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Christian History Home > 2008 > Issue 99 > War and the Will of God

War and the Will of God
Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address pointed a grieving nation to the mystery of divine providence.
Ronald C. White Jr. | posted 8/08/2008 08:02AM

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War and the Will of God

Abraham Lincoln was hopeful as inauguration day, March 4, drew near in the spring of 1865. The Confederacy was splintered if not shattered. The president, who had been besieged by critics for much of the war, was finally beginning to receive recognition for his leadership. But beneath the outward celebrations lay a different emotion. Many citizens were filled with anger as much as hope. Death and despair reached into nearly every home. An estimated 620,000 men died in the Civil War, almost equal to the number killed in all subsequent wars.

Noted photographer Alexander Gardner was poised to record the event for posterity. The Second Inaugural Address would be the only occasion in which Lincoln was photographed delivering a speech. (He was assassinated 41 days later.) Police estimated between 30,000 and 40,000 people gathered at the east entrance of the Capitol. The correspondent for The Times of London estimated that "at least half the multitude were colored people." In the crowd, Lincoln recognized Frederick Douglass, the articulate African-American abolitionist and newspaper editor. The actor John Wilkes Booth, seething with hatred, stood up behind the right buttress. When Lincoln was introduced, the crowd exploded in expectation. He rose from his chair and stepped from underneath the shelter of the Capitol building and out past the magnificent Corinthian columns. At 56, he looked older than his years.

The separation of church and state in the United States has never meant the separation of faith and politics. But how are they to be put together? Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address opens up windows into his own faith as he attempted to make sense of the tragedy of the Civil War. The precise nature of his faith is contested; we do not know enough to define or confine him. But the Second Inaugural can help us appreciate the profundity of Lincoln's biblical and theological insight as we wrestle with how to talk about faith and politics today.

No tribal God

Lincoln's overarching strategy was to emphasize common actions and emotions. He acknowledged, "Both [sides in the war] read the same Bible and pray to the same God." The Bible had been quoted only once in the inaugural addresses of the previous 18 presidents (by John Quincy Adams). Lincoln's introduction of the Bible signaled his determination to think theologically as well as politically about the war.

Many visitors to the White House reported that Lincoln read the Bible frequently. Noah Brooks, correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union, wrote that Lincoln "fixed in his memory" whole chapters from the New Testament as well as from Isaiah and the Psalms. In the summer of 1864, Lincoln invited his Kentucky friend Joshua Speed to spend an evening with him. When Speed arrived, he found Lincoln reading the Bible. Speed said, "I am glad to see you profitably engaged." "Yes," replied Lincoln, "I am profitably engaged." "Well," Speed continued, "If you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not." Lincoln rose, placed his hand on Speed's shoulder, and 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."

But Lincoln knew that the Bible and prayer could also be used almost as weapons to curry God's favor. On one side stood those who steadfastly believed that the Bible sanctioned slavery. On the other side were those who believed that the Bible encouraged abolition. Lincoln had become troubled by those who said, "God is on our side." In his Second Inaugural Address, he was inveighing against a tribal God who took the side of a section or party. God, he would explain, was inclusive both in judgment and reconciliation.

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