Abraham Lincoln shows how suffering can be bound up with spiritual purpose. He sank so deeply into that suffering and came away with a felicitous blend of humility and determination. Whatever ship carried him on life’s rough waters, Lincoln came to believe that he was not the captain but merely a subject of the divine force—call it fate or God or the "Almighty Architect" of existence. Yet, however humble his station, Lincoln knew himself to be no idle passenger but a sailor on deck with a job to do. In his strange mix of deference to divine authority and willful exercise of his own meager power, Lincoln achieved transcendent wisdom, the delicate fruit of a lifetime of pain.
A revealing glimpse into his spiritual life came in the summer of 1863, when, as a president mired in Civil War, Lincoln faced fires burning all around him. In early July, costly military victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi and at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, opened an opportunity, Lincoln thought, to end the war. When the opportunity was lost, he described himself as “oppressed” and in “deep distress.” Around the same time, draft riots in New York City — which brought this jewel city of the North to its knees in bitter anti-black violence—accentuated the ongoing horror.
Amidst this intense pressure, a grieved Lincoln found peace by acknowledging his own powerlessness. According to General James F. Rusling, Lincoln said that during the fighting at Gettysburg he turned to prayer, felt the whole thing to be in God’s hands, and “somehow a sweet comfort crept into his soul.” In another revealing incident that summer, Elizabeth Keckly, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, watched the president drag himself into the room where she was fitting the First Lady. “His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad,” Keckly recalled. “Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection.”
Lincoln announced that he had just returned from the War Department, he said, where the news was “dark, dark everywhere.” Then he took a small Bible from a stand near the sofa and began to read. “A quarter of an hour passed,” Keckly remembered, “and on glancing at the sofa the face of the President seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope.” Wanting to see what he was reading, Keckly pretended she had dropped something and went behind where Lincoln was sitting so she could look over his shoulder. It was the Book of Job.
Throughout history, a glance to the divine has often been the first and last impulse for suffering people. “Man is born broken,” the playwright Eugene O’Neill has written. “He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!” Many conversion narratives include spates of melancholy—the dark night of the soul. And many secular stories of depression end with a spiritual awakening, as does Leo Tolstoy’s memoir, “My Confession,” about how a crisis of spirit became a crisis of faith, which he resolved by turning to Christianity. Today the connection between spiritual and psychological well-being is often passed over by psychologists and psychiatrists, who consider themselves a branch of secular medicine and science. For most of Lincoln’s lifetime, scientists assumed there was some relationship between mental and spiritual life.
Lincoln saw this relationship, too. As a young man, he identified religion as a balm for life’s afflictions. His close friend Joshua Speed remembered Lincoln saying that the most ambitious man could see every hope fail, but the earnest Christian could never fail, because fulfillment lay beyond life on earth. “When I knew him,” Speed said, “in early life . . . he had tried hard to be a believer, but his reason could not grasp and solve the great problem of redemption as taught.”
According to Isaac Cogdal, a contemporary of Lincoln’s who often talked theology with him, “His mind was full of terrible Enquiry.” The inquiry seems to have intensified around points of stress in Lincoln’s life, like his desperate breakdown in 1841, when he sank so deeply into depression that his friends feared for his life. “I am now the most miserable man living,” Lincoln wrote in the midst of his despair. That summer, his friend Speed took him to his family estate in Kentucky to convalesce. There, Speed’s mother recommended the Bible, calling it the “best cure for the ‘Blues’.” Lincoln said he was sure she was right—“could one,” he said, “but take it according to the truth.”
Such equivocation suggests a man grappling with the basic questions of matter and spirit—a journey which continued after the death of the Lincolns’ child three-year-old child, Edward Baker Lincoln, in 1850. A recently arrived minister in Springfield, the Reverend James Smith, conducted the boy’s funeral. Afterwards, Smith often visited the Lincoln home at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets. Like Lincoln, Smith had been a skeptic, but after he converted to Christianity, he published a book, “The Christian’s Defense,” that aimed to draw other freethinkers into his flock. According to Smith, Lincoln read his book and found it convincing. “He examined the Arguments as a lawyer who is anxious to reach the truth investigates testimony,” Smith recounted. Though other contemporaries disputed him,
Smith claimed that Lincoln concluded “that the argument in favor of the Divine Authority and inspiration of the Scripture was unanswerable.”
Clearly, Lincoln never made an unambiguous conversion. The Lincolns later rented a pew at Smith’s First Presbyterian Church—which reserved them space for services but did not bind them to accept the church’s creed, as membership would. This arrangement, which the president repeated in Washington, nicely represented his relationship with traditional religion in his mature years. He visited, but he didn’t move in.
Indeed, the power of Lincoln’s spiritual story is all the greater for his insistence on independence. Rather than accept the protestations of any single sect, let alone any single preacher, Lincoln struggled to arrive at his own distinct theology. For example, while most Christians at the proposed that sin could be abated through confession or repentance, Lincoln maintained—according to his law partner, William Herndon—“that God could not forgive; that punishment has to follow the sin.” This view fit with both the stern, unforgiving God of Calvinism, with which Lincoln had been raised, and the mechanistic notion—attractive to so many Enlightenment intellectuals—of a universe governed by fixed laws. But unlike the Calvinists, who disclaimed any possibility of grace for human beings not chosen for that fate, Lincoln clung to the possibility of improvement. And unlike some fatalists, who renounced any claim to a moral order, Lincoln saw how man’s reason could discern purpose even in the movement of a vast machine that grinds and cuts and mashes all who interfere with it. Just as a child learns to pull his hand from a fire when it is hot, people can learn when they are doing something that is not in accord with the wider, unseen order. To Lincoln, Herndon explained, “suffering was medicinal & educational.” In other words, it could be an agent of growth.
After Lincoln’s election as president in 1860 and the secession crisis that followed, what he described as a “process of crystallization” began in his mind on the subject of faith. Pressed down by fantastic burdens, he increasingly turned his gaze to powers greater than he. For example, when his friends in Springfield urged him to beware of assassination, he replied: “God’s will be done. I am in his hands.” He also repeatedly called himself an “instrument” of a larger power —which he sometimes described as the people of the United States, and other times as God—and said he had been charged with “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.”
When the Civil War broke out just after Lincoln’s inauguration, he faced grave tests of his faith. These were punctuated by the wrenching death of his 11-year-old boy Willie Lincoln, in February 1862. Mary Lincoln said that, though Lincoln “was a religious man always,” around this time his ideas about “hope” and “faith” began to change, by which she probably meant hope and faith in the afterlife. After Willie was interred, Lincoln is said to have gone several times to look at his body in its tomb. He asked an army officer, “Did you ever dream of a lost friend & feel that you were having a direct communion with that friend & yet a consciousness that it was not a reality?” The man said yes; he thought “all may have had such an experience.” Lincoln said, “So do I dream of my boy Willie,” sobbing and shaking with emotion.
In his burdens, Lincoln found comfort in humility. “There was something touching,” said the journalist Noah Brooks, “in his childlike and simple reliance upon Divine aid, especially when in such extremities as he sometimes fell into . . . he more earnestly than ever sought that strength which is promised when mortal help faileth.” One time Lincoln said, in Brooks’s hearing, “I am very sure that if I do not go away from here a wiser man, I shall go away a better man, for having learned here what a very poor sort of man I am.” It was all the more powerful that Lincoln—known for his dour moods—delivered this message with an air of cheer.
Yet Lincoln’s spiritual view did not lessen his grave sense of responsibility. Every day presented scores of decisions—on personnel, on policy, on the movement of troops and the direction of executive departments. So much of what today is delegated to political staffs and civil servants then required a direct decision from the president. He controlled patronage, from the embassy in China to the post office in St. Louis. He personally reviewed scores of cases of soldiers sentenced to death. In all these matters he had to exercise his judgment in accordance with law, custom, prudence, and compassion. The paradox is that, as much as his attention focused on an unseen realm, Lincoln’s emphasis remained strictly on the material world of cause and effect. “These are not . . . the days of miracles,” he said, “and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.” Lincoln did not expect God to take him by the hand. On the contrary, he said, “I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”
In many ways, Lincoln was typical of “sick souls”—to use William James’s phrase—who turn, from a sense of personal distress, to the relief of faith. Yet, Lincoln’s religion was hardly typical. Indeed, he emerged, as the war wore on, as an original theological thinker. For centuries, settlers on the North American continent had been assured that they were special in God’s eyes. They were the “City upon a Hill,” in John Winthrop’s phrase, decidedly chosen, like the Israelites of old. Lincoln turned this on its head when he said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”
The United States, Lincoln said, was almost chosen—that is, not yet chosen, or not in fact, but very close to being, chosen. This phrase suggested a key strain of Lincoln’s thinking. While many around him invoked the favor of God, Lincoln opened up—and relentlessly explored—the dynamic space between mortal works and divine intention. Among his papers, after his death, his secretaries found this undated statement that has come to be known as the “Meditation on the Divine Will.”
The will of God prevails—In great contests
each party claims to act in accordence with
the will of God. Both may be, and one
must be wrong. God can not 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 they do, are of
the best adaptation to effect this
After this first passage, the handwriting grows shakier; the words practically tremble with the thoughts they express. First, Lincoln crossed out the last word he had written.
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 con-
test—Yet the contest began—And having begun
He could give the final victory to either side any day—Yet the contest proceeds—
Lincoln not only professed his individual uncertainty. He raised questions about the relationship between his cause and God’s will. It’s hard to overestimate how unusual this was. Most religious thinkers, explains the historian of religion Mark Noll in America’s God, both assumed the favor of the Almighty and declared themselves able to interpret His will. In the fantastic outpouring of religious expression that came with the beginning of military hostilities, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” captured the mood in the North:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Meanwhile, southern soldiers fashioned their own God’s army. The seal of the Confederacy contained the inscription Deo Vindice—God Will Vindicate. When the Rebels fared well in early fighting, they plainly saw God’s hand.
While preachers and statesman on both sides blustered about God’s favor for their partisan interests, Lincoln cut straight to the apparent contradiction. “Both may be,” he observed, “and one must be wrong.” No one—not he, not Julia Ward Howe, not Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, that pious and fierce southern warrior—knew just what God intended. “We must work earnestly in the best light He gives us,” Lincoln wrote, “trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains.” Once a minister remarked to Lincoln something along the lines of “I hope the Lord is on our side.” Lincoln said he didn’t agree, adding, in substance, “I hope we are on the Lord’s side.”
“How was it,” asks Mark Noll, “that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could, on occasion, give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?” Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his lifelong melancholy, we see one cogent explanation: A “depressive realist,” he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When times were hard, he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension.
With this in mind, we return to the summer of 1863, to the time when Lincoln found comfort in the Book of Job. It is instructive that he would turn to Job in a moment of darkness, for it is about the value of questioning one’s faith, even to the point of emotional agony. As the story goes, God has gathered his angels around him, and he boasts of his pious servant Job. Satan scoffs at this, saying that Job’s piety merely reflects his good fortune. As if to settle the argument, God permits Satan to take away Job’s possessions, kill his children, and afflict him with boils. Job at first struggles to stay pious, then lashes out in anger at God and demands to know the reason for his afflictions. The story ends with God rewarding Job, praising his skepticism and his demands for the truth, while punishing those who tried to comfort Job with the usual bromides. Faith, the story suggests, means getting worked up, asking tough questions.Commenting on the Book of Job, the prominent nineteenth-century theologian Mark Rutherford wrote, “God is great, we know not his ways. He takes from us all we have, but yet if we possess our souls in patience, we may pass the valley of the shadow, and come out in sunlight again.”
Lincoln probably saw the parallels: Job lost his family. Lincoln lost his child, many friends, and vast numbers of soldiers in his charge. Job lost his great estate. Lincoln, in a real sense, had lost his country, for by 1863 the war was no longer about preserving the Union; it was about building something new. What distinguished Lincoln—and distinguished his work to advance American civilization through this fiery trial—was his willingness to cry out to the heavens in pain and despair, and then turn, humbly and determinedly, to the work that lay before him.