NOTE: This post was first published five years ago, and it’s even more timely today. I’ve updated it slightly, but the message is unchanged. Happy birthday, Mr. President.
My family took a “national and family heritage” Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2007. During that trip, one of my goals was to impress on my children the role of our Christian faith in the founding and history of our country.
We started one of the days at the west end of the national mall, in the Lincoln Memorial. As the six of us stood just below the great statue of Lincoln, near the steps where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, we read together the text of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, engraved on the Memorial’s inner walls.
Even before that day, I considered Lincoln to be the President who had the greatest positive impact on this country while in office. But knowing the questions historians had about Lincoln’s faith, I was especially struck by the skill with which the president weaved Scripture and the words of Jesus into the text of his speech. I made it a goal to dive into the speech and someday write about it.
During national tragedies, presidents often become “Pastors-in-Chief,” comforting a grieving nation with a quote from the Bible or a well-known religious platitude. Lincoln had many opportunities to assume that role during the grim four-year war, including the brief but stirring Gettysburg Address just 16 months earlier (“…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”).
But in March of 1865, with the Civil War coming to its bitter conclusion, Lincoln knew that both sides would soon be faced with the daunting task of mending a nation torn by brother-against-brother conflict. Lincoln used this opportunity, this “bully pulpit” (to quote a later president, Theodore Roosevelt), to encourage the victorious Union states to forgive, and to reunify the broken nation. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address did just that, and more, by showing all Americans, both North and South (who would no doubt read these words as well), just how to approach the end of conflict through the prism of God’s Word.
1. Resolution and Healing Requires Humility.
“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. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
President Lincoln must have recognized the temptation for those in the North to think that they were somehow superior to the Confederate sympathizers. After all, Union fathers and sons were giving their lives to eliminate the scourge of slavery, unlike their Southern counterparts. But Lincoln’s quote of Jesus in Matthew 7:1 (KJV) illustrated Lincoln’s long-held understanding that God could not be claimed as being exclusively on either side. In Notre Dame historian Mark Noll’s excellent article in Christianity Today entitled “The Struggle for Lincoln’s Soul,” Dr. Noll observed that in a private memorandum as early as 1862, Lincoln wrote that “[i]n the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” (Read the full excerpt of Dr. Noll’s article here.)
2. God Has Not Changed, and Does Not Change.
“‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
Just because this country was obliged to fight a brutal civil war to end American slavery, does that make God any less good, less just, less kind? Lincoln’s use of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:7 from the beautifully worded King James Version is especially poignant here. It also illustrates why Dr. Noll suggested that, when it came to the war, Lincoln’s theology was higher and finer than many professional Christian theologians of his day. Dr. Noll’s research of Lincoln’s life revealed the president’s sense of God’s divine authority over his life, and “[“Lincoln’s] eagerness to commit the Civil War to divine rule.” In this pivotal speech, Lincoln wisely pointed out that there’s no need to ask why the war was necessary, or what good came from it. The war was there, and it was real; there was no avoiding it. Even Christ had said bad things would happen (“it must needs be that offenses come”). But while Lincoln’s closing question in this paragraph doesn’t quote Scripture, it certainly highlights God’s unchanging nature.
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, o children of Jacob, are not consumed. – Malachi 3:6 ESV
3. Surrender All Outcomes to God, Because He Is, and Ought to Be, in Control.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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.'”
Here President Lincoln dared to suggest the unimaginable: that the Civil War might continue until every drop of slaves’ blood shed over the course of 250 years is avenged by the death of a Union or Confederate soldier. But this time, Lincoln quotes not Jesus but King David in Psalm 19:9 to show that, no matter what happens, God’s ultimate purpose for the war is just and good, because justice and goodness are the attributes of God. And while Lincoln’s speech doesn’t mention it, there’s no avoiding the parallel between’s Lincoln’s illustration of the sacrifice given by America’s sons and the fact that the world’s redemption for its sins came by the sacrifice of God’s son through the shedding of His blood on the cross at Calvary.
In Him, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of trespasses, through the riches of His grace. – Ephesians 1:7 (ESV)
4. Prayer and the Word of God Brings Healing.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, 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, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
While the conclusion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was not a direct quote of Scripture, it shows that high regard that Lincoln held for God’s word. Dr. Noll’s article mention’s Lincoln’s comments in 1864 upon receiving a Bible from a group of African-Americans, when Lincoln said this: “All the good the Saviour gave to this world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong.” Lincoln’s call to the grieving nation appears to be to look to God and his Word, because it is what “God gives us to see the right.” I also think it’s no accident that Lincoln asks the nation to care for the “widows and orphans” of not just Northern soldiers, but of those who fought for the South as well (“malice toward none…charity toward all”), because care for those groups is close to the heart of God.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27 (ESV)
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is a simple blueprint for Biblical conflict resolution. It can be used for any conflict, whether international, within the U.S., or simply between two people. First, reconciliation and restoration requires the generous application of love and humility, as modeled by Jesus Christ. When you’re tempted to get discouraged, believe God’s holy Word that God has not changed, does not change, and will not change, no matter the circumstances we face. In the end, surrender the outcome of the conflict to God. He forever is, and ought to be, in control of each and every situation. And when you question how to move forward, earnestly pray for God to lead you, and look to his holy Word for guidance. God, through his Word, is the only One who can show you what is right.