Lincoln’s 700 Words of Biblical Meditation

Lincoln's 2nd

A hundred and fifty years ago today, as the sun broke through the clouds shortly after noon on a wet Washington day, Abraham Lincoln, with one hand raised and the other on an open Bible, took the presidential oath of office for the second time. The speech he just gave had been received by an enthusiastic crowd on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. It took about six minutes. Then the oath. Then he said, “So help me God,” bent forward, and kissed the Bible to conclude the solemn ceremony.

Delivered in the waning days of a devastating national conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 750,000 men, the Second Inaugural Address is widely considered among the most eloquent of all presidential utterances. Lincoln himself considered it one of his finest speeches, telling Thurlow Weed it was “perhaps better than . . . anything I have produced.” It is also among the shortest inaugural addresses, a little over 700 words in length. It is a model of profound simplicity.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, like the dedication he gave at Gettysburg’s battlefield a year and a half earlier, resounds with Biblical rhythms, phrases, and themes. Its author was well acquainted with the English Bible—specifically the King James Bible. Those who knew him best reported that he had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and was known to commit lengthy passages to memory. His biographer and friend of a quarter century, Isaac N. Arnold, recalled that Lincoln “knew the Bible by heart. There was not a clergyman to be found so familiar with it as he.”

American politicians have long deployed Biblical language in their public discourses because, as an authoritative and sacred text, its mere invocation lends rhetorical weight to their words. Such language stirs an audience’s imagination. Civic uses of Scripture, which sometimes mimic pulpit oratory, are meant to tap into a righteous passion (perhaps even a fear of God), project an aura of transcendence and truth, or underscore an argument’s moral implications. In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln also drew on Scripture to gain insights on the character and purposes of God, especially as they pertain to His providential involvement in history.

America has produced no political figure more adept in appropriating the distinct cadences and vernacular of the King James Bible than Abraham Lincoln. Another Lincoln biographer, William E. Barton, observed that Lincoln

read the Bible, honored it, quoted it freely, and it became so much a part of him as visibly and permanently to give shape to his literary style and to his habits of thought.

He was not the first President to consider the place of providence in the life of the nation. A third of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, for example, was devoted to a reflection on the “providential agency” at work in the nation’s Founding. “These reflections, arising out of the present crisis,” Washington declared, “have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed.” John Quincy Adams was the first President to quote directly from the Scriptures in an inaugural address, and he did so in a closing prayer (drawing from Psalm 127:1) for divine favor and an “overruling providence.”

Lincoln’s, though, was a more nuanced and searching reflection on the role of providence in the affairs of nations. He routinely incorporated into his political prose direct quotations from and allusions to the Bible, as well as phrases and rhythms resembling the distinctive language of the Jacobean Bible.

In the 700 words he offers on March 4, 1865, he does both. Unlike the Gettysburg Address, replete with Biblical language and themes but containing no direct Biblical quotations, the Second Inaugural has at least 45 words that are direct or approximate quotations from the King James Bible. Several phrases are unquestionably borrowed from the Jacobean Bible, such as “bind up the nation’s wounds” (cf. Psalm 147:3) and care for the widow and orphan (cf. James 1:27; Isaiah 1:17). The speech mentions the Deity 14 times and prayer three times.

Among the assembled throngs at the Capitol that day was the former slave Frederick Douglass. As Douglass famously quipped, the President’s address “sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.” More recently, religious historian Ronald C. White, Jr. called it Lincoln’s “Sermon on the Mount.”

The speech opens a window into how Lincoln had come to view and understand God, the work of divine will and providence in history, and the war that had torn the nation asunder. In Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (2002), Ronald C. White, Jr. argued that

God’s providence is the prism through which [Lincoln] carefully refracted the meaning of the war. Lincoln points beyond himself and his generals to God as the primary actor in the war.

The speech is premised on a belief in a superintending providential agent Who is firmly in control of the affairs of men and nations, and dispenses judgment and facilitates reconciliation according to His divine plan and will. The devastating conflict that engulfed the continent during the preceding four years could only be understood in the light of God’s will.

But how does one understand God’s will in the context of civil strife, given that, as Lincoln says midway through, Northerners and Southerners alike “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other”? Pondering this problem signals an intent, perhaps, to speak about the nation’s plight less as the commander-in-chief and more as theologian-in-chief. Only such themes—sin, judgment, atonement, redemption, restoration—are adequate to approach events so sweeping and so tragic.

“It may seem strange,” Lincoln says, that men would have the temerity “to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” This is a reference to mankind’s fall and God’s punishment for sin in Genesis 3:19. Lincoln has rephrased the Biblical text to emphasize the moral offense of slavery. The sweat of one’s brow is the source of one’s property. In Lincoln’s rendering, it is sinful to deny another (that is, the slave) the fruits of his labor. Herein lies the sin of slavery.

Lincoln does not linger long on this point before somewhat unexpectedly pivoting to Jesus’s instruction from the “Sermon on the Mount” to “judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). In a slight revision, Lincoln inserts “let us” judge not, and replaces the Biblical “ye” with “we,” suggesting that blame for the sin of slavery extends beyond the Southern states. And this injunction is the hinge that will later turn the oration toward its finishing expression of reconciliation, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Before reaching that resolution, though, he explores the consequences of this sin. He first acknowledges that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which, once again, underscores God’s place at the center of his analysis. He follows this with another of Jesus’s sayings: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7; see also Luke 17:1.)

Dispensing judgment is among the purposes that believers ascribe to the Almighty, Lincoln observes. He says that “American Slavery” is “one of those offenses” that is surely followed by “woe,” or punishment: the incalculable carnage and death of the “terrible war.” The war, in short, is divine judgment on “both North and South” for the offense. Then, in words surely discomfiting to his audience, he says that God’s will may yet require more shed blood before “this mighty scourge of war . . . pass[es] away.” Lest we complain about the horrible punishment God inflicts upon the nation for this offense, Lincoln recalls, in the words of Psalm 19:9, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

That Lincoln calls it “American Slavery” and not Southern slavery, sparing no American from blame, contrasts with his opening assertion that the “peculiar and powerful interest” of slavery, localized in the Southern states, was the “cause of the war.” As historian Mark A. Noll has written, Lincoln invoked Scripture in this speech “in order to make a profound public statement about the superiority of divine providence over any partisan grasp of God’s will.”

Previously, with the conflict dragging on and its human and material costs mounting, Lincoln had many times asked searching questions about why God had allowed a “terrible war” of such “magnitude” and “duration.” In a private 1862 meditation on “divine will,” widely regarded by historians as anticipatory of the themes in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln had written that each side in a great contest “claims to act in accordance with the will of God.” But it is not possible that both could do so: “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The one thing that can be said with certainty is that “the will of God prevails.” Or, as he expressed it in September 1864 in a letter to Eliza P. Gurney, the perfect yet inscrutable will and ways of providence escape the ability of “erring mortals . . . to accurately perceive them.”

Lincoln had suggested in the Gettysburg Address, and it may be implied here, that in the atoning shed blood of this war, the old Union—corrupted by slavery—died, giving hope for a new birth and new life for the Union. Shifting his focus to the future, Lincoln concludes with a humble, poetic plea to a people divided and devastated by war to eschew triumphalism and vindictiveness in victory and acrimony and recrimination in defeat:

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.

He calls on his countrymen to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and to care for those left by the war fatherless and widowed. For only through the difficult work of reconciliation can there ever be a “just and lasting peace.”

Daniel Dreisbach

Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. Among his published works are Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (NYU Press, 2002), Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (Oxford, 2014) (co-editor), and The Sacred Rights of Conscience (Liberty Fund, 2009) (co-editor).

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Comments

  1. Ruth Correll. says

    Thanks for a superb article, Dan. An integrated mind looking at the Scriptures and the current situation is powerful in its influence here. I love going to the Lincoln Memorial just to reread Abe’s lasting words.

  2. says

    Thanks so much for the insights! “Erring mortals,” as Lincoln correctly describes us, benefit from pausing and contemplating what true leadership is in times of morbid darkness – a light of refined truth for peace longing souls. How we need sound truth declared from a broad-hearted soul today!

  3. Brett Moffatt says

    It is sad to see a Christian website with an article on one of the most unChristian and evil tyrants in history. You should be ashamed of yourselves, for following the socialist propaganda that has led people away from the Lord and away from our Founding principles. You need to come into the latest research instead of the lies that keep people subjects of an evil empire. Remember, as Steve Brown says, “Lies are from the pit of hell and smell like smoke.”

  4. Keith Hamblen says

    Thank you for sharing this, Daniel–it is helpful to me on a personal level, and this “new birth” vision needs understood and spread.

  5. R M Shivers says

    There is something nauseating, if not outright blasphemous, in holding up this murderous, warmongering, evil dictator, Abraham Lincoln, as a biblical expositor. I not sure which version of the bible Mr Lincoln “knew by heart”, but of the of the various translations I keep around the house, not a single one of them condemns slaveholding as a sin. Lincoln simply invents this offense to whitewash and deflect attention away from the enormity of his crimes in invading and waging Total War against a Christian people, fellow Americans, who sought nothing more than to be left alone and exercised that desire through the same process of separation their grandfathers had followed in 1776.

    What kind of man was Lincoln for Christians to honor ? From a standpoint of faith, Mr Lincoln was a notorious infidel who spent most of his life scoffing at the gospel message and mocking God’s ministers. He held Christian beliefs in contempt, denying the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, inspiration of Scripture, miracles, etc. He never joined a church or made a profession of faith; he participated in séances in the White House to try and communicate with his dead son, and then laughed about it. He even mocked his own prayer proclamation; when chided by his long-time acquaintance Judge James N. Nelson, who noted Lincoln’s Thanksgiving messages were contrary to his known convictions on the subject, Lincoln responded: “Oh! This is some of Seward’s nonsense, and it pleases the fools!”

    From a standpoint of personal morality, Lincoln had a filthy vocabulary, as shown by his habit of telling profane, vulgar jokes to amuse his cronies and other men, some of whom were scandalized by his obscenity. He had a callous disregard for suffering caused by his war. In March 1865, at City Point, Va., Lincoln met with Grant and Sherman; he asked to hear stories about how Sherman’s “bummers” vandalized churches and raped, pillaged and murdered unarmed civilians in Georgia and South Carolina. Lincoln guffawed when he heard these stories. This disturbing scene was recorded in Sherman’s memoirs and by U.S. Adm. David Porter who was an eyewitness to the meeting. These events and others are extensively documented in history, but here is a good synopsis and another here.

    From a standpoint of political policy and statesmanship, Lincoln provoked and prosecuted an immoral and unconstitutional war that killed ¾ million Americans, including one-fourth of young men in the South, and then blamed it on God in his second Inaugural Address. He introduce “total war” to America by robbing, raping and murdering unarmed civilians leading to the death of over 50,000 innocent people and untold tens of thousands of slaves who died due to the turmoil and upheaval caused by his war.

    While waging his brutal, immoral war on the South, Lincoln and his administration turned the north into a police state, arresting and imprisoning political opponents, shutting down newspapers critical of him and sending combat troops to fire on anti-war rioters in New York City. His Sec of War Stanton bragged to an English visitor that he could ring a bell and have any man in the north arrested and taken away in the night.

    The most delusional lie of all, propagated to cover up the enormity of his crimes, is that somehow Lincoln’s actions were all justified because he did it to free the slaves and promote equality. This is a sick joke to anyone who knows much about Mr Lincoln. Throughout his entire political career he was consistent in making sure that blacks remained confined to the South and that they would never be allowed to live in northern or western territories. He supported legislation in Illinois to forbid even free blacks from settling there. He consistently supported “colonization” – the forced deportation en masse to Africa or Central America – of blacks in the event of their emancipation from slavery. If he had genuinely wanted to emancipate slaves, he could have purchased the freedom for all 3.6 million for less than the cost of carrying on his war for a single year. He didn’t because it was never the real issue; it was just a smokescreen of wartime propaganda.

    Lincoln was an unbeliever who destroyed limited constitutional governments in America. Of course, secular hagiography has turned Lincoln into the demi-god of the all-powerful government that dictates our lives, by power of the sword, down to what prayers, if any, may be uttered at a high-school commencement or football game.

    It’s bad enough to see this mass murdering tyrant constantly idolized in the secular media, but to see him extolled on a website that proclaims itself as standing for those “who have been harmed by greed” is rather ironic. What about the hundreds of thousands of Southerners who were killed by Lincon’s war which was waged for nothing more than a greed lust for Southern wealth?

    • Tina says

      Although I don’t know of Pres. Lincoln’s personal life (his morality and so forth), it is incorrect to state that he “freed the slaves.” He only freed slaves in states that were aligned with the Confederacy. It was not until later that all slaves were freed. “History” as taught in the public schools does not teach this fact.

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