Lincoln remained agnostic about God’s purposes during the first half of the Civil War. On October 26, 1862 Eliza P. Gurley, the widow of English Quaker Joseph J. Gurney, visited the president. The Lincoln Papers (Angle, 1930) report her as having “uttered a short but most beautiful, eloquent, and comprehensive prayer that light and wisdom might be shed down from on high, to guide our President” (Basler V, 478). Lincoln’s reply was measured. “[I]f after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he [sic] affords me,” he said, “I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise.” Echoing his recently-composed “Meditation on the Divine Will,” he speculated that God permitted the continuance of the war “for some purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us.”
This thought may have consoled Lincoln by placing the course of events beyond his control. In his biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow attributes a similar motive to the future president’s declaration after his appointment as commanding officer of the Continental Army that he did not “think himself equal to the command he was honored with.” Both men anticipated the difficulties inherent in their posts, and that, justly or unjustly, history would hold them accountable for the success or failure of their cause. Lincoln tried to convince himself and others “that he who made the world still governs it.” In the months after the Union defeats of First and Second Bull Run and the failure of George McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, this belief allowed him to set aside the question of victory or defeat and focus on his duties.
It is important not to take the “Meditation” and the Second Inaugural as flashes of insight. Both documents should be read as markers of Lincoln’s theological development during the war. This development was continuous, not epiphanic. The reply to Gurney was not the only occasion on which Lincoln used phrases or ideas that would become associated with his more famous works. In his analysis of Lincoln’s statement in the Second Inaugural that “the war came” Ronald C. White says, “human agency alone did not decide the outcome or even the character of the war. As Lincoln looked back from the perspective of four long years, he saw that all along the war had a life of its own.” In a letter dated November 10, 1862 in which the president argued politics with General Carl Schurz Lincoln used the precise wording that eventually made its way into the Second Inaugural: “Notwithstanding this, it distributed to it’s [sic] party friends as nearly all the civil patronage as any administration ever did. The war came” (Basler VI, 494). Lincoln’s ideas about the meaning of the war and how to express that meaning were well developed by the time of he came to take the oath of office a second time. Lincoln was “looking back” as he came to deliver his Second Inaugural, but the retrospection was more for the American people. He had already done it himself.
On a few occasions during the war, he did it for a wider audience, too, albeit less comprehensively than he would in his Second Inaugural. Though Lincoln never explicitly broached the prospect of Union failure in his Annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, he did strike the same tone of theological modesty and uncertainty that he had maintained in his reply to Gurney. “[W]e can but press on,” said Lincoln, “guided by the best light He gives us, trusting that in His own good time, and wise way, all will yet be well” (Basler V, 518). Unsurprisingly, though, Lincoln tailored his religious statements to the audience he was addressing. Whereas he mentioned defeat as a legitimate possibility when speaking to Gurney, he never explicitly told Congress what he meant by the phrase, “all will yet be well.” He allowed them to assume that Union victory was a part of God’s plan.
Lincoln came closer to linking the Union cause with God’s will in a letter to Caleb Russell and Sallie A. Fenton, representatives of the Society of Friends from Iowa who had formally expressed their approval of the Emancipation Proclamation. Writing on January 5, 1863, four days after the proclamation had gone into effect in the Union-occupied South, Lincoln wrote, “I am conscious of no desire for my country’s welfare, that is not in consonance with His will, and of no plan upon which we may not ask His blessing” (Basler VI, 39-40). He even conjoined the “birthright of civil and religious liberty,” arguing that it was that liberty “upon which all good men may unitedly agree…imploring the gracious favor of the God of Nations.” Lincoln seems to have become more theologically assertive after he issued the Proclamation. Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s naval secretary, quoted him as saying that he had “made a promise to God” that he would issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation if McClellan defeated Lee at Antietam. In the wake of Union victory, Welles’ diary has Lincoln declaring, “God had decided this issue in favor of the slaves.” Lincoln eventually had to moderate this assertiveness, coming as it did at a moment when the tide of war was beginning to turn. Such rhetoric would not do as he turned his mind to Reconstruction. However, there was a moment in early 1863 at which Lincoln may have succumbed, in his own way, to northern millennialism. Writing to “the Workingmen of Manchester, England” on January 19, 1863 Lincoln said, “I cannot but regard your decisive utterance upon the question [of emancipation] as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country” (Basler VI, 64). Four months earlier, as he composed his “Mediation,” it would have been difficult to envision Lincoln praising a Christian for decisiveness.
Whether or not this newfound decisiveness was more political or theological, Lincoln had checked it by the time he came to deliver his Second Inaugural. Indeed, he had checked it well before then. Writing to Alexander Reed, General Superintendent of the U.S. Christian Commission, on February 22 Lincoln said, “whatever shall tend to turn our thoughts from the unreasoning, and uncharitable passions, prejudices, and jealousies incident to a great national trouble…can not [sic] but be well for us all” (Basler VI, 114). When we take his statements of January, 1863 into account, this observation assumes a somewhat self-admonitory tone, a return to theological modesty.
At the same time, Lincoln’s letter to Reed discloses a new development in Lincoln’s theology: sympathetic allusions to the existence of an afterlife. Noting that the Sunday on which he was writing coincided with Washington’s birthday Lincoln said that “the highest interests of this life, and the life to come” made the date “most propitious” for a meeting of the Christian Commission (Basler VI, 115, emphasis mine). In a response to a serenade three days after the Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln referred to the deaths of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, all of which had occurred on July 4. Lincoln remarked that all had been “called from this stage of existence on the same day and month of the year,” which coincided with Lee’s retreat from Pennsylvania (Basler VI, 320). Previously, Lincoln had resorted to anodyne declarations of sympathy for basic Christian doctrine. His 1846 handbill refuting charges of infidelity, in which he tepidly said that he “had never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular,” comes to mind. In New Salem and Springfield, he had been reluctant to make positive assertions about his belief in life after death. His time in the White House seems to have changed that.
Lincoln’s Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day, issued on May 30, 1863, also signaled a return to theological modesty. In addition to a “dependence upon the overruling power of God” the president declared it the “duty of nations as well as of men” “to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow” (Basler VI, 155). “Yet,” he continued, the nation would engage in such introspection “with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.” This is roughly the argument Lincoln would make to the country in his Second Inaugural: God brought the war upon the North and South as punishment for the “national sin” of slavery and so that a purified nation might rise. Lincoln’s providentialism was always progressive. It viewed punishment for past wrongs within the context of a future goal. He abhorred gratuitous punishment.
Yet Lincoln never fully expurgated his hatred of secession. Addressing wounded soldiers, some of whom had lost legs, in May of 1863, the president said, “that when we could present that famous adversary [viz., the devil] at the White House on his stumps, and therefore somewhat incapable of further rebellion against constituted and divine authority, that we would let him know” (Basler VI, 226-227). His first inaugural address was a rigidly legalistic argument against the doctrine of secession. Here, as in the letter to Russell and Fenton, he combined divine and human law to make secession an offense against God. This was not a national offense, but one for which a cabal of southern slaveholders bore responsibility. There is no question that Lincoln knew how to wield power with clemency. However, he only did so from a position of strength, and under the assumption that secessionism would be crushed.
The Union victory at Gettysburg, just like the Emancipation Proclamation, presented an opportunity for Lincoln to imply that God was moving closer to the North as the fighting went on. In a telegram sent as a press release from the War Department Lincoln wrote of General George Meade’s victory on the morning of July 4, “he [i.e. the president] especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude” (Basler VI, 314). God’s will was a source of consolation when the Union was losing. It became a source or assurance as Lee dragged his defeated army back to northern Virginia. Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving on July 15 played the same role as his Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day in May. In the July proclamation, Lincoln said that the nation had “been brought to suffer in mind, body or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine Will, back to the perfect enjoyment of Union and fraternal peace” (Basler VI, 332).
We might say, then, that one characteristic of Lincoln’s official pronouncements was that they were more conciliatory than his private correspondence and impromptu remarks. Between 1861 and 1865, Lincoln was crafting a narrative for the country. Occasionally that narrative conflicted with his distaste for anarchy, which he had first annunciated to the Young Men’s Lyceum in 1838, alluding in that speech to the proslavery mob that had killed the abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy. As Edmund Wilson suggested, Lincoln was remarkably successful at occupying the dramatic persona he had created for himself. There were, however, instances in which Lincoln’s public image momentarily gave way to his belief in law and order.