'The Almighty Has His Own Purposes'

In times of war, whose side is God on?

During the Civil War, American theologians made many efforts to interpret the religious meaning of the conflict. But it was Abraham Lincoln, who never joined a church in his life, who presented the most profound theological interpretation, articulated in his Second Inaugural speech of March 4, 1865.

The poignancy of this speech, as the martyr-president's last defining utterance on the nation's ultimate defining experience, no less than its magnanimity toward the South and the force of its religious meditation, has placed it among the small handful of semi sacred texts by which Americans conceive their place in the world. If, however, we set the address in its own times rather than consider its importance for the Meaning of America, we find it defines a major historical puzzle concerning the character of theology.

The puzzle is posed by the fact that none of America's respected religious leaders - as defined by contemporaries or later scholars - mustered the theological power so economically expressed in Lincoln's Second Inaugural. None probed so profoundly the ways of God or the response of humans to the divine constitution of the world. None penetrated as deeply into the nature of providence. And none described the fate of humanity before God with the humility or the sagacity of the president. The contrast has several dimensions.


First, Lincoln expressed remarkable charity to the foe. In hindsight it is clear that, when Lincoln delivered his address on 4 March, the South was tottering on the brink of defeat. But Lincoln himself did not believe that Lee would soon surrender, and the South was still filled with leaders promising to fight on as guerillas in the mountains or from new bases west of the Mississippi. In these circumstances, after four years of a war in which the South had extracted a terrible toll from the North and in which North and South had both promoted a degree of destructive violence hitherto unknown even in America's never genteel history, Lincoln's magnanimity was as striking as it was singular.

Second, almost alone among his contemporaries, Lincoln did not presumptuously assume that the moral high ground belonged to only his side. By questioning the righteousness of the North and by failing to denounce the South in absolute terms, he joined a very small minority in the spring and summer of 1865. If Lincoln's magnanimity and his moral even-handedness were generally religious, his view of providence was distinctly theological. More than any other feature of this address, Lincoln's conception of God's rule over the world set him apart from the recognized theologians of his day.

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Mark A. Noll
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