“Woe Unto the World Because of Offenses”: The Wartime Religion of Abraham Lincoln (Installment II)

Chapter 2: Lincoln’s Theology Goes to War

At first, Lincoln remained circumspect about God’s presence in the Civil War. He spoke diffidently about the impossibility of discerning God’s will in a conflict in which both sides claimed to act with divine sanction. Over the course of the conflict, however, he came to speak with greater theological certainty. Between his inauguration and his assassination, he became increasingly convinced that God had played a role in bringing about the war, and that God’s purpose in so doing was redemptive. Though Lincoln occasionally gave vent to regional vindictiveness in his private correspondence, he insisted that the suffering brought on by the war held meaning as an expurgation of sin. For him, this expurgation was both necessary and progressive. It would issue in a society that more accurately reflected the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. In this sense, the dramatic role Lincoln crafted for himself as chief executive differed little from the dramatic role he crafted for himself immediately after his depressive episode of 1840-41. Through his own experiences, he came to believe that human suffering held meaning. Just as Lincoln felt obliged to convince Joshua Speed of this fact when the latter experienced reservations about his impending marriage, so he felt obliged to convince the nation that the dead of the Civil War had not died in vain.

Lincoln spoke of humility in a theological context in his August 12, 1861 “Proclamation of a National Fast Day.” In that edict, the president declared it “fit and becoming in all people” to “bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offenses.” On the one hand, such a confession of sin was formulaic. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer exhorts parishioners to “acknowledge and bewail their manifold sins and transgressions” every Sunday. Lincoln, whose marriage was officiated by an Episcopal priest and consummated by an Episcopal liturgy, may have had some knowledge of that text because of his in-laws’ affiliation with the Episcopal Church, his own relatively sparse church attendance as an adult notwithstanding.

However, Lincoln’s rhetorical contribution to the proclamation is distinguishable. Proverbs 1:7 asserts, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Lincoln’s familiarity with the Authorized Version of the Bible, his penchant for peppering speeches with biblical allusions, and his emotional struggles in early adulthood would have made him receptive to biblical passages that establish a connection between humility and insight, one that he could use in his public addresses. Here at the outset of the Civil War we see Lincoln identifying humility and self-criticism as proper elements of wartime exegesis. “[I]t is peculiarly fit,” he says, “for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy.” Lincoln’s wartime theology was from its inception introspective. His use of the first-person plural in the August 12 Proclamation is characteristic. The aim was to implicate as many Americans as possible in bringing on the war, thereby maximizing the practical benefits of national repentance and reconciliation. Privately, he would deviate little from this theological core. Publically, he would deviate from it not at all.

It is necessary to note that this theological magnanimity was to some extent motivated by political considerations. As Richard Carwardine has noted in his essay on “Lincoln’s Religion,” the president knew he needed to mobilize Christians around the Union war effort, and, subsequently, Reconstruction. In a letter to Winfield Scott dated September 30, 1861, Lincoln notes the “direct practical value to the nation” of the Sanitary Commission’s effort to provide blankets to beleaguered hospitals (Basler IV, p. 543). The Sanitary Commission, though primarily concerned with providing medical care to soldiers, enjoyed a close relationship with evangelical (predominantly Democratic) Protestantism in the North. If granting the Commission access to Union hospitals would not silence this demographic, it would at least do nothing to agitate it.

Northern Democrats were not the only group whose interests were reflected in Lincoln’s encouragement of religiously inspired philanthropy. In October of 1861 Reverend Marble N. Taylor was introduced to Lincoln by General John E. Wool. Taylor was reportedly “on an errand of charity and humanity” that was never precisely defined. However, Taylor and his partner Chaplain T.W. Conway were active in organizing North Carolina Unionists, eliciting the following expression of approval from their president: “I have no doubt that the gentlemen named within, are true and faithful; and that their mission of charity is most worthy, and praiseworthy.” As prominent Unionists from the upper South, Taylor and Conway could expect to meet with a sympathetic audience in the White House.

In addition to approving requests to provide chaplains for wounded regulars, Lincoln made a push to supply professional chaplains to hospitals that served volunteers. Writing to F.M. Magrath on October 30, 1861, Lincoln said, “I will recommend that Congress make compensation therefor at the same rate as Chaplains in the army are compensated” (Basler V, pp. 8-9). This proposal would make it into his annual address to Congress on December 3, 1861, in which the president said, “By mere omission, I presume, Congress has failed to provide chaplains for hospitals occupied by volunteers…These gentlemen, I understand, entered upon the duties designated, at the times respectively stated in the schedule, and have labored faithfully therein ever since. I therefore recommend that they be compensated at the same rate as chaplains in the army” (Basler V, p. 40). There is little doubt that Lincoln saw the auxiliary role Christian philanthropists had to play in the conflict. His support for that role was both rhetorical and substantive, as his form letter of support on behalf of the chaplains who had been appointed to volunteer hospitals demonstrates (Basler V, p. 53). When it came to hospital chaplains, Lincoln meant to act on his expressions of approval. Yet his motivations seem to have been overwhelmingly pragmatic.

Political considerations notwithstanding, Lincoln did believe 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, p. 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” (Basler V, p. 212). In a July 12, 1862 “Appeal to Border State Representatives to Favor Compensated Emancipation” he said, “Our common country is in great peril” (Basler V, p. 319). He continued, “Once relieved, it’s [sic] form of government is saved to the world.” Lincoln thought that the future of representative government was intimately connected to the success of the American experiment in democracy. Before he even had to grapple with the carnage of large-scale Civil War battles, then, he had turned his mind to the larger meaning of the conflict.

Indeed, a fixation of Lincoln’s from an early stage in his career was the practicality of republican government. 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 mob of proslavery partisans 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.”

Present in this excerpt is Lincoln’s affinity for law and order, a proclivity to which Allen C. Guelzo has attributed Lincoln’s affiliation with the Whigs over against the “passionate” Jacksonian Democrats. Later in the Springfield address he hoped that a “reverence for the laws” would “become the political religion of the nation” (Basler I, p. 112). 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” (Basler I, p. 113). 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. He was in this sense a believer in America’s Manifest Destiny.

Having brought this outlook to Washington in 1861, Lincoln contributed to the tradition of American exceptionalism 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” (Basler V, p. 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” (Basler V, p. 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.”

Politics, temperament, and philosophy converged during Lincoln’s presidency to turn the chief executive’s mind toward God’s intervention in human affairs.

Another way in which Lincoln’s theological humility manifested itself from an early date was his criticism of millenarian speculation, which tended to favor the North at the expense of the South. Responding to yet another memorial on emancipation, this one from a group of Chicago emancipationists, Lincoln wrote, “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” (Basler V, pp. 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, “the rebel soldiers are praying with a great deal more earnestness…than our own troops.” The tone of introspection and self-criticism present in his August 12 proclamation here becomes more biting. In his September, 1862 response to the Chicago Christians he said, “our country had been exceedingly guilty…both at the North and South; that our just punishment had come by a slaveholder’s rebellion” (Basler V, p. 422). This was the essential message of his Second Inaugural. North and South had condoned and even facilitated slavery. Lincoln’s commitment to this basic narrative, the “theological core” referred to above, is a hallmark of the consistency and coherence that his political opinions assumed.

In the “Meditation of the Divine Will,” a private memorandum published by Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay following the assassination, the president 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” (Basler V, p. 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 capacity for solitary, melancholic reflection. Composed around the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run, at which Union General John Pope was routed by Robert E. Lee, 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. Whereas the militarism of many Northern Protestants only ossified as the war went on, Lincoln’s theological thought became more refined and coherent.

Lincoln remained agnostic about God’s purposes throughout the first half of the war. His personal correspondence during that period harkened back to the “Meditation.” On October 26, 1862 Eliza P. Gurley, the widow of English Quaker Joseph J. Gurney, visited the president. She is reported to have “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.” 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 Lincoln’s reply to Gurney 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 [i.e. the Republican Party] distributed to it’s [sic] party friends as nearly all the civil patronage as any administration ever did. The war came.” 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 for himself. We have seen that Lincoln began his presidency by assuming a characteristic tone of theological modesty and skepticism. It now remains for us to describe how that view altered over the course of the conflict.

As it became clear that the war was to be a bloody and costly affair, Lincoln came to rely more on the omniscience of God and his presence in the conflict as a psychological anchor. 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 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, p. 518). Unsurprisingly, 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 members to assume that Union victory was a part of God’s plan. Yet by stating that the result, whatever it might be, was part of God’s plan and defining that plan as benevolent, Lincoln relieved some of the burden created by the knowledge that his actions influenced—and occasionally ended—the lives of millions of Americans.

Most noticeably, Lincoln deviated from his reluctance to speak on God’s behalf as the war continued. He linked 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, pp. 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.” This excerpt signifies a change in tone for Lincoln, one that seems to have become more theologically assertive after he issued the Emancipation 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, a victory that ended the Virginian’s first invasion of Union territory. In the wake of the Union victory, Welles’ diary has Lincoln declaring, “God had decided this issue in favor of the slaves.” Says Guelzo of this moment, “[h]ere was the moral of the summer of 1862 for Abraham Lincoln: human events do not run on like machines, but by providential intervention; just so, the war would not run to a conclusion, nor the Union be saved, unless Lincoln himself took note of Providence’s whisperings” (Guelzo, pp. 336-337). Guelzo notes that this was the first time Lincoln “ever prefixed any name for god with the possessive my, as though some unprecedented personal reciprocity had been established” (Guelzo, p. 342).

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, p. 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, 1863 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, p. 114). Here we see a return to Lincoln’s distrust of “passion,” present in the 1838 Lyceum speech. When we take his statements of January, 1863 into account, his observation about the “unreasoning, and uncharitable passions” 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. This mechanism, like his deferral to God’s omnipotence, may have been a way for Lincoln to cope with the tremendous pressures of his station. 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, p. 115). 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, p. 320). Prior to the war, Lincoln had resorted, when pressed, to anodyne declarations of sympathy for basic Christian doctrines. An 1846 handbill refuting charges of infidelity lodged by the Democratic preacher Peter Cartwright, in which Lincoln 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 (Basler I, p. 382). In New Salem and Springfield, he had been reluctant to make positive assertions about his belief in life after death. Indeed, some of his associates report that Lincoln composed a brief tract arguing against organized Christianity, a document so incendiary that his friends threw it in a furnace. Whether or not this account is technically accurate, it does speak to the tone with which Lincoln approached questions of life after death as a younger man. His willingness to entertain the notion of an afterlife is a defining feature of his intellectual growth as president.

Lincoln’s Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day of May 30, 1863 also signaled a return to modesty in the months after his Emancipation Proclamation and Lee’s consequent retreat from Maryland bolstered his willingness to speak in definite terms about what outcome God favored. 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, p. 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. The public persona that Lincoln created for himself derived its meaning from the providential outcome his actions secured.

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, pp. 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. This utterance, coming at roughly the same time as his May 30 proclamation of a national fast day, hints at a divergence between Lincoln’s personal feelings and the redemptive narrative that Lincoln had established for the country. As we will see, it was such feelings of animosity in which many Northern Protestants indulged, and which jeopardized the role that Lincoln wanted to play within that narrative.

The Union victory at Gettysburg, 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, p. 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, however, 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, p. 332). By this time we can see a cycle developing, in which Lincoln released some of the anguish that had built up over the first two years of his presidency in private remarks or those delivered immediately after Union victories, only to return to his redemptive narrative when given time to reflect.

Lincoln further articulated his belief that God had a special purpose in mind for the United States in a Proclamation of Thanksgiving dated October 3, 1863, three months after the Union victory at Gettysburg. After lauding the social and economic resilience of the Union Lincoln wrote, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things” (Basler VI, p. 496). On September 4, 1864 Lincoln wrote again to Eliza P. Gurney, insisting that “[t]he purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance” (Basler VII, p. 535). “Erring mortals” notwithstanding, he continued, “[s]urely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.” This belief that God had brought on and then directed the Civil War for a specific purpose appears (almost verbatim) more than once in Lincoln’s correspondence and state papers. As it became increasingly apparent that the Union had the upper hand, Lincoln began to speak more assertively about what God’s purposes were for the United States after the war. In his October 3 Proclamation Lincoln continued, “the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy” (Basler VI, pp. 496-497). It is important to remember that Lincoln saw both components of this process—God’s anger and His mercy—as defining characteristics of his presidency and his role in American history. These two characteristics were mutually reinforcing, and Lincoln’s stature would be diminished if he failed to see to it that one followed the other.

For Lincoln repentance was a major feature—the major feature—of Christianity, one that had value for the Union as it moved toward Reconstruction. Repentance and its orthodox concomitant, mercy, pertained to future rather than past behavior, and therefore offered a basis for constructive action. In a letter to War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton dated February 5, 1864 Lincoln wrote, “[o]n principle I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong. It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it is enough if the man does no wrong hereafter” (Basler VII, p. 169). Lincoln felt that suffering had to have meaning. He was not interested in theological explanations for the Civil War that provided no basis for moving forward after its conclusion. Lincoln said as much in a letter to Stanton regarding the release of repentant Confederate prisoners of war. Referring to the government he wrote, “[i]t can properly have no motive of revenge, no purpose to punish merely for punishment’s sake” (Basler VII, p. 255). Lincoln’s primary concern in regards to Reconstruction was to “avoid planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society.” His theological instincts supported this goal.

Lincoln returned to the theme of his own powerlessness in remarks to the Baltimore Presbyterian Synod on October 24. According to the National Republican, after being presented to the delegates by Reverend Phineas Gurley (whose New York Avenue Presbyterian Church the Lincolns frequented during the war and who delivered the eulogy at Willie Lincoln’s funeral), Lincoln said, “I was early brought to a living reflection that nothing in my power whatever…would succeed without the direct assistance of the Almighty, but all must fail” (Basler VI, p. 535). This claim was not necessarily a humble one. As previously stated, it absolved Lincoln of blame for early Union defeats. Now, with the tide turning in the North’s favor after Lee’s expulsion from Pennsylvania, it vindicated the controversial decisions that Lincoln had taken. It gave him moral authority, of which privilege he might avail himself in magnanimously offering remission of sins to the conquered South. “I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am,” he said. “Nevertheless,” he continued, “amid the great difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing all would go well, and that He would decide for the right” (Basler VI, pp. 535-536). By declaring that battlefield successes proved that God favored the Union cause, Lincoln implied that God also favored his administration.

An April 4, 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Frankfurt Commonwealth, also suggests that a yearning for vindication as well as magnanimity informed Lincoln’s search for theological meaning during the Civil War. In language more or less identical to the Second Inaugural Lincoln declared:

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God (Basler VII, p. 282).

The differences between this passage and the Second Inaugural are mostly stylistic. By March of 1865 Lincoln would reformat the last sentence into biblical language borrowed from Psalm 19 (“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”). The message, however, is identical: God ordained both the course and the result of the Civil War. That Lincoln was to some extent responsible for the result entailed that God could “claim” him as an instrument of His will.

Indeed, responding to a “Petition of the Children of the United States” on April 5, 1864, Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Horace Mann, “Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask [viz. the emancipation and arming of all slaves, not just those slaves of rebellious states who had been theoretically freed by the Emancipation Proclamation], I trust they will remember that God has” (Basler VII, p. 287). Significantly, however, he added, “as it seems, He wills to do it.” Again echoing themes and cadences he would use in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln said to the Sanitary Fair at Baltimore on April 18:
When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to-day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected-how much needs not now to be recounted (Basler VII, 301).

“So true it is,” he continued, “that man proposes, and God disposes.” It is possible that such subtleties were meant to draw the president’s audience to the fact that he had played a role in “disposing” of the South’s peculiar institution. In the same address he said, “Upon a clear conviction of duty I resolved to turn that element of strength [viz. freed slaves] to account; and I am responsible for it to the American people, to the christian world, to history, and on my final account to God” (Basler VII, p. 302). If Union arms had fared less well, this statement may have been considered a modest avowal of responsibility. In retrospect and in context, though, it reads as a bold claim. The nation had proposed and Lincoln had disposed.

Lincoln reached his most theologically assertive point in a letter to a delegation of Baptists from Springfield, Massachusetts on May 30, 1864. Writing to George B. Ide, James R. Doolittle, and “A. Hubbell,” the president reiterated an argument grounded in biblical language that he used during the Douglas debates of 1858. Now, however, he was more explicit about whom he was attacking: “those professedly holy men of the South” (Basler VII, p. 368). Lincoln wrote:

Indeed it is difficult to conceive how it could be otherwise with any one professing christianity [sic], or even having ordinary perceptions of right and wrong. To read in the Bible, as the word of God himself, that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” and to preach therefrom that, “In the sweat of other mans [sic] faces shalt thou eat bread,” to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity…When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said “As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them” appealed to the christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils [sic] attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical. But let me forbear, remembering it is also written “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The biblical quotation that rounds out the last line (Matt. 7:1) is the only similarity between this passage and the Second Inaugural. It is the only aspect of the passage that does not stand in diametric opposition to the tone of reconciliation that Lincoln struck in the later speech. It identifies Southern theologians as partly responsible for bringing on the Civil War.

Lincoln shifted this responsibility farther away from radical Protestants of the Northern stripe when he declared in a speech at the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia on June 16, 1864, “We accepted this war; we did not begin it” (Basler VII, p. 395). Furthermore, the letter to the Springfield Baptists continues to associate the Southern cause with Satan. Indeed, Satan was “no more false, and far less hypocritical” than his Southern cohort. This is not a Lincoln bound by the political necessities of Reconstruction. It must have been a cathartic exercise for him. Reading again the president’s last letter to Gurney with a critical eye, it seems these theologians may have been the “mortals” who “made” the rebellion. Looking over the statements quoted above, particularly those from the Baltimore Sanitary Fair, we can say that there were breaches in Lincoln’s public narrative of national redemption and reconciliation. They occurred less frequently and less emphatically than they did in his personal correspondence.

Lincoln combined his civil and religious duties in a letter to James S. Wadsworth tentatively dated January, 1864. Asked by the general if a policy of universal amnesty to former Confederates would entail universal suffrage for freed blacks the president responded that he could see no other option, “regarding it as a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people” (Basler VII, p. 101). If he meant to place some of the burdens of his office onto God’s shoulders during the beginning of his presidency, this quote and Welles’s account of his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862 indicate that Lincoln held himself as well as the national cause accountable to God. It is therefore premature to take Lincoln’s varying tone of agnosticism and assertiveness regarding God’s purposes as evidence of insincerity.

Indeed, by any objective account Lincoln had every right to share responsibility for Union casualties. He did everything in his power to spare enlisted soldiers who had been condemned to execution for negligence or desertion. The vast majority of his correspondence with Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt consisted of commutations. In an “Endorsement Concerning Henry Andrews” Lincoln wrote that he “had ordered his punishment commuted to imprisonment for during the war at hard labor…not on any merit in the case, but because I am trying to evade the butchering business lately” (Basler VII, p. 111). This passage does betray what may have been a sense of guilt on Lincoln’s part. At the same time, it suggests that more soldiers may have died had military justice been rigidly enforced in lieu of Lincoln’s magnanimity. If Lincoln felt any remorse, he at least put it to good use.

However, the rift between Lincoln’s public narrative of the war’s significance and his more prosaic private interpretations persisted. 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.” 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.”

As we have seen, this tone of self-vindication recurred again and again during the last two years of the war after remaining dormant until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. After his reelection in early November of 1864, Lincoln addressed a crowd of serenaders who had gathered outside the Executive Mansion. At the conclusion of his brief address the president 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, p. 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 less impromptu 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, p. 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, pp. 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 pillory 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, p. 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 of 1864 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, p. 155).

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, p. 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 was reacting against this millennialism in his “Meditation.” By early 1865, he was prepared to make his own contribution to its propagation.

Ultimately, however, the narrative of national redemption that Lincoln had forged in his public speeches prevailed. 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, p. 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 seems to have felt the same way, with some modifications to Beecher’s tone. 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, p. 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. The next chapter will make clear the danger that Northern millennialism posed to this attempt, and with it Lincoln’s redemptive role in American history.


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