“I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families — second families, perhaps I should say. My mother … died in my tenth year …. My father … grew up, litterally without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals, still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond ‘readin, writin, and cipherin’ to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.”
Raised in an evangelical Baptist, abolitionist family, Abraham Lincoln arrived on the national scene some 250 years after the introduction of African slaves into the American colonies. His religiously imbued, nuanced understanding of human equality, personal freedom and national destiny reflected the anguish of a nation irreparably divided.
Slavery haunted America. Ostensibly established upon principles of freedom, the reality in much of early America controverted the claims of colonial leaders.
Propertied, white Christian men alone enjoyed true freedom. Most persons of color awoke each day of their lives as the property of someone else, living in bondage for the sole purpose of enriching the Master, their lives legally dispensable.
Alongside the reality of African slavery, the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain boldly if awkwardly proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”
Although phased out in the North by the 1820s, African slavery became the very foundation of the American South in the early 19th century. Economics. Culture. Society. Religion. Slavery coursed through all in the southern states.
A nation too long divided by inequality reached the breaking point in 1860. Ripped apart on the shoals of slavery, America’s political leaders splintered into factions amid heated debate over the future.
White southern elites, their enormous collective wealth residing in enslaved black bodies, uniformly defended at all costs forced bondage of African Americans. Many northerners placed preservation of the Union above any particular position on slavery.
Other northerners, a rapidly growing number, believed African Americans, whether or not deserving of social or political equality, were otherwise entitled to the same rights and freedoms guaranteed to whites.
Into this volatile climate the backwoods-born lawyer and one-time U.S. congressman from Springfield, Ill., emerged as the presidential candidate of the recently-created anti-slavery Republican Party.
Explicitly established upon the Declaration’s proclamation that “all men are created equal,” the 1860 Republican platform fleshed out the aspirations of America’s founders:
“(T)he normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom: That, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that ‘no persons should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,’ it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.”
A beneficiary of a groundswell of northern anti-slavery sentiment, Lincoln bested three other candidates to win the 1860 presidential election with 40 percent of the popular vote.
White southern slave owners immediately condemned the election results. Although the Republican platform did not expressly embrace abolition, the South’s wealthy elite were certain that Lincoln, whom they derided as the “black president,” would abolish slavery.
Determined to defend and propagate black slavery in perpetuity, South Carolina’s slaveholders led their state to secede from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860. The formation and military arming of the Confederate States of America followed.
By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, the Confederacy comprised a total of seven Lower South states committed to fighting for white freedom and black slavery.
On April 12 the Confederacy fired upon the federal installation of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, declaring war upon the U.S. Three days later Lincoln called for volunteer troops to “suppress” the treasonous states.
Many northern states, enraged at the Southern Rebellion, responded enthusiastically to the call to arms. Upper South states expressed outrage. Border state responses ranged from caution to measured resistance.
Within 10 weeks four additional southern states seceded, completing the Confederacy’s roster of 11 states.
The American Civil War defined and consumed Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, his tenure marked by an unfolding series of political, legal, economic and military initiatives designed to preserve the Union without alienating the Border States or creating a backlash in the North.
North and South alike openly understood that the war was about slavery. Both sides sought the moral high ground.
Many northern pulpits and religious journals preached freedom for all as the teaching of Christ and foundation of America’s democracy. White southern religious leaders countered that God’s will consisted of freedom for whites and subjugation of blacks, often touting the Confederacy as God’s chosen nation to protect and advance black slavery.
In 1862 Lincoln determined that the defeat of the Confederacy would require the emancipation of slaves.
Freeing the South’s labor force would cripple the economic engine of the South and provide military reinforcements for the North. His Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, legally freed slaves in rebellious states. Black Americans hailed Lincoln as their Moses, the one called of God to free a people living in bondage.
Even as southern states ignored the proclamation, from 1863 onward a growing number of slaves escaped to freedom behind Union lines and fought for the North, draining the South’s economy. Fiscal hardships in turn sapped Confederate morale and generated an epidemic of soldier desertions.
Steadfast assertions by white Christian leaders that God would rescue his Confederate nation from defeat proved to be empty promises. Unable to recover from a string of decisive U.S. military victories in the South from 1863 through early 1865, the Southern Rebellion effectively came to an end on April 9, 1865 as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
By then in his second term of office, President Lincoln fell victim to an assassin’s bullet a mere six days after the surrender. His killer, John Wilkes Booth, was a northern-born, southern sympathizer.
Many southern whites viewed Lincoln’s death as his just reward, while most northerners reacted with even greater anger toward the states that had ripped the nation asunder and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
For their part, black Americans mourned deeply the loss of their Moses.
Lincoln’s religious thought played a critical role in his prosecution of the war — layering atop practical concerns a theological dimension.
The beneficiary of a Calvinistic-infused environment and the son of a Baptist deacon, Lincoln’s early evangelical religious experiences endowed him with biblical familiarity that in his adult years informed deep theological introspection.
Yet rarely one to discuss religion in a personal sense, Lincoln’s reticence provided fertile ground for speculation by his contemporaries and generations of scholars following.
Many political opponents during the 1830s and 1840s criticized Lincoln as a deist or infidel for denying the divinity of Christ. In 1846 as a congressional candidate and in response to critics he wrote an open letter to his district.
“That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true,” he noted. (Nor did he ever join a church.) “[B]ut I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”
In the past he had been “inclined to believe in what I understand is called the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’” [fatalism], Lincoln declared. Nonetheless he insisted that “the higher matter of eternal consequences” should be left between the individual “and his Maker.”
Of Lincoln’s later adult years his friends generally agreed that the president evidenced little religiosity other than being, according to some, “a fatalist.”
One close friend and confidant summarized the ambiguity surrounding Lincoln’s religious thought: “On the innate depravity of man, the character and office of the great Head of the church, the atonement, the infallibility of the written revelation, the performance of miracles, the nature and design of present and future rewards and punishments, and many other subjects, he held opinions utterly at variance with what are usually taught in the church.”
President Lincoln’s periodic attendance at Protestant worship services, expected by many in Washington but certainly not required, did little to quell the mystery of his faith.
John G. Nicolay, the president’s private White House secretary, a few days after the president’s assassination wrote in a signed statement:
“Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way change his religious views, opinions, or beliefs, from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death. I do not know just what they were, never having heard him explain them in detail; but I am very sure he gave no outward indication of his mind having undergone any change in that regard while here.”
Whether consistent over time or not, Abraham Lincoln’s religious thought as president centered on the existence of a distant, mysterious God to whom he prayed at low points of the war. In instances where he spoke of religion in discourses or letters, Lincoln arguably approached a personal dimension only in formalities, such as asking for prayer, or when replying warmly yet vaguely to persons who voiced personal faith in God.
Upon the death of his son William in 1862 the president in private reportedly spoke words of religious restraint tinged with fatalism: “May God live in all. He was too good for this earth. The good Lord has called him home. I know that he is much better off in Heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
In this respect he was like many other bereaving parents, whether religious or not, during the war.
Beyond momentary prayers of agony and religious language in discourse and personal loss, the war drove Lincoln to deeply probe theological thought in order to understand God’s veiled will in the great and bloody conflict.
Always, freedom and slavery hovered over the president’s theological reflections on behalf of the nation.
Increasingly convinced that God willed freedom for enslaved peoples, according to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Lincoln in 1862 “made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation. It might be thought strange, he said, that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied it was right, was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results.”
From this discerning of God’s will through the course of battlefield results, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a watershed event in the nation’s history. Near the end of the document the president, willing God to be on his side, declared, “… upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
The same year the president’s Gettysburg Address of Nov. 9, 1863 — months after the crucial but costly Union victory in the Battle of Gettysburg — wove vivid if subtle biblical imagery into an unfolding, overarching American narrative of human freedom:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
**But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth*.
Religiously infused were Lincoln’s use of “four score,” “hallow” ground and themes of consecration, death, dedication, devotion and “new birth.” The simple address offered hope and meaning to a suffering nation.
“New birth,” a phrase popularized during the Second Great Awakening of the president’s younger years in relation to Jesus’ invitation in John 3:16 to be “born again,” here served to evoke a rebirthing of America from the ashes of physical human bondage.
Numbering 272 words, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered by some scholars to be the greatest speech in America’s history. Yet the war was not over.
Some 16 bloody months later and on the cusp of the defeat of the southern slavocracy, Lincoln delivered a second, even more powerful theological discourse to a battered and weary nation. In the second half of the address and from a lifetime of theological thought and biblical familiarity he spoke to both North and South:
… Both [North and South] 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 may 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 until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with 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.”
**With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations*.
Fatalism, arguably the dominant motif in Lincoln’s religious thought, is here on full, unsettling display. God’s will is mysterious, the future unknown, and “woe to that man” (Matt. 18:7) that is on the wrong side of the Almighty. “The judgments of the Lord,” whatever they may be, “are true and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9).
Yet amid uncertainties clouded in divine mystery emerges a decisive conviction “in the right as God gives us to see the right” that human freedom is sacred.
With slavery abolished, hate must be set aside and kindness resurrected in order to heal the wounds on both sides, provide for shattered families, and bring peace to the land.
From the mind and thought of a humble president who never personally embraced Christ or Christianity came a ceaseless and desperate search for the will of God, a search that led to truth and the redemption of America.
Lincoln’s second inaugural address is considered by many to be America’s supreme sermon, the finest statement of political theology in the nation’s history.
In much of the scholarly and public mind alike to the present day, Abraham Lincoln — America’s Moses — remains the greatest theologian to ever occupy the White House. NFJ
This is the 16th in a series of articles by historian Bruce Gourley on the religious faith of U.S. presidents. Gourley is online editor and contributing writer for Nurturing Faith Journal and executive director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society.
“I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”
By Bruce Gourley