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Two large questions confront any effort to set Abraham Lincoln's religion in its proper historical context. The first concerns Lincoln and has been a subject of unceasing, if only intermittently fruitful, exploration: How was it that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could, on occasion, give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?  The second question concerns Lincoln's contemporaries and has been the object of relatively scant historical inquiry: How was it that the distinguished theologians of Lincoln's generation, some of whom remain highly honored in various religious Page [End Page 1] communities to this day, were able to offer so little of theological profundity concerning the religious meaning of the Civil War? 
The contrast posed by these two questions appears most sharply when considering Lincoln's second inaugural address in its historical context. Throughout the year following this speech, the nation's best theologians, both North and South, took nearly every opportunity imaginable to explain what, under God, the war had signified. As historians of religion—but only historians of religions—know, they responded with oceans of print and hurricanes of public declamation. Yet apart from only a few narrowly focused historians, almost no one today reads or has any interest in what this sizable corps of distinguished theologians said about the ways of God in the Civil War. By contrast, Lincoln's short address on March 4 remains an object of intense study and debate; its spare paragraphs are recognized universally in the United States, and also widely outside this country, as a profound meditation on the religious meaning of the war.
The poignancy of this speech, as the martyr-president's last defining utterance on the nation's ultimate defining experience, no less than its magnanimity toward the South and the force of its religious meditation—has placed it among the small handful of semisacred texts by which Americans conceive their place in the world. If, however, we set the address in its own time rather than Page [End Page 2] consider its importance for the meaning of America, we find it defines a major historical puzzle concerning the character of American theology in the era of the Civil War. The primary purpose of this essay is to describe what that puzzle is. But I hope also to be able to qualify the nature of the puzzle and then very briefly to explain how it may have come about.
During 1865, the year of wonders that witnessed Lincoln's great speech and his assassination, the end of the war as well as the beginning of the contested effort to implement its results, tens of thousands of Americans took up the burden of explaining what the civil strife had meant. When we see what Lincoln's contemporaries were saying, we find our puzzle. In 1963, Reinhold Niebuhr was asked to speak at a centennial symposium on the Gettysburg Address. With characteristic lèse-majesté, Niebuhr took the occasion to talk mostly about the second inaugural. He began with the assertion that to study "the religion of Abraham Lincoln in the context of the traditional religion of his time and place ... must lead to the conclusion that Lincoln's religious convictions were superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of his day, but of the religious leaders of the era." Niebuhr thought he could make his case by "the judgment of sober history, uninfluenced by the usual hagiography of the nations and their heroes," but the circumstances of his talk prevented him from actually citing any of Lincoln's contemporaries. Had Niebuhr actually set out the evidence, it would have become clear that his judgment was understated.
To ask how Lincoln's words compare to the words of his era's finest theologians is a natural exercise given the strikingly religious character of the second inaugural. That religious character had been noticed immediately by Europeans and then somewhat later by Americans. Solomon Schechter, who eventually became president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York,first read an account of Lincoln's speech in a Hebrew-language newspaper in Romania and was flabbergasted:
As with Niebuhr's judgment many decades later, Schechter's immediate response holds up well when the comparisons are supplied. The simple truth is that none of America's great religious leaders—as defined by contemporaries or later critics—mustered the theological power so economically expressed in Lincoln's second inaugural. None probed so profoundly the ways of God or the response of humans to the divine constitution of the world. None penetrated as deeply into the nature of Providence. And none described the fate of humanity before God with the humility or the sagacity of the president.
It is not as though sermons and essays by religious leaders were entirely jejune, simply filiopietistic, or merely woodenly pious—though some of them were. In fact, if it were not for Lincoln's second inaugural, some of the theologians' writings might seem profound. But as it is, Lincoln's piece displayed several features that were absent or attenuated in the musings of the professional theologians.
First, Lincoln expressed remarkable charity to the foe. In hindsight it is clear that, when Lincoln delivered his address on March 4, the South was tottering on the brink of defeat. But Lincoln himself did not believe that Lee would soon surrender, and the South was still filled with the bluster of leaders promising to fight on as guerrillas in the forest or from new bases west of the Mississippi. In these circumstances, after four years of a war in which the South had extracted a terrible toll from the North and in which North and South had both promoted a degree of destructive violence hitherto unknown even in America's never genteel history, Lincoln's magnanimity was as striking as it was singular. Page [End Page 4]
Second, almost alone among his contemporaries, Lincoln did not presumptuously assume that the moral high ground belonged to only his side. By questioning the righteousness of the North and by failing to denounce the South in absolute terms, he joined a very small minority in the spring and summer of 1865.
If Lincoln's magnanimity and his moral evenhandedness were generally religious, his view of Providence was distinctly theological. More than any other feature of Lincoln's thought, his conception of God's rule over the world set him apart from the recognized theologians of his day.
Lincoln expressed his charity, his moral evenhandedness, and his distinctive view of Providence with great economy in the second inaugural. By their nature, theologians and ministers are more loquacious, then as now. But in order to underscore the singular character of Lincoln's rough-hewn, but extraordinary theological voice, it will be necessary to hear from the theologians at some length.
Lincoln ended his address on March 4 with one of the most frequently quoted perorations in American public life: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; 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 ..." What Lincoln did not say was as significant as what he did say, for the president—apparently with intent—did not restrict his appeal on behalf of soldiers, widows, and orphans to those who had suffered for the Union.
In sharp contrast to Lincoln's charity, religious leaders were just as prone as the general population to seek retribution. In the wake of Lincoln's assassination, it was understandable for northerners to display a different spirit than that which their president had voiced only six weeks before. So it was, for example, on April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died, when three local ministers preached to the assembled citizens of New Haven, Connecticut. Of these hastily composed sermons it was reported that the crowd offered its most fervent applause when Dr. William Patton exclaimed:
But Patton was not a household name, and almost anything might be excused in the immediate wake of assassination. It had been different only one day before, while Lincoln still lived, when the flag of the United States was raised again over Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, exactly four years and two days after the fort endured the bombardment that began the war. For this triumphant occasion, the Union had called upon the Harry Emerson Fosdick or the Billy Graham of that era to deliver the principal address. Henry Ward Beecher, scion of America's most notable Protestant clan, was a preacher extraordinaire, the beloved pastor of a thriving middle-class congregation in Brooklyn, a publishing phenomenon with a wider readership than even his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe. He was the reassuring reconciler of the old evangelical morality with the uncertainties of new learning and new commerce. In 1865 he was not yet tainted by the accusation of scandal that would cloud his later career. When Beecher addressed his audience at Fort Sumter, he first said what might be expected concerning the victory of the North, but soon he turned his full rhetorical powers in another direction:
Abraham Lincoln's refusal to claim the moral high ground exclusively for the North was even more extraordinary than his charity to a nearly defeated foe. Although sentiments were naturally inflamed after Lincoln's assassination, protestations of good will from both North and South did in fact arise from several quarters. Henry Ward Beecher's vengefulness was common but not absolutely universal. At the end of the war, however, the temptation to define the evil of the opponent as the only true evil of the era had become nearly universal. Earlier, when the course of arms had gone badly for the North in the first years of the war and then for the South toward the end, ministers had indeed called their own congregations to repentance. But mostly this was what from a cynical distance we might call utilitarian repentance—that is, God could not grant us victory so long as we continued in our sin. At the conclusion of the war, repentance became overwhelmingly an exercise demanded of the foe.
This climate set the stage, not just for Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, but also for much commentary by American theologians on the relative justice of northern and southern actions. In July 1865, the Reverend Horace Bushnell was asked to deliver an address in New Haven, Connecticut, to honor the alumni of Yale College who had given their lives in the struggle. From his church in nearby Hartford, Bushnell came and delivered one of the most intensely felt addresses of his momentous career. Bushnell may have been the greatest American theologian of the mid-nineteenth century; certainly, he was the one who most creatively exploited the romantic sentiments of his era and the religious resources of his fragmenting New England culture to refurbish the Christian Page [End Page 7] message. Unlike Henry Ward Beecher, Bushnell was also a great man as well as merely a great celebrity. But in his address at Yale on July 26, 1865, as generally in his voluminous writing on the Civil War, Bushnell displayed an overweening self-righteousness marked by a recklessly promiscuous use of Christian language to depict the rectitude of the North:
Some years ago the historian William Clebsch singled out Bushnell for special commendation as offering a serious theological interpretation of the Civil War. Bushnell's biographer, Barbara Cross, made a similar observation shortly before Clebsch published his pioneering essay.  Both scholars saw correctly that Bushnell had pondered deeply the religious meaning of the conflict and that he had done so with concepts appropriated from his faith. To Bushnell the war was a blood sacrifice of atonement that would transform America's fragmented, self-seeking atomism into an organic, redeemed social unity forever preserved from the threats of secularism, greed, and disharmony. What seems clearer now, more than a generation after Clebsch and Cross published their fine work, however, is that Bushnell's romantic nationalism of the redeemed Volk was as liable to be corrupted as it was to promote the millennium Bushnell anticipated. However powerful as theology, it was extraordinarily dangerous theology of the type reversing celestial Page [End Page 8] and terrestrial categories and paving a way for the divine-right nationalism that gave us World War I, the Red Scare, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the recent dismemberment of Yugoslavia.
Robert Lewis Dabney was as great a man, in his virtues and his errors, as was Horace Bushnell. Dabney, a professor at a small Presbyterian seminary in Virginia, enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a clear-eyed exponent of traditional Calvinism. After the death of James Henley Thornwell of South Carolina, Dabney gained repute as the southern apologist with the greatest intellectual integrity and most consistently forceful exposition of confessional Christian faith. The northern Old School Presbyterians at Princeton Theological Seminary had been so impressed with Dabney that they tried to recruit him for their faculty on the very eve of the war. Dabney had argued strenuously against secession during 1860 and into 1861, but when Virginia joined the Confederacy, Dabney gave his heart and soul to defend the conservative, hierarchical way of life that he felt was imperiled by the unchecked currents of northern mobocracy, northern industrial capitalism, and northern religious frivolity. For a time he served as Stonewall Jackson's chief of staff, but his most important service to the Confederacy was his constant, passionate, tightly reasoned writing on behalf of the South's way of life.
When Dabney wrote to General Oliver O. Howard, head of the U.S. Freedman's Bureau, on September 12, 1865, he was already deeply engaged in the effort, which would dominate the rest of his long life, to defend the antebellum South as a cynosure of divinely ordered civilization devastated by a wantonly vicious North. The burden of the letter was to remind Howard of the responsibility, which the North had taken upon itself by conquest, to do more for the liberated bondsmen than the South had done for them while they were slaves. A great mind with great rhetorical skills was displayed in this letter but also a monumental self-righteousness that is hard today to read without disgust. Most of Dabney's passionate letter was an utterly unironic account of what southern life had meant for the slave:
Dabney's colleague, John Adger, was not as well known as Bushnell or as highly regarded as Dabney himself. But this longtime editor of the Southern Presbyterian Review was still a formidable figure. He had once been a missionary in Constantinople and would later defend Woodrow Wilson's uncle when James Woodrow was accused of tainting traditional belief with an admixture of evolutionary science. Late in 1865, Adger used the columns of his Review to rebut the charge that the southern pulpit had lapsed into political propaganda during the war. Adger's reply not only defended the South against that particular accusation but also offered a sweeping general defense of the South's Christian rectitude during the conflict:
Bushnell, Dabney, and Adger were well-trained theologians. Each was a master of the scriptures. Each was deeply committed to the comprehensive morality of the Christian faith. Each, regrettably, was entirely typical of the moral casuistry of American theologians during and after the Civil War. In volumes of learned, scripturally laden prose, none said anything that even approached the sagacity of Lincoln's moral commentary in the second inaugural, a commentary that was as profoundly accurate in its empirical observation as it was uniquely reserved in its unwillingness to pass final judgment: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged [Matt. 7:1]. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully."
If Lincoln advanced beyond contemporary theologians in his moral discernment, he did so to an even greater degree in his view of divine Providence. Almost alone among public figures in his era, Lincoln's concept of Providence combined the conventions of his age with a much more primordial vision.
To be sure, earlier in his presidency Lincoln sounded very much like the priest of an American civil religion. At his first inaugural in 1861, he talked of divine realities as if their main purpose was a utilitarian one to serve the nation. At this time his trust in America had been nearly complete: "Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal, hope in the world?" He even spoke as if God existed as a kind of celestial umpire waiting only to dignify the decisions Page [End Page 11] of U.S. citizens: "If the Almighty Ruler of nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth, and that justice, will surely prevail, by the judgment of this great tribunal, the American people." In that dark hour, Lincoln's solution was civil religion pure and simple: "Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty." 
But before the war had progressed very far, Lincoln evidently began to rethink these conventional views. As early as 1862, another theme rose in Lincoln's consciousness. It was the idea that perhaps the will of God could not simply be identified with American efforts to preserve the Union. Such thoughts he committed to paper in September 1862, at one of the darkest moments of the conflict. The Union had suffered another defeat at Bull Run, and Lincoln had seriously begun to ponder the radical step of proclaiming the emancipation of southern slaves. At that time, he penned a "Meditation on the Divine Will," which his secretaries later recalled was meant for Lincoln's eyes alone:
The reasoning that led to this private meditation evidently continued, for it was the reasoning that pervaded the second inaugural. That reasoning shared the traditional opinion that God ruled over all events. But to this conventional belief Lincoln added two most unconventional convictions. First was the notion that the Page [End Page 12] United States might not necessarily be a uniquely chosen nation, or at least that the moral constraints operating on America were exactly the same as those at work for other nations, and that these universal standards of justice were of greater consequence than any supposed chosenness of the United States. Second was Lincoln's belief that the ways of Providence might be obscure, difficult to fathom, hedged in by contingencies, or otherwise not open to immediate understanding and manipulation.
This combination of convictions—confidence in Providence along with humble agnosticism about its purposes—transformed the central section of the second inaugural into a theological statement of rare insight.
Lincoln begins by stating a thesis: "The Almighty has His own purposes." He then quotes Matthew 18:7 to suggest the moral character of life under God: "'Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!'" Then he looks foursquare into an abyss that almost none of his contemporaries could bear to contemplate: "If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence 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." The abyss is the suggestion that responsibility for the war might be shared.
Finally, Lincoln concludes by acknowledging that the progress of the United States is as nothing compared to the mysterious will of God: "Yet, if God wills 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' [Ps. 19:9]."
America's best theologians joined Lincoln in believing that God was the disposer of all events. But they also continued to affirm the two principles that Lincoln had come to doubt. Almost universally, they maintained the long-treasured axiom that the United States had enjoyed, and would continue to enjoy, a unique destiny as a divinely chosen people. The war, they held, had decisively Page [End Page 13] reconfirmed this calling. Second, the theologians continued to speak as if the ways of Providence were transparent, that it was a relatively easy matter to say what God was doing in the disposition of contemporary events. Moreover, what was clearly seen could also be controlled; knowing what God was about gave theologians the confidence that they could determine the course of events. On these points, the chorus of theologians sang with one voice.
At the Yale commencement, Bushnell confidently asserted a far different outcome than the one Lincoln contemplated.
John Williamson Nevin of the German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, is the one American theologian of his era whom many twentieth-century students rank with Bushnell. Nevin was given a forum to explain the meaning of the war when Page [End Page 14] he was asked to deliver the Fourth of July address at Franklin and Marshall College in 1865. To Nevin, it was as easy as it would be for Bushnell to say what God had been about:
For more than a decade Nevin had been teamed with Philip Schaff at the tiny seminary in Mercersburg. During the summer of 1865, Schaff presented a view much like Nevin's to the Germans and Swiss who gathered to learn of the religious aspect of the war between the states: Page [End Page 15]
A great American thinker who shared much of Nevin's and Schaff's romantic view of the world but who had long since passed beyond the boundaries of traditional Christianity nonetheless also saw matters very much as did the Christian theologians. For their annual memorial lecture on April 19, 1865, the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, called upon this native son, Ralph Waldo Emerson. As might be expected, Emerson's remarks did not focus so much on the great event that had taken place at Concord Green ninety years before, but on the American president who had been slain only five days earlier. In his closing words, Emerson betrayed no doubts about his certainty that Lincoln had been divinity's agent to bring all of the human race toward perfection:
The major American theologian who stood furthest removed from the sentiments of Ralph Waldo Emerson was Charles Hodge, doughty champion of traditional Calvinism at Princeton Theological Seminary. As the Civil War unfolded, Hodge had written for the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, which he edited, the most responsible series of theological reflections to be found anywhere in the United States. The eulogy he offered for Lincoln in the July number shared many of the virtues of his earlier essays, but it could not escape the American quest for beneficent certainty. It was as clear to Hodge as to his theological confreres what God had done and why he had done it:
In the South, the losers naturally read the mind of God differently than did their fellow Christians in the North. But, with the theologians of the Union, southerners thought they could see just as clearly what God was doing and why. So it was with Adger:
Here, then, is the great theological puzzle of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, a layman with no standing in a church and no formal training as a theologian, propounded a thick, complex view of God's rule over the world and a morally nuanced picture of America's destiny. The country's best theologians, by contrast, presented a thin, simple view of God's providence and a morally juvenile view of the nation and its fate. Page [End Page 18]
The theologians talked as if God had accomplished all that had been done, yet assumed that humans could control their own destinies. Lincoln urged his fellow citizens to seize the opportunities of the moment but did not assume that they could control their own fate.
For the theologians there was little mystery in how God dealt with the world; for Lincoln there was awesome mystery. For the theologians, God's power remained securely tethered to the interests of the United States, however differently that interest was perceived. But for Lincoln, God's power was controlled by no one but God.
Many of the theologians found only the language of Christian salvation adequate for describing the rescue of the nation; for Lincoln the question of whether the nation could be rescued evoked the language of divine sovereignty.
For the theologians the end of the war only tightened the bond between God and his American chosen people; for Lincoln the course of the war injected a doubt about whether America was the people of God.
This is the theological puzzle of the Civil War. Niebuhr was right to claim that the second inaugural represented a moral theology superior to that which came from the nation's most distinguished theologians.
Qualifying the Puzzle
In actual historical situations, dichotomies are rarely as clear as they first appear, and so it is with this one. A few qualifications are necessary. First, some of the theologians were in fact able to draw on a more sophisticated theology in providing less superficial opinions about the meaning of the war. Nevin, for example, took considerable space in his address on July 4, 1865, to acknowledge the grievous wrongs of northern society. And by 1867 Nevin displayed considerably more humility in reading the mind of God. It was still clear to him that "the march of events" spoke of "universal and fundamental changes." But he was no longer as confident about his ability to fathom the direction of those changes: "We have no assurance in these signs that the change will move on victoriously in the line of universal righteousness and truth." Page [End Page 19]
For his part, if Hodge joined his contemporaries with a simplistic reading of providence and the war, he nonetheless had begun his eulogy for Lincoln with a sensitive discussion of the multiple layers of causation by which any single event can legitimately be analyzed. Adger, though firm in his apology for the South, nonetheless saw clearly how easy it was for passionate politics to devour true religion.  And in each of the other theologians, whose simplistic notions on Providence I have cited, there are moments of analysis more faithful to the broader claims of Christian tradition and less giddily apocalyptic about the contemporary moment.
A second qualification concerns Abraham Lincoln. Without taking away from his insights into the mysteries of Providence, Lincoln nonetheless never entirely gave up the myth of the chosen nation. Nor was it always easy to see how his belief in the absolute sovereignty of the divine will differed from sub-Christian notions of an absolute fatalism. In addition, Lincoln's sense that God communicated with him intuitively also seems more a product of folk than Christian religion. 
Third, it is not true that Lincoln was entirely unique in holding the theological principles expressed in the second inaugural. It does, however, seem to be true—at least insofar as I have been able to discover—that those who shared his perplexity about the ways of Providence or who doubted the automatic connection between divinity and America were not members of the Protestant mainstream. A number of his contemporaries were in the process of leaving traditional beliefs behind, and some of that number—as described in capable books by George Fredrickson and Anne Rose—expressed their own ambiguous conclusions about the ultimate destiny of America. 
A few traditional believers also expressed unconventional views about the nation's progress under God, but these were usually adherents to minority faiths. At least some Roman Catholics, for example, rejected the benign view of Providence that could only see Page [End Page 20] good emerging from the national bloodbath. Shortly after the struggle began, the Philadelphia Herald and Visitor asserted boldly that God could not direct a war of this sort, since "God is not the author of sin and misery and therefore God cannot be the author of war." It was blasphemous to claim that God could be responsible for such carnage.  Throughout the conflict, several Catholics made the claim—which deserved to be taken seriously—that the war resulted, not from some grand clash of right against wrong, but more basically as a simple outgrowth from Protestant principles like private judgment, antiauthoritarianism, or the private interpretation of scripture. Catholic commentors like Orestes Brownson put such arguments with considerable skill. In April 1865, the New York Tablet made the charge bombastically: "Protestantism is essentially rebellious; ... its origin is the spirit of secession and revolt, ... its history is but a chronicle of insurrection, and ... in short, sedition and mutiny are but fruits of the Lutheran leaven spreading under the special names of Liberty and Independence into all the ramifications of political, social and domestic life."
When Jewish leaders joined the national chorus at Lincoln's death by spinning out eulogies from texts like Genesis 12:4 ("So Abram went, as the Lord had spoken unto him"), Genesis 15:1 ("Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, they reward shall be exceedingly great"), II Samuel 3:38 ("Know ye not that there is a prince and great man fallen this day in Israel"), or II Samuel 1:14 ("How wast thou not afraid to put forth thy hand to destroy the Lord's anointed?"), at least one Jew from New Jersey took offense. Unlike most of his fellow citizens, it was important for this believer to distinguish between the universal truths of his religion and the contingent events that had occurred in the United States:
Still a third class with some similarities to Lincoln's views was made up of a small band of intellectuals who remained preoccupied with the Christian God, but who had abandoned allegiance to Christianity and the Christian churches. From her retreat in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson seems to have followed the war—with Amherst acquaintances enlisting and some not returning and with her own father one of Amherst's leading promoters of Union arms—more closely than once was thought.  The war's events also seem to have intensified her lifelong struggles concerning death, God, and the tragic character of human existence. Something of the war's stimulus to her kind of theological reflection may be caught in her poems, as perhaps in this one, probably written in 1865:
As it may have been for Emily Dickinson, so it certainly was for Herman Melville. Melville observed the last half of the war from his new residence in New York City. What he saw seems to have renewed and focused his wrestling with the cosmic themes that had been displayed so powerfully in Moby Dick (1851). What Nathaniel Hawthorne had said about Melville in 1856 still seemed to be true throughout the war: "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and Page [End Page 22] noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us." In 1864 and 1865, Melville either completed or composed a lengthy cycle of poems entitled Battle-Pieces where there could be heard, even if almost none of his contemporaries were listening, conclusions like those to which Lincoln was also coming. Thus, in words given to Robert E. Lee, Melville said:
More directly, he concluded in the prose postscript to Battle-Pieces: "Noble was the gesture into which patriotic passion surprised the people in a utilitarian time and country; yet the glory of the war falls short of its pathos—a pathos which now at last ought to disarm all animosity."
Qualifications, therefore, are necessary in approaching the theological puzzle of the Civil War. The theologians were far from entirely superficial; Lincoln was not a theological exemplar in much of his thought; and a few parallels can be found to some of Lincoln's most serious theological pronouncements. But necessary qualifications having been made, the puzzle still remains. Abraham Lincoln, and only a few others also beyond the Protestant mainstream, interpreted the war with a theological depth largely absent from the major theologians of the main Protestant churches.
How did this situation come about? The search for an answer must be different for Lincoln than for the theologians of his era. Accounting for the singularity of Lincoln's faith must surely feature the singular combination of his life circumstances and experiences, as these have been described by the best biographies. These circumstances include, at a minimum, a life repeatedly scarred by Page [End Page 23] the deaths of his nearest relatives and friends, an arresting conjunction of mental ability and personal insecurity, his thorough acquaintance with religious sensibilities dominated by strict predestinarian theology (successively in hard-shell Baptist and Old School Presbyterian forms), the quasi-religious views Lincoln held of the American nation, and the strains of his domestic and political existence raised to an extraordinary height by the Civil War.
For the theologians of Lincoln's day, it would take a lengthy volume, or perhaps a library, to explain why they interpreted the Civil War as they did. But one explanation can be summarized by sketching major developments in religion and public culture in the decades between the War for Independence and the Civil War.
Explaining the Theologians
During the two generations following the American Revolution, evangelical Protestants of several varieties undertook the gargantuan task of evangelizing and civilizing the new United States. In the face of staggering odds, they succeeded—despite a serious decline in the churches dating from the mid-eighteenth century, an abandonment of traditional Christianity by almost all the nation's revered founding fathers, an overwhelming repudiation of the reverence for tradition that had long been associated with Christianity in Europe, a sharp decline in the relative cultural influence of weekly sermons in favor of newspapers and popular print, and a replacement of theology by political ideology as the most prominent form of public discourse. Evangelical Protestants succeeded not only in winning individuals to Christianity but in creating a Christian civilization, because they could demonstrate how their form of the faith might vivify, ennoble, and lend transcendent value to the most influential ideological engines of the early republic: republican political assumptions themselves, democratic convictions about social organization, scientific reasoning pitched to common sense, and belief in the unique, providential destiny of the United States.
Because of their success in proclaiming the Christian faith in the conceptual languages provided by these ideological themes, evangelical Protestants created a formidable Christian civilization. Church membership rose from about 10 percent of the population in 1776 to nearly 40 percent in 1860, of which nearly three-fourths were Protestants of British heritage. In the judgment of the missiologist Andrew Walls, "The evangelization of North America was Page [End Page 24] the most signal success of the great [nineteenth] century of missions." So successful was this Christianization that by fairly early in the nineteenth century "patterns of Christian allegiance" became "the key variable in voting behavior" where churches as "primary value-generating institutions" and religious beliefs as politically energetic constructs profoundly "affected political choices and goals."  In different ways, many sections of the South, New England, and the expanding West were subdued by Methodist piety joined with a skillful apologetical theology from the older English-language churches. The result was the discovery by Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 1830s that "there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth." Schaff put the picture in comparative perspective when he commented on "the general Christian character of the people, in which the Americans are already in advance of most of the old Christian nations of Europe." 
God, as defined by the varieties of Protestant evangelicalism, was everywhere ascendant. The Protestant Bible, interpreted in a democratically evangelical fashion, became the nation's book. If Protestant success had its underside—if, for example, in Richard Carwardine's words, evangelicals exercised their political influence through "Manicheanism and unforgiving, uncomplicated moralism" —still the "golden day of democratic evangelicalism" was, at least from many angles, a pinnacle of Christian civilization where voluntary societies accomplished prodigies of moral discipline and recurring waves of revivals swept more and more individuals into the kingdom. Page [End Page 25]
If, however, evangelical Protestantism was triumphant, it was also domesticated. The religion of evangelicalism was demonstrably shaping the institutions, values, work habits, and self-conception of the new nation. Evangelicals propounded a religion that, before their very eyes, was working, both to convert ever greater proportions of the nation and to transform ever more of the society's institutions. For the sake of the theological enterprise, it may have been working too well.
Certainly, the evangelical juggernaut was working too well for a few souls who, if they could not give up God or if God had not given them up, still wondered if the progressive, energetic, can-do God of the Protestant evangelicals was adequate for the complexities of the universe or the turmoils of their own souls. So Dickinson, Melville, and supremely Lincoln may have been pushed by the successes of "American Christianity" into post-Protestant, even post-Christian, theism. The tragedy of these individuals was that—to be faithful to the God they found in their own hearts, in the Bible, or in the sweep of events—they considered it necessary to hold themselves aloof from the organized Christianity of the United States. (What is particularly striking in such individuals is a loss of contact with Jesus Christ.)
But the American God may also have been working too well for the Protestant theologians who, even as they renovated Christian tradition, scripture, and pious experiences so successfully in the new nation, yet found it all too easy to equate the progressive, transparently benevolent American deity with Christianity itself. Their tragedy—and the greater the theologian the greater the tragedy—was to rest content with a stunted God, entrapped by the American conventions that God's own loyal servants had exploited so well.
The theological puzzle of the Civil War thus reveals a theological tragedy, both for those who retained profundity at the expense of Christianity and those who retained Christianity at the expense of profundity. In the decades before the Civil War, a Protestant amalgam of traditional faith and public order helped construct a great Christian civilization, but commitment to that very civilization would in the Civil War trivialize the Christian theology that had brought it into existence. Page [End Page 26]
- The subject of Lincoln's faith awaits fully satisfactory treatment. An account of the fervent debates on the subject carried out during the generation after Lincoln's death is found in David Donald, Lincoln's Herndon (New York: Knopf, 1948), 212–16, 236–38, 256–57, 271–82. The best general studies—which are noteworthy both for critical evaluation of sources and some awareness of the shape of the popular Protestantism that Lincoln experienced—are William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (New York: George H. Doran, 1920); William J. Wolf, The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959); and David Hein, "Lincoln's Theology and Political Ethics," in Essays on Lincoln's Faith and Practice, ed. Kenneth W. Thompson (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983). The path to better scholarship lies in combining a critical immersion in the widest possible range of sources (e.g., as exemplified in works on related subjects like Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994] and Richard J. Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993]) with a heightened sensitivity to the valences of the theologies, popular philosophies, and ideologies of Lincoln's own era (e.g., as in the article by Allen C. Guelzo in this issue). A solid essay on the problems of sources and accounts is David Hein, "Research on Lincoln's Religious Beliefs and Practices: A Bibliographical Essay," Lincoln Herald 86, no. 1 (1984): 2–5.
- The best general studies in American theology touch only incidentally on the Civil War—namely, Sydney Ahlstrom, ed., Theology in America: The Major Protestant Voices from Puritanism to Neo-Orthodoxy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967); Walter Conser, Church and Confession: Conservative Theologians in German, England, and America, 1815–1866 (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984); Charles D. Cashdollar, The Transformation of Theology, 1830–1890: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989); E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795–1860 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978); Bruce Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers from Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985); and James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). The best study of an American theological tradition before and during the Civil War remains George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970).
- The literature on the second inaugural is enormous, but not too much is helpful for setting it within the context of its time. Benjamin Barondess, Three Lincoln Masterpieces (Charleston, W.V.: Education Foundation of West Virginia, 1954), 51–109, is a noteworthy exception. For all the writing on the second inaugural, it lacks what Garry Wills has provided for the other great address of Lincoln's career, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
- Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Religion of Abraham Lincoln," in Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, ed. Allan Nevins (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), 72–73.
- Solomon Schechter, "Abraham Lincoln" (address on the occasion of Lincoln's Hundredth Anniversary at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Feb. 11, 1909), in Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (Cincinnati, Ohio: Ark Publishing, 1915), 156–57. For similar sentiments from Germany, see Philip Schaff, Der Bürgerkrieg und das christliche Leben in Nord-Amerika: Vorträge gehalten in mehreren Städten Deutschlands und der Schweiz (Berlin: Wiegandt und Grieben, 1866), 68; and from France, the Roman Catholic bishop of Orléans, F. A. P. Dupanloup, as quoted in John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York: Century, 1904), 10:146n.
- Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
- The second inaugural is quoted from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols., ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 8:333.
- New Haven Evening Register, 30, no. 89 (1865), quoted in David Chesebrough, God Ordained this War: Sermons on the Sectional Crisis, 1830–1865 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 328.
- Henry Ward Beecher, "Address at the Raising of the Union Flag over Fort Sumter," in Patriotic Addresses (New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1887), 688–89.
- Horace Bushnell, "Our Obligations to the Dead," in Building Eras in Religion (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1881), 332–33.
- William A. Clebsch, "Christian Interpretations of the Civil War," Church History 30 (1961): 215–18; Barbara M. Cross, Horace Bushnell: Minister to a Changing America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 136–37.
- Robert Lewis Dabney, "To Major General Howard" (New York Weekly News, Oct. 21, 1865; written Sept. 12, 1865), in Discussions by R. L. Dabney, Vol. 4: Secular (Mexico, Mo.: S. B. Ervin, 1897; Ballecito, Calif.: Ross House, 1979), 27–31, quotations from 28, 29–30, 31.
- John B. Adger, "Northern and Southern Views of the Province of the Church," Southern Presbyterian Review 16 (Mar. 1866): 397–98.
- Private people may have been more like him; see Lewis O. Saum, The Popular Mood of Pre-Civil War America (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980).
- Collected Works, 4:270–71.
- Ibid., 5:403–4. Underlining is in original. The italics, which are added, highlight the most remarkable theological utterance of the Civil War.
- Bushnell, "Obligations to the Dead," 328–29, 341, 352.
- Reasoning like Nevin's was common in the North. If natural causes (i.e., God's mediated control over events) seemed to point in one direction and yet something different happened, commentors leaped to the conclusion that God's unmediated actions must be the explanation, rather than a previously overlooked set of mediated causes. For a particularly clear example of this reasoning, see G. I. Wood (of Guilford, Conn.), "A Divine Actor on the Stage," New Englander 24 (Oct. 1865): 690–704.
- John Williamson Nevin, "The Nation's Second Birth," German Reformed Messenger 30, no. 47 (July 26, 1865): p. 1, cols. 2, 4, 6.
- Schaff, Bürgerkrieg, 16–17. "A country—where so many streams of noble blood have flowed, where so many sacrifices were offered by the government and the people, and where the hand of God so visibly and wonderfully guided events to a happy end—must have, according to all human reasoning, a great future. It has passed through the fiery trial and has now entered into the maturity of manly strength and self-sufficiency."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Abraham Lincoln: Remarks at the Funeral Services Held in Concord, April 19, 1865," in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 vols. bound in six (New York: W. H. Wise, 1926), 11:337–38.
- Charles Hodge, "President Lincoln," Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 37 (July 1865): 439–40.
- Adger, "Northern and Southern Views," 398, 399, 410.
- Nevin, "Nation's Second Birth," p. 1, col. 3.
- Nevin, "Commencement Address," in Theodore Appel, The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin (Philadelphia, 1889), 647–48, quoted in James D. Bratt, "John Nevin and the Antebellum Culture Wars," Reformed Confessionalism in Nineteenth-Century America, eds. Sam Hawstra, Jr., and Arie J. Griffion (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995).
- Hodge, "President Lincoln," 435–36.
- Adger, "Northern and Southern Views," 401–3.
- These reservations about the character of Lincoln's religion are developed in Melvin B. Endy Jr., "Abraham Lincoln and American Civil Religion: A Reinterpretation," Church History 44 (June 1975): 229–41.
- George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (New York: Harper and Row, 1965); Anne C. Rose, Victorian America and the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
- May 11, 1861, quoted in Judith Conrad Wimmer, "American Catholic Interpretation of the Civil War" (Ph.D. diss., Drew University, 1980), 257.
- Apr. 1, 1865, quoted in ibid., 285n15.
- Unnamed correspondent in the Occident, 23, no. 4 (July 1865): 172–74, quoted in Bertram W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961), 214.
- See, in general, Shira Wolosky, Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984), and more specifically, Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974, 1980), 535–37, 631–32.
- No. 1021, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols., ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), 2:729.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, from English Notebooks, Nov. 20, 1856, quoted in Rowland A. Sherrill, The Prophetic Melville (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979), 91.
- Herman Melville, "Lee in the Capitol" and "Supplement," in The Battle-Pieces of Herman Melville, ed. Hennig Cohen (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1963), 191–92 (lines 155–62), 198.
- To the works in note 1, I would add Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952).
- Andrew Walls, "The American Dimension in the History of the Missionary Movement," in Earthen Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions, 1880–1980, ed. J. A. Carpenter and W. R. Shenk (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), 19.
- Robert Swierenga, "Ethnoreligious Political Behavior in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Voting, Values, Cultures," in Religion and American Politics from the Colonial Period to the 1980s, ed. M. A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 146.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Thomas Bender (New York: Random House, 1981), 182–83; Philip Schaff, America, ed. Perry Miller (1855; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), 76.
- Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics, 49.
- Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), 385.