“And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” –January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation
The question for consideration is this: In what way was Abraham Lincoln driven by his own religious convictions when developing policy regarding the Civil War and the institution of slavery?
The Religious Views of Abraham Lincoln are chronicled in a book by Reverend O. H. Pennell, who indicates that there was a strong attempt by various religious groups like Universalists, agnostics, and deists to hijack Lincoln for their own cause.
Lincoln seemed to measure religion by the inevitability of the progress of ideas and society. I don’t know if Lincoln could have been too familiar with Darwin’s Origin of the Species because it wasn’t published until 1859, but he certainly seemed to entertain a belief in the idea of the evolutionary progress of society, and this idea most certainly was shattered by a country divided by war. He may have embraced the idea that as society matured, slavery would eventually fade away, but the war brought that hope of peaceful resolution to an end.
Lincoln was a bit of a religious skeptic in his younger years. He did not attend church, and he was very secretive about his religious convictions. He was much influenced by the deism of the enlightenment. But he seemed to become a deeply religious man after several political failures, the death of his father, and, especially, the death of his son Willie. After church attendance became a priority to him, he began to attend the Old School Presbyterian Church in the 1850’s.
His friend Frank Carpenter recorded that Lincoln shared his conversion experience with an acquaintance and told her that he began to understand the tenants of Christianity when his son Willie died. “I think I can say with sincerity that I hope that I am a Christian. I had lived until my boy, Willie, had died without fully realizing these things.” (The Religious Views Of Abraham Lincoln, p. 27)
The words of Lincoln’s widow also lend credibility to his claim to Christianity, “…from the time of the death of our little Edward, I believe my husband’s heart was directed towards religion and as time passed on – when Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office…then indeed to my knowledge – did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God – for his sustaining power. When too – the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with God’s chastising hand upon us – he turned his heart to Christ.” – Mary Todd Lincoln to Rev. James Smith, June 8, 1870.
Lincoln became very sensitive to the will of a sovereign God. He was haunted by the idea that Christians from the north and Christians from the south were praying to the same God for favor. In his commentary The Will of God Prevails, he wrote, “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” (Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “The End of Slavery in America”, by Allen Guelzo)
Two preachers and two layman from Chicago met with him carrying a petition for emancipation. He declared to them his right and intention to declare an Emancipation Proclamation. But he seemed wearied by such men who often declared their knowledge of God’s will, and he testily declared to them that if God had revealed his will to them, then surely he would reveal his will to him upon whose shoulders this burden did lay.
Was Lincoln’s motivation for declaring the Emancipation Proclamation a move to satisfy political expediency, or was it a personal conviction of his that slavery was immoral?
I think it could be safely argued that in the beginning of the war, Lincoln interpreted the conflict as a contest to preserve the union. In his letter to James Conklin, Lincoln wrote, “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.”
“If they (slaves) stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.” – (Letter written to James Conklin.) Was Lincoln using freedom as a ‘carrot at the end of the stick’ to lure slaves into fighting to preserve a union that had thus far failed to free them, or did he genuinely believe slavery was immoral in the eyes of God?
By the end of the war, it is reasonable to believe that Lincoln saw himself being used as an instrument of God to emancipate the slaves. Lincoln’s statement to Salmon Chase, Republican Governor of Ohio from 1856-1860, indicates his reinterpretation of the war: “I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Maryland I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” (Six Months At The White House, p. 90, Frank Carpenter)
However, Lincoln was conflicted about the fact that good Christians were warring against each other while calling on the same God for favor and grace. His final conclusion to this dilemma is found in his Second Inaugural Address:
“Both (North and South) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem 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; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Kevin Probst teaches History, Government, and Apologetics at the high school level in Columbus, Georgia.
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