“Woe Unto the World Because of Offenses”: The Wartime Theology of Abraham Lincoln (Installment 3)

Chapter 3: Lincoln and Northern Millennialism

Following his refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms Luther withdrew to the Wartburg, a castle in the modern German state of Thuringia. There Frederick the Elector of Saxony, having obtained the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor, protected the rebellious priest from his persecutors at Rome. From his seclusion Luther heard that his followers in Wittenberg and Erfurt had turned to iconoclasm. In the former city, where Luther had lectured on the Psalms and the Pauline epistles, the monks disbanded their monasteries, took wives, and joined the students at the University in destroying sacred images. Erik Erikson said of this mob violence, “[h]ere, then, was initiated revolutionary Puritanism-that strange mixture of rebellious individualism, aesthetic asceticism, and cruel righteousness which came to characterize much of Protestantism.”

He may have been right. Though benevolent organizations such as the Sanitary Commission drew their inspiration from nineteenth-century American evangelism and Northern Democratic anxiety over more militant religious organizations, “cruel righteousness” defined Northern Protestantism during the American Civil War. Furthermore, it defined the rhetorical tradition that Phillip Shaw Paludan once referred to as “putting God in a Union uniform.” It was this tradition from which Lincoln’s theological development during the Civil War dramatically departed. The presence of “cruel righteousness” in the rhetoric and imagery of Northern Christianity threatened the narrative of national suffering and redemption that Lincoln had established leading up to and during his presidency. Such rhetoric also threatened his role within that narrative. Since he had overcome the identity crisis of his early adulthood by occupying that role, Northern millenarianism also jeopardized Lincoln’s sanity. This threat, more than any other factor, explains the magnanimity of his Second Inaugural address.

Edmund Wilson once noted, “the minds of nations at war are invariably dominated by myths, which turn the conflict into melodrama and make it possible for each side to feel that it is combating some form of evil.” “This vision of Judgment,” he continues, “was the myth of the North.” William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist whose Boston-based paper The Liberator achieved national renown during the 1830s, was told that the Constitution guaranteed the right to own slaves. He responded by calling the document “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” The expression comes from Isaiah 28:18. The King James Version of this verse reads, “And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not last. When the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be trampled.” Wilson sees the violent imagery contained in the passage as a manifestation of the apocalyptic fervor that would pervade the North during the war. Abolitionists were politically marginalized until the second half of the war; indeed, George M. Fredrickson has said, “for the most part [during the 1830s], the ministers of the mainstream denominations did not embrace the radical antislavery cause.” Nevertheless, the biblical militarism with which they went about their work came to characterize much of the North’s wartime rhetoric.

Lincoln shunned the gratuitous triumphalism that undergirded much militant Protestant rhetoric. His understanding of the Civil War’s religious significance was distinctive in that it was, above all else, progressive. He, too, came to see God’s presence in the suffering the nation endured from 1861 to 1865. However, he also believed the conflict was a national rather than a sectional expurgation of sin. Furthermore, he believed that expurgation of sin had to lead to some further end state that would bring the nation’s political practice into close alignment with the principles espoused by the Declaration of Independence. His Second Inaugural was composed around the idea that both North and South bore responsibility for the national sin of slavery, and that God had exacted punishment upon the United States through the suffering of the Civil War.

During the antebellum period many abolitionists (Garrison foremost among them) had predicted such a national reckoning would occur. The difference between Lincoln and Garrison is that Lincoln saw this chastisement as a corrective. The emphasis for him was not on the punishment itself. It was on the end that the punishment served: returning the nation to its moral and philosophical foundations. In part this view can be attributed to Lincoln’s fatalistic albeit harmonious view of the universe, to which he adhered in his 1846 handbill refuting charges of infidelity. In contrast to Old School Presbyterian theologians like Charles Hodge, “the ‘infidel’ writers whom the young Lincoln had so admired also spoke of providence, but instead used it to describe how natural processes worked generally to secure harmony and progress in the universe” (Guelzo, p. 318). Garrison simply foresaw divine punishment and looked no further.

In his introduction Guyatt says, “northerners—led by Abraham Lincoln—suggested that the abolition of slavery might purify the United States and allow the nation to resume its providential course.” The quote correctly accords Lincoln a prominent role in defining the Northern interpretation of God’s purposes in the Civil role, but it underplays the degree to which other prevalent interpretations differed from it. Lincoln viewed the nation’s suffering as an essential part of the triumph of a good cause, much as he did his own personal sacrifices during the winter of 1840-41 and his own political sacrifices after the 1858 election. Lincoln came to think of suffering as fundamental to growth. He reconciled himself to so much of it because his personal and political experience assured him that good would come of it.

By contrast, judicial providentialism, the anticipation of and enthusiasm for God’s apocalyptic judgment, had by the 1830s become a commonplace in Christian critiques of the American government. It was this tradition to which Garrison adhered with his references to the Book of Isaiah. Surprisingly, judicial providentialism came to prominence as a hermeneutic for radical Northern Protestants during debate over Indian removal rather than slavery. “This warming—that judicial providentialism would bring the United States to account for its treatments of nonwhites…was…one of the more radical northern arguments against Indian removal” (Guyatt, p. 200). When Jackson refused to enforce an 1832 Supreme Court decision that favored the Cherokees, Justice Joseph Story wrote his wife, “I fear, and greatly fear, that in the course of Providence there will be dealt to us a heavy retributive justice” (Guyatt, p. 201). The emphasis for such Protestant exegetes was on the retributive rather than the redemptive qualities of God’s justice.

Lincoln departed from this legacy in that he insisted God’s justice was not arbitrary or gratuitous. In one letter to Isaac Cogdal Lincoln wrote, “Punishment is parental in its object, aim and design, and intended for the good of the offender; hence it must cease when justice is satisfied” (Guelzo, p. 120). On the one hand, “Lincoln could not, even in allusions, tear himself free from the idea that God was a Judge who demanded the washing of tribulation and blood” (Guelzo, p. 193). On the other hand, “[h]e could not believe in ‘Eternal punishment as the christians [sic] say,’ because ‘his idea was punishment as Educational.’” It served the same purpose as pain in the human body–it called attention to things that were wrong. By contrast, “it was a judicial understanding of God’s will–the providentialism of wrath–which came to dominate the free black and white abolitionist response to racial injustice after 1830” (Guyatt, p. 206). “The chief promoter of this wrathful message was William Lloyd Garrison,” who seemed to dwell on wrath for its own sake. His rhetoric offered no suggestion for what was to be done after God’s wrath had been wrought. Wrath became an end in itself.

It is a mistake to attribute the religious militancy of Northern Protestant activists solely to Garrison. Abolitionism was inherently militaristic, and it derived its militancy from its Christian elements. “[The] movement arose,” writes Eric Foner, “as the joining of two impulses: black anticolonization and white evangelicism.” Abolitionists diverged from the “white-dominated, gradualist” groups linked to colonization. They were “immediatist, interracial, and committed to making the United States a biracial nation.” Awareness of abolitionism’s Christian ethos makes Joshua Speed’s comment regarding border state emancipation in September of 1861 seem more pointed. “You might as well attack the freedom of worship in the North,” Speed had said, “as to wage war in a slave state on such a principle” (Foner, p. 153). In effect, Speed was here comparing the slavery’s foothold in Border South society with Protestantism’s foothold in New England. In contrast to Border State slaveowners, many Northerners who did wage war on such a principle took great pride in worshipping freely in the North. Their freedom of worship, as we will see, was intimately related to their willingness to wage war on that principle.

Just as Garrison was not solely responsible for the militancy of antebellum abolitionism, so abolitionism was not solely responsible for Northern Protestant militancy during the Civil War. Antebellum political divisions that lay beyond the abolitionists’ control had much to do with the character that Northern Protestantism assumed during the conflict. Whigs relied upon the mobilization of moderate Protestants for electoral success. Guelzo writes, “unlike the Democrats,” whose political philosophy emphasized the separation of church and state, “the Republicans were built on a core of old Whiggery which had no reluctance about mixing religion and politics into a single national agenda” (Guelzo, p. 412).

The Whig remnant that would eventually incorporate itself into the Republican Party alongside nativists and Free Soilers clearly understood the political potency of religion. The New School Presbyterian General Assembly’s insistence that the war represented “the final theater” in which “the final problems of history” would be resolved “only underscored how easily Republican Protestants could weld religion and politics together into an expectation that the war would consecrate the United States ‘to Jehovah as a national Israel and servant of the Lord, fit for her Master’s use’” (Guelzo, p. 413). “[T]he Republicans,” Guelzo continues, “brought religion directly onto the public square, without inquiring whether its leaders possessed that piety in their private moments.” Indeed, the Sanitary Commission was founded by Northern Democrats anxious over the millennial fervor of the United States Christian Commission, which sent 5,000 ministers to march with Union soldiers and preach abolition. Both Whigs and Republicans mobilized Protestant zeal in political and then military contexts.

This broader trend of religious mobilization was reflected in the rhetoric of Northern exegetes. Garrison was not alone in his fixation on punishment. In a Brooklyn fast day sermon of 1861, Henry Ward Beecher said of Indian removal, “Either moral government over nations is apocryphal, or judgments are yet to be visited upon us for the wrongs done to the Indian” (Guyatt, p. 208). Harriet Beecher Stowe was an anomaly in that she, like Lincoln, explicitly included the North in this retributive scheme. Guyatt writes, “[i]n the final paragraph of the novel [i.e., Uncle Tom’s Cabin], Stowe offered a way of reconciling the Union around a shared assumption of providential responsibility: ‘Both North and South have been guilty before God,’ she maintained, an insight around which Lincoln would construct his second inaugural address” (Guyatt, p. 213).

Robert Winthrop stood at the opposite end of the providential spectrum from Stowe in that his prognostications of divine retribution expressed an explicitly sectional bias. Speaking of the two ships that brought the first Pilgrims and the first slaves to America (and, metaphorically, of the North and South, respectively), Winthrop said in 1839, “I see these two fate-freighted vessels, laboring under the divided destinies of the same Nation, and striving against the billows of the same sea, like the principles of good and evil advancing side by side on the same great ocean of human life” (Guyatt, 215).

These prognostications are separated chronologically from Lincoln’s wartime theological development. Whereas the authors quoted above had the luxury of speculating on what God’s wrath would look like, Lincoln had to deal with the actual fact of “God’s wrath” as it was manifested during the Civil War on battlefields such as Antietam and Gettysburg. Garrison, Stowe, and Winthrop did not have to worry about the consequences that God’s justice would have on the American Union. “The most militant abolitionists,” writes Guyatt, “tended to bolster their affirmations of the lofty spirit of the age, of the progressive course of American history, or of the benign intentions of providence with a simple restatement of the providentialsm of wrath: the United States would abolish slavery in the near future, or God would intervene directly to punish the nation–and perhaps to destroy it” (Guyatt, 232). The abolitionist conception of judicial providentialism and divine wrath, then, was not “progressive,” but potentially destructive. Such a conception would not do for Lincoln as he struggled to articulate a narrative of redemption that would reincorporate the South into an expurgated nation.

It would do, however, for many Northern combatants. Julia Ward Howe limned the North’s religious fervor with her Battle Hymn of the Republic. In John Brown’s Body, a popular soldiers’ ballad from which Howe took her lyrics, the abolitionist martyr is characterized as “a soldier in the army of the Lord” (Wilson, p. 92). In lending to the tune what Wilson calls “a more dignified set of words,” she, like Garrison, took her cue from Isaiah. Isaiah 63:3-4 reads: I have trodden the winepress alone…for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come. Ward borrows from the imagery of the Isaiah passage in her opening lines: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord./ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” “The advent of the Union armies,” Wilson comments, “represents…the coming of the Lord, and their cause is the cause of God’s truth” (Wilson, p. 94). At one point Ward prays that “the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel.” The Confederacy in this stanza is a serpent, an agent of Satan’s will in the world. It is the North’s duty to vanquish it.

As we saw in the previous chapter, Lincoln did occasionally speak of the South in this way in his private correspondence and the speeches he delivered on less notable occasions, particularly those given to groups of wounded soldiers. The challenge that Ward and those who thought like her presented was to the religious persona that Lincoln presented to the public, a distinctive creation of his personal and politial struggles. Ward’s use of the Holy Trinity intensifies the militaristic tone of her song. Jesus’ role in the Battle Hymn is interesting, for it is peripheral. When he does appear he does so with aggressive intent. “As he died to make [men] holy,” Ward enjoins us to “live to make them free.” Wilson sees in this verse a vestige of New England Calvinism, which had by the 1820s given way to more liberal strains of Christianity like Unitarianism. Jesus’ redemptive role is not as important as what God is telling us to do in the here and now: namely, enlist. “He is a militant, a military God,” says Wilson, “and far from wanting us to love our enemies He gives ‘the Hero’ orders to ‘crush the serpent with his heel’” (Wilson, p. 96). Jesus is relegated to “the beauty of the lilies,” born “across the sea.” His role as savior of mankind became relevant only after Lincoln’s assassination, when the late president was cast in an analogous role by those eager to capitalize on the fact that he was shot on Good Friday.

Henry Ward Beecher exulted in similarly militaristic tones when he was called upon to address a crowd of Unionists at Fort Sumter following its recapture in the spring of 1865. Though he was not as bashful about divining God’s will, Beecher seems to be making the same points Lincoln made in his Second Inaugural. His tone is simply more vindictive and triumphalist. He fixated on the retributive aspects of God’s role in American history, a hallmark of the judicial providentialism to which abolitionists like Garrison adhered. He refers to secession as the “grittiest and bloodiest rebellion in time.” He says that his audience has congregated “to rejoice that the hands of those who defend a just cause and beneficent government are mightier than the hands that assaulted it.” Gazing toward the “dilapidated” city of Charleston, he says he is “glad that God hath set such a mark upon treason that all ages shall dread and abhor it.”

It is important to remember that Ward did not promulgate this doctrine in an exegetical vacuum. Such rhetoric reflected the disposition of Ward’s audience, and of Howe’s. George M. Fredrickson has written: [r]ecognizing the extent to which ministers had to tailor their views to conform with those of their parishioners can serve as a useful check on interpretations that adopt a thoroughly “from-the-top-down” view of religious opinion on public issues, making it appear that ministers were completely autonomous agents rather than democratic leaders who were responsive to the views of their followers. Ward did pay lip service to reconciliation by observing, “We should be unworthy of that liberty entrusted to our care, if, on such a day as this, we sullied our hearts by feelings of aimless vengeance.” But he nullifies this by thanking “Him who hath said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.'” We can imagine (and have seen) Lincoln speaking in these terms to a private correspondent and small gatherings, but never to a national audience. The president’s more considered statements on the war’s significance uniformly eschewed retribution.

Properly considered, Lincoln’s theological leadership during the Civil War amounted to a moderation of the narrative the narrative of judicial providentialism that abolitionists had been developing since the 1830s. By the time of his reelection, writes Manisha Sinha, “Lincoln had come to share the abolitionist and African American view of the Civil War as a providential, apocalyptic event that would not only end slavery but redeem the American Republic and vindicate its founding principles.” After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s task was partly to moderate the abolitionist’s tone in a way that promoted national reconciliation without compromising the integrity of the abolitionists’ narrative.

The abolitionists had contributed an expurgatory element to the narrative Lincoln was promulgating before and during his presidency; it was left to him to describe the redemptive aspects of the upheaval he oversaw. The Second Inaugural is an eloquent, and largely successful, attempt to do just that. Lincoln was a conciliator by temperament. “In Lincoln,” writes Andrew Delbanco, “we encounter…a mind searching for transcendent meaning in the carnage and asserting that meaning for both sides.” Abolitionism’s zeal for redemptive justice gave meaning to the Civil War, but Lincoln could not allow the movement’s vindictiveness to overrun the cathartic, progressive meaning he had imparted to the conflict. North and South had suffered for the “national sin” of slavery. Further talk of exacting revenge upon the South was gratuitous. Lincoln’s relationship to the militant Protestantism that suffused abolitionism was, therefore, necessarily ambivalent.

Northern Protestantism writ large, alongside abolitionism, provided a retributive element to the religious rhetoric percolating throughout the nation before and during the war, largely because Northern divines seemed content simply to lambast the South. “What,” Fredrickson asks rhetorically, “are we to make of the apparent antislavery militancy of so many prominent northern clergymen during the crisis of the 1850s” (Fredrickson, p. 116). At one point he speculates, “[t]he sympathy of recent historians for the side that clergymen espoused in the debate over the expansion of slavery may have obscured the extent to which the clerical activism of the Civil War era concealed quasi-theocratic ambitions and threatened the Jeffersonian view of the relationship between church and state” (Fredrickson, 118). “The full dimensions of this threat would become apparent during the war itself.”

Fredrickson discerns in the rhetoric of Northern divines impulses there were more belligerent than humanitarian. He writes, “[a]nti-southern passions generated by the war and a new application of the law-and-order conservatism that had earlier engendered hostility to abolitionism were more conspicuous in clerical advocacy of wartime emancipation than humanitarian revulsion at human bondage” (Fredrickson, p. 119). Such “law-and-order conservatism,” fused with “clerical advocacy of wartime emancipation,” is evident in the rhetoric of Garrison, Ward, and Howe, but also in the rhetoric of less prominent Northern exegetes. The Congregationalist minister J.M. Sturtevant posited warfare as “the necessary corrective” to the “want of reverence for a strong government” (Fredrickson, p. 121). Horace Bushnell claimed, “[t]he war was demonstrating that the un-Christian political doctrines espoused by some of the Founding Fathers had bred secession, anarchy, and revolution.” At one point in 1862 Beecher even broached the topic of monarchism, arguing “large portions of this country cannot be governed by anything but a monarchy now, and there is danger that such will be the case with the entire nation…Whenever from any cause large portions of any community become barbarous, they necessitate monarchies.” He never said explicitly whether the portions he had in mind lay above or below the Mason-Dixon line.

“Patriotic euphoria,” argues Fredrickson, “had lessened their distrust of the nation’s secular leadership and had many of them to idealize the dominant political party” (Fredrickson, p. 124). Part of the explanation for this transition to a more assertive Christianity is denominational. The tone of Northern clergymen during the 1850s and 1860s had much to do with developments in America’s religious landscape during the early nineteenth century. By the early 1830s, Connecticut and Massachusetts had disestablished their Congregationalist churches. The lack of state support forced these denominations to compete with the Methodists and Baptists, whose profiles had risen immensely during the Second Great Awakening, for followers. This change in the church’s relationship to the state affected how the more established branches of New England Protestantism conveyed their message. Writes Fredrickson, “Recognizing that persuasion and not coercion was now the key to denominational success, Congregationalists and Presbyterians emulated some of the revivalistic methods pioneered by the Methodists and the Baptists” (Fredrickson, p. 113). “As a result,” he continues, “the mainstream of American Protestantism became aggressively evangelical.” The “non-Calvinist” churches, the Lutherans and Episcopalians foremost among them, were alone in their resistance to the new methods.

Though the causes of the renewed militancy of Northern Protestant rhetoric during the 1850s and 60s were new, the manifestation of Christian militancy in American oratory was not. Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death Speech” is replete with militaristic appeals to his audience’s Christianity. The speech, delivered to the Virginia legislature on March 23, 1775, came almost a month before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. His tone is foreboding. He invokes “the great responsibility which we hold to God” in his prefatory paragraph. Addressing those who would be more tactful towards Great Britain, Henry says, “Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?” The allusion, as most if not all of his auditors would have known, is to Mark 8:18, in which Jesus rebukes the Pharisees after they reprimand his disciples for eating leavened bread. Henry does not equivocate about whom good Christians should side with in the impending Revolution.

He becomes even less equivocal as the speech reaches its conclusion. Reviewing the British ministry’s preparations for war and concluding that “There is no longer any room for hope,” he insists that “An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!” Dr. L. Michael White has used passages from both Testaments to demonstrate how loaded the title “God of hosts” is. It evokes the tradition, popular in the Psalms of David, of appealing to God to annihilate one’s enemies. It was natural for Lincoln, whom Lord Charnwood called “a master of language and…a life-long peacemaker,” to shy away from such a phrase. Allen Guelzo recognizes as much when he writes, “politics aside Lincoln simply could find no comfort in the Radical temperament, which resembled nothing so much as the purism of New School moralists, demanding action where Lincoln was inclined to calculate necessity” (Guelzo, pp. 290).

Once he has made his appeal to the “God of hosts,” Henry goes on to sanctify the Revolution by framing it in terms of a crusade. Responding to concerns that Great Britain was “so formidable an adversary,” Henry declares, “we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power.” He even exhorts the Virginia legislature to support the “holy cause of liberty” by arming themselves. A suitable juxtaposition is Lincoln’s skepticism, expressed in the Second Inaugural, over anyone who would “ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”

Henry’s “just God,” like Lincoln’s, “presides over the destinies of nations.” Unlike Lincoln’s, however, He also “raise[s] up friends to fight our battles for us.” Lincoln never presumed to speak on behalf of God in public. Henry’s use of civil religion was not anomalous. At least some of the founders recognized the role that religion could play in forging a national identity, particularly during times of adversity, and viewed it as a necessary precondition of civil society.

James P. Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War analyses biblical rhetoric before and during the American Revolution. Two aspects of his analysis, both of which show the degree to which Lincoln departed from previous articulations of America’s civil religion, stand out. First, Byrd shows how American colonists of the prerevolutionary and revolutionary periods established a link between (Protestant) Christianity and republicanism. Guelzo has said of the “Old School” Presbyterian emphasis on virtue, “Every good liberal knew that republics were politically fragile and, unlike monarchies, depended for their existence on the virtue of their peoples. But the excesses of the French Revolution had demonstrated that the ethical formulas of Jefferson’s deism did not offer much protection from anarchy and the guillotine” (Guelzo, p. 16). There was a “need for a public theism as the basis for republican virtue.” Virtue, ran the thinking of men like John Adams, is essential to republicanism; the propagation of Christianity is essential to virtue; therefore all good republicans must practice Christianity. Guelzo expresses it this way: “new public order required virtue…virtue required belief in God…the Christian God was the most obvious nominee” (Guelzo, pp. 16-17). This syllogism is relevant to the study Lincoln’s religion because Lincoln did away with the second premise and the conclusion.

Secondly, Byrd shows how American Christianity and American biblical rhetoric of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were fundamentally militaristic. In making this argument he reaches farther back into America’s colonial history than his subtitle (The Bible and the American Revolution) might suggest, starting with King Philip’s War (1675), continuing through the wars between France and England for control of the eastern seaboard (1702-1763), and finally moving into a consideration of common usages of the Bible during the Revolution. Preachers always shouldered the burden of explaining the meaning of these conflicts to the general public, and they always put God in the camp of his “new Israel,” America. The argument I have been honing is that Lincoln departed from this tradition in a way that profoundly affected his statesmanship. He shouldered the burden of explaining the Civil War, and he did so using a religious idiom. But it was stripped of the standard American triumphalism and self-righteousness.

Nevertheless, Lincoln’s fatalism interacted with and responded to Calvinistic beliefs in America’s millennial significance. The Puritan conception of America as an instrument of God’s will persisted through the nineteenth century. According to Wilson, Harriet Beecher Stowe stripped Congregationalism of some of its doctrinal orthodoxy, but still claimed the stories contained in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia “made [her] feel the very ground [she] trod on to be consecrated by some special dealing of God’s providence” (Wilson, p. 8). This faith was inherently militaristic. Byrd talks about how during the Revolution it fulfilled a fundamental need of the modern nation state: it melded patriotism with religion and encouraged thousands of young men to enlist in the military. “The heroic element was strong in me,” said Stowe, “having come down by ordinary generation from a long line of Puritan ancestry, and just now it made me long to do something, I knew not what: to fight for my country, or to make some declaration on my account” (Wilson, p. 9).

Paul Tillich has said, “the cultural vocation of the United States was to realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, that the motive behind the American Dream and the American Way of Life…was primarily a religious one” (Wilson, p. 84). Wilson insists repeatedly, “this vision, brought over to New England by the Pilgrims and carried on by the New England divines, had blazed up against the twilight of the Calvinist faith, at the beginning of the Civil War.” The Calvinist strain in New England theology cultivated an image of God as a vengeful administrator of judgment. Dred, one the protagonists of Stowe’s wildly successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin whom she modeled after Nat Turner, “is made to embody the Old Testament spirit of righteous wrath which the professional preachers in the story are too crass or too prudent to imitate, and to prophesy the downfall of planter society.” Stowe confronted the Old School Presbyterian doctrine of predestination, and even converted to a much more moderate Episcopalianism, “yet her God was still a God of Justice rather than a God of Love.” The extent to which that conception of God had permeated the Union cause might be gauged by the heavy use of language and imagery from the Book of Isaiah in Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Like the Puritans, Lincoln, too, thought of himself as the agent of some higher purpose. At least, he styled himself after that fashion. Professor George Forgie and I have spoken about his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, in which he predicts some “towering genius” would seek to topple the accomplishments of the Founders. One wonders if he did not already see himself as a foil. New England clergy thought “that they might be chosen vessels, commissioned to bear the light of liberty and religion through all the earth and to bring in the great millennial day.” Lincoln certainly cast himself in an equally heroic role. Francis Grierson relates the story of a Methodist preacher describing “the Dominion of Christ” in a revival meeting that Lincoln and his friends attended. The preacher, Peter Akers, foresaw a civil war that would vanquish slavery. When Lincoln was asked what he thought of the sermon, he responded: “Gentlemen, you may think it strange, but when the preacher was describing the civil war, I distinctly saw myself, as in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife” (Wilson, p. 90). He then showed up late to his law office the following morning, looking disheveled. When Billy Herndon asked him what was the matter, Lincoln replied, “I am utterly unable to shake myself free from the conviction that I shall be involved in that terrible war.”

If this anecdote lacks the sort of authoritative proof that would satisfy Don E. Fehrenbacher, it does convey Lincoln’s belief in fatalism, that, as Hamlet would say, “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will.” There is an element of predestination about this doctrine, perhaps a remnant of Lincoln’s Hard Shell Baptist parents. Lincoln was, however, indubitably a religious skeptic in the sense that he was reluctant to take on faith the absolute truth of any creed to which those around him adhered by force of habit. “He was not a member of any church, and it is plain that in his earlier days, before he had become a great public figure, he has what was called a free-thinker,” well-read in the deist works of Paine and Volney (Wilson, p. 99).

William Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield law partner and one of his first biographers, tells us that during his early adulthood in New Salem Lincoln had been influenced by eighteenth-century skeptics like Voltaire. Allen C. Guelzo has noted, “geology had become a subject of particular intellectual anxiety in the Anglo-American world of the 1830s, especially after Sir Charles Lyell’s three-volume Principles of Geology (1830-1833) produced unsettling evidence from the record of fossils and erosion that the earth’s geology was the product of long-duration build-ups rather than the sudden creation or the catastrophic flooding described in the first book of the Bible” (Guelzo, p. 108). “Lyell’s conclusions,” writes Guelzo, “more than the scientific details of his geology text…may have piqued Lincoln’s religious skepticism.” Lincoln thoroughly read Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Natural History (1844), which applied Lyell’s geological theories to the development of organic life, thus becoming “an evolutionist of sorts…even before Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived in 1859.”

When Lincoln first ran for Congress against a Methodist preacher in 1846, he was forced to defend himself in print against a charge of infidelity. The handbill Lincoln published in his own defense takes no definitive stand on the tenets of Christian faith. Lincoln simply says, “I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.” No positive declaration about his faith in Jesus, or even in a personal God, appears. This is the religious disposition that characterized Lincoln during the first half of the Civil War, when the outcome was uncertain. His cautious language is important.

If Lincoln did not believe in orthodox Christianity, he understood that many of his constituents did. Like Henry, he was not above invoking God’s power over the nation’s political fortunes. Where he differed from his predecessor (and many of his contemporaries) was his refusal to associate God’s will with a particular side, at least in public. Indeed, as we have seen, Lincoln’s rhetorical insistence on theological neutrality created a rift between his public and his private religious personae. This rift was largely due to the methods Lincoln used in divining God’s purposes in the conflict he oversaw. Writes Ronald C. White, “Sometimes this reflection was done in private, as in his ‘Meditation on the Divine Will,’ written in the summer of 1862 after a crushing Union military defeat. Most often it was worked out in public addresses and comments.” His public pronouncements remained circumspect. His First Inaugural address, a legalistic argument against the constitutionality of secession, does contain a reference to “universal law” and its support of a perpetual Union. But in the same address he goes on to say, “If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.”

The latter statement is more representative of Lincoln’s pragmatic use of religion prior to 1861. In 1858 he was chosen by Illinois Republicans to run against Democrat Stephen Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Speaking in the state legislature to those who had appointed him, Lincoln used his famous “House Divided” line, lifted directly from Matthew 12:25, to explain the state of the Union. He had given the speech to Herndon, who tried to dissuade him from using what he thought was inflammatory language. Responding to Herndon’s concerns, Lincoln said: The proposition is indisputably true, and has been true for more than six thousand years. And I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language, that may strike home to the minds of men, in order to rouse them to the peril of the times. Lincoln, who had learned to write in the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible because of the limited access to books his impoverished childhood afforded him, saw his audience’s familiarity with biblical language as a rhetorical resource to be tapped.

Wilson insists, “he must now have deliberately adopted the practice of stating his faith in the Union and his conviction of his own mission in terms that would not be repugnant to the descendants of New England Puritans and to the evangelism characteristic of the time” (Wilson, p. 103). Wilson discusses how “history” as an inexorable and interdependent chain of events had assumed a religious aspect for Lincoln, referring to his annual address to Congress in December of 1862: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and of this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us.” But, Wilson adds, “he needed something more in keeping than this doctrine of historical necessity with the Scriptural religious conceptions of most of his fellow Americans.” He would find it in the Second Inaugural.

His response to Herndon and the “House Divided” speech itself might be construed as an attempt to place God firmly in the Northern camp. Before the soaring coda to his First Inaugural three years later, Lincoln would say, “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’” In the context of this speech, however, the reference seems to have been part of a larger attempt to play on Americans’ religious sensibility to avoid bloodshed. In addition to his conditional statement about the “Almighty Ruler of Nations,” Lincoln noted in the First Inaugural, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way possible all our present difficulty.”

As the conflict progressed, however, Lincoln relied more and more on religion as a way to understand what had happened to the country rather than as a convenient rhetorical device. “As the struggle continues undecided,” notes Wilson, “he becomes a good deal less sure that the moral issue is perfectly clear, that the Almighty Ruler of nations is committed to the side of the North.” In September of 1862, by which time he had decided to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote a short memo to himself in which he reflected on the course of the conflict up to that point. The battles of Shiloh and Antietam had dispelled any notion that the war would be swift and bloodless, and the Union defeat at Second Manassas stoked fears that the South might actually win its independence.

The document, which has since been called Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will” after his secretary John Hay removed it from his desk in the wake of his assassination and published it, portrays an intelligent and deeply introverted man trying to grapple with tremendous carnage, and his role in bringing that carnage about : The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purposes of either party-and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to affect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true-that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By His mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

Hay’s commentary on the “Meditation” also bears quoting at length: Mr. Lincoln admits us into the most secret recesses of his soul…Perplexed and afflicted beyond human help, by the disasters of war, the wrangling of parties, and the inexorable and constraining logic of his own mind, he shut out the world one day, and tried to put into words his double sense of responsibility to human duty and Divine Power; and this was the result. It show–as has been said in another plac–the awful sincerity of a perfectly honest soul trying to bring itself into closer Communion with its Maker.

In their introduction to Religion and the American Civil War Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson described the theological difference between Lincoln and his evangelical contemporaries (as well as the tradition exemplified in the rhetoric of Patrick Henry) in this way: Few public figures were so willing as Lincoln to confess that God had His own purposes that humans could not wholly divine. The conviction that God was on one’s own side provided the certainty that drove the northerners and southerners apart. The war tested that certainty, as it also forced northerners and southerners to rethink their relationship with God and knowledge of His plan. Lincoln was uniquely suited to guide this rethinking of America’s relationship with God.

This was partially due to his upbringing. Referring to a utopian colony established by Robert Owen in the vicinity of Thomas Lincoln’s Indiana farm, Geulzo has observed, “[Lincoln] certainly developed more in common with New Harmony’s religious skepticism than with his father’s religion; in fact, on no other point did Abraham Lincoln come closer to an outright repudiation of his father than on religion” (Guelzo, p. 36). His parents attended Little Mount Separate Baptist Church, “a congregation linked to one of a plethora of rigidly predestinarian Calvinist Baptist congregations scattered throughout central Kentucky and Tennesse.” “Although these churches and their county-based associations found enough differences among themselves to split into Separate, Regular, and even ‘Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit’ factions, they were all (according to James Ross) ‘staunch Predestinarians, and gloried in the doctrine they preached.”

Lincoln’s civil religion retained vestiges of the predestinarianism so prominent in these Calvinist churches without succumbing to their emotionalism. The religious idiom had always been there for Lincoln. “It was not really easy for Lincoln’s public to suspect him of a critical attitude towards the Scriptures,” says Wilson, “for the Bible was the book he knew best” (Wilson, p. 103). “He had it at his fingertips and quoted it more often than anything else.” Lord Charnwood, who understood Lincoln and the Civil War, relates this passage from Lincoln’s private correspondence: “[After his election in 1860] Lincoln indeed refused on several occasions to make any fresh public disclaimer of an intention to attack existing institutions. His views were ‘open to all who will read.’ ‘For the good men of the South,’ he writes privately, ‘-I regard the majority of them as such-I have no objection to repeat them seventy times seven…’” (Charnwood, p. 120, emphasis mine).

The expression comes from Genesis 4:24, in which Lamech speaks to his wives after killing a man. “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.” In addition to having been discussed by Jim Adams as an instance of “Old Testament justice” prior to the promulgation of the Decalogue, it also shows the degree to which biblical imagery and language had permeated Lincoln’s intellectual life. His political insight was to deploy this language in a way that facilitated reconciliation rather than retribution. This shift in Lincoln’s religious sensibility is reflected in the differences between his First and Second Inaugural addresses.

As has been previously noted, the First Inaugural was an historical and constitutional defense of the Union’s perpetuity. With the exception of his appeal to “every patriot grave across this broad land” (which was added only after consultation with Seward), the document runs to three printed pages of references to the nation’s founding and its development. He enlists the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in his defense. Lord Charnwood comments that: By Seward’s advice Lincoln added to an otherwise dry speech some concluding paragraphs of emotional appeal. The last sentence of the speech, which alone is much remembered, is Seward’s in the first conception of it, Seward’s in the slightly hackneyed phrase with which it ends, Lincoln’s alone in the touch of haunting beauty which is on it (Charnwood, p. 128).

The Second Inaugural, like the “Meditation,” is the work of a mind that had been driven into deep thought by four years of war. It runs to only one printed page. After some prefatory remarks that, quite in contrast to his First Inaugural, identified slavery as the cause of the conflict, he said of the North and the South: Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It 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, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” 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? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The distinctive feature of this address, writes Paludan, is its humility. In a sense Lincoln had traveled in a theological circle over the course of the war, beginning it in a state of uncertainty and ending it in a state of profound introspection. Says Paludan: The temptation when dealing with Lincoln is simply to focus on an analyze the substance and style of the Second Inaugural Address. But I believe Lincoln embodied the three goals that the prophet Micah says are necessary for someone to do what God requires: “Do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8).

The last of these is the most important for understanding Lincoln and the importance of his religious ideas in the Union war effort. Lincoln’s theological impulse towards modesty was not shared by all Northern commentators. A dispatch from the London Star reprinted in the New York Times April 2, 1865 calls the Second Inaugural “very remarkable” “from [sic] the manner in which he holds the slave interest as responsible for the war.” The piece likely alludes to the excerpt in which Lincoln declared, “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”

By fixating on this passage, the Times glosses over the reconciliatory tone of the address’s penultimate paragraph, which distills Lincoln’s understanding of the war’s meaning into a few sentences. Said Lincoln, “He [i.e. God] gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” The London Star dispatch overlooks this sentence, saying only, “the people of England…cannot but regard with warm admiration the tone in which the war is recognized as a judgment of God because of the offense of slavery.” Where Lincoln is explicit on who was responsible for that offense, the Star dispatch is mute. The tone is sanctimonious, not humble. It bears the exact relation to the South that self-righteous temperance activists bore to alcoholics during the first half of the nineteenth century, a relationship that Lincoln criticized in his 1844 address to the Washington Temperance Society.

Not all of the Times’ journalists indulged in triumphalism, though. A report concerning the arrival of mail packets in Canada, published May 30, 1865, said of the Second Inaugural, “This address appears to be intended to repress the more sanguine expectations of the Northern people.” This author had a much better understanding of what Lincoln was trying to accomplish with the speech. He wanted to mitigate the crusading impulse of Northern abolitionists and appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” The extent to which the narrative of the Civil War established in the Second Inaugural derived from Lincoln’s personal odyssey becomes evident in a eulogy delivered by Bishop Simpson at Lincoln’s Springfield funeral. Simpson begins by noting that the North did indeed have reasons to exact revenge on the South. Referring to the abysmal conditions of Confederate prison camps such as Andersonville, he said, “Then came a feeling to deepen sadness, as the story came of prisoners tortured to death or starved through the mandates of those who are called the representatives of chivalry.”

Lincoln, however, was not susceptible to this animosity. “His early life,” continued Simpson, “with its varied struggles joined him indissolubly to the weeping masses.” The ultimate effect was to vest “the deepest affections of our hearts…around some human form in which are incarnated the loving thoughts and ideas of the passing age.” Whereas some have said (surely, somewhat truthfully) that Lincoln’s reconciliatory image arose because he was spared the torment of Reconstruction, Simpson here provides an explanation for Lincoln’s magnanimity that derives from his intense personal suffering. The question of whether or not Lincoln believed in what he was saying in the Second Inaugural, and to what extent, is an interesting one. Wilson has this to say: If the need on Lincoln’s part, as a public man, to express himself in phrases congenial to his public may have had some part in inducing him to heighten and personify the formulas of his eighteenth-century deism, if it is true that as the war went on and gave rise to more and more disaffection, it became more and more to his interest to invoke the traditional Lord of Hosts, it is nevertheless quite clear that he himself came to see the conflict in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect. The vision had imposed itself (Wilson, p. 106).

He then imposed it on the United States. “The molding by Lincoln of American opinion,” says Wilson, “was a matter of style and imagination as well as of moral authority, of cogent argument and obstinate will” (Wilson, p. 123). What Wilson does not account for in this analysis is the centrality of Lincoln’s historical legacy to his psychological health. The role that Lincoln came to play between 1854 and 1865 fulfilled the “peculiar ambition” he had articulated in his first address to the voters of Sangamon county in 1832, to garner the esteem of other men and to render himself worthy of that esteem. It was the temporary eclipse of this ambition (and perhaps the prospect that Stephen Douglas, a suitor of Mary Todd’s, might fulfill it in his stead) that plunged Lincoln into an emotional abyss between 1840 and 1841. Any departure from the redemptive role Lincoln came to occupy, any gratuitous dalliance with retribution, would have compromised not just his legacy but also his psychological health.

Shelby Foote, a narrative historian of the war interviewed in Ken Burns’ documentary, has noted, “everything he did was calculated for effect.” Perhaps that is why Lincoln performed his role so effectively. Wilson argues, “the poetry of Lincoln has not all been out into his writings. It was acted out in his life” (Wilson, p. 122). The most chilling parts of his essay on the sixteenth president come when he discusses Lincoln’s recurrent premonitions of his own assassination. Lincoln would often relate these to his friends and family. The recent Spielberg biopic opens with one of them, Lincoln’s recurring dream of traveling on a boat towards some indiscernible shore at an incredible rate. The day before his assassination he is reported to have told his cabinet of a dream in which he followed a frantic crowd into the East Room of the White House to look upon his own corpse (it should be noted that the authenticity of the anecdotes related in this passage, though characteristic of the impressions Lincoln left on his contemporaries, have been challenged by Don E. Fehrenbacher).

All of this should be read as dramatic scaffolding. Before and during his presidency, Lincoln created a narrative about the Civil War and about himself, one in which the war accomplished some higher purpose that featured him in a redemptive role. He adhered to the narrative fiercely, and would not have it upstaged by Northern triumphalism. “What strikes the modern reader,” Ronald C. White has written, “is not that Lincoln was sure he knew the will of what he called a ‘living God,’ but rather that he was continually wrestling, often out loud and in public, with the meaning and manner of a God whom he became increasingly certain acted in history.” Lincoln’s theology was intensely self-critical. “Lincoln,” continues White, “was much less assured about God blessing America. He was continually striving to discern exactly how God was dealing, in both judgment and redemption, with the United States.” For Lincoln, his role in God’s plans for the United States had become an issue of life or death. Therefore his theological ruminations were more rigorous than any other president’s before or since. We may attribute this in part to the magnitude of the crisis over which Lincoln presided. More important, however, was the peculiar relation that Lincoln’s role as an agent of God’s will in American history bore to his psychological struggles.

The most prudent commentary on Lincoln’s religion may have come from his close friend David Davis. Asked by Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon about the president’s religion, Davis replied, “I don’t Know anything about Lincoln’s Religion…don’t think anybody Knew. The idea that Lincoln talked to a stranger about his religion or religious views…is absurd to me…I Know the man so well: he was the most reticent-Secretive man I Ever Saw-or Expect to See” (Carwardine, p.224). In religion, as in politics, Lincoln seems to have thrived on ambiguity. He created and to a remarkable degree inhabited a religious persona that cast him in the role of Jesus, one who suffered for the redemption of others. But we are limited in what we can say about his theology, by his own reticence as much as the paucity and reliability of our primary sources.

What can be said with some certainty is that Lincoln was a man for whom questions of morality were of cardinal significance. Though “he warmed to Robert Burns’s poetry, including his satire on Calvinist self-righteousness,” writes Carwardine, “Lincoln’s immersion in the scriptures-alongside his keen appetite for Shakespearean soliloquies with anxious self-examination and moral wrestling-points to a man for whom profound private reflection on ethical matters was an essential part of his being” (Carwardine, p. 227). When Orville Browning suggested Lincoln emancipate the slaves in the wake of Lincoln’s post-Bull Run proclamation for a national day of fasting and prayer the president replied, “Browning, suppose God is against us in our view on the subject of slavery in this country, and our method of dealing with it” (Carwardine, p. 230). This response, reminiscent of his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” impressed Browning and indicated to him “that [Lincoln] was thinking deeply of what a higher power than man sought to bring about by the great events then transpiring.”


I have in this thesis attempted to answer two questions: (1) How were Abraham Lincoln’s emotional and psychological struggles in early adulthood related to his theological development during the Civil War? and (2) In what ways did the militancy of Northern Protestantism jeopardize Lincoln’s recovery from those struggles?

My argument is that he relied upon his role within a narrative of national suffering and redemption to weather personal and political disappointment. This explains his buoyancy after his loss to Stephen Douglas in 1858, which is made more notable by the contrasting note of despair Lincoln struck in his correspondence with John Stuart during the winter of 1840-41. In January of 1841, Lincoln had no narrative to promulgate that would explain the suffering through which he was passing and no dramatic role to which he could cling, hence his morose speculation about his own demise. However, the wedge he created between Northern and Southern Democrats in the election of 1858 created an opportunity for the Republicans to win the presidency in 1860, allowing Lincoln to believe—before he ever knew he would be the Republican’s candidate—that he had “struck a blow that would tell” for the antislavery cause.

After he ascended to the presidency, the narrative Lincoln established took on a more overtly religious tone. His “Meditation on the Divine Will,” his correspondence with Eliza P. Gurley, and his Second Inaugural are evidence that the vast loss of human life the nation incurred on Civil War battlefields and the personal tragedy Lincoln encountered in the death of his son Willie directed his attention to the war’s religious significance. He subsumed his personal suffering, atonement, and redemption into an identical process that would encompass the entire nation. Just as he relied upon his own suffering in January of 1841 to understand, describe, and alleviate the marital anxiety of his friend Joshua Speed, in a like manner he would use his own experiences to describe to the nation the significance of the suffering through which it had passed in a transcendent idiom. This enterprise was fundamentally progressive. It was oriented toward national healing, just as Lincoln’s suffering from 1840-41 was oriented toward personal healing.

The rhetoric of Northern Protestants jeopardized this narrative of redemption, so critical to Lincoln’s conception of his own role in American history and—by implication—his recovery from psychological trauma. I have illustrated the extent to which a vindictive Christianity reminiscent of New England’s Calvinist heritage reemerged during the Civil War as a major feature of Northern society. The mentality of Ward, Beecher, Howe, and their peers could not, in Lincoln’s mind, come to define the Civil War’s religious significance. Suffering had to have meaning. His Second Inaugural was an attempt to imbue the carnage of Civil War with a meaning that would move the nation toward reconciliation rather than fixation on gratuitous punishment.

As we have seen, this was as much a psychological as a political imperative for Lincoln.


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