by Jeff Polet
We’ve drawn the reader’s attention in a prior essay to Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address,” one of his more interesting speeches. That’s an intense competition, because Lincoln was an unusually gifted speechwriter — a testimony to the benefits of reading the Bible and Shakespeare and Poe at a young age. While “The Gettysburg Address” is his most famous speech, his “Second Inaugural Address” is, for my money, his greatest. The words are familiar to anyone who has visited the Lincoln Memorial, inscribed as they are on the north interior wall. And its rhetoric inspires us during our own fraught moment: the idea that we should hold “malice for none” but exercise “charity for all; its admonitions of humility, noting that both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God” but if they draw different conclusions they should “judge not that we be not judged” but should nonetheless proceed “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right”; to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and heal our divisions in the hope of a “just and lasting peace.”
My own attention to the speech has long been directed toward a curious part in the middle of it. Lincoln is at his most interesting when he speculates on the relationship between God’s purposes and human action. Convinced of the rightness of the cause on whose path he had led the nation, Lincoln was consumed by doubt and despair in late 1862. The war going badly and the prospect of significant losses in the election of 1862 forced Lincoln to reconsider the already tenuous link between divine plans and human ones. In September of 1862, he penned a private diary entry that reads as follows:
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 -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. 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. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Note the reference to human being as “instrumentalities” after stipulating that in all things “the will of God prevails.” Lincoln is squarely in the world of theodicy here — justifying the ways of God to man, a problem that typically arises when dealing with evil and suffering. The central problem for Lincoln gets clarified when he considers “that God wills this contest;” but why would God allow it to continue and, perchance, allow the other side to prevail? How can one maintain the belief in a just and loving God who would allow secessionists and slave-owners to win the war?
I think this document is vital for understanding the aforementioned passage from the Second Inaugural:
The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses for it must needs be that offenses come but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him.
Observe that Lincoln first claims that slavery itself is “one of the offenses which in the providence of God must needs come,” in response to which God sends “the scourge of war” to punish the nation for the sin of slavery. The key to understanding this tension rests in his reference to Matthew 18:7 — sin will come into the world, and woe unto him by whom it comes. The difficulty results from the idea of necessity involved, that sin itself had to come into the world as part of God’s providential plan, and presumably, the reason for this would be so that the full majesty of God could be revealed in the process of salvation (indicated by the coda in 18:11). The problem is compounded by Lincoln’s observing that American slavery was part of God’s providential plan (a not uncommon way to think about the problem of evil, but one pretty thoroughly taken apart by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov). To put it bluntly, that looks to human reasoning like a bad plan.
Lincoln attempts to resolve the tension by insisting that the theo-logical paradox should do nothing to diminish our faith in those “divine attributes which the believers in a loving God always ascribe to him”; most specifically, God’s justice, mercy, kindness, and love. In other words, God’s omnipotence is not a barrier to our believing in his benevolence. But this speech is hortatory, not argumentation, and Lincoln’s more assured presentation of the theological problem in the Second Inaugural likely reflects his confidence that the right side is going to win the war, a confidence he did not possess in the fall of 1862, the results of which would leave a mark on his thinking from that point forward. The restored faith in a just and loving God in whose hands we were instruments became the bedrock for his view of charity that followed.
- Given the central role that Lincoln plays both in American history and in our Constitutional thinking, does the overt theology of his thinking make you reconsider the ways in which we try to resolve issues concerning religion and politics or church and state?
- What would be the argument for being charitable and merciful if it were not to have a religious dimension?
- What do you think of Lincoln’s view that human beings are “instrumentalities” in the hand of God?