Lincoln and God
Before the first shots were fired in the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had begun to style himself as an instrument of the Lord. But as William H. Herndon, a law partner and Lincoln biographer, wrote, “[t]he very idea that he was in the hands of an invisible, irresistible, and inevitable deaf power which moved as an omnipotent force evidently harassed and worried him.” At the same time, “the very idea” afforded Lincoln immunity from responsibility for the acts he had committed or would commit. Addressing the New Jersey Senate at Trenton on February 21, 1861, Lincoln declared:
I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle [the Revolutionary War].
This was all the more remarkable because Lincoln was a nonbeliever. His first law partner, John T. Stuart, stated that Lincoln
was an avowed and open infidel . . . and sometimes bordered on atheism. . . . [He] went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard; he shocked me.
Ward Lamon, another law partner and friend of Lincoln, relates that,
[a]s he grew older, he grew more cautious. . . . The imputation of Infidelity had seriously injured him in several of his earlier political contests; and, sobered by age and experience, he was resolved that the same imputation should injure him no more. Aspiring to lead religious communities, he foresaw that he must not appear as an enemy within their gates; aspiring to public honors under the auspices of a political party which persistently summoned religious people to assist in the extirpation of that which it denounced as the “nation’s sin,” he foresaw that he could not ask their suffrages whilst aspersing their faith. He perceived no reason for changing his convictions, but he did perceive many good and cogent reasons for not making them public.
Lincoln was very politic, and a very shrewd man in some particulars. When he was talking to a Christian, he adapted himself to the Christian. . . . I could state facts about Mr. Lincoln’s jokes on and gibes at Christianity and committee of ministers, who waited on him while President of the United States, and before, that would shock a Christian people.
On August 12, 1861, as Ft. Sumter was being attacked, Lincoln issued a Proclamation of a National Day of Fast. He was explicit on who started the war:
And, whereas, when our own beloved Country, once, by the blessing of God, united, prosperous and happy, is now afflicted with faction and civil war, it is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation.
Lincoln then broadened the blame to all Americans. They were sinners who had offended God, and the war was His retribution:
[I]n sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy,—to pray that we may be spared further punishment, though most justly deserved.
For Lincoln to call upon people to pray to God to end the war was all the more extraordinary, as it contradicted his personal beliefs. According to Herndon, Lincoln
believed that both matter and mind are governed by certain irrefragable and irresistible laws, and that no prayers of ours could arrest their operation in the least . . . what was to be would be. . . . [T]he laws of human nature are persistent and permanent and could not be reversed. . . . In proof of his strong leaning towards fatalism he once quoted the case of Brutus and Caesar, arguing that the former was forced by laws and conditions over which he had no control to kill the latter, and vice versa, that the latter was specially created to be disposed of by the former.
Throughout his presidency, Lincoln maintained that God alone was responsible for the war. In his September 3, 1862, “Meditation on the Divine Will,” he wrote:
God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet 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.
Lincoln continued in the same vein in an October 26, 1862, letter to Mrs. Eliza P. Gurney:
We are indeed going through a great trial—a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will . . . but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. 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.
As the war dragged on from one bloody encounter to the next from Manassas to Antietam to Shiloh with no end in sight, the President’s unbelief, both in God and his own rhetoric, was evident in private correspondence. His letter of November 24, 1862, to Carl Shurz is petty and childish in its attempt to evade responsibility:
I certainly know that if the war fails, the administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed, if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me.
Nonetheless, Lincoln continued to repeat his accusation against God on public occasions. In a proclamation on March 30, 1863, designating another National Day of Fast, he wrote:
And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People?
With victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, some in the North thought the war would soon end. But in an August 26, 1863, letter to James C. Conkling, Lincoln disagreed, reiterating that God, not he, determined when there would be peace.
Still let us not be over-sanguine of a speedy final triumph. Let us be quite sober. Let us diligently apply the means, never doubting that a just God, in his own good time, will give us the rightful result.
In his Proclamation of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1863, Lincoln left any question of a timetable in the hands of “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens”:
I . . . fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.
As the number of dead and maimed mounted, and an official policy of total war was pursued against Southern civilians, Lincoln persisted in denying any responsibility for his own acts. He was a victim of circumstance, and circumstance was determined by God. In his April 4, 1864, letter to Albert G. Hodges, Lincoln declared
I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years of struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it.
He continued bizarrely asserting that the death of over 600,000 Americans would be a testament to God’s righteousness.
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.
Lincoln assiduously promoted the idea that, while he was blameless for the war, its death and destruction served some higher good. As he wrote to Mrs. Eliza P. Gurney in a letter dated September 4, 1864:
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. . . . Surely, He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.
By March 1865, the war was fast coming to an end. But in his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln ominously insisted that God might want the bloodshed to continue indefinitely.
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offences cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Loving 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 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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” . . . [W]ith firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.
Through use of such rhetoric about a righteous and triumphant God, Lincoln exploited religious feelings in the North to carry out a four-year war against Southern civilians. Women, children, the sick, and the elderly were targeted; homes and cities burned; crops destroyed; and domestic animals slaughtered. Lincoln’s influence on the North validated Voltaire’s observation that “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.