On Monday, September 22, 1862, in a meeting of his Cabinet on the second floor of the White House, Lincoln seemed a bit embarrassed. He was trying to explain the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but was not sure anyone else would understand. It had been a vicious and frightening military season; the previous Wednesday, at Antietam, in Maryland, would go down in history as the bloodiest day of the war. But the Union had won the battle, stopping the Confederate advance. Now, facing his Cabinet, Lincoln told them what he was going to do—and why. According to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase’s diary, Lincoln said: “When the Rebel Army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation. ...I said nothing to anyone, but I made a promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker.

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?”

Americans, Lincoln was saying, must take God altogether. The nation’s public religion, based as it was on a God who is attentive to history and has it in his power to affect our course, cannot only be a source of sunshine and comfort; it is also hard and demanding, for it requires us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
The Living God who delivered Israel from Egypt or who raised Jesus from the dead was also the Living God who mocked Job in his suffering and inexplicably withdrew his favor from Saul in order to make David king. Visiting war on America in the middle of the nineteenth century, then, did not mark, in Lincoln’s view, “any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him,” for those attributes included both reward and punishment. “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln said. “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’
The eloquence of Lincoln’s address can conceal the starkness of his message. Read carefully, the speech is startling in its religiosity and its insistence that the events of this world are linked to the will and mind of a God who presides outside time and space. Here is a president of the United States, waging a civil war in which his countrymen are the only casualties, quoting the Nineteenth Psalm—“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”—to say that an indefinite struggle would be not only divinely ordained but just, for America was being summoned to account for its sins against the human beings it had long enslaved.
Eleven days later, answering a congratulatory message about the speech, Lincoln said he understood that the address was not going to be “immediately popular,” but he was confident he had done right. “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them,” Lincoln wrote. “To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told. . . .”
Lincoln believed he was acting in the humane religious tradition of the Declaration. “This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe,” he said of the Founders’ view of what Hamilton had called mankind’s “sacred rights.” “This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures,” Lincoln said. “Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.