Lincoln's Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War

By Parrillo, Nicholas | Civil War History, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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Lincoln's Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War


Parrillo, Nicholas, Civil War History


THE ROLE OF religion in Abraham Lincoln's political leadership very much deserves to be studied, for, as Reinhold Niebuhr claims, Lincoln apprehended the religious meanings of political events more deeply than did almost any other American of his time.(1) Yet the sources available on the subject present serious difficulties. While Lincoln's statements on religion were at times profound, they were never lengthy or great in number. Some historians have tried to fill in the picture by using the reminiscences of people who knew Lincoln, but these sources entail problems of their own. Authors of reminiscences suffered from the tricks of memory. Further, they were especially tempted to bias their accounts when talking about religion, for after Lincoln was murdered and consequently canonized as a national saint, a heated controversy ensued over what religious group might claim him.(2)

One approach to this problem of sources is to put aside reminiscences and look at Lincoln's undisputed writings to see what they reveal about the shape of his beliefs. A whole line of scholars have followed this method.(3) While many have traced what Lincoln said, none has traced how he said it. Numerous writers, from Edmund Wilson to David Herbert Donald, have noted that Lincoln's references to God and religion became more frequent and profound in his later life,(4) but there has never been an attempt to chart comprehensively how the emphases, nuances, and shadings of his religious rhetoric developed over the years.(5)

The time has come for such an approach, for it sheds new light on one of the most confusing aspects of Lincoln's religion. He said throughout his life that he believed in providence, that is, the ordination of all earthly events by a higher power, which he frequently called God. Lincoln's lifelong use of this concept makes it hard to tell whether his beliefs on the subject ever changed, and if so, when and how.(6) Literary analysis reveals that, even though Lincoln always subscribed to the same technical definition of providence, the role that this concept played in his rhetoric underwent a gradual but dramatic change during his presidency.

Before the Civil War, the understanding of providence that appeared in Lincoln's rhetoric was complacent and conveniently amenable to the existing arrangements of society. Lincoln's God lacked any palpable motive force or determinative power. Such a conception was made possible in part by perfectionist and postmillennial currents in the Protestantism of his day. Indeed, his portrayal of a relaxed and accommodating God was typical of his contemporaries, especially when they spoke on the potentially explosive subject of slavery. In the prewar years, it was not from religion but from secular republicanism that Lincoln's rhetoric and actions drew their energy. Throughout the 1850s, the principles of liberty, equality, and self-government had the force and weight of sacred doctrine in Lincoln's mind, while Christian ideas represented merely a corollary to republican principles, or at most a useful tool of argument for secular ends. But once Lincoln became president and began to prosecute war against the Confederacy, his statements on religion took on a different cast. The notion of God that appeared in his language gravitated ever closer to that of Calvinism: an activist, independent, and judgmental God whose designs informed every single earthly event but whose purposes often seemed inscrutable to human eyes. Linked to this notion was a Calvinist-like view of humanity as utterly sinful, deserving of retribution, and entirely dependent on God in all aspects of life. Lincoln's deep commitment to republicanism never lost its motive power, but by the end of the war, his new Calvinist tendencies acquired strength equal to that of his never-changing democratic beliefs.

Lincoln certainly was not the only American to invoke Calvinist ideas in response to the war. Americans in this period had at their disposal a long-standing Calvinist tradition originating with the Puritans of the colonial era.

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