Lincoln’s Civil Religion

by George C. Rable

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865. (GLC06044)His long-time law partner William Herndon once described Abraham Lincoln as “the most shut-mouthed man who ever lived.” That phrase wonderfully captured an important characteristic of a politician who had surprisingly few friends and who seldom confided his innermost thoughts to anyone. This was especially true of his thoughts on religion. “I don’t know anything about Lincoln’s religion,” one political crony admitted. “Nor do I think anybody else knows about it.” Lincoln’s direct comments on the subject, reliable accounts from contemporaries, and the much more doubtful statements made by people after his death can all be read in an hour or two.

Despite the thinness of the primary evidence, much has been written about Lincoln’s religious faith (or absence of faith) and its connection to American nationalism and the Civil War. Commentators and historians have described Lincoln as everything from a lifelong skeptic to an orthodox Christian, though the best scholars have admitted that the core of his religious beliefs will always remain something of a mystery.

The subject has proved elusive in part because Lincoln’s own views evolved in subtle and complex ways. In the most general sense, Lincoln often cut against the grain of his own time. Exposed to a fervid frontier evangelism in Kentucky and Indiana, young Lincoln could imitate the preachers’ sermons but never quite embrace their dogmas. Raised in a family of Baptists, Lincoln nevertheless read works by Thomas Paine and other skeptics but never exactly espoused their ideas either. He came to believe in what he termed the “doctrine of necessity,” a kind of fatalistic philosophy that may have eventually made him receptive to the preaching of a couple of Old School Presbyterian ministers. Accused by various political opponents of being a deist at best and an atheist at worst, Lincoln once had to issue a handbill denying that he was a religious skeptic. But the oblique and at times contradictory statements in this document did nothing to end the controversy over Lincoln’s religion, then or later. It seems almost as if Lincoln were determined to prevent his contemporaries and later generations from categorizing or even discerning his beliefs.

Early on, Lincoln developed a deep familiarity with and apparent affection for the Bible, but he was never a Biblical literalist, especially on such matters as heaven and hell. He once remarked that he would join a church that simply preached the great commandment of love for God and love for neighbor, but of course all the churches insisted on far more. Lincoln had little time or patience for their creeds and disputes, though it was hardly for lack of interest. At a time when many Americans embraced particular religious beliefs with an inflexible certitude, Lincoln remained both sympathetic and detached, with an ironic awareness of difficulties and contradictions. In his famous address on temperance, the teetotaler Lincoln showed great compassion toward those battling with alcohol, even as he twitted reformers for self-righteousness.

The troubles of Lincoln’s life, from the disappointment of young love to a sometimes stormy marriage to the deaths of children, likely made him increasingly receptive to Christian teachings. After his son Edward’s death in 1850, Lincoln turned to James Smith, an Old School Presbyterian minister who preached the funeral sermon and who had written a massive work on Christian apologetics. Mary Lincoln joined Smith’s First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, and the couple attended services there. Lincoln’s attendance, however, was rather irregular—and he would not join this church or any church, then or ever. Some historians have considered this extraordinary because Lincoln lived during an intensely evangelical era, but given the prevailing high standards for church membership, it was quite common for people to worship on Sunday without joining a church.

Perhaps Lincoln still had too many doubts and questions. Yet he continued to ponder religious matters and to explore the relationship between God’s world and public morality. By the 1850s, Biblical cadences and references to Scripture were becoming more frequent in Lincoln’s speeches, especially when he discussed slavery. As he increasingly invoked Jefferson’s famous phrase about all men being “created equal,” he also emphasized that a Creator had made human beings in His own image. And this God hated injustice and slavery, leading Lincoln to express a withering contempt for ministers who would cite Scripture to justify enslaving their fellow men.

Lincoln’s relations with the clergy were always ambivalent and often carried a bit of an edge. Apparently most of the local ministers in Springfield, Illinois, voted against Lincoln in 1860, but when he departed on his circuitous journey to Washington, he pointedly and publicly asked friends and neighbors to pray for him. In Washington, the Lincolns attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, whose minister, Phineas Gurley, avoided politics in the pulpit and shared Reverend Smith’s conservative Calvinism. President Lincoln appreciated the strong support that northern churches offered for the Union war effort but grew impatient with delegations of clerics who lectured him about God’s will. When one preacher remarked that he hoped “the Lord was on our side,” Lincoln reportedly said that he did not know about that. “The Lord is always on the side of the right,” the President allowed. “But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

It was easy to dismiss such clerical busybodies as annoying but harmless. Yet Lincoln soon experienced a deep personal need for the solace of faith and the reassuring words of a minister. When the Lincolns lost a second son, Willie, on February 20, 1862, Mary was inconsolable and the President nearly so. He met several times with the Reverend Gurley. Like so many people who lost young men during the Civil War, perhaps Lincoln found comfort in the thought of his son in heaven. Indeed, it is hard to separate Lincoln’s anguish over his personal loss from his anguish over the nation’s suffering. However Lincoln managed to deal with his son’s death, afterward he made even more public references to God and especially agonized over the inscrutability of the divine will.

The distance from a youthful fatalism to a more mature contemplation of providence proved to be not that great after all. As Lincoln traveled that distance, he increasingly tried to discern the Almighty’s purposes not so much for himself or for his family as for his nation. The President at times seemed to see himself as a humble instrument in God’s hands, a man more buffeted by the war and a leader less in control of events than either his friends or enemies imagined. Lincoln could never simply and unequivocally identify the Union cause with God’s will, as so many preachers did, because for him divine providence remained largely mysterious. His faith in the Lord’s purposes did not include any millennial expectations of an American nation purged of sin. To Lincoln, his fellow citizens were not a chosen people but an “almost-chosen” people.

It was therefore not surprising that Lincoln moved slowly on the slavery question. The President had reached political maturity as a Whig with a conservative reverence for both the Union and the Constitution and did not share the moral certitudes of the abolitionists or other reformers. His evolving ideas on religion also separated him from the more zealous and self-righteous members of his own party. At a low point in Union’s war effort during the early fall of 1862, Lincoln pondered the relationship between God’s providence and human purpose in a brief “Meditation on the Divine Will.” In only six sentences Lincoln distilled his thinking on the war’s ultimate meaning. “The will of God prevails,” Lincoln maintained. Both sides claimed to be fighting on God’s side, but “in the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Lord perhaps worked his will through “human instrumentalities,” but for whatever reason the war continued. Such thoughts could have potentially immobilized Lincoln and, compounded by his periodic fits of depression, could have made him helplessly passive.

Yet Lincoln had acknowledged the role of “human instrumentalities” and emerged from this meditative exercise with a growing conviction that somehow God now willed the death of slavery. Suddenly his path seemed clearer because emancipation had become absolutely necessary if the nation was to escape from the Almighty’s righteous judgment against such an evil. Lincoln told his Cabinet that he had made a vow to God to strike a blow against slavery, though in this case military and political justifications nicely aligned with what Lincoln described as his promise to the Almighty. In the spring of 1864, more than a year after he had issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, the President would claim that he could not remember a time in his life when he had not considered slavery a great moral wrong. But he added an interesting caveat:

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.

Of course religious leaders, North and South, and much of the laity still maintained that God favored their side, even though the Lord might use each to chastise the other for their sins.

Many ministers continued to calculate punishments and rewards as if they could clearly discern God’s purpose in all the suffering and bloodshed. Lincoln too believed in a world governed by moral principles and divine justice, but doubted that human beings could ever understand its operations except in the dimmest of lights. To Eliza Gurney, Lincoln expressed a kind and patient understanding for the dilemmas faced by her fellow Quakers “opposed to both war and oppression” when “they can only practically oppose oppression by war.” The President told her that despite his own position of power and responsibility, he was but “a humble instrument in the hands of my heavenly Father.” He would always try to seek and carry out God’s will “with the light which he affords me,” and should he fail it must be because God had willed the failure:

If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it.

Lincoln had arrived at a position that would have been more or less acceptable to many orthodox Christians and Jews, but both the humility and uncertainty of these statements could not fully satisfy people seeking assurance that all of the nation’s suffering and the agony of families had served some understandable and unalloyed purpose. Yet Lincoln had often been out of step with the religious thinking of many believers, and in the hour of Union victory, he remained so. By the time of the second inauguration on March 4, 1865, the recent successes of Union arms and Lincoln’s own re-election meant that the war’s end was in sight. The large crowd that gathered to hear the Second Inaugural Address and the many more who would later read it likely expected a triumphal speech celebrating the virtues of the winning side, but once again Lincoln cut against the grain of public expectations and popular theology.

Lincoln barely mentioned “the progress of our arms, upon which all else depends,” noting that the news must be “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” No review of recent victories, no praise for—or even defense of—his administration’s policies. He closed the first paragraph of the Inaugural on a surprising and equivocal note: “With hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”

Surely the coming Union victory represented a triumph of righteousness to many Northerners. Lincoln, however, described a conflict that, though “somehow” caused by slavery, was really no one’s responsibility. Rather than excoriating the secessionists as traitors, as so many orators had done for the last four years, Lincoln merely claimed that “both parties deprecated war” and then added that eloquent and mystifying sentence: “And the war came.”

Who had in fact brought about all the subsequent carnage, Lincoln did not say. Who could end the war and how it could end, he did not say. A few weeks later, after the news of Richmond’s fall had reached Washington, DC, the Capitol was brightly illuminated. A gas-lit transparency emblazoned a message that cut through both the physical and spiritual darkness: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” And many Northerners would then add that a wrathful God had at last struck down the evil rebellion, but for now, Lincoln offered his fellow citizens a much more complex and disturbing message. “Both [parties] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” The Confederates called for the Almighty to sustain their slaveholding republic, as Lincoln clearly acknowledged, and he pointed out the obvious moral perversity of such a prayer. Yet—and here his thinking surely ran contrary to that of many Northerners—Lincoln still warned: “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”

Human beings had ignored that admonition for nearly two millennia, but the President would let no one off the hook. “The prayers of both [parties] could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.” He conceded precious little ground to those who would simply declare the approaching Union victory a righteous triumph. Throughout the war many preachers and countless others might have agreed with Lincoln’s next statement, “The Almighty has His own purpose,” but they had seldom dwelt upon or thought deeply about what to most people is both a difficult and unpalatable idea. The President wondered if the war might continue “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Even with such a butcher’s bill, Lincoln would still affirm in the words of Psalm 19: “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

This last statement hardly left human beings as helpless victims in a great metaphysical drama, at least as far as Lincoln was concerned. The inaugural address did not rally the Northern people to carry the war to a successful conclusion, but instead urged them to show mercy toward a defeated enemy and at the same time to finish the work. Lincoln called on his fellow Americans to “bind up the nation’s wounds” without specifying exactly how that was to be done. For nearly two years, the President and Congress had sometimes disagreed over the goals and methods of Reconstruction, and even now Lincoln laid down no blueprint for the future. The heart of his address had instead presented another brief meditation on the connections between slavery, the war, and divine purpose, though Lincoln had not exactly unraveled that mysterious relationship. He left much unsaid, and that is not surprising for a political leader who had developed a sophisticated civil religion that was a product of its time, for sure, but that was also timeless.

Lincoln was speaking to a people with little appetite for the paradoxes or the ironies that he himself often noticed. Less than two week later, in replying to a letter praising his speech from veteran New York politico Thurlow Weed, the President himself offered the best assessment of the Second Inaugural:

I expect [it] to wear as well as—perhaps better than—any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that 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.

In both the short term and the long term, Lincoln was right. Frederick Douglass considered Lincoln’s speech a “sacred effort,” though one can imagine Lincoln responding that it had been a “half-sacred” effort directed at an “almost-chosen” people. Only a few weeks later he would be dead from an assassin’s bullet, and his clerical eulogists would demonstrate how little they had learned from the Second Inaugural. Even in his own death, Lincoln might have detected the inscrutable ways of divine providence.

George C. Rable holds the Charles G. Summersell Chair in Southern History at the University of Alabama and has written God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (2010) as well as Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (2002) and The Confederate Republic: A Revolution against Politics (1994).

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