I remember visiting the Lincoln Memorial and being amazed by the Second Inaugural engraved on the North interior wall. Did the builders really know what it said? For a country that says it separates church and state, Lincoln provided perhaps the deepest theological reflection by any U.S. politician, and something far deeper than that of many theologians.
Civil War, he suggests, was not so much the responsibility of either North or South. Who caused the war then? Perhaps, says Lincoln, God in his sovereignty did. Perhaps the “offense” of slavery meant that “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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.” The two sides spent over $6 billion directly on the war. Over 600,000 died and an additional 400,000 were wounded. Did this equal the treasure and blood extracted from two hundred and fifty years of slavery? Lincoln did not know. But if that was God’s will, would it not be just?
This was no obligatory “God Bless America” unthinkingly tossed off at the end of a speech which “fails to come to terms with the evil and hypocrisy” woven into the fabric of the country along with whatever grace God had given us (p. 203). No matter how just we see our cause to be–and both sides saw it as just and worthy of God’s assistance–Lincoln remembers that the Bible which both sides read portrays God as sovereign while we are not.
If judgment may rightly fall on us all, then what should we do? Should we not all look for mercy, and should we not seek to be channels of mercy, even to our enemies? This is precisely what Lincoln proposes with his famous words, “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.”
is not the triumphalistic chest-thumping that we are so familiar with today. These are the deep theological deliberations of a man who wondered why his country’s mighty efforts had seemed to have so little effect on the course of events over the previous four years. God was sovereign far more than we were in control, was what he proposed.
Many have questioned the genuineness or depth of Lincoln’s faith given his lack of church membership and sometimes spotty record of church attendance. But certainly no U.S. politician has ever publicly embodied the best of Christian thinking and ethics more fully than Lincoln. Here strength of conviction is matched by strength of humility.
In Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, Ronald C. White Jr. walks us through the mere 700 words of this speech clause by clause, stopping on the way to give us the historical background and context that lay behind each phrase. I have read a number of books on Lincoln, and I am as pleased with this one as any for highlighting this capstone not just of Lincoln’s career, but of his life.
Photo Credit: National Park Service