Lincoln and the Will of God

Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.

Proverbs 13:14

Today is the 212th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.  One of the many things I find fascinating about Lincoln is his view of the Civil War, a view which is not much considered these days.  Lincoln viewed it simply as a punishment for the sin of slavery.  Lincoln put this idea forth clearly in a letter to Albert Hodges on April 4, 1864.  Hodges was the editor of the Frankfort Commonwealth in Kentucky and Lincoln was explaining why he had found it necessary to adopt a policy of Emancipation and to enlist black troops, neither policy being popular in Kentucky or the other border states.  At the close of the letter Lincoln disclaimed that he had controlled the events which had led to his embracing abolition as a war goal:

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. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

God was willing the removal of slavery and gave the War as a punishment to both North and South for the sin of slavery.  This was not a spur of the moment thought by Lincoln, but rather the fruit of much anguished contemplation as to why the War came and what it meant.

We see Lincoln’s thought process in development in a note that he wrote and which was not meant for publication.  Lincoln’s secretary John Hay found it and preserved it.  It has become known as Lincoln’s Meditation on the Divine Will:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds. (more…)

Published in: on February 12, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln and the Will of God  
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Now He Belongs to the Ages

 

 

 

Now he belongs to the ages.”  So said Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, who had kept vigil at Lincoln’s deathbed, after Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet.

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: (more…)

Published in: on April 16, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Now He Belongs to the Ages  
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The Almighty Has His Own Purposes

 

The American Civil War has become such a part of American folk-lore, and so romanticized by reenactments, films, movies, etc, that we sometimes risk losing sight of just how dreadful it was.  The death toll in the war would be the equivalent of us losing some six million killed in a war today and some ten million wounded, many of those maimed for life.  One quarter of the nation devastated, and a huge war debt.  Americans tend to be optimists and to view themselves as blessed by God.  How had this dreadful calamity come upon the nation was the cry from millions of Americans at the time.

Lincoln also asked this question.  In 1862 he and his wife had suffered the death of their 11 year old son Willie on February 20, 1862.  This was the second son that the Lincolns had lost and the death of Willie left Lincoln and his wife shattered with grief , almost sending Mary over the brink into madness.  The war was going badly for the Union, with many defeats, endless casualties and no end in sight.  No wonder that Lincoln began to think hard about why God was allowing these terrible events to  occur. (more…)

Published in: on September 27, 2018 at 3:30 am  Comments Off on The Almighty Has His Own Purposes  
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Both Sides Prayed to the Same God

Both 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.”

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural

 

 

A look at religion in the Civil War from the internet series the Civil War in Four Minutes.  Most people on both sides, as Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural, assumed God was on their side.  Some viewed their causes as crusades.  Typical of those who embraced that interpretation is a Union officer who upbraided a chaplain who had given a stern sermon to the men of his regiment on the pains of Hell, and informed him that every one of his boys who fell in this great fight for human liberty was going straight to Heaven and he would allow no other doctrine to be preached while he was in command of the regiment.

Perhaps the most insightful view was that embraced by Abraham Lincoln, Robert  E. Lee and others who saw the War as the punishment for national sins.  Rather than a crusade, the War was a chastisement that God was using for His purposes.  I think there is much wisdom in this view.  God often brings good out of human weakness, folly and even sin, and out of the Civil War, with all of its ghastly loss of life, came freedom for the slaves and a united nation. (more…)

Published in: on November 5, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Both Sides Prayed to the Same God  
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Lincoln and Trust in God

In some ways few presidents would have had better cause to doubt God than Abraham Lincoln.  Losing his mother at nine, he would endure the deaths of both his infant brother and his beloved elder sister who died in childbirth.   Two of his sons died before his eyes and he presided as President over a nation which was convulsed by a civil war which remains the bloodiest conflict this nation has ever fought.  Instead during the Civil War Lincoln grew to have an immense trust in God.  This is shown strikingly in a letter he wrote to Quaker Eliza P.  Gurney:

Executive Mansion, Washington, September 4, 1864.

Eliza P. Gurney. My esteemed friend.

I have not forgotten–probably never shall forget–the very  impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a  Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written  nearly a year later, ever been forgotten. In all, it has been  your purpose to strengthen my reliance on God. I am much  indebted to the good Christian people of the country for their  constant prayers and consolations; and to no one of them, more  than to yourself. The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and  must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately  perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this  terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled  otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom and our own  error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best light  He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great  ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this  mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal  could stay.

Your people–the Friends–have had, and are having, a very  great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and  oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war.  In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn, and some the  other. For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have  done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience,  under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not;  and believing it, I shall still receive, for our country and myself,  your earnest prayers to our Father in heaven.

Your sincere friend A. Lincoln. (more…)

Published in: on December 16, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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