaps he might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work and he certainly was not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end which the memorialists had in view may be different from theirs. It would be his earnest endeavor, with firm reliance upon the Divine arm, and seeking light from above, to do his duty in the place to which he had been called (Ibid., 279).”
All the elements of Lincoln’s civil religion are present: his unwavering belief that some greater good would come from the carnage of the Civil War, his insistence that he was passively cast into the most prominent role of the national drama, and his willingness to remain circumspect about God’s dealings with the United States.
Lincoln returned to his criticism of millenarian speculation, which tended to favor the North at the expense of the South, again and again. Responding to yet another memorial on emancipation, this one from a group of Chicago emancipationists, Lincoln said, “I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will” (Ibid., 419-20). “I am sure,” he concluded, “that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both.” He noted that “the rebel soldiers are praying with a great deal more earnestness…than our own troops.” Here, again, is a theme he would return to in his Second Inaugural, in which he regretted that “the prayers of neither [side] could be answered fully.” In his September, 1862 response to the Chicago Christians he said “that our country had been exceedingly guilty…both at the North and South; that our just punishment had come by a slaveholder’s rebellion” (Ibid., 422). In the Second Inaugural he assigned blame to both sides. God brought “to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”
In the “Meditation,” Lincoln reiterated his skepticism of those who claimed to discern God’s purposes in the contest. “In the present civil war,” he wrote, “it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purposes of either party” (Ibid., 404). When he did come to make a positive assertion, “that God wills this contest,” he couched it in hesitant language: “I am almost ready to say this is probably true.” Here we see the connection between Lincoln’s theological insight and his mood swings. Composed around the time of Second Bull Run, at which Union General John Pope was routed, the “Meditation” came at a time when Attorney General Edward Bates thought Lincoln “seemed wrung by the bitterest anguish-said he felt almost ready to hang himself.” For Lincoln, emotional pain had become a source of rhetorical and religious strength.
Lincoln expressed his theological humility most movingly in his attempts to overcome Northern animosity. He recoiled from exacting retribution upon the South for what he deemed a national sin in his Second Inaugural. Writing to Reverdy Johnson, a State Department employee who had been sent to New Orleans in order to observe the actions of General Ben Butler, Lincoln said in July of 1862, “I am a patient man-always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance” (Ibid., 343). Around the same time he wrote to the prominent New Orleans loyalist Cuthbert Bullitt that he would “do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing” (Ibid., 346). Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, which demanded that national reconciliation be pursued “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” returned to this theme. Lincoln’s wartime theology was consistent. It was characterized by humility and uncertainty.