Abraham Lincoln’s Faith in God

Feb 13, 2017
Jim Eckman

I just finished reading Ronald C. White, Jr.’s recently published and masterful biography of Abraham Lincoln.  White focuses on the decision-making processes of Lincoln and on a detailed analysis of Lincoln’s speeches—both his rhetoric and his oratory.  It was a delight to read.  What impressed me the most was his insights into Lincoln’s theology.  Lincoln did not join a church but, when President, he regularly attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., which was pastored by Phineas Densmore Gurley.  Gurley studied at Princeton Theological Seminary under the great Calvinist scholar, Charles Hodge.  Gurley stressed God’s providence in the affairs of men and strengthened Lincoln’s deep-seated commitment to the providence of Almighty God.  Phrases and arguments that were a part of Gurley’s sermons inched themselves into Lincoln’s speeches.
At some point during the latter part of Lincoln’s presidency, he wrote, on a small piece of paper, on the question of the presence of God during the Civil War.  He wrote that “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.”  This was written in private and was not found until after Lincoln had died.

Furthermore, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is perhaps the greatest and most profound address ever delivered by an American President.  In the address, he concentrated on God as the primary actor in the Civil War.  He 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.”  He observed that both sides in this terrible war “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.”  In the 701 words of his address, Lincoln mentioned God 14 times, quoted from the Bible 4 times and invoked prayer 3 times.  Quoting from Matthew 18:7, Lincoln decreed that God can also be the author of judgment, and the Civil War should be understood in that way.  In his remarkable address, Lincoln made an unexpected political and religious move.  Speaking on the eve of military victory in 1865, when many expected him to celebrate the successes of the Union, he called upon his audience to recognize a perilous evil into their midst.  Instead of self-congratulation, he asked his fellow citizens for self-analysis.  Because of the horrific nature of slavery, the nation deserved God’s discipline.  He reminded his audience that the stain of slavery was enmeshed in the very fabric of American history—from the beginning.  As White observes, “His images reached their zenith in ‘until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.’”  The sword of military battle was the judgment of God.
Lincoln concluded his address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  He championed forgiveness and reconciliation—key virtues, sourced in God—for a lasting peace!

Lincoln was the most remarkable president this nation has ever had.  He did not give simple answers to complex questions.  He wrestled with his theology and saw God’s providence in everything.  He believed that a President must lead and must challenge the nation’s citizens to be virtuous and righteous.  And, in doing so, he never hesitated to refer to God and to Scripture.  

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