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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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Lincoln pointed out that it was "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" (alluding to Genesis 3:19). How was it possible to read the Bible and come up with the practice of slavery? But he quickly balanced judgment with mercy by quoting the Sermon on the Mount: "Let us judge not that we be not judged" (Matt. 7:1, Luke 6:37). "Blessed are those," Jesus said, who do not follow the way of the world—in this case, judgment—but the new way of grace and mercy. Lincoln rejected a legalistic attitude and instead appealed to Jesus' ethic of humility and compassion.

God's inscrutable purposes

"The Almighty has His own purposes." With these words, Lincoln brought God to the center of his address. Generals might think they were managing the war, but human agency would not decide its outcome. In quick strokes, Lincoln described God's actions: "He now wills to remove … He gives to both North and South, this terrible war … Yet, if God wills that it continue …"

In Lincoln's own day and ever since, people have questioned how a president who never joined a church could use such language about God. Some have argued that Lincoln adapted his words to the language of his audience. Others point out that religious values were a part of his heritage. Finally, some claim that Lincoln excluded beliefs or language that would have put off his audience—such as enlightenment ideas about God. None of these proposals is adequate because none takes into account the evolution of Lincoln's thinking during the turbulent years of the Civil War.

Several years earlier, Lincoln had written a private reflection on God's purposes:

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 this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end. 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.

One of Lincoln's private secretaries found this musing after the president's death and gave it the title "Meditation on the Divine Will." This private meditation anticipated the affirmations of God's purposes at the core of the Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln, convinced of God's activity, did not speak about God in the language of triumphalism. He was always suspicious of visiting church delegations or ministers who knew exactly when, where, and how God was on their side. Lincoln, who did not wear his faith on his sleeve, never spoke glibly about God.

Preaching providence

In both his hometown of Springfield and later in Washington D.C., Lincoln was drawn to two Presbyterian churches. In Washington, Lincoln's participation at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church coincided with his deepening struggles to understand the meaning of God's activity in the maelstrom of war. The pastor at New York Avenue was Phineas Densmore Gurley, one of the best models of Old School Presbyterian preaching. A handsome man of large frame and voice, he graduated first in his class in 1840 from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was a student of Charles Hodge. Central to this American Reformed tradition was providence—the belief that a loving God acts directly in history. In defense of providence, Hodge and his students were prepared to combat deviations from historic Christianity.

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