Lincoln's Sign: The great Emancipator came to believe a divine purpose called him to end slavery

Feb 1, 2005

Abraham Lincoln was very likely the first American president never to have belonged to a church. This was not simply a matter of indifference or oversight. He was very conscious of the fact that this hurt him politically. "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true," he admitted in 1846, and this "levied a tax of a considerable per cent upon my strength throughout the religious community." But shrewd as he was politically, Lincoln made no effort to repair this damage by feigning some form of religious profession. 

In young adulthood, he developed a risque reputation as an "infidel" who wrote "a pamphlet attacking the divinity of christ — Special inspiration — Revelation &c -." In midlife, Lincoln's attitudes softened, and he was willing to concede that "the christian theory, that, Christ is God, or equal to the Creator ... had better be taken for granted" even though it came "to us in somewhat doubtful Shape" since "the Sistom of Christianity was an ingenious one at least — and perhaps was Calculated to do good."  

But further than that, Lincoln would not go. Few people, even among his close friends, could draw much in the way of religious discussion from him. 

"I don't Know anything about Lincoln's Religion," grumbled David Davis, Lincoln's personal attorney and his first appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court.  "The idea that Lincoln talked to a stranger about his religion or religious views — or made ... speeches, remarks &c about it ... is absurd to me."

But Lincoln's refusal to talk about religion was no evidence that he lacked a profound curiosity about it. Even his youthful "infidelity" was a backhanded measure of the importance Lincoln attached to religion. And close friends of the mature Lincoln frequently remarked that, even if Lincoln subscribed to no formal religious creed, "his heart was full of natural ... religion," which (in the estimate of Lincoln's friend Leonard Swett) included "the great laws of truth, the rigid discharge of duty, his accountability to God, the ultimate triumph of right, and the overthrow of wrong."

And until his election to the presidency and the coming of the Civil War, the private pursuit of "natural religion" suited Lincoln reasonably well. But the Civil War upset the tidiness of Lincoln's belief that God's business was simply ensuring "the ultimate triumph of right, and the overthrow of wrong." From the time the war began, in the spring of 1861, almost nothing about it seemed to go right. Southern armies won victory after victory. And since these victories were won in defense of human slavery and on behalf of a massive insurgency against the United States, the "overthrow" of wrong looked far from simple. 

Faced with a situation that turned right and wrong on their heads, Lincoln responded by turning his private meditations into a closer scrutiny of who God is. In the fall of 1862, he sketched the changing shape of his thinking on paper, beginning with this simple axiom: "The will of God prevails." Obviously. If his will did not prevail, he could scarcely claim to be God. 

Next, Lincoln observed that "in great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God." And in fact, both North and South did this in spades. But God only has one will. "God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time," Lincoln said. In claiming to represent God's will, the North might be correct, or the South might be correct. But since these two notions of God's will were so utterly opposite, both could not simultaneously have the correct understanding of God's will.  

On the other hand, they could both be wrong. God's will might be pointing in a direction that neither North nor South had yet discerned. It was this option that made the most sense to Lincoln. "I am almost ready to say this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet" because God had some greater end in mind than a quick victory by either North or South. After all, "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 ... and having begun he could give the final victory to either side any day."  

The fact that God had not rewarded either North or South with a conclusive victory suggested to Lincoln that he needed to look for a divine purpose in the conflict that no one had yet seen.  "We must believe," Lincoln wrote in a letter to a British correspondent, "that He permits [the war] for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it."

Lincoln became convinced that this mysterious purpose pointed toward the emancipation of the slaves. At the outset of the war, Southerners certainly had no thought that the freeing of their slaves was the real purpose of God; but neither did Northerners, who were quite content to have the war restore "the Union as it was." It had taken the terrible but indecisive battles of 1861 and 1862 to awaken Americans from their illusions of what the war meant, and to propel them into a search for what God's real purpose was in the conflict.

But what was the proof that emancipation was that purpose? For that, Lincoln had no better way of finding out than, like Gideon of old, to ask God for a sign. In September 1862, the Southern army under Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland in a campaign that looked like it could end the war with one last blow. "I made a solemn vow before God," Lincoln later explained to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, "that if General Lee was driven back ... I would crown the result by" a  presidential Emancipation Proclamation. And when Lee's invasion was stopped by the Union army at the battle of Antietam on September 17, and Lee was forced to retreat into Virginia, Lincoln took that as the sign he had asked for.

He assembled his Cabinet on September 22, and explained, "When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation." Characteristically, he "said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself, and ... to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfil that promise." 

Americans have always been a strongly religious people, and they have always wanted to feel that God has a unique mission and blessing for them. At the same time, though, the United States is also a secular republic with no official religion, and we squirm uncomfortably at the idea that God would go beyond simple blessings to issue signs and wonders to our leaders to indicate his will. That Lincoln would do precisely that, and do it as a rationale for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, rocks modern Americans back on their heels — and would probably rock them even further when they remember that this came from a man who was clearly no trafficker in visions and miracles. 

It is probably a worthwhile exercise, for those Americans who like secularism more than religion, to reflect on why so secular a man found, at the end of the day, that he could make no sense of the greatest struggle in American history apart from religion. At the same time, it is also worthwhile for those who love religion to remember that the same mystery about understanding God's will that caused him to look for signs, also caused him to warn others about how easy it was to misinterpret them. Six weeks before his death, in his Second Inaugural address, Lincoln warned Northerners not to see the impending triumph of the Union as a sign that they had a lock on truth. The war had been given to "both North and South ...  as a woe due to those by whom the offense" of slavery came, and North and South together had been judged in "this mighty scourge of war."  

Belief in God, and especially belief that God involves himself in the affairs of nations, is not an excuse for folly and self-righteousness. Instead, its proper use is to promote humility and to remind us of how feeble our own wisdom is. In an era of "faith-based" policy solutions and "religion-friendly" politicians, Lincoln reminds us that religion in American life is neither an alien (to be forbidden) nor a party-crasher (ready to jump into every situation), but a messenger, to "lift up our eyes unto the hills." 



Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. His biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, won the Lincoln Prize for 2000. His most recent book, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, will be issued in paperback by Simon and Schuster this month. 

Illinois Issues, February 2005