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Christian History Home > 1992 > Issue 33 > The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln

The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln
Where was God in this brutal national war? An unbaptized non-churchgoer came up with a profound answer.
Mark A. Noll | posted 1/01/1992 12:00AM

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The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln

The end of the Civil War in the spring of 1865 began a national discussion that has not stopped 125 years later. What did the war mean? What was its significance to the nation? More momentously, what was its significance to God?

Making No Bones About It

Such questions engaged many of those who lived through the bloody conflict. Among those who thought they knew what it meant were many clergymen, some of whom made no bones about saying so.

In the North, Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) was the scion of the country’s most prominent evangelical family. As pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Congregational Church, he enjoyed the most influential pulpit in the land. When he spoke at ceremonies marking the recapture of Fort Sumter, Beecher made clear what he thought the conflict meant in the eye of God:

“I charge the whole guilt of this war upon the ambitious, educated, plotting leaders of the South.… A day will come when God will reveal judgment and arraign these mighty miscreants.… And then these guiltiest and most remorseless traitors … shall be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and ever in an endless retribution.”

In the South, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was almost as prominent as Beecher in the North. A Presbyterian defender of Scripture and of traditional confessions, he was even more orthodox than Beecher. During the war Dabney served on the staff of General Stonewall Jackson; afterward he presided over seminaries in South Carolina and Texas.

Yet from wherever Dabney viewed the conflict, his opinion was the same. The war, he thought, was “caused deliberately” by evil abolitionists who persecuted the South “with calculated malice.” When fellow Southerners asked him to soften his views on denominational colleagues in the North, Dabney had only these chilling words: “What! Forgive those people who have invaded our country, burned our cities, destroyed our homes, slain our young men, and spread desolation and ruin over our land?! No, I do not forgive them.”

Thinking the Unthinkable

In contrast to Beecher and Dabney—and the assumption that only one side enjoyed the blessing of God—stands the odd figure of Abraham Lincoln. At least, he held an odd view in those heated days of sectional strife.

Ministers and theologians, who day and night studied the Scriptures, knew very well where God stood on the war (though, of course, they differed among themselves). We would expect Lincoln, as the Union’s president, to be just as partisan as Beecher. We would assume Lincoln to be just as vituperative about Southern leaders as Dabney was about the North’s. Yet Lincoln, though he pondered the ways of God almost as steadily as the professionals of religion, was not so sure.

Admittedly, in his first inaugural address, in March 1861, Lincoln had presented a fairly conventional view of God and the American nation. The “ultimate justice of the people,” he said, would prevail, for there was no “better, or equal, hope in the world.” Lincoln saw a solution to the national crisis in terms of civil religion: “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.” God, in other words, would stick with the Americans, whose own virtues would lead them out of trouble.

Soon, however, the vicious realities of war began to stir something else in the Northern president. As early as 1862 Lincoln began to think the unthinkable: Perhaps the will of God could not simply be identified with American ideals and the effort to preserve the Union.

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