“Woe Unto the World Because of Offenses”: The Wartime Theology of Abraham Lincoln

My thesis argues that Lincoln’s use of religion to understand the Civil War differed from that of Northern Protestants of the period. It further claims that his emotional struggles in early adulthood played a role in his theological development.

The thesis will consist of three chapters. The first will examine the extent to which a militant brand of Protestantism reminiscent of New England’s Calvinist heritage permeated Northern literature during the Civil War. This chapter will rely heavily on essays from Religion and the Civil War and Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore. It will analyze sermons from prominent Northern divines like Henry Ward Beecher and other manifestations of Northern religious feeling (most prominently, Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic). This part of the thesis will argue that most Northern Protestants saw the war as divine punishment of the South, exclusively, for its past sins. Northern religious leaders argued that God was exacting revenge on slaveholders through the mechanism of Union arms. Lincoln, on the other hand, came to argue publically that the war was intended as God’s punishment on the whole country for the national sin of slavery (though, as we will see, he seems to have sympathized much more with the prevailing Northern narrative than his Second Inaugural would suggest). As president, his theological vision was oriented toward the future. He was concerned with the nation’s suffering as a redemptive event through which the country had been purged of a moral sin. I will use Sacred Scripture, Sacred War (one Vanderbilt professor’s analysis of biblical usage during the American Revolution) and an analysis of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech to the Virginia legislature to demonstrate that in this respect Lincoln deviated not only from Northern Protestants of the nineteenth century but also from a broader American tradition of “putting God in a Union uniform.”

The second chapter will explore Lincoln’s struggles with what may have been manic depression as a young man in Springfield and New Salem and how he converted what some people would call a mental illness into a political and emotional asset. It will focus specifically on a crisis that occurred in the winter of 1840-41 and how he coped with the problems that presented themselves at that point in his life. Here I rely on Shenk’s study of Lincoln’s melancholy, Erik Eriskon’s psychoanalytic biographies of Martin Luther and Gandhi, and Lincoln’s correspondence during that time. I argue that the emergence of a movement concerned with the moral issue of preventing the extension of slavery met an emotional need for Lincoln, one that is quite easy to detect in his earliest correspondence and that manifested itself most vividly in the winter of 1840-1841. Notwithstanding his greater theological assertiveness during the second half of the war, the prevailing Northern religious sentiment of triumphalism jeopardized the antislavery narrative Lincoln had by 1865 articulated for himself, calling forth the spiritual magnanimity expressed in his Second Inaugural. This chapter will focus mostly on Lincoln’s response to the acute emotional pain he experienced in 1840, and how it merged his private and public selves for the remainder of his career. I argue that the role Lincoln created for himself within the antislavery movement was intimately related to his battle with depression.

The third chapter focuses on how Lincoln’s theological understanding of the Civil War changed during his presidency. I here use the last four volumes of Lincoln’s Collected Works to illustrate how the president’s attempts to discern God’s will became more assertive as the war progressed. Furthermore, I argue that at times Lincoln seems to have expressed sympathy for the vindictive narrative adopted by many Northern Protestants, creating a divergence between his public and private religious personae. However, I also show that Lincoln’s need to act as a redemptive figure in American history ultimately overcame this impulse to punish Southern slaveholders at the expense of national reconciliation. Attention will be paid to the private and public calamities Lincoln encountered between 1861 and 1865. Of the first category is the death of his son Willie; in this chapter I argue that the loss of his son forced Lincoln to reconsider his long standing opinions on the existence of an afterlife. Of the latter category are the Union defeats at Bull Run and the preliminary uncertainty surrounding the Union war effort that resulted. These setbacks and the tremendous responsibility that devolved upon Lincoln forced the president to appeal to a higher power, and to do so in humble terms.

My overarching goals is to combine the study of Lincoln’s depression with that of his religion. I think examining these two aspects of Lincoln’s personality at the same time contributes to a deeper understanding of the sixteenth president than has hitherto been presented.


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