Lincoln and the will of God

Andrew Ferguson has an interesting essay on Lincoln’s faith in the Wall Street Journal this week. He begins by noting that every faith and belief tries to claim Lincoln as one of their own:

A booster of spiritualism, Nettie considered it vitally important to enlist Lincoln in her cause, even if only posthumously. In other contexts, the Lincoln biographer David Donald has called this ambition “getting right with Lincoln,” and since April 1865 it has been pursued by Americans of every imaginable persuasion: Leninists and vivisectionists, pacifists and vegans, gold bugs and free-marketers, imperialists and one-worlders, even Democrats and Republicans–all have tried, at different times and with varying degrees of plausibility, to claim Lincoln as one of their own. For generations, Americans have liked to say they wanted their children to be like Lincoln: principled, resolute, patient, kind. But what we’ve really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, whoever we are.

Nowhere has the appropriation been as relentless as in the matters of religion and Lincoln’s spiritual life. Mary Baker Eddy claimed the martyred president as an early proponent of Christian Science, though her discovery of Divine Healing came a year after his death. In the early 1900s, the California guru Paramahansa Yogananda announced that Lincoln had once been a yogi in the Himalayas.

Closer to earth, the evangelizing atheist Robert Ingersoll tagged him as a model of the freethinking skeptic, and the founders of the Ethical Culture Society agreed. In the 1920s, Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago asserted that Lincoln–who was reared by Baptists, married by an Episcopalian, and subjected in his adulthood to endless hours sitting in straight-backed pews being preached at by Presbyterians–was nevertheless a man of closeted Catholic faith, who delighted in laying out an altar for Mass whenever his Catholic aunt came to visit.

Fergusen then explores the sad fact that Lincoln’s faith has always been difficult to ascertain, and notes that following his death several ministers claimed that Lincoln was an orthodox Christian:

When it comes to a larger and historically more important subject like Lincoln’s religion, the problems only ramify. We know that Lincoln attended a Baptist church with his parents as a boy in Kentucky and Indiana, because some church records survive. But from there his religious identity fragments in the conflicting testimony of those who knew him.

One view satisfied the hunger, widespread in the country after his martyrdom, to believe that the president had been a devout and orthodox Christian. Though it was widely known that he never joined a church–he sometimes appeared at the Springfield Presbyterian church where his wife was a member–at least two respected clergymen stepped forward to claim that he was ready to become a member of their congregations before the assassin’s bullet interfered with his plans. One particularly influential source was Noah Brooks, a journalist who had befriended Lincoln in Illinois during the 1850s, followed him to Washington, visited with him frequently at the White House, and had been appointed Lincoln’s secretary shortly before the assassination. In a best-selling memoir, Brooks confirmed what many wanted to believe: Lincoln, he said, “talked always of Christ, his cross, his atonement” and drew comfort from–and these words, Brooks said, were Lincoln’s own–“the hope of blessed immortality through Jesus Christ.”

Another clergyman who knew the Lincoln family confirmed Brooks’s account of Lincoln’s orthodox Christianity and added a piquant detail: his last words to Mary Lincoln that night at Ford’s Theater, which the clergyman heard from Mrs. Lincoln herself. Lincoln had reportedly said that, as soon as his presidency was over, “we will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior.” There was, he told his wife (according to the clergyman), “no city on earth he so much desired to see as Jerusalem.” Then the bullet hit him. The thought that Lincoln’s last word was “Jerusalem” was greatly reassuring to his devout countrymen.

The thought would be much more plausible, however, were such devout sentiments not allegedly spoken while Lincoln was spending the evening of Good Friday watching a trashy play at a slightly disreputable theater.

Fergusen ends with a discussion of Lincoln’s own “Reflections on the Divine Will” written during the most disheartening moments of the Civil War:

From 15 years later, we have another, much better known fragment. Like the Niagara note, Lincoln wrote this to himself and stashed it away. It too reveals Lincoln’s religious sense but in a different, more profound phase. From an awed appreciation of the physical world, it had deepened into a much darker apprehension of a Providence that haunts human affairs. The catalyst for this change, of course, was the Civil War–the torrent of suffering and blood that threatened to destroy the country and that Lincoln himself had played a part in unleashing. His secretaries, who found the scrap among his private papers, dated it September 1862, though it could have been written later. They called it “Meditation on the Divine Will.”

It is written with a logician’s care, in the categories of a lawyer. “The will of God prevails,” it begins. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time.”

Yet the bloody back-and-forth of the war gives no hint as to which of the two parties God has chosen to side with. That very inconclusiveness raises the terrible possibility that God is on neither side–or, rather, that God is simply in favor of the war itself for reasons unknowable. “I am almost ready to say this is probably true–that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” The will of God, after all, prevails; his sovereignty, Lincoln has come to believe, is the necessary condition of human affairs. “He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Note the bloodless phrasing: “I am almost ready to say this is probably true.” Almost . . . probably. It is the expression of a cautious, legalistic mind being shaken up–confronting something too large to fit the intellectual compartments he has used to understand experience. But he is also being led, or leading himself, to a definite conclusion: This is no ordinary war, because this is no ordinary country.

The question of why Providence should have willed such a calamity is foreshadowed in one final fragment to consider, written (most likely) in the early days of the war. In it Lincoln plays with the figure from Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”

. . .

Read together, the fragments show Lincoln’s mind as it matures toward his two greatest utterances, the fullest expressions of his most fundamental ideas. These are, of course, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. They are not merely works of statecraft but homilies in a civil religion of his own devising, steeped in the cadences and rhetoric of the King James Bible. They were the consequence of Lincoln’s deepest contemplation and belief, arrived at with some care and (we may suppose) discomfort. At Gettysburg, Lincoln explained why the country–the Union–was worth preserving. It was not any Union that was being preserved, it was a particular kind of Union: a Union dedicated to a timeless proposition that existed before the Union was even conceived.

Read it all here.

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