Lincoln's Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War

By Parrillo, Nicholas | Civil War History, September 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Lincoln's Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.