Lincoln and the Will of God
Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.
Today is the 204th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. One of the many things I find fascinating about Lincoln is his view of the Civil War, a view which is not much considered these days. Lincoln viewed it simply as a punishment for the sin of slavery. Lincoln put this idea forth clearly in a letter to Albert Hodges on April 4, 1864. Hodges was the editor of the Frankfort Commonwealth in Kentucky and Lincoln was explaining why he had found it necessary to adopt a policy of Emancipation and to enlist black troops, neither policy being popular in Kentucky or any of the border states. At the close of the letter Lincoln disclaimed that he had controlled the events which had led to his embracing abolition as a war goal:
I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.
God was willing the removal of slavery and gave the War as a punishment to both North and South for the sin of slavery. This was not a spur of the moment thought by Lincoln, but rather the fruit of much anguished contemplation as to why the War came and what it meant.
We see Lincoln’s thought process in development in a note that he wrote and which was not meant for publication. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay found it and preserved it. It has become known as Lincoln’s Meditation on the Divine Will:
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.
We Americans tend to be an optimistic people and most of us believe that our country has received many blessings from God. Both of these features of our national life were far stronger in Lincoln’s day than our own. Then the War came. Explaining why this terrible catastrophe had been visited upon the country was of concern to many of the people who lived through that terrible trial. Lincoln was far from unique in viewing the War as a punishment for sin.
In a letter to a little Northern girl on May 5, 1861, Robert E. Lee too saw the coming War as perhaps punishment for national sins:
Lincoln put his beliefs about the War and God in immortal words in his second inaugural delivered just a bit over a month before the War would claim him as one of its final victims:
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? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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.”