I’ve got a big question today, but first let me sketch two items quickly. First, think about it, we’ve seen the following as prophets of doom: the puritans with their weekly jeremiads, Thomas Jefferson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Add someone else to this list: Abraham Lincoln, about whom Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh says: “For better or worse, there has been no more messianic a figure in American history than Abraham Lincoln” (Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization, 75).
Big question: Is apocalyptic rhetoric, the kind of rhetoric that declares that if we don’t change society and culture will collapse, simply a rhetorical package that is designed to get people to wake up and change? (If folks change, mission accomplished.) Or is it a rhetorical package that also predicts what will happen? You may know where I’m going: are biblical apocalyptic warnings more the first than the second? In other words, is it a way to get folks to change? Or is it a way to get folks to change because of what will surely happen? Is it prediction or it is simply religiously-charged rhetoric?
And a point about blogging about this book: we’re not getting quite as much discussion as I had hoped, but I’d like you to consider just how significant this jeremiad of predicting godlessness is in America and what its impacts are.
Nothing brings out the jeremiad and apocalyptic rhetoric like war, so this chp’s focus on the Civil War and the beliefs of Lincoln and Sherman are excellent examples, but their examples resonate with anyone who pays attention to how our nation has talked about war in the last decade.
Back to Lincoln and what the author of this chp calls his “ironic absorption into his age’s American religious culture” (because Lincoln was hardly an evangelical but his obsession with discerning God’s will was noteworthy). In contrast, William Tecumseh Sherman repudiated republican, evangelical and Enlightenment Christianity. Mark Noll observed that despite all the jeremiads tossed into the public by both the North and the South, the beliefs of both sides largely continued on after the Civil War.
The jeremiads unleashed permitted the South to see their defeat as a temporal, providential chastisement and the North to see God purging the nation from sin. Belief in God’s working in history held out hope for redemption, and this powerful jeremiad form was more potent than the rational notion of progress that many adhered to … including Lincoln.
Lincoln was a skeptic as a young man and lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. His own view of the “doctrine of necessity” was not the same as the evangelical belief in Providence. That is, he held to a “gradual, orderly, rational, and … secular conception of progress” (79). Hsieh explains how Lincoln’s view of Providence became more personal and it led him to make a covenant with God, a kind of Gideon’s fleece, that if the North won a particular battle he would take it as a sign and he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Second Inaugural, however, reveals Lincoln’s conviction of the inscrutable providence of God. Lincoln illustrates how difficult it is for many to discern the plan of God. If the jeremiad is found in Lincoln, there is a humility about it that demonstrates his belief that God’s plans are inscrutable.
But Sherman, who is not emphasized in this chp, came at the issues from a different angle. We find in him a warrior-ized vision: God is nearly equated with Union and the Confederacy becomes a rebellion against God.
Where are we today? Do we opt for the inscrutability of God’s providence? to warrior-izing the plan of God? to a confidence that God is on our side?