In hundreds of posts since 2008 at The American Catholic and Almost Chosen People, I have examined various facets of the public life of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, the most important part of Lincoln’s life came, as it will for each of us, after his death when he stood before God for the particular judgment. In this life the outcome of that judgment is unknown to us. However, I think the record is well-established that during the Civil War Lincoln found his mind and his heart turning increasingly towards God.
Lincoln throughout his life had read the Bible and effortlessly used scriptural quotes in his speaking and writing, both in public and in private. Lincoln had the Bible in his bones, and often turned to it. Lincoln’s religious opinions are not simple to discern, however, as Mark Noll in a perceptive article skillfully points out.
In 1846 when Lincoln ran successfully for Congress against a well known Protestant minister, Peter Cartwright, he was attacked as an “infidel” and a scoffer against religion. In a pamphlet Lincoln responded: “That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but 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… I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.” Before the election campaign Lincoln went to one of the revival meetings of Cartwright, probably to scope out the opposition. During the meeting Cartwright asked all those who were intent on going to Heaven to stand, and Lincoln remained seated. Cartwright then asked all those who were intent on going to Hell to stand, and Lincoln once again remained seated. Cartwright then inquired of Lincoln directly where Lincoln intended to go since he stood neither for Heaven nor Hell. Lincoln responded that he intended to go to Congress.
I have always thought that Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife and most perceptive observer, best understood Lincoln’s religious views: “From the time of the death of our little Edward, I believe my husband’s heart was directed towards religion & as time passed on – when Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office – with the care of a great Nation, upon his shoulders – when devastating war was upon us then indeed to my knowledge – did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God – for his sustaining power When too – the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with God’s chastising hand upon us – he turned his heart to Christ.”
Certainly Mr. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address gives strong evidence that Lincoln had thought long and very hard about God and human affairs. Lincoln occasionally gave hints that indicated that he was thinking about his own destiny in the hereafter. In August of 1864 it looked as if Lincoln was headed to electoral defeat. A group of Wisconsin politicians visiting the White House suggested that perhaps Lincoln’s prospects would improve if he would agree to drop the Emancipation Proclamation in exchange for the Confederate states returning to the Union. Lincoln responded briskly:
“I should be damned in time and in eternity were I to do that. I will keep faith with the gallant black soldiers who have fought and died for this nation at Port Hudson and Olustee. The Proclamation sticks.”
As for the Bible, Lincoln gave frequent public and private comments that indicated his great respect for the book of books. When Lincoln received the gift of a Bible from freed slaves in Maryland he made the following statement: “In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.“
In the summer of 1864 Lincoln spent an evening with perhaps his closest friend Joshua F. Speed. When Speed arrived Lincoln was reading the Bible. Speed recounted the incident as follows: “As I entered the room near night, [Lincoln] was sitting near a window reading his Bible. Approaching him, I said, ‘I am glad to see you profitably engaged.’ ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I am profitably engaged.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism I am sorry to say that I have not!’ Looking me earnestly in the face, and placing his hand upon my shoulder, he said: ‘You are wrong Speed; take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith and you will live and die a happier and better man.’”
Very significant evidence as to the impact on Lincoln of the death of his son Willie and the war is given by Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington that Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln regularly attended. In response to an inquiry as to whether Lincoln was a scoffer, Gurley replied as follows: ” I do not believe a word of it. It could not have been true of him while here, for I have had frequent and intimate conversations with him on the Subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teachings. And more than that, in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battlefield of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believed his heart was changed, and that he loved the Savior, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion.”
So much for the historical record. When it comes to something of the heart and soul like religion, prose and facts can take us only so far. Time to call on a poet.
Stephen Vincent Benet 71 years ago wrote an epic poem on the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg, it is available on line here. In this section of the poem I think he gets close to the truth of Abraham Lincoln and his turning to God during the war. Lincoln is sitting in the telegraph office at the War Department anxiously awaiting news of the battle of Antietam:
“Bull Run–the Seven Days–
Bull Run again–and eighteen months of war–
And still no end to it.
What is God’s will?
They come to me and talk about God’s will
In righteous deputations and platoons,
Day after day, laymen and ministers.
They write me Prayers From Twenty Million Souls
Defining me God’s will and Horace Greeley’s.
God’s will is General This and Senator That,
God’s will is those poor colored fellows’ will,
It is the will of the Chicago churches,
It is this man’s and his worst enemy’s.
But all of them are sure they know God’s will.
I am the only man who does not know it.
And, yet, if it is probable that God
Should, and so very clearly, state His will
To others, on a point of my own duty,
It might be thought He would reveal it me
Directly, more especially as I
So earnestly desire to know His will.
The will of God prevails. No doubt, no doubt–
Yet, in great contests, each side claims to act
In strict accordance with the will of God.
Both may, one must be wrong.
God could have saved
This Union or destroyed it without war
If He so wished. And yet this war began,
And, once begun, goes on, though He could give
Victory, at any time, to either side.
It is unfathomable. Yet I know
This, and this only. While I live and breathe,
I mean to save the Union if I can,
And by whatever means my hands can find
Under the Constitution.
If God reads
The hearts of men as clearly as He must
To be Himself, then He can read in mine
And has, for twenty years, the old, scarred wish
That the last slave should be forever free
Here, in this country.
I do not go back
From that scarred wish and have not.
But I put
The Union, first and last, before the slave.
If freeing slaves will bring the Union back
Then I will free them; if by freeing some
And leaving some enslaved I help my cause,
I will do that–but should such freedom mean
The wreckage of the Union that I serve
I would not free a slave.
O Will of God,
I am a patient man, and I can wait
Like an old gunflint buried in the ground
While the slow years pile up like moldering leaves
Above me, underneath the rake of Time,
And turn, in time, to the dark, fruitful mold
That smells of Sangamon apples, till at last
There’s no sleep left there, and the steel event
Descends to strike the live coal out of me
And light the powder that was always there.
That is my only virtue as I see it,
Ability to wait and hold my own
And keep my own resolves once they are made
In spite of what the smarter people say.
I can’t be smart the way that they are smart.
I’ve known that since I was an ugly child.
It teaches you–to be an ugly child.
It teaches you–to lose a thing you love.
It sticks your roots down into Sangamon ground
And makes you grow when you don’t want to grow
And makes you tough enough to wait life out,
Wait like the fields, under the rain and snow.
I have not thought for years of that lost grave
That was my first hard lesson in the queer
Thing between men and women we call love.
But when I think of it, and when I hear
The rain and snow fall on it, as they must,
It fills me with unutterable grief.
We’ve come a good long way, my hat and I,
Since then, a pretty lengthy piece of road,
Uphill and down but mostly with a pack.
Years of law-business, years of cracking jokes,
And watching Billy Herndon do his best
To make me out, which seemed to be a job;
Years trying how to learn to handle men,
Which can be done, if you’ve got heart enough,
And how to deal with women or a woman
And that’s about the hardest task I know.
For, when you get a man, you’ve got the man
Like a good big axehandle in your fist,
But you can’t catch a woman like an axe.
She’ll run like mercury between your hands
And leave you wondering which road she went,
The minute when you thought you knew her ways.
I understand the uses of the earth,
And I have burned my hands at certain fires
Often enough to know a use for fire,
But when the genius of the water moves,
And that’s the woman’s genius, I’m at sea
In every sense and meaning of the word,
With nothing but old patience for my chart,
And patience doesn’t always please a woman.
Bright streams of water, watering the world,
Deep seas of water that all men must sail
Or rest half-men and fill the narrow graves,
When will I understand or comprehend
Your salt, sweet taste, so different from the taste
Of Sangamon russets, weighing down the bough?
You can live with the water twenty years
And never understand it like the earth
But that’s the lesson I can’t seem to learn.
“Abraham Lincoln, his hand and pen,
He will be good, but God knows when.”
He will be wise, but God knows when.
It doesn’t matter. If I had some news–
News from that fog–
I’ll get the hypo, sure,
Unless I watch myself, waiting for news.
I can’t afford to get the hypo now,
I’ve got too much to do.
Housekeeping years of marrying and begetting
And losing, too, the children and the town,
The wife, the house, the life, the joy and grief,
The profound wonder still behind it all.
I had a friend who married and was happy.
But something haunted him that haunted me
Before he did, till he could hardly tell
What his own mind was, for the brooding veil
And immaterial horror of the soul
Which colors the whole world for men like that.
I do not know from whence that horror comes
Or why it hangs between us and the sun
For some few men, at certain times and days,
But I have known it closer than my flesh,
Got up with it, lain down and walked with it,
Scotched it awhile, but never killed it quite,
And yet lived on.
I wrote him good advice,
The way you do, and told him this, for part,
“Again you fear that that Elysium
Of which you’ve dreamed so much is not to be.
Well, I dare swear it will not be the fault
Of that same black-eyed Fanny, now your wife.
And I have now no doubt that you and I,
To our particular misfortune, dream
Dreams of Elysium far exceeding all
That any earthly thing can realize.”
I wrote that more than twenty years ago,
At thirty-three, and now I’m fifty-three,
And the slow days have brought me up at last
Through water, earth and fire, to where I stand,
To where I stand–and no Elysiums still.
No, no Elysiums–for that personal dream
I dreamt of for myself and in my youth
Has been abolished by the falling sledge
Of chance and an ambition so fulfilled
That the fulfillment killed its personal part.
My old ambition was an iron ring
Loose-hooped around the live trunk of a tree.
If the tree grows till bark and iron touch
And then stops growing, ring and tree are matched
And the fulfillment fits.
But, if by some
Unlikely chance, the growing still keeps on,
The tree must burst the binding-ring or die.
I have not once controlled the circumstances.
They have controlled me. But with that control
They made me grow or die. And I have grown.
The iron ring is burst.
Earth, water and fire. I have passed through them all,
Still to find no Elysium for my hands,
Still to find no Elysium but growth,
And the slow will to grow to match my task.
Three elements. I have not sought the fourth
Deeply, till now–the element of air,
The everlasting element of God,
Who must be there in spite of all we see,
Who must be there in spite of all we bear,
Who must exist where all Elysiums
Are less than shadows of a hunter’s fire
Lighted at night to scare a wolf away.
I know that wolf–his scars are in my hide
And no Elysiums can rub them out.
Therefore at last, I lift my hands to You
Who Were and Are and Must Be, if our world
Is anything but a lost ironclad
Shipped with a crew of fools and mutineers
To drift between the cold forts of the stars.
I’ve never found a church that I could join
Although I’ve prayed in churches in my time
And listened to all sorts of ministers
Well, they were good men, most of them, and yet–
The thing behind the words–it’s hard to find.
I used to think it wasn’t there at all
Couldn’t be there. I cannot say that, now.
And now I pray to You and You alone.
Teach me to know Your will. Teach me to read
Your difficult purpose here, which must be plain
If I had eyes to see it. Make me just.
There was a man I knew near Pigeon Creek
Who kept a kennel full of hunting dogs,
Young dogs and old, smart hounds and silly hounds.
He’d sell the young ones every now and then,
Smart as they were and slick as they could run.
But the one dog he’d never sell or lend
Was an old half-deaf foolish-looking hound
You wouldn’t think had sense to scratch a flea
Unless the flea were old and sickly too.
Most days he used to lie beside the stove
Or sleeping in a piece of sun outside.
Folks used to plague the man about that dog
And he’d agree to everything they said,
“No–he ain’t much on looks–or much on speed–
A young dog can outrun him any time,
Outlook him and outeat him and outleap him,
But, Mister, that dog’s hell on a cold scent
And, once he gets his teeth in what he’s after,
He don’t let go until he knows he’s dead.”
I am that old, deaf hunting-dog, O Lord,
And the world’s kennel holds ten thousand hounds
Smarter and faster and with finer coats
To hunt your hidden purpose up the wind
And bell upon the trace you leave behind.
But, when even they fail and lose the scent,
I will keep on because I must keep on
Until You utterly reveal Yourself
And sink my teeth in justice soon or late.
There is no more to ask of earth or fire
And water only runs between my hands,
But in the air, I’ll look, in the blue air,
The old dog, muzzle down to the cold scent,
Day after day, until the tired years
Crackle beneath his feet like broken sticks
And the last barren bush consumes with peace.
I should have tried the course with younger legs,
This hunting-ground is stiff enough to pull
The metal heart out of a dog of steel;
I should have started back at Pigeon Creek
From scratch, not forty years behind the mark.
But you can’t change yourself, and, if you could,
You might fetch the wrong jack-knife in the swap.
It’s up to you to whittle what you can
With what you’ve got–and what I am, I am
For what it’s worth, hypo and legs and all.
I can’t complain. I’m ready to admit
You could have made a better-looking dog
From the same raw material, no doubt,
But, since You didn’t, this’ll have to do.
Therefore I utterly lift up my hands
To You, and here and now beseech Your aid.
I have held back when others tugged me on,
I have gone on when others pulled me back
Striving to read Your will, striving to find
The justice and expedience of this case,
Hunting an arrow down the chilly airs
Until my eyes are blind with the great wind
And my heart sick with running after peace.
And now, I stand and tremble on the last
Edge of the last blue cliff, a hound beat out,
Tail down and belly flattened to the ground,
My lungs are breathless and my legs are whipped,
Everything in me’s whipped except my will.
I can’t go on. And yet, I must go on.
I will say this. Two months ago I read
My proclamation setting these men free
To Seward and the rest. I told them then
I was not calling on them for advice
But to hear something that I meant to do.
We talked about it. Most of them approved
The thing, if not the time. Then Seward said
Something I hadn’t thought of, “I approve
The proclamation–but, if issued now
With our defeats in everybody’s mouth
It may be viewed as a last shriek for help
From an exhausted, beaten government.
Put it aside until a victory comes,
Then issue it with victory.”
He was right,
I put the thing aside–and ever since
There has been nothing for us but defeat,
Up to this battle now–and still no news.
If I had eyes to look to Maryland!
If I could move that battle with my hands!
No, it don’t work. I’m not a general.
All I can do is trust the men who are.
I’m not a general, but I promise this,
Here at the end of every ounce of strength
That I can muster, here in the dark pit
Of ignorance that is not quite despair
And doubt that does but must not break the mind!
The pit I have inhabited so long
At various times and seasons, that my soul
Has taken color in its very grains
From the blind darkness, from the lonely cave
That never hears a footstep but my own
Nor ever will, while I’m a man alive
To keep my prison locked from visitors.
What if I heard another footstep there,
What if, some day–there is no one but God,
No one but God who could descend that stair
And ring his heavy footfalls on the stone.
And if He came, what would we say to Him?
That prison is ourselves that we have built,
And, being so, its loneliness is just,
And, being so, its loneliness endures.
But, if another came,
What would we say?
What can the blind say, given back their eyes?
No, it must be as it has always been.
We are all prisoners in that degree
And will remain so, but I think I know
This–God is not a jailor. . . .
And I make
A promise now to You and to myself.
If this last battle is a victory
And they can drive the Rebel army back
From Maryland, back over the Potomac,
My proclamation shall go out at last
To set those other prisoners and slaves
From this next year, then and forever free.
So much for my will. Show me what is Yours!”
In regard to God, I think that Abraham Lincoln could repeat the words of Saint Augustine, “Late have I loved thee!”