Lincoln’s Wartime Theology VI

On October 20, 1864 the Reverend William Nast, editor of the Cincinnati organ of the Central German Methodist Conference, wrote to Lincoln after the conclusion of the Conference’s meeting, which occurred between August 24 and 30. Though Nast’s original letter is not included in the Lincoln Papers, the president’s response of October 31 is notable for the tone in which it condemns Southern slaveholders. Read alongside the Second Inaugural, it highlights the difference between Lincoln’s public and private religious personae during the second half of the Civil War.

On the one hand, the Second Inaugural did imply that the South was responsible for the outbreak of war. When he entered office, said Lincoln, “[b]oth parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” Furthermore, “[a]ll knew that this interest [viz., slavery] was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war.” On the other hand, Lincoln acknowledged Northern complicity in the underlying cause of the war, slavery, and insisted that the resulting carnage be understood as God’s punishment of the whole nation: “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?” The use of “American” rather than “Southern” in describing slavery is significant. For the public Lincoln, slavery was a national rather than a regional sin, calling for national suffering and repentance.

In his private correspondence, however, Lincoln was more explicit about the degree to which he held the South responsible for the war’s consequences. In his letter to Nast of October 31the president wrote, “I trust it is not too early for us to rejoice together over the promise of the speedy removal of that blot upon our civilization, always heretofore a standing menace to our peace and liberties, whose destruction, so long desired by all friends of impartial freedom, has at last been rendered possible by the crimes of its own reckless friends” (Basler VIII, 83, emphasis mine). No effort is here made to nationalize slavery. “The crimes” and “that blot upon our civilization” are, like the “colored slaves” mentioned in the Second Inaugural, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it.”

After his reelection in early November of 1864, Lincoln addressed a crowd of serenaders. At the conclusion of his brief address he said, “[i]t is no pleasure of mine to triumph over any one; but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity” (Basler VIII, 96). The first clause would have been more credible had it been inserted in the Second Inaugural. The second clause is more consistent with Lincoln’s implicit association during the second half of the Civil War of Northern successes with God’s plan for the United States. The tone of theological uncertainty that had sustained Lincoln during the first two years of his administration became muted as Union advantages on the battlefield became more pronounced.

In a more well crafted address two days later, Lincoln moderated his tone. In his “Response to a Serenade” on November 10 the president said, “In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged” (Basler VIII, 101). It can hardly be surprising that the animosities growing out of the war did not subside as quickly as Lincoln anticipated in this speech. He seems not entirely to have overcome them himself. Placing this address alongside the more ad hoc production of November 8, we see that Lincoln’s theological magnanimity seems to have grown in direct proportion to the amount of time he was given to consider whom he was speaking to.

An exception to this rule is Lincoln’s “Annual Address to Congress” of December 6, 1864. Therein Lincoln compared secession to satanic disobedience, an analogy he had made several times before. Said the president, “The genius of rebellion will no more claim Maryland. Like another foul spirit, being driven out, it may seek to tear her, but it will woo her no more” (Basler VIII, 148-149). Significantly, Lincoln’s autographed copy of the address substituted “unclean” for “foul,” a poetic change more reminiscent of the English of the Authorized Version from which Lincoln was wont to quote.

The president was never reluctant to quash Southern theology when it affected political behavior. On April 11, 1865 Godfrey Weitzel, the Union general in charge of the conquered Confederate capital of Richmond received a telegram from his colleague James A. Hardie. Weitzel had granted Richmond Episcopalians the right to continue to pray for Jefferson Davis in lieu of Abraham Lincoln, regarding which order Hardie cabled: “The Secretary of War directs me to say that your explanation…is not satisfactory…The Secretary also directs me to instruct you that officers commanding in Richmond are expected to require from all religious denominations in that city, in regard to their rituals and prayers, no less respect for the President…than they practiced toward the rebel chief…before he was driven from the capital” (Basler VIII, 406).

Interestingly, in his Annual Message Lincoln also engaged in what may have been a defense of the tremendous loss of life that took place during his tenure. He said, “[w]hile it is melancholy to reflect that the war has filled so many graves, and carried mourning to so many hearts, it is some relief to know that, compared with the surviving, the fallen have been so few. While corps, and divisions, and brigades, and regiments have formed, and fought, and dwindled, and gone out of existence, a great majority of the men who composed them are still living” (Basler VIII, 150). By 1864 Lincoln seems not to have expurgated the sense of guilt that Professor George Forgie once speculated may have driven him to discern God’s controlling hand, rather than his own, as the source of conflict.

By early December Lincoln had returned to anathematizing Southern theology in his private correspondence. In a “Story Written for Noah Brooks,” Lincoln recounted his conversation (whether real or apocryphal) with a Tennessee woman who had petitioned to have her husband released from the Union prison at Johnson’s Island. Lincoln reportedly said, “You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people get to heaven” (Basler VIII, 155, emphasis in the original).

The language of this passage puts an unorthodox gloss on a particular part of the Second Inaugural, one that cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the development of Lincoln’s rhetoric. He had used the language of “wringing sweat out of other men’s faces” during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Likewise in the Second Inaugural he said, “[i]t 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.” This statement, coming after Lincoln’s observation that both North and South “read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” can be taken as a criticism of those Northern theologians who conformed to the vindictive tone of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic. However, placed alongside Lincoln’s other references to sweat being wrung from faces, it reads as a more assertive statement regarding the hypocrisy of Southern theology. Read closely and within the context of his Collected Works, the Second Inaugural contains several passages that present a Lincoln whose bitterness towards the South was more pronounced than has been traditionally thought.

Indeed, quite in contrast to his reliance upon Psalm 19 in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln used a biblical allusion in a letter to William T. Sherman after the latter’s capture of Savannah in late December of 1864 to make a stark division between North and South. Said Lincoln, “it [viz., Sherman’s “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah] brings those who sat in darkness, to see a great light” (Basler VIII, 183). The reference is to Matthew 4:16: “The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.” Here we have the image of a crusading Union army that brought Christianity and freedom in its wake, an image that emerged in the Battle Hymn. Lincoln reacted against this millennialism in his “Meditation.” By early 1865, he was prepared to make his own contribution to its propagation.

Henry Ward Beecher’s letter to Lincoln of February 4, 1865 articulated the widespread conviction amongst Northern theologians that the Union was favored by God, a conviction that was only strengthened after emancipation became an irrevocable Union war aim. Beecher insisted, “[s]o that the inside of the hand is solid bone, I am willing to have the outside flesh soft as velvet” (Basler VIII, 318). He continued, “The north is renovated. Heresy is purged out. Treason is wounded to the death. Our Constitution has felt the hand of God laid upon it, as He said, ‘Be thou clean’ & the leprosy [sic] is departed.” By the time he came to deliver his Second Inaugural, Lincoln felt the same way. His genius was to emphasize his own conviction that the Union’s suffering was regenerative rather than gratuitous, and to do so in moving prose. Though he eventually came to the belief that God favored the Union, or at least Union war aims, over the Confederacy, Lincoln also modified how that belief was articulated. Indeed, Writing to New York political broker Thurlow Weed two weeks after the Second Inaugural was delivered he said, “I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world” (Basler VIII, 356). Northern theologians could not be trusted to see that his reference to the hypocrisy of petitioning a “just God” for the destruction of an enemy was oriented toward the South. His speech, as Lincoln surely knew, was notable for its lack of Northern triumphalism. In this sense, the Second Inaugural was Lincoln’s attempt to moderate his conclusion that the North was theologically right and the South was theologically wrong.


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