I taught the course “Life and Times of Lincoln” several times at the University of Akron. I’m still not sure what I think of this speech. Deeply moving, it is also troubling and challenging.
Fellow-Countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
That’s the opening paragraph among four total paragraphs. Here he uses the speech’s only instance of the first-person pronoun. Lincoln does not recount the achievements of his administration, but says, in effect, “We all know what is happening with the war, so I need not summarize that information.” We must remember that, although we know that the war lasted only a little over a month after Lincoln gave this speech, he and his audience did not. For all they knew, the war could go on for many more weeks or months. Thus the last sentence.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation.
Quite true: Lincoln’s first inaugural reached out to the South: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
That is what Lincoln said in 1861.nNow, in 1865, he continues.
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish,
–a sorrowful, classic understatement, considering the 600,000 dead in the conflict—
and the war came.
The third paragraph is an astonishing piece.
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. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.
Lincoln turns to theology here.
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
–He quotes Matthew 7:1–
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.
Certainly no quarrel with that theology! I wish more people, including politicians who invoke God’s blessings, understood prayer as Lincoln does: God is not “on our side,” no matter how just we believe our causes are. God’s purposes are far higher and greater than we can imagine, and we should pray to understand how God is working so that we can follow God more clearly.
Next, Lincoln quotes Matthew 18:7
“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Wait a minute! Is Lincoln saying that God is acting in American history the way he acted in judgment of Israel and Judah in the Tanakh?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk,
–“Sunk” is an old economic term meaning to pay off a debt–
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
–and he quotes Psalm 19:9–
“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
I have always thought the American Civil War, had rather “biblical” qualities in the sense of a mysterious logic. Think of events in the Bible like the “accidental” death of Ahab (1 Kings 21:20f; 1 Kings 22:34), or the salvation of Jeremiah based on the chance event of an overheard conversation (Jer. 38:1-13), and then think of the way Lee’s plans in Maryland were discovered accidentally, rolled around a batch of cigars, or the way Stonewall Jackson’s strange and untimely death became a turning point for the war. Opportunities for the war’s early end always seemed to evaporate, as if the course of the war had a terrible inevitability. But does that mean God allowed a hideous war to happen as judgment for the sin of slavery? Lincoln does not quite say that in the crude sense: “God allowed this war to happen to punish America for the sin of slavery.” But he comes very close.
Lincoln’s words become problematic not only because of the horrors of the war, but also because we know the rest of the story that Lincoln did not know. We know that he was killed by an assassin; was that, too, in the Providence of God? Was the nearly hundred years of continued oppression of African Americans in the Providence of God? Was World War I, fifty years later, a judgment of bloodletting for some sin in the soul and history of Europe. I personally would answer all these questions, Surely not! But what is God’s plan when human circumstances are tragic?
We have to be very careful in our thinking about God’s judgment. As an interpretation of events, the doctrine seems best affirmed as an acknowledgement of God’s power and sovereignty, not as the underlying cause of particular events. I could never attribute someone’s cancer to God’s judgment, for instance, nor the outcome of some battle, nor a moment when something terrible happens. We affirm God’s unfailing love and his lordship, but we must be humble and sensitive in “reading” God’s activity.
We also have to be very careful in attributing God’s providence to national events. The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer writes, “The success of the Normandy invasion in 1944, in and by itself, does not prove a special favorable disposition in God toward the West European people anymore than the liberation of Stalingrad, in and by itself, proves a special favorable disposition in God toward the Russian people. The Providence of God included West and East, but everything depends, for both, on how the facts are understood. In the absence of true faith, liberation can be turned against a people, as [biblical] Israel’s resting its case for expected blessings on the mere fact of the exodus was turned against her. God’s way with the world cannot be summarized with charts or statistics. Each of His acts, and his gifts, is charged with a new summons to obedience and new reminders of responsibility” (p. 179).
Lincoln is not preaching a Christian sermon. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross reminds us that God sent his son to die for us, and to pay our debt for us, so that there is no longer need for blood sacrifice on an altar. This raises another question, then, whether Lincoln is wrong to think that God would any longer require any blood sacrifice for atonement, including the sin of American slavery. Not at all to denigrate the Tanakh, but we can wonder what, if anything, Lincoln might have said differently if he had been more “christocentric” in his beliefs about judgment and atonement.
In the end, Lincoln properly affirms that God’s purposes are mysterious. Lincoln might have additionally affirmed, with Isaiah, that God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways. We must have faith that God’s purposes are righteous and true.
The second inaugural’s last paragraph is one of Lincoln’s best-known utterances and is, to echo Berkouwer, a reminder of obedience and responsibility.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
“Orphan and widow” are very much biblical terms, referring to those who most need care. Lincoln’s vision is biblically-true and appropriate: not revenge, but peace and healing, sentiments missing in more smug pronouncements you could think of concerning God’s will. Whenever we request God’s blessings upon America, we can keep Lincoln’s final paragraph in mind as a model, and seek to avoid the us-and-them dichtomy that saw its extreme manifestation in “this mighty scourge of war.”