This week’s blog post continues our discussion of American church history. Today’s post focuses one of the most famous (if not the most famous) people in American History: Abraham Lincoln. Many people know many details about Lincoln’s life and role as the sixteenth president of the United States, his role in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, his leadership during the Civil War, and his subsequent assassination. Today, I want to focus on his discussion of God’s will.
Lincoln, in a small document, addresses God’s will and the Civil War. He writes, “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… I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest” (Lincoln, “Mediation on Divine Will,” 1862; Gaustad and Noll, 572).
There are a couple powerful statements in such a small sampling from Lincoln’s thoughts. First is the idea that God wills the Civil War to not only have happened but to continue in its duration. Lincoln wrote this during the War and noted that God could have simply ended it whenever God wanted to, but yet it continued to rage. Such an assertion might seem troubling, particularly to us today. The Civil War is often looked upon as a brutal, heart-wrenching conflict in American history. Families torn apart, incredible losses of life, and slavery being at the very forefront of the conflict all lead to an image of archaic barbarity that we sometimes cannot believe actually happened in the United States, especially only 150 years ago. Lincoln further complicates our view of the Civil War by noting that it’s “probably true that God wills this contest.” With the benefit of hindsight, how should we understand such a statement? Was Lincoln reflecting the thoughts of Christians everywhere? Does God will wars to happen? What does that do for our picture of God?
These are difficult questions, and somewhat impossible to answer. What we can use from Lincoln’s statement is that Lincoln defers to God’s will on the matter, showing a strong faith and trust in God’s purposes. Lincoln does not resort to blaming God for the Civil War, he merely notes that there must be a reason that it continues because it has not yet ended. The second element from Lincoln’s above statement that I want to point out is that in such a contest as the Civil War both sides claim to be on “God’s side.” One need only to read Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution by Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller to see that both pro and antislavery individuals thought that their position on slavery was biblically sanctioned. As Lincoln notes, “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time,” so one side has to be wrong. The problem with such conflicts is not who is right and who is wrong, but the fact that both sides think that their position lines up with God’s purposes. In the Civil War and in other grand conflicts, such a dichotomy can lead to a besmirching of God’s name as well as a jumbling of the message of the Bible on certain matters.
In another document, Lincoln again ponders how to determine God’s will. He writes, “I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men who are equally certain that they represent the divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief… I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me… if I can learn what it is, I will do it” (Lincoln, “Reply to a Committee from the Religious Denominations of Chicago,” 1862).
I really like Lincoln’s forthrightness here. He comes across almost as snarky: “If God wants me to know what God’s will is for my presidency, God would have told me directly.” Fair point, and I’m glad he adds that he hopes he is not being irreverent before he says it. I think Lincoln’s vision for his own presidency shows a great deal of humility and faithfulness, but at the same time shows why he was a great leader: he was willing to say: “I’m the president, remember?”
Finally, Lincoln issued a proclamation instituting a National Fast Day on March 30, 1863 (Gaustad and Noll, 572-73) to “humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness… let us rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace” (Gaustad and Noll, 573).
Powerful statements to come from the president. I wish people read more of Abraham Lincoln than just his “Gettysburg Address.” Seeking pardon for the national sins is a good thought. I know that such a statement would never come from any president in the twenty-first century due to the divided opinions on the place (or lack of place) that faith can have in government; however, I think one of the “national sins” today is simply thinking we are incapable of committing national sins. We look at the USA as a place that is immune to horrors and mistreatment of people, but unfortunately these happen here too. I think if Lincoln were alive and president today, he would still be shocked at how people in this country treat one another. I share his hope that God would grant “restoration” to the divided areas of our country, even today.