Lincoln’s Faith and Presidents Today

As we celebrate Presidents’ Day in 2008, we are in the midst of campaigns to select Democratic and Republican nominees for president. Recognizing that George W. Bush’s candid discussion of his faith played a key role in his electoral success in both 2000 and 2004, both Democratic and Republican candidates have frequently emphasized how their faith has helped make them who they are and how it influences their policies. As we think about how the faith of a president might affect his or her work, Abraham Lincoln provides an excellent role model.

Believing that God was just and that his plans would prevail, Lincoln struggled greatly to determine and follow God’s will for himself as president and his nation torn by war. Certainly, there is no contending against God’s will, Lincoln wrote, “but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, [and] applying it, to particular cases.”

Replying to a group of religious leaders who urged him in September 1862 to free the nation’s slaves, Lincoln explained that clergymen who were “equally certain that they represented the divine will” gave him opposite advice. Was it not more likely that God would reveal his will to him than to others on this issue? Lincoln asserted that “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.” Because these were not “the days of miracles,” he did not expect to receive “a direct revelation.” Therefore, he “must study the plain physical facts of the case … and learn what appears to be wise and right.”

That same month, Lincoln wrote privately that the “will of God prevails.” His purpose in the Civil War might be quite different from that of either the North or the South. God “could have saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began.” Moreover, “he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

After two more years of death and destruction, Lincoln wrote that the “purposes of the Almighty are perfect and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this,” he added, “but God knows best and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge his wisdom and our own error.” Using the best light God provided, Unionists must trust that their labor “still conduces to the great ends he ordains. Surely he intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion.”

“I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln wrote a Kentucky newspaper editor in 1864, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me. … 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.”

Lincoln believed that in directing history, God used people to accomplish his plans, and he saw himself as God’s agent on earth. This helped him cope with problems and defeats.Register of the Treasury Lucius E. Chittenden maintained Lincoln told him that “one of the plainest statements of the Bible” was that God used “human agencies, and directly intervenes in human affairs. … I am satisfied that when the Almighty wants me to do or not do a particular thing, he finds a way of letting me know.”

While emphasizing that God’s actions were often difficult to understand and his purposes frequently clashed with human desires, Lincoln counseled Americans to trust in God’s goodness and submit to his will. Calling himself a “humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father,” he insisted that “we must believe” that God permitted the war “for some wise purpose of His own, mysterious and unknown to us …” and “that He who made the world still governs it.”

Unlike the vast majority of statesmen, Lincoln refused to identify God’s will with his own cause. Because humans could not fully understand God’s purposes, they should not presume that he was on their side. Lincoln, argued theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, was the rare person who could govern during a crisis “without equating his interpretation of the task with the divine wisdom.”

Repudiating a “God bless America” theology that ignored the nation’s sins and culpability, Lincoln urged all Americans to reflect and repent. As Garry Wills emphasizes, “Lincoln mourned for the South, instead of denouncing it” and “mourned for the North, instead of celebrating it.” As did many African-American Christians, Lincoln emphasized forgiveness and trusted that God was accomplishing his purposes in the midst of people’s affliction.

By emulating Lincoln’s confidence in God’s sovereignty, desire to know and implement God’s will as he understood it, recognition of sin, call for repentance, willingness to forgive his opponents, and humility, political leaders and other Americans as well can better promote justice and peace in our troubled world.