Lincoln’s Religious Quest

Historian Richard Wightman Fox looks at new books on Abraham Lincoln’s religious life. New Lincoln scholarship is examining whether or not the 16th president experienced a religious turn late in his life, chastened by the Civil War and the death of his son Willie in 1862, from a depressed, secular fatalism to the sort of Calvinist fatalism evidenced in his second inaugural address:

The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln straddles the line between secular and religious, which Fox argues makes him not a good fit for either side of the culture war (though that won’t stop his memory from being invoked by modern day activists). Lincoln was convinced of God’s sovereignty and His formidable presence in history. He was less convinced, however, with the Christian narratives of sin and redemption, or for the need of Jesus Christ in any real sense. God would grind the sin of slavery out of the nation in His own due time without the possibility of redemption through a messiah.

The irony is that Lincoln himself plays the messiah role in civic iconography. The president, martyred on a Good Friday, was embraced by even white Southerners by the end of the 19th century. Naturally, during this post-Reconstruction era, it was for saving the Union rather than ending slavery, but that just illustrates how historical memory is always selective and contested.

The debate over whether the messianic president made a religious turn late in life, or whether he was couching his familiar fatalism in religious terms so voters could relate to it, foreshadows, I hope, good historical discussion that will take place as we approach the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 2009.


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