It was on the night of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Earlier that day, Lincoln was unusually cheerful. He had spoken with his son Robert that morning about his experience as a soldier, and General Robert E. Lee had recently surrendered his Confederate forces at the Appomattox Court House. Discussions with his Cabinet now turned to the delicate matter of the reconstruction of the South. With characteristic compassion, Lincoln declared that “no one need expect me to take any part in hanging or killing these men, even the worst of them.” He added, “We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union.”
It is all too easy to make comparisons between Lincoln, the man who lost his life after saving the Union, and Jesus, the man who Christians believe died to save all of humanity. But as we celebrate another Passover and Easter, it is worthwhile to reflect on the role of faith in Lincoln’s life. In his rhetoric, statesmanship, and personal convictions, Lincoln demonstrated a unique faith in both God and human reason. His moral example, always worth revisiting, is especially relevant for today’s divided country.
Lincoln did, however, believe in an omnipresent Providence, a God to which he was intimately related. According to Lord Charnwood, Lincoln’s best biographer, Lincoln was dismayed when some clergymen opposed his presidential candidacy. He confessed to an acquaintance that he was not a Christian, and then said, “I know that there is a God and that He hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming and I know that His hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me, and I think He has, I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything; I know I am right because I know that liberty is right, for Christ teaches it, and Christ is God. I have told them that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and Christ and reason say the same, and they will find it so.”
SLIDESHOW: Lincoln’s Assassination
Yet as Lincoln assumed the presidency and faced the crisis of the Civil War, he appeared to be less sanguine about the ability of reason to overcome unruly passions. His language became increasingly religious. In his first inaugural address, he insisted that “intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him” would guide Americans through the present difficulties. Channeling Jesus’s instruction in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies,” Lincoln concludes with a haunting and mystical plea for unity: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” (Emphasis mine.)
SLIDESHOW: Photographing Lincoln
In the debate over emancipation, Lincoln struggled to reconcile the demands of religious leaders to free the slaves with the realities of the war effort. He hated slavery, but he was also wary of losing the support of the border slave states. He replied to a group of Chicago churches in 1862 with evident frustration: “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; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!” Days later, the Union victory at the bloody battle of Antietam provided cover for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But there was another factor in his decision. Before Antietam, Lincoln had made a promise to God in his prayers that he would push for emancipation if the rebels were expelled from Maryland. Charnwood relates Lincoln’s discussions with his Cabinet: “‘It might be thought strange,’ he said, ‘that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters, when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favour of the slaves.’” “Such is the story,” Charnwood adds, “of what we may now remember as one of the signal events in the chequered progress of Christianity.”
It is our duty as citizens, Lincoln concluded, to trust in God, to care for one another, and to seek peace.
Other tragedies befell Lincoln during the war, including the death of his son Willie. But he did not succumb to grief or the strains of the conflict. If anything, Lincoln became more faithful and assured of the righteousness of his cause, but also more charitable and merciful. Lincoln, Charnwood writes, was “a man who started by being tough and shrewd and canny and became very strong and very wise, started with an inclination to honesty, courage, and kindness, and became, under a tremendous strain, honest, brave, and kind to an almost tremendous degree.”
Lincoln’s second inaugural is his most intensely religious speech. Though he acknowledges that both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God,” both cannot be right. Still, “let us judge not, that we be not judged.” If God wills that the war must continue, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Yet it is our duty as citizens, Lincoln concludes, to trust in God, to care for one another, and to seek peace: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see 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.”
Lincoln’s embrace of religious rhetoric in his later speeches and writings does not necessarily conflict with his earlier optimism about the ultimate victory of reason. Indeed, both reason and faith can serve as pillars for the American regime of ordered liberty, as Lincoln demonstrated throughout his presidency. Reason enables us to discern the natural rights of all human beings, and to seek knowledge and the inherited wisdom of the past. But our reason often becomes a slave to our passions, and faith reminds us of our duties toward one another and our Creator.
To sum up Lincoln’s faith, one cannot improve upon the assessment of Charnwood, whose austere and elegant prose mirrors the speeches of his subject: “This man had stood alone in the dark. He had done justice; he had loved mercy; he had walked humbly with his God.”
– Daniel Wiser Jr. is an assistant editor of National Affairs.