He had given his word to God, Lincoln said, and that was that. “The Rebel Army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.” Chase’s account is supported by others: President Lincoln chose to emancipate the slaves at that particular moment because, he said, he had made a deal with the Almighty.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recalled the meeting the same way Chase did. Lincoln called them together and said the slaves were to be freed. “He had, he said, made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle (which had just been fought) he would consider it his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” Lincoln knew his listeners might be skeptical or puzzled, but there it was. “We might think it strange, he said, but there were times when he felt uncertain how to act; that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favor of the slave. He was satisfied he was right—was confirmed and strengthened by the vow and its results; his mind was fixed, his decision made. Thirty years before, in the Age of Jackson, Tocqueville heard an American clergyman utter these words at a public gathering: “O Lord! Never turn thy face away from us; permit us always to be the most religious people as well as the most free.” In Lincoln’s understanding, God required, first, a guilelessness and purity of purpose, and in exchange would relieve the country of fear and sustain her through the fires of war, and the penance he was exacting. Then, and only then, might light come from darkness.
Praying to the Same God
On Saturday, March 4, 1865, standing at the East Front of the Capitol, Lincoln took the presidential oath for the second time and delivered a brief but epochal address. America was finishing its fourth year of civil war. What Lincoln knew, though, and what informed the words he had written out to read to the nation, was that the roots of the war could be traced back much farther than the showdown at Sumter.
Reflecting on his first inaugural in 1861, Lincoln said, “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” North and South, Lincoln said, “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.
Lincoln's words were an honest, even brutal acknowledgment that man is not always able to arrange the world as he would like. The religious see this plight as the inevitable consequence of the Fall and, as Lincoln noted, as the workings of the mysterious mind of God; the secular as the vagaries of fate or chance. Whether viewed through the lens of faith or the prism of secularism, the point is the same: we are subject to forces beyond our control.
For Lincoln, such a vision did not absolve us of moral responsibility. “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it,” he said at New York’s Cooper Union on Monday, February 27, 1860. And Lincoln’s second inaugural makes the case that Americans cannot expect the blessings and protection of God without also answering for their transgressions against him.
A melancholy man who never joined a church, Lincoln intuitively understood the drama of sin and redemption better than most traditional believers. Lincoln’s God is neither benign nor sunny but a Lord calling his people to account. “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come,” Lincoln said, “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 offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”