Lincoln and Divine Providence
As the Civil War
struggled to an end,
called upon his faith
to offer Americans
a new understanding
of judgment and
ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS was delivered on March 4, 1865, to a nation convulsed in the
dying gasps of the Civil War. To the surprise of his audience, in
only 701 words, Lincoln mentioned God 14 times, quoted
Scripture four times, and invoked prayer three times. The point,
however, is not to add up the words, but to appreciate the meaning
of Lincoln’s language of faith — for his time and for ours.
| “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
Second Inaugural Address
March 4, 1865
There is a presence of an absence in many of the standard
Lincoln biographies. The lack of attention to Lincoln’s faith has
led most biographers to believe that there is not much to his religious
beliefs. After all, is not Lincoln the president who never
joined a church? Nearly all of his modern biographers have
called him a “fatalist.” Abraham Lincoln is continually esteemed
by ordinary Americans as our greatest president, but that regard
does not usually extend to an appreciation of Lincoln’s engagement
with a “Living God” who acts in history.
Some have suggested that Lincoln’s religious language
in the Second Inaugural was merely the
shrewd effort of a master orator who understood
well the religious sensibilities of his audience.
I call the Second Inaugural Address Lincoln’s
“Sermon on the Mount.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus
offered a new ethic rooted in humility and compassion: “blessed are
those” who do not follow the way of the world — judgment — but
follow the new way of grace and mercy. In the Second Inaugural,
Lincoln offered a surprising ethic of judgment and reconciliation.
Lincoln considered this brief address his finest speech — “better than anything I have produced” is what he told Republican
leader Thurlow Weed. In 41 days, Lincoln would be dead.
As people looked back to that brisk March day, Lincoln’s words
were understood as his last will and testament to the American
people. But it is the religious cast of the Second Inaugural
that gave it a power and authority singular in American
For those who wish to be Christ’s disciples in the public
places of our lives, what can we learn from Abraham Lincoln?
I believe that Lincoln can become a guide, not in offering specific
answers to 21st-century conflicts, but rather in offering us a
model of engagement with our culture that grows from his own
deep biblical and theological thinking.
First, Lincoln consistently employed inclusive language and
ideas. He used the word “all” to be inclusive about the North’s and
South’s responsibility for the war: “All dreaded it — all sought to
avert it.” He used the inclusive word “both” to affirm the religious
sensibilities of Union and Confederate soldiers: “Both read the
same Bible, and pray to the same God.”
Lincoln was already thinking in the future
tense. His desire was to restore the South fully
to the Union, but he knew this could not happen if
the South alone bore the blame and the shame
for the conflict. Most in the audience that day,
many of whom had lost a father, husband, brother, or son, would
have cheered if Lincoln had demonized the enemy. He chose not
to do so. Rather, he credited the enemy or opponent with the
best intentions. This spirit of respect is the best way in any age to
foster reconciliation through open and healing conversation.
Second, Lincoln grounded his engagement in biblical language
and ideas. When Lincoln introduced the Bible into the
Second Inaugural, we entered new territory in inaugural
addresses. I first approached the speech while teaching at UCLA, and I was told by several academic colleagues that I
should not read too much into Lincoln’s use of biblical language.
This, they said, is what all presidents did in the 19th century —
and continue to do in the 21st century.
These colleagues were half right. Yes, all presidents before
Lincoln did invoke God or a supreme deity in their inaugural
addresses. They did so always in the very last paragraph, what I
call “and we need God’s help, too.”
What surprised me was that before Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,
the Bible had been quoted only one time in inaugural
addresses. I believe that Lincoln’s introduction of the Bible signaled
to his audience that he intended to think theologically as
well as politically about the meaning of the war. In the grand
central paragraph of his address, Lincoln would quote the Bible
four times, twice from the Old Testament and twice from the
New Testament. The Bible is not window dressing, but is at the
heart of his argument about the direct connections of faith and
politics. Lincoln may not have joined a church, but he was joined
at the hip to the Bible, having committed many portions to
memory from the time of his youth.
Third, the central affirmation in Lincoln’s model of cultural
engagement — “The Almighty has his own purposes” — became
the architectural and theological center of the Second Inaugural
Address. After describing the actors in the war, including the
soldiers, the generals, and himself as commander in chief, Lincoln
announces that God is the central actor in the Civil War.
How far Lincoln had come in his faith journey. As a young
boy in Indiana, he would stand on a tree stump and mimic the
emotional preaching he heard from local pastors and traveling
evangelists. As a young man in his 20s in New Salem, he read
many critics of Christianity and became a fatalist. The popular
expression of fatalism was that whatever happens is bound to
happen. Fatalism fit well with the deism of the early 19th century that
denied the involvement of God in the affairs of history.
Lincoln biographers have used fatalism to define Lincoln’s
religion, but this understanding misses the mark, because Lincoln’s
religious beliefs developed and matured over time. The
mistake biographers have made is equating fatalism and providence.
Nineteenth-century writers would not have made that
judgment. In 1859, Episcopalian Francis Wharton wrote A
Treatise on Theism and the Modern Skeptical Theories, in which
he characterized fatalism as “a distinct scheme of unbelief.” The
two constellations of ideas had different origins and different
outcomes. For Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, the recognition
of the loving personality of God was the key to the distinction
between fatalism and providence.
The missing person in biographers’ assessments of Lincoln’s
developing faith is Phineas Densmore Gurley, pastor at the New
York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. I have
been able to place Lincoln in a number of settings where we have
the full texts of Gurley’s sermons. A student of Hodge, Gurley
was an Old School Presbyterian minister who delighted in preaching
on “biblical providence.”
Within the first year of the Civil War, Lincoln’s third son,
Willie, fell ill with typhoid fever and died in February 1862. Of
Lincoln’s four sons, Willie was most like his father, in both looks
and character. Lincoln was overcome with grief, and in his sorrow
had several conversations with Gurley. On February 24,
Gurley presided at a funeral service for Willie at the White
House. He centered his sermon on what he saw as ultimately
“very comforting,” namely “to get a clear and a scriptural view of
the providence of God.”
The Second Inaugural is all about a clear and scriptural view
of the providence of God. This providence, as the basis of Lincoln’s
public theology, involves both judgment and reconciliation.
Though praising the unfathomable intentions of God in his
Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln did not retreat to agnosticism
about the specific content of those purposes. In his brooding,
he discerned that the purposes of God can also bring judgment.
He focuses that judgment by invoking a fiery biblical passage:
“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!” (Matthew 18:7). For Lincoln, what was there and then
in the Bible had become here and now in “American slavery.”
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those
offenses,” Lincoln said, employing the sanction of Scripture in
his indictment of slavery and ultimately his formal charge
against the American people. Lincoln did not say “Southern slavery.”
By saying “American slavery,” Lincoln asserts that North and
South must together — inclusively — own the offense.
Frederick Douglass, the great African-American writer and
orator, was in the crowd that day. He wrote in his diary that evening,
“The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”
In Protestant sermons, pairing the indicative and imperative
is a familiar rhetorical structure the audience or congregation
comes to expect. In the Presbyterian sermons that Lincoln
would have heard, the preacher would have spent the first three
quarters of the sermon reciting a grand indicative. The indicative
was about what God had done. A first indicative was that God
had brought the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt. The
Puritans used this indicative to understand themselves as God’s
new Israel. A second indicative was that God had wrought deliverance
from the captivity of sin through the life, death, and resurrection
of Jesus Christ.
In the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln’s grand indicative
was that God had been present in the midst of the Civil War.
God’s providence is the prism through which Lincoln refracted
the meaning of the war, pointing beyond himself to God as the
primary actor. An indicative usually included both grace and
judgment. “American slavery” was the offense that was the basis
for judgment. The grace or good news was that “the Almighty
has his own purposes.” This “Living God” was bringing about
renewal through the purification of human purposes. For Lincoln,
in the intersection of his politics and theology, grace and
judgment were never far from each other.
The imperative in a sermon is the response to the indicative.
This is where the pastor says, “Now, in the coming week … .”
If Lincoln’s final imperative is ethical in content, it is pastoral in
tone: “With malice toward none, with charity for all … .” Lincoln
located this imperative after the indicative because he knew that
what he was about to ask may have been too much for those
who had encountered such great losses.
A congregation, knowing that the minister was coming to the
end of a sermon, expected to hear not platitudes but the practical
imperatives they were to do. In Lincoln’s sermon, he asked
them “to bind up,” “to care for.” He was quite specific about the
objects of ethical duty: “him who shall have borne the battle, and
for his widow, and his orphan.”
The Lincoln that is available to us comes with no simple
answers, yet he is present to us in his own agonizing struggle for
justice and reconciliation. He encourages us to ask difficult questions
as we accept responsibility for defining America in our time.
Lincoln wrote for all times. As the Civil War drew to a close,
he offered his sermon as the prism through which he himself
strained to see the light of God. The refractions from that prism
point forward, both to judgment and to hope.
— BY RONALD C. WHITE JR., AUTHOR OF THE ELOQUENT PRESIDENT
—Image courtesy of Getty Images
To read the full text ofAbraham Lincoln's Second Inaugral Address, click here.
Ronald C. White Jr. is the author and editor of seven books on American
intellectual, religious, and social history, including Lincoln’s Greatest
Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and
Schuster, 2002) and The Eloquent President:
A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (Random House, 2005). A professor emeritus of
American religious history at San Francisco Theological
Seminary and current Fellow at the Huntington
Library in San Marino, California, he has
lectured on Lincoln at the White House. White’s
biography of Lincoln will be published in January 2009. “I have enormous
respect for what Ron is accomplishing with his writing,” says
SPU President Philip Eaton, a former colleague and longtime friend.
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