Religion and the American Civil War

By Randall M. Miller; Harry S. Stout et al. | Go to book overview

9 Lincoln's Sermon on the Mount The Second Inaugural

RONALD C. JR. WHITE

Since Abraham Lincoln's death more words have been wasted on the question of his religion than any other aspect of his life." So wrote Richard N. Current in 1945. 1 Current delivered this verdict as the study of Abraham Lincoln was finally assuming its place in the professional discipline of history, and judging by the scholarship over the past fifty years, his criticism might hold today. 2 But such a judgment about what others have said about Lincoln's religion should not distract attention from what Lincoln actually said about religion and the ways religious values and images informed his ideas about the character of the Union. 3

Lincoln's religion, in fact, laid a foundation for his political thinking. The culmination of Lincoln's religion was his attempt to discern the meaning of the Civil War. Even though there is widespread evidence that in his presidential years Lincoln was embracing a faith that would sustain him in times of stress and grief, the bulk of his reflection about the meaning of God and faith evolved in the context of the political questions and issues of the Civil War. Sometimes this reflection was done in private, as in his "Meditation on the Divine Will," written in the summer of 1862 after a crushing Union military defeat. Most often it was worked out in public addresses and comments. What strikes the modern reader is not that Lincoln was sure he knew the will of what he called a "living God," but rather that he was continually wrestling, often out loud and in public, with the meaning and manner of a God whom he became increasingly certain acted in history. 4

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, which he regarded as his best speech, was in several ways the prism through which he refracted his understanding

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