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Summer 2006 | Volume 29, Number 3 | Features

Lincoln and Divine Providence

As the Civil War struggled to an end, Abraham Lincoln called upon his faith to offer Americans a new understanding of judgment and reconciliation

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.”
Abraham Lincoln 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 public address.

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.


—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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