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.
Views of providence provide the sharpest contrast between Lincoln and the professional theologians of his day. Almost alone among public figures, Lincoln's concept of providence combined the conventions of his age with a much more primordial vision.
To be sure, earlier in his presidency Lincoln used a much more common language. At his first inaugural, in 1861, he talked of divine realities as if their main purpose was a utilitarian one to serve the nation. At the time his trust in America had been nearly complete: "Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal, hope in the world?" He even spoke as if God existed as a kind of celestial umpire waiting only to dignify the decisions of U.S. citizens: "If the Almighty Ruler of nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth, and that justice, will surely prevail, by the judgment of this great tribunal, the American people." In the dark hour Lincoln's solution was civil religion pure and simple: "Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty."
But before the war had progressed very far, Lincoln evidently began to rethink these conventional views. As early as 1862, another theme rose in Lincoln's consciousness. It was the idea that perhaps the will of God could not simply be identified with efforts to preserve the Union. Such thoughts he committed to paper in September 1862, at one of the darkest moments of the conflict. The North had suffered another defeat at Bull Run, and Lincoln had seriously begun to ponder the radical step of proclaiming the emancipation of Confederate slaves. In response, he penned a "Meditation on the Divine Will," which his secretaries later recalled was meant for Lincoln's eyes alone. It was the most remarkable theological commentary of the war:
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party - and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as the do, are of the best adaptation to affect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true - that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.