America’s Sermon – A profile of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

by Randy Eggert

Shortly after noon on March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln, wearing a new suit of black cloth, took the oath of office for a second time as president of the United States. Prior to taking the oath, Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural has been called America’s Sermon, because the core of the speech involves a discussion of judgment as a key component of God’s will. Lincoln directly quoted three different passages from the Bible, Matthew 7:1, Matthew 18:7, and Psalm 19:9, and these quotations actually are the core of the speech. Only one president prior to Lincoln, John Quincy Adams, had quoted from the Bible, and that was a throwaway line citing Psalm 127:1 at the end of the speech where Adams said he would rely on divine will to govern the country. Other presidents had been content to refer to Divine Providence or the Creator or other euphemisms to reference God.

In this speech, Lincoln used his understanding of the Bible to take the nation by the hand, lead it before a mirror of God’s will, challenge it to look honestly at the re flection cast back, and accept in good faith and humility the righteous prerogative of a “just God.” It was an extraordinary statement of government public policy, and it was even more extraordinary coming from Abraham Lincoln.

Despite the modern hagiography surrounding Lincoln, the 16th president was not a particularly religious person until the end of his life. Lincoln never joined a church, or, as far as is known, took baptism or communion. Lincoln periodically had to refute allegations that he was a skeptic, or even worse, an outright heretic, regarding the Christian faith. Lincoln’s path from possible skeptic to a believer in God’s sovereignty begins, in part, with his being the son of an unloved father and the path ends with him being the father of a loved son.

Lincoln was our first president to be nominally raised in the Baptist faith. Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, was a member of a Primitive Baptist church in Kentucky when Lincoln was born, and when the Lincoln family moved to Indiana in 1816, the family attended the Little Pigeon Baptist Church, another Primitive Baptist congregation. Primitive Baptists were strongly Calvinistic in theology, antislave in political outlook, and because of the lack of educated clergy on the frontier, susceptible to emotionalism in preaching.

Lincoln recoiled against the emotionalism and uneducated nature of the clergy who apparently graced the pulpit of the Little Pigeon church. On one occasion, Thomas Lincoln angrily disciplined his son after catching him after a Sunday service behind the church mocking and mimicking the preacher’s sermon to the delight of the other teenage boys who were Lincoln’s audience. When Lincoln moved with his family to Illinois in 1830, there is no record of him joining as an adult with the Primitive Baptist congregations in New Salem or Springfield.

He had a distant relationship with his father. Thomas Lincoln was not a welleducated man and Lincoln was apparently embarrassed by him as he began his own rise in Illinois politics. He did, however, carry vestiges of his father’s worldview as he developed in adulthood. Lincoln, as a young man, maintained a belief in some unknown power or force that compelled a person to a certain action or result apart from free will, which Lincoln labeled “the Doctrine of Necessity.” He credited his upbringing with instilling within him a strong aversion to slavery. Thomas Lincoln’s anti-slavery beliefs, springing from his church’s teaching, were one factor in the family’s move from Kentucky to Indiana in 1816. Lincoln, like most Americans of his generation, had a deep knowledge of the Bible as a book. He memorized large portions of the Bible, along with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Parson Weem’s Life of Washington, and portions of Aesop’s Fables.

Well liked and a good storyteller, the ambitious young Lincoln embarked on a career of politics and the law. He began his political rise in New Salem, Illinois, and then in the state capital, Springfield. Along the way, Lincoln dealt with, as he called it, “this sad world of ours.” His first love, Ann Rutledge, died before they could be married. His eventual wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, had a temper and haughty disposition, and as the tragedies that enveloped Lincoln also affected her, she turned to spiritualism, and eventually became mentally imbalanced. Lincoln was never close to his first son, Robert. Their second son, Edward, died at four years of age in 1850. Lincoln was deeply troubled by the loss, but at the time did not attempt to rationalize his death as part of any divine plan. After Edward’s death, the Lincolns had two more children, William, nicknamed Willie, who Lincoln doted on, and Thomas, named after Abraham’s father.

Lincoln also confronted political setbacks. While he served as a successful state legislator, he only served one lone term in Congress. It was during this race for Congress, in 1846, that Lincoln had to confront questions about his faith. Lincoln’s Democratic opponent, the Methodist circuit-riding preacher Peter Cartwright, had stirred up ugly rumors about Lincoln’s lack of faith, intimating he was a “scoffer” of Christianity. To confront this potentially ruinous charge, Lincoln issued an open letter to the voters of his congressional district stating that while he was “not a member of any Christian church” he had “never denied the truth of the Scriptures.” In the letter, Lincoln further defined his belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” as the idea the “human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control,” again a more dressed-up version of the Calvinism Lincoln had been exposed to as a child. Lincoln was passed over for the United States Senate twice, in 1856, and more famously, to Steve Douglas in 1858. While he was a successful and prosperous attorney, political success seemed to elude him. Lincoln became depressed at the losses and wrote in 1856 that for him “the race of ambition has been a failure — a flat failure.”

During these times of growth, trial, and political maturity, apart from his letter describing the “Doctrine of Necessity” in 1846, Lincoln did not evidence any deep religious impulse or thought. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, openly disgusted with the post-assassination portrayal of Lincoln as an overtly religious man, stated that Lincoln had lived and died as “an unbeliever.” Herndon can be somewhat discounted as an unreliable witness, himself being an occasional ally of the 19th century agnostic Robert Ingersoll in attempting to turn Lincoln into an American Voltaire rejecting traditional Christianity. Photographer Alexander Gardner captured this image of President Lincoln delivering his inaugural address on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1865. President Lincoln sat for this portrait by Alexander Gardner on February 5, 1865. But both Herndon and Ingersoll are correct insofar that Lincoln, prior to his election in 1861, was a man untroubled by a deep religious conviction that was the hallmark of the age in which he became president.

Lincoln had the misfortune of being both the catalyst for and the president during the bloodiest war in the nation’s history. Southern politicians had promised that they would foment rebellion if Lincoln, the “black Republican,” became president, and they kept their word. Eventually, 600,000 Americans, north and south, died in the rebellion, and Lincoln, a man averse to cruelty and bloodshed, could not help but wonder what role he had played in causing it.

Also, in February of 1862, at the beginning of the war, Lincoln’s beloved Willie died. Willie’s death drove Mary Todd Lincoln to psychic mediums for comfort. In Lincoln’s case, it suffused the remainder of Lincoln’s life with the personal grief from the loss. Lincoln never overcame his belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” and was fond of quoting a line from Hamlet:

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends Rough-hew them how we will.

In a letter to a grieving daughter of an old friend from his days as a circuit-riding lawyer in Illinois, after her father had died in a battle in Mississippi, Lincoln told her to remember that despite the pain “[y]ou are sure to be happy again” adding that while in “this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all,” to the young, it “comes with bitter agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it.”

But underneath the fatalism, Lincoln began to understand that a benevolent God was ordering his life for a purpose. Lincoln was neither the first nor the last man to be driven back to the faith of his childhood by personal tragedy. But the journey back was more poignant under the tremendous pressure the prosecution of the war made on Lincoln. The president rented a pew at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, and had a series of discussions with the pastor, Phineas D. Gurley, about the death of Willie and the assurance that the child was in heaven. Lincoln began to pepper his remarks and speeches with direct references to God, something that he had not frequently done before his election.

Lincoln told members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in May of 1862 that he placed his “whole dependence upon the favor of God.” In an interview in October of 1862, Lincoln asserted that he was a “humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father” who desired that “all my works and acts may be according to His will.” Lincoln stated that if he had his way, the war would have never commenced, and would already be over, but he confessed that through some “wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us” God allowed the war to continue and that even though he could not understand why, with his “limited understanding” Lincoln was confident that “we cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it.” In 1863, Lincoln invoked the “gracious favor” of “Almighty God” in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and hoped that the nation, “under God,” would have a “new birth of freedom,” in the Gettysburg Address.

Some biographers dismiss these references to God as examples of “civic religion” designed to play to public opinion. Lincoln’s internal thoughts, however, reveal a man not making allowances for public opinion, but instead struggling with how God might be using him in the nation’s great struggle. In a private note that Lincoln wrote in September of 1862, he foreshadowed arguments that he would use during the Second Inaugural Address:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot 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 purposes of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do are the best adaptation to effect His purposes. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.

That Lincoln read the Bible prior to becoming president is without question. As most Americans of the mid-19th century, it was probably one of the first books that Lincoln read. Prior to his election, Lincoln had used Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees concerning attributing Christ’s miracles to Satan in his “House Divided” speech in 1858. Such biblical references were easily recognizable to the Americans of Lincoln’s day who would have known instantly from where the reference came. These references were more than just rhetorical flourishes on Lincoln’s part. In the summer of 1864, Lincoln’s old friend, Joshua Speed, found Lincoln reading his Bible. Speed complimented Lincoln on being so “profitably engaged” but stated that if Lincoln had recovered from his “skepticism,” Speed had not. Lincoln admonished his old friend he was wrong, and advised that “take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”

When Lincoln received a Bible from a delegation of Baltimore African-Americans in September of 1864, he told them that the Bible was “the best gift God has given man.” Lincoln further stated that “[a]ll the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.” It is hard to believe that Lincoln, with his reputation for honesty, would feel the need to be so lavish in his praise for the Bible if the sentiment was not heartfelt.

So, as the time for Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address approached, Lincoln had, as historian David Donald noted, gone through a “process of crystallization” about the role of God in his life. God reigned, and Lincoln, in faith, trusted that God would appropriately direct his paths. Lincoln had already expressed these themes in his writings and speeches to smaller audiences. Now, Lincoln would express these thoughts to the rest of the nation and the world.

Inauguration Day, 1865, dawned cold and wet. Rain the previous week had turned the dirt streets into thick, muddy rivers, and the mud got everywhere, including the thick woolen pants of the male spectators and the long dresses of the women. Rain continued into the morning of March 4, and the large crowd which had come to observe the event was thoroughly soaked by the time the ceremonies began. Before Lincoln began to speak, after noon, sunlight penetrated the clouds, illuminating the rostrum where Lincoln was standing and thrilling the crowd.

Lincoln’s speech, at 703 words, is the third shortest Inaugural Address as of January of 2009, and 44 of those words are direct quotations from the King James Bible. Lincoln did not use the occasion of the speech to boast about the recent war success. It was, in fact, absent the triumphalism so much the hallmark of modern American politics.

Instead, Lincoln began the speech by noting that the “progress of our arms” was well known to the public so Lincoln would not give a further report except to note that “with high hopes for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” Lincoln then focused on the ultimate cause of the war, the institution of slavery in the southern states. Lincoln noted that while both sides deplored the bloodshed of the war, one side “would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

Lincoln noted the irony that while the cause of the war was the expansion or limitation of slavery in the United States, this cause had become overwhelmed by the “magnitude” and “duration” of the war. Emancipation had become law, and the Confederate Congress was discussing arming slaves in order to fight for southern independence, with the promise that they would be freed for their service. The war itself had dislocated large numbers of slaves, and it would be impossible to return them back to their masters. Some of these former slaves were fighting in the Union Army. The primary cause of the war then, slavery, had essentially ceased, yet the war continued.

Lincoln pivoted in the speech and focused upon the dilemma of trying to explain to the nation why the war should continue. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other” Lincoln said, noting the inconsistency of men who seek to enlist God in their cause instead of seeking to enlist in God’s cause. Lincoln, despite his admonition to “judge not that we be not judged” did implicitly judge unworthy a cause that asked a “just God’s assistance in wringing bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”

Lincoln invoked the imagery of prayer three times in the speech, first in noting that both sides prayed to the same God and asked for his aid against the other, second, that prayers of both could not be answered or answered fully, and third, that the nation fondly hoped and fervently prayed that this “mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Lincoln believed in prayer, and was observed praying on numerous occasions in the White House. Lincoln, however, made clear in his comments here that sometimes, despite the fervor of the prayer, the answer to that prayer may be the opposite of the request. Why was this so? Lincoln’s answer forms the core of the speech:

The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences 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?

Lincoln speculated that if the war was the “woe” due for the terrible offense of slavery, then this fact was evidence of, not evidence against, the “divine attributes which the believers of a Living God always ascribe to him.” Lincoln said that while “fondly we do hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away” it was more likely that God’s will required a quid pro quo punishment to pay for the offense,” until all of the wealth piled by the bondman’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 by the sword.” Lincoln, quoting Psalm 19:9, concluded whether God willed the war to end immediately or to last longer, the nation should trust that the “judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln urged the nation to seek God’s will in the ordering of its affairs. Lincoln did not presuppose that his will was automatically God’s will for the nation, and he had found that sometimes, in the course of life, God’s judgments and his will were not readily comprehended by men. The Second Inaugural Address marked Lincoln’s final acceptance that it was part of the Christian experience to stand for righteousness even when God’s will hammered away the common supports of our lives. Therefore, Lincoln opens his closing paragraph:

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…

This urge to strive on with “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” should be seen as more proof of the process of crystallization in Lincoln’s mind toward an acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Lincoln, in his Cooper Union address in 1860 had used a similar phrase to encourage Republicans to stand firm against attempts by southerners to water down Republican opposition to slavery expansion in the territories. Then Lincoln said “[l]et 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.” In 1860, Lincoln had invoked human understanding to know the duty of the citizen. In 1864, a more reflective Lincoln invoked God to help the citizen better see his duty.

We 21st century Christians should pay the same compliment to God’s Word that Lincoln did by taking it seriously. It is easy to overlook that the Bible does not promise a life freed from pain or suffering in the performance of Christian responsibility. What is right, truly right, under the Bible, is not now, and will not be, popular in the modern culture. But it does not make it less right or lessen the responsibility of the Christian to act according to the dictates of his conscience as directed by God. How this responsibility is borne will tell a watching world what kind of people we are.

In September of 1901, a group of men gathered around a coffin in Springfield, Illinois, to perform an important task. A new crypt to contain the coffin of Abraham Lincoln had been prepared. To prevent grave robbers from stealing Lincoln’s body and holding it for ransom, as a group had attempted to do in 1876, Lincoln’s coffin was to be placed into a cage, lowered into a hole in the crypt, and was then to be covered with two tons of cement ten feet thick. Before this occurred, a hole was cut in the coffin over Lincoln’s face and 23 persons were allowed to see inside to authenticate that Lincoln’s body was still in the coffin. What they saw was the remarkably well-preserved face of Lincoln’s corpse, wearing the black cloth suit he had worn on March 4, 1865, the day of his Second Inaugural.

After each man looked inside, the coffin was sealed, and the body of Abraham Lincoln was lowered into the crypt and covered with concrete. Although that face can now only be seen in faded photographs, the measure of the man can still be taken by the words he left behind to the nation he served and to the God whose will he searched for and eventually accepted.

Randy Eggert is an assistant U.S. Attorney serving in Springfield, Missouri. He received his biblical training at Baptist Bible College. This article represents the views and opinions of the author and is for the information and convenience of the public. It does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the Department of Justice.