by Mark Malvasi
Anyone who writes about Abraham Lincoln must confront the “Lincoln Myth.” To penetrate the legend that now surrounds Lincoln is a formidable task for, as M. E. Bradford noted, the events of Lincoln’s life and the circumstances of his death placed him “beyond the reach of ordinary historical inquiry and assessment.” He is, Bradford continued, the American version of the “dying god,” an American messiah who shed his sacred blood to ensure “a new birth of freedom” in a country dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Bradford saw in Lincoln “a major source of our present confusion” about the history, nature, and meaning of the United States. One need not share Bradford’s critical perspective to recognize the difficulties attendant upon studying the historical, as opposed to the mythical, Lincoln. My charge, to explain Lincoln’s religious beliefs, compounds the problem, and almost makes me despair of unraveling the myth, for who can know how the spirit moves in an individual soul. It may be possible, though, to circumvent the problem and to understand something essential about Lincoln’s faith by investigating his engagement with another, larger myth: the myth of America itself.
“What are the Great United States for,” asked Charles Dickens in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzelwit (1844) “ . . . if not the regeneration of man?” Long before Columbus discovered the Americas, there had developed a body a literature that celebrated the New World as a symbol of emancipation from the sins of the Old. In the minds of writers from Homer to Thomas More, the mysterious lands that lay across the sea and beyond the horizon were Atlantis, El Dorado, Ultima Thule, the Promised Land, the New Zion, the New Canaan, the New Jerusalem, a veritable Garden of Eden in which human beings could escape the ravages of time, recover their lost innocence, solve their problems, satisfy their desires, and begin life anew. Philip Freneau’s and Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s “Poem on the Rising Glory of America,” published in 1771, marked a culmination of sorts in this literary tradition. Freneau and Brackenridge imagined a “paradise anew” in America, where the Fall would be reversed, and “by no second Adam lost.” In America:
No dangerous tree with deadly fruit shall grow
No tempting serpent to allure the soul
From native innocence. A Canaan here,
Another Canaan shall excel the old. . . .
This “new Jerusalem, sent down from heaven,” Freneau and Brackenridge intoned, promised freedom from toil, illness, and death. Here the bounty of nature would be restored and the violence of nature quelled. The destructive human passions would be calmed; war and crime would cease. America was destined to lead the rest of world into this radiant future millennium:
Such days the world,
And such, AMERICA, thou first shall have,
When ages, yet to come, have run their round,
And future years of bliss alone remain.
“The American myth saw life and history as just beginning,” concluded the literary scholar and historian R. W. B. Lewis in his classic study The American Adam. “It described the world as starting up again under the fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first chance had been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening Old World.”
The central text in expounding this vision of America is, of course, the lay sermon that John Winthrop, the lord of Groton Manor, composed in the spring of 1630 aboard the Arabella during the long journey across the Atlantic from England to America. The Puritan community bound for Massachusetts, Winthrop explained to the assembled company, was to be “A Modell of Christian Charity,” united in the love of Christ and dedicated to the service of God. “We ought to account ourselves knit together by the bond of love . . .” Winthrop stated, and “entered into a covenant with Him for his work.” Paraphrasing the Gospel according to Matthew, 5:14, Winthrop asserted that the New England plantation was poised to become as “a citty vpon a hill,” a beacon to inspire present and future generations, lighting the path of righteousness and the way to salvation.
As the chosen people of God, the Puritans had a special responsibility, a divinely ordained mission, to live by His commandments and to spread the gospel throughout the world. As a devout Calvinist, however, Winthrop could not but issue a stern warning to temper these hopeful prospects. He knew too well the depravity that governed the human heart and the sinfulness that defined the human condition. Pride, greed, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, and wrath–the seven deadly sins–might undo the highest ideals and reverse the noblest purposes. If the Puritans did not keep faith with God, if they reenacted the Fall of Man in New England, Winthrop cautioned:
we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world: we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us, till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
The punishment for sin would again be exile from the Garden. This time there is no possibility of forgiveness and redemption. Should the “citty vpon a Hill” fail, it would carry the rest of mankind with it into the darkness.
In “A Modell of Christian Charity,” Winthrop introduced not only the utopian vision of the American future that Ronald Reagan and others before and since were so fond of quoting, but also the apocalyptic strain that has ever since lingered beneath the surface of American thought. Lincoln himself recalled both aspects of Winthrop’s conception of America when he announced more than two centuries after Winthrop that the United States was “the last, best hope of man on earth.” If America, the indispensable nation, failed in its redemptive mission, the world failed, and humanity was lost. At the same time, Lincoln derived from Winthrop’s “Modell of Christian Charity” another essential–and essentially American–idea, for implicit in Winthrop’s exposition is the concept of change. Winthrop’s sermon dismantled the medieval picture of the world, even though he was in important respects himself a man of the Middle Ages. He did not consider society fixed and immutable; man need not be hostage to the past. Governments, churches, even entire societies had changed for the worse, but they might still be reformed through human effort and divine grace. Human beings could free themselves from custom and tradition, and could remake the world. For Lincoln, as much as for Winthrop, that dream was the promise of America.
The intellectual and spiritual heir to the Puritans, Lincoln also believed that Americans were the chosen people embarked upon a providential mission. Yet, like Winthrop and a generation of Puritan divines, Lincoln often despaired of the United States fulfilling its destiny. The problem as he saw it was the longstanding conflict over slavery, which began to intensify in the late 1840s. Lincoln’s position on the slavery question was complex but by no means unique. He opposed slavery as immoral; it was, he thought, an enormity that disgraced the nation and poisoned the lives of all whom it touched. “Slavery,” he declared, “is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature–opposition to it, is his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow.” Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery notwithstanding, he, at the same time, could devise no safe and peaceful remedy by which to eradicate it from the states where it existed. Instead, he advocated what amounted to a policy of containment, which, in time, became a fundamental principle of the Republican Party, whereby the national government would prevent the establishment of slavery in the western territories in the hope that slavery would eventually die a natural death without endangering the Union.
Distancing himself somewhat from his Puritan inheritance and embracing the legacy of the Enlightenment, Lincoln argued that the Founding Fathers had organized the United States around a “great idea” and had yet failed to eliminate a potentially fatal weakness. The “great idea” about which Lincoln spoke was the recognition of freedom as the natural condition of man. To eighteenth-century thinkers, the Age of Enlightenment emancipated the mind from superstition, unveiled the truths of nature, vindicated the rights of man, and pointed the way not only toward human improvement but also human perfection. For these apostles of liberty, slavery was a criminal violation of natural and human law. Its continued existence rendered impossible peace, order, and morality, and confounded the very possibility of civilization.
Many of the men who pondered independence from British tyranny thought themselves products of the Enlightenment. Their faith in human intelligence, reason, and benevolence encouraged them to believe that they could establish a more perfect union in which liberty and justice reigned. Theirs would be a Novus Ordo Seclorum, a new order for the ages. In America, there would be no more oppression from despotic monarchs. All men would hereafter be free to use their God-given talents to benefit themselves and their fellow citizens. Life would become something more than an endless contest of greed and power. Slavery had no place in this enlightened world view, for slavery was a cancer devouring the heart of the Republic, the impediment that prevented America from completing its redemptive mission. Although the founders had acknowledged the problem of slavery and taken steps to restrict its spread, they had not destroyed it. Hoping to have placed slavery on the way to gradual extinction, the founders, Lincoln avowed, “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for . . . even through never perfectly attained.”
Lincoln’s unremitting campaign against slavery arose not only from his private conviction of its evil, not only from his battle against his personal defects, which made him more tolerant of shortcomings in others, but also from his Christian understanding of human nature and the human condition. A Christian pilgrim embarked upon a journey through a fallen, sinful world, Lincoln did not expect to prevail. Prepared for humiliation and defeat, he nonetheless vowed to fight on, trusting in the Lord and, as he said in the conclusion of his famous Cooper Union Speech, trusting in his “faith that right makes might.” “In that faith,” he added, “let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Throughout his life, Lincoln’s faith gave him a sense of meaning and purpose that sustained him, but it also became the standard against which he measured his character and his accomplishments and found them wanting. If he were truly doing the work of God on earth, then he frequently wondered whether God could not have found a more capable agent to act in His behalf. Surely such a one was available for the choosing. Still, whatever doubts he experienced, Lincoln always responded to his own vocation with determination, forbearance, and humility. More than once he compared life to a ship at sea. Lincoln transformed that ordinary metaphor, already hackneyed by his day, into an image that yielded fresh insight. On that vessel, Lincoln saw himself as no mere passenger. He was rather a sailor on duty with a job to do. From thence arose his determination. At the same time, Lincoln knew that he was not the captain of the ship. He took his orders from God. From thence arose his forbearance and humility. In this uneasy, anxious combination of deference to the Almighty and the willful exercise of human power, however meager it may have been, Lincoln forged his transcendent wisdom.
Elizabeth Keckley, who was the seamstress and dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, has provided a story that illustrates this aspect of Lincoln’s character and outlook. During the first months of the Civil War, Keckley recalled watching Lincoln enter the room where she was fitting the First Lady. “His step was slow and heavy,” she remembered, “and his face sad. Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection.” Lincoln explained that he had just returned from the War Department, and the news was, he said, “dark, dark everywhere.” Lincoln sat in silence for a moment longer, before taking down a Bible from a stand near the sofa and beginning to read. “A quarter of an hour passed,” Keckley continued, “and on glancing at the sofa the face of the president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone; in fact, the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope.” Wanting to see what he had read that so inspired him, Keckley pretended to have dropped something and, moving behind Lincoln to pick it up, she peered over his shoulder. He was reading the Book of Job.
In any conventional sense, Lincoln found the consolations of religion elusive, even as he had witnessed how faith could soften the hardships of life. Unorthodox in his beliefs, Lincoln charted his own theological course. He envisioned frail, imperfect human beings not escaping but transforming their earthly misery into something greater than itself and thereby attaining fulfillment in the steadfast performance of the duty to which God had called them. Lincoln’s conscientious and submissive attention to the mission that God had imposed upon him became the guiding principle of his life, and, in his view, was the very meaning of America, which had a divinely appointed mission of its own to discharge. Lincoln thus dismissed the idea, then current among evangelicals, that sin could be erased through confession and repentance. On the contrary, he believed, as his law partner William Herndon expounded, “that God could not forgive; that punishment has to follow sin.” However penitent the sinner, for Lincoln, no sin went unpunished. As an intellectual and spiritual heir of the Puritans, Lincoln was something of a Calvinist, and he held to a hard doctrine. Forgiveness could not come without suffering. God commanded it; the sinful nature of man required it.
Unlike the Calvinists, though, Lincoln was not a fatalist. He does not seem to have placed much stock in the doctrine of predetermination, whereby before the creation of the heavens and the earth God had laid out the entire course of history, had already decided whom He would save and whom He would damn, and had scorned all human efforts to alter his judgment. Nor does Lincoln seem to have endorsed the Roman Catholic concept of grace, which empowered human beings to influence the divine verdict on themselves and the world by receiving the sacraments and performing other good works. Lincoln did believe in the possibility of individual improvement and social reform. Human beings were not entirely the helpless victims of blind fate or the playthings of a remorseless God. Human reason, Lincoln thought, could glimpse purpose and meaning amid chaos. Men could learn from experience when their actions were not in accord with the vast, unseen order that God had created. Theirs was a chastened wisdom born of failure and suffering.
To the best of his ability and to the extent that circumstances permitted, Lincoln practiced what he preached. As president, he referred to himself always as an instrument in the hands of God and subordinated his own misery and sorrow to the misery and sorrow of the American people. It was his duty as their leader, especially in a time of war, to put their needs before his own. It was the will of God. “I shall be most happy indeed,” Lincoln confessed, “if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty . . . for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.” God had charged him, he said, with “so vast and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” When friends and advisors warned of assassination, Lincoln dismissed their concerns, saying “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”
The griefs of his presidency were without end, but they only deepened his humility before God and his resolve to carry out His divine purpose, whatever the personal cost. Whenever news reached him that a friend or colleague had died on the battlefield, Lincoln was distraught. Then, on February 20, 1862, came what was surely the hardest loss of all to bear when Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of an acute malarial infection. In his eulogy, the Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, whose Presbyterian church Lincoln attended but never joined, preached that “in the hour of trial” one must put faith in “Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well.” If he placed his trust in the Lord, Gurley reassured Lincoln his “ sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing, `It is good for us that we have been afflicted’.” Lincoln asked Gurley for a copy of the sermon, and found not only comfort but also inspiration in his words. For Lincoln incorporated these sentiments into his “Second Inaugural Address.”
Despite tragedies both national and personal, Lincoln had to carry on. He never used his belief in divine providence to avoid the responsibilities of the office he had been called to occupy. Believing that all men, although subordinate to God, were called to act in the world, Lincoln did not hesitate, even as he knew the specter of error and sin haunted all human endeavors, even those begun with good intentions and undertaken for honorable purposes. Everyday Lincoln made scores of decisions that would now be the work of the executive staff or the civil service. Not only did he assign military personnel and ponder troop movements, but he also supervised executive departments, controlled patronage, reviewed all court-martial cases, and read military dispatches from commanders in the field. In every decision he made, Lincoln relied on his own judgment based on the best information available to him. He expected neither a miracle nor revelation to guide him, and he never tried to divine the will or the intentions of an inscrutable Providence. “These are not . . . the days of miracles, “ he reflected, “and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.” Men must not pretend to know the mind of God, he affirmed, or worse, to act as if they were gods unto themselves.
Critics of Lincoln, such as the southern conservative thinker M. E. Bradford, rebuked Lincoln for committing precisely the heresies that he decried. According to Bradford, as the leader of a “puritan people,” Lincoln prosecuted a bloody war against the Confederacy, which he had misidentified as an imperialist slavocracy. Lincoln excused, and even encouraged, the barbarism of Union troops in direct correspondence to the evil that he discerned among his southern neighbors, whom he had made his enemies. Bradford’s principal objection to Lincoln’s politics derived from Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence as embodying the “deferred promise” of equality that Lincoln tried to bring to fruition. In Bradford’s view, Lincoln’s “second founding,” articulated in the “Gettysburg Address,” introduced for the first time in American history the prospect of endless social upheaval and political revolution. For Lincoln had dedicated himself to realizing the proposition that equality of opportunity and equality of condition were the foundation and purpose of the American union. Lincoln had thereby distorted the meaning of American history, Bradford insisted, and Lincoln’s political gnosticism had fundamentally altered the character and the future of the United States.
Insofar as Lincoln was an American gnostic, Bradford was right to call attention to, and to condemn, what he called Lincoln’s “relentless will.” A nation originally conceived as an alternative to, and an escape from the Old World, the United States has been particularly susceptible to such millennialist ambitions of the sort that Bradford detected in Lincoln’s thought and conduct. The gnostic imagination disdains the stubborn realities of history in order to confirm the old lie that men, through their own agency, can alter the terms of existence and transform the nature of being. They can be as the gods. Defying the limits of nature and history, Americans transformed their nation into a concept, a set of propositions, an idea to be shaped and reshaped by the mind and the will. The hope that America constituted a holy nation, immune to the wages of sin and the ravages of time, became the ethos of America to which all Americans were obliged to give evangelical consent. As a result, the main impetus of American thought has often been utopian. In America, the idea of utopia, which for Thomas More was an unattainable “no place” that could never exist, became confused with a community immanent in history, an intuition of the future to which Americans belonged as no other people ever has or can. America, it seemed, offered not the redemption of, but the redemption from, history.
Bradford detected such a gnostic spirit in Lincoln’s personal ambition, which his law partner Herndon noted, was a “little engine that knew no rest.” He detected it in Lincoln’s sacrifice of principle to expedience, such as in his decision to acquiesce in the appointment of the unscrupulous Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as secretary of war in order to win Cameron’s political support during the Republican convention of 1860. He detected it in Lincoln’s own marriage of politics and morality, which enabled him to argue that the future of the United States depended on the political success of the Republican Party in general and, specifically, on his own election to office. He detected it in Lincoln’s insistence, articulated most forcefully in the “Gettysburg Address,” that, contrary to history and experience, the United States was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” which, in Bradford’s mind, was an early expression of the totalitarian obsession with conformity and uniformity that has infected the modern world. He detected it at last in Lincoln’s increasingly savage conduct of the war, especially in the terrorism that he allowed to be unleashed against the civilian population of the South, which Bradford likened to the disgraceful tactics of Cromwell and Robespierre.
In his analysis, Bradford emphasized, and perhaps exaggerated, the worldly side of Lincoln’s character, portraying him as a man who conceived his version of American history as itself the source of redemption, the means not only of completing human destiny but also of maintaining it under human control, and thereby evading the divine will. There is another, and, ultimately, a more important, aspect of Lincoln’s character that Bradford underestimated and that Lincoln expressed not in the “Gettysburg Address” but in his “Second Inaugural.”
Lincoln may have believed that Americans were the chosen people of God and that America was a “Citty vpon a Hill.” But, like John Winthrop, he lamented that his countrymen had violated the divine covenant. The frightful civil war that afflicted the United States was divine retribution, which God had sent to punish an inconstant people for the national sin of slavery. While others in the Union and the Confederacy invoked the blessings of God upon their cause, Lincoln distinguished between mortal desire and divine purpose. Among the papers found after his death, Lincoln’s private secretary, John M. Hay, discovered an untitled and undated statement that has since become known as the “Meditation on the Divine Will.” In it, Lincoln wrote:
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 can not 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–and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect this[,] His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true–that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet–By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest–Yet the contest began–And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day–Yet the contest proceeds–
The “Meditation on the Divine Will” is a rehearsal of the ideas that Lincoln expressed in the “Second Inaugural Address.”
By the time Lincoln stood on the east portico of the Capitol to take the oath of office for the second time, he knew that the war could not last much longer. General Grant was slowly decimating the Army of Northern Virginia, which had entrenched at Petersburg. Meanwhile, General Sherman, having ravaged Georgia and South Carolina, was at that moment encountering only token resistance as he moved through North Carolina and prepared to unite with Grant to crush Lee’s army. Despite the virtual assurance of Union victory, the tone of Lincoln’s speech was hardly triumphant or self-congratulatory. Having long brooded about the nature and meaning of the conflict, Lincoln told his audience that neither the Union victory nor the Confederate defeat were the will of God. God did not safeguard any state or further the designs of man. Rather, Lincoln said, “the Almighty had His own purposes,” which he revealed only partially and episodically, if at all. Most nineteenth-century religious thinkers, suggests the historian of religion Mark Noll, not only assumed God’s favor for their cause but also believed that they could read His mind and divine his will. Lincoln did the opposite, professing in the “Second Inaugural Address,” as in the “Meditation on the Divine Will,” not to know what God wanted or intended. “How was it,” Noll asks, “that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could . . . give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?”
Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural” is among the most profound and even sublime documents in the history of American literature and thought, for in it, Lincoln gives a providential view of history. From the human perspective, he implies, history is always contingent, wholly subject to the human will. That view, though, is a delusion. When human beings fail in their Christian obligations, when they abandon the laws of Moses and the teachings of Jesus, when they betray the solemn trust reposed in them and advance their own interests at the expense of the divine covenant, God will have His justice–and, though His mercy is boundless, His justice is terrible. The defiant continuation of slavery had offended God, Lincoln supposed, and, willing to remove it:
He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came. . . . Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God will 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.”
Shortly after the inauguration, the old Whig and Republican stalwart Thurlow Weed of New York congratulated Lincoln upon his address. In a letter dated March 15, 1865, Lincoln offered a telling reply to Weed’s praise, He wrote:
Every one likes a compliment. Thank you for yours. . . on the recent Inaugural Address. . . .I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.
Few today subscribe to Lincoln’s interpretation of the Civil War as a divine punishment inflicted on the United States for Americans’ collective defiance of God’s will. Faith now operates within narrower parameters. Nor do many assent, as Lincoln was willing to assent, to the indefinite continuation of agony if it were necessary to absolve the guilt of the nation and to chasten the messianic illusions and the utopian fantasies that have for so long confounded the vision of America as a “Citty vpon a Hill.”
Mark Malvasi is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and teaches history at Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere Circa 1500-1888. His most recent book is The Finder, a collection of poems, published by Cranberry Tree Press in 2013.