Mr. Lincoln’s Sermon: The Mystery of Evil

By Neil Earle

Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) freeing millions of slaves.

At a time in American history when woefully misguided extremists are tearing down Lincoln statues and deleting his name from school buildings, we might profit from remembering some of his legacy. In April 1865 President Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address in the shadow of the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 – by far the greatest catastrophe in American History.

More than 620,000 Americans died in that horrendous conflict, an experience that largely shaped the destiny and identity of the emerging United States. In addition to the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and the ending of the threat to a unified nation the bloody Civil War seemed to seal the American sense of nationhood. Historians note that before 1861 Americans said “the United States are;” after 1865 it was “the United States is.”

For Christians, however, the events of 1861-1865 offer something else, namely, a chance to explore the Christian approach to trauma and suffering and intense division as conveyed through the mind and spirit of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Overwhelming Question

“Where is God when people suffer?”

This is in some ways the most difficult question Christian pastors and thinkers have to answer. Especially when there is senseless suffering dancing across our TV screens. Through all the horror and bloodshed of the 1860s it was President Lincoln who seemed to try most often and publicly to square the difficult question: Where is God in all this? Christian historian Mark Noll makes the profound comment: “It is one of the great ironies of the history of Christianity in this country that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation’s deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of God and humanity” (A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, page 322).

‘The Secret of the Lord’

In assessing the horrors of four years of war President Lincoln was almost unconsciously drawing upon an early and authentically American strand of interpretation for inordinate suffering: suffering as a judgment from God. This is but one of five aspects of this weighty subject that Christian thinkers have brought forth across the centuries. Lincoln was not unfamiliar with them in his own self-taught theology. Along with Judgment comes the Biblical conviction that we live in a Broken Creation, or at least a Creation somehow unfinished. The beautiful Eden of Genesis 1 and 2 becomes corroded and blighted by the events of Genesis 3 – what has come to be known as the Fall of Man.

The idea that creation is not yet finished surfaced early in Christian thought and was intimated by St. Paul in Romans 8:19-24. There he proclaimed that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” The “historical darkness” which Lincoln was trying to penetrate makes more sense when we understand that the future, that future announced in Christian theology where God is directly involved in human affairs, this is when final mysteries will be revealed (1 Corinthians 13:12). This hope-filled theology promises to make sense of the Past and the Present. While the creation groans as if in childbirth right now (Romans 8:22), this will not be its final lot. All the evidence is not yet in. There is more to the story.

Saint Augustine took the argument further by arguing that Evil has no existence apart from Good, that evil is a parasite and piggybacks on the good. Earthquakes and nuclear accidents occur but human beings gallantly risk their lives in an effort to repair the damage. This was true of New York firefighters after 9/11 and later in Japan. Such devotion makes sense of John Calvin’s position that God works in His sovereign will to bring Good even out of Evil. The slaughter at the Battle of Antietam – America’s bloodiest day with nearly 6000 dead – gave Lincoln the incentive to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This was according to “a covenant he had made with God” he told his cabinet (McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, page 357).

Thus: “The Almighty has his own purposes.” That forceful declaration from America’s sixteenth president almost reads like Scripture which in many ways it elaborates and explains. A President who had been trained by events to bow to the divine will spoke in his Second Inaugural as he had all his life – guided by Biblical cadences and Biblical themes. Lincoln’s sometimes mystical takes on the events of 1861-65 offer evidence that there are indeed times when the Unseen Hand and the seemingly independent ways of man sometimes merge in a dramatic convergence.

In the end the President presented the explanation that worked for him. And his words endure. He was probably wise enough to know that each human being has to tread the path of faith for themselves, that, as Psalm 25:14 says, the secret of the Lord is with those who fear him and seek him. May these his words inspire us all.

So true. President Lincoln was hardly a Christian at all in the conventional sense. He was by no means evangelical in his views and had been accused of deism and even atheism in his early life. Lincoln even disagreed with the extreme manifestations of the abolitionist crusade, steeped as it was in Biblical themes but threatening to tear the country apart.

A turning point came for Lincoln after the death of his son Eddie in 1850. He made a good friend of an erudite Presbyterian pastor, James Smith, a sound-minded defender of Christianity whom Lincoln could respect. Lincoln thus attended a Presbyterian church more often through the 1850s as he did so occasionally in Washington. He could hardly escape a Biblical background. Lincoln had grown up during the heyday of the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s at a time when Bible-reading exploded in this country. His father was a registered Separate Baptist and, with the formation of the American Bible Society in 1816, the Good Book virtually flooded the country. Lincoln was an avid reader. The Bible cadences and rhythms went down deep into his psyche. To this day, for example, some people think Lincoln invented the phrase “a house divided against itself cannot stand” when he was quoting Jesus in Matthew 12:25.

Lincoln later admitted to the balancing value of prayer in his difficult Presidency. He answered two Quaker ministers who asked “if God was on his side” that he hoped he was on God’s side. In essence Lincoln was a moderate man with an amazing ability to see both sides of a question, to project himself into the minds of his opponents.

In 1858, two years before winning the 1860 Presidential election he stated: “I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses North and South.”

How could he feel otherwise? He had been born in Kentucky.

The Second Inaugural

This remarkable sense of empathy and of Divine Providence surcharges Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, given just days before his death through assassination. In this short message he quotes or alludes to four Scriptures. The last paragraph is carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and constitutes what we call here “Mr. Lincoln’s Sermon.” The relevant portions reveal a deeply intelligent and sympathetic wrestling with the momentous question of why a just God allowed the horrible Civil War to go on so long:

“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained…Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding (i.e. emancipation). Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

Lincoln lived the truth of these words profoundly. If the South had been instantly defeated – as many expected – the vanquished states would have been invited back into the Union quickly and the curse of slavery might well have remained. But the long-drawn out contests, the early Southern victories and the torrents of blood that were shed forced Lincoln’s hand to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. He needed a greater cause than federal union to sustain the struggle. Turning the war into an anti-slavery crusade also dissuaded European powers from backing the Confederacy.

Truly, the Almighty had his own purposes, to which Lincoln gladly bowed.

Lincoln continued, quoting Matthew 18:7: “‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom 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 this by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which believers in a living God always ascribe to him?”

Lincoln knew that both North and South had prospered immensely from slavery. Money generated from the mighty cotton plantations of the South was reinvested into the factories, mills, roads and canals and ship-building industries that had made the North so prosperous. He had already cautioned in this speech, “Let us judge not that we be not judged,” quoting Matthew 8:1.

The Dark Mystery

He pressed on to what some historians have seen as a rather challenging conclusion: “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 250 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.’”

‘Evil is a parasite on the Good’ said Augustine – Christians have indeed thought long and hard about these issues.

Then the President concluded pastorally with words more well-known: “With malice towards none, with justice 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…”

Four days later he was dead but he himself hardly imagined his Second Inaugural would be considered “one of the supreme dramatic monologues of American literature,” an excursion into “the heart of the historical darkness” (Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, page 354). Lincoln wrote to a friend that he did not expect his address to be popular: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them” (Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, page 665).

The death of his son Eddie in 1850, the death of son Willie while living in the White House in 1862, the effusions of blood being shed in the cause of national reunion – these events obviously softened what was already a somber and sober and melancholy temperament. Though not strictly a member of any church, President Lincoln seems clearly, by many lights, to be a man possessed of a deep and abiding awareness of God, a “God-troubled Man” in Africa-American parlance. All of this led him to utter his address of March 4, 1865, an address the London Spectator called “the noblest political document known to history” with “something of a prophetic character.”