March 30, 1863 (Monday)
Thus far in the war, President Abraham Lincoln had called for the nation to set aside two different days for fasting and prayer. The first, immediately after the humbling battles of First Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, was done so at the request of Congress. Lincoln wanted the nation to “recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation.” According to him, God was punishing the nation. However, in the very next line, he prays “that our arms may be blessed and made effectual for the re-establishment of law, order and peace, throughout the wide extent of our country.”
Though Lincoln often spoke of the whole country as including the seceded Southern states, as early as August, 1861, he was praying that the Union Army’s guns be blessed by God (and, it can be assumed, the Confederate guns not be blessed). Defeat will have the effect.
His second such call upon the nation came after the victories of Shiloh and Forts Henry and Donalson in the spring of 1862. Perhaps hearkening back to his previous call for humiliation, he urged the nation “that at their next weekly assemblages in their accustomed places of public worship” to “acknowledge and render thanks to our Heavenly Fathers for these inestimable blessings….”
In this, he was nonsectarian. He called upon all faiths to extend thanks to their respective Gods, “our Heavenly Fathers.”
And so the themes were set. When there were defeats, you prayed for mercy. When there were victories, you gave thanks. But by the autumn of 1862, Lincoln began looking deeper. Sometime after the Battle of Antietam, he wrote his “Meditation on the Divine Will.” Though history remember the Battle of Antietam as a draw, the North saw it as a victory since it stopped Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. By the end of September, however, Lincoln felt cursed by General McClellan’s refusal to cross the Potomac and subdue the wounded Confederate Army.
“In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God,” wrote Lincoln in the missive that he would make public. “Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Lincoln understood that if God willed it, “He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest.” In fact, he even admitted that God “could give the final victory to either side any day.”
The winter of 1862 and 1863 were not easier on the President. McClellan had let Lee slip away, Burnside had butchered his army at Fredericksburg, Grant was stuck in the swamps of Mississippi – Union victory seemed a faraway construct.
And so on this date, again at the urging of Congress, Lincoln issued his second call for prayer and fasting. As with the first, he kept with his non-sectarian theme, giving reference to the Psalms before delving even deeper.
Lincoln asked: “May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People?”
In Lincoln’s estimation, the Nation, which had grown so quickly and was so full of bounty and peace, had forgotten to give thanks to God for their prosperity. This Civil War, suggested Lincoln, was punishment, and for repentance, he called all “to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”
Lincoln, again stressing his nonsectarian beliefs, requested “all the People to abstain, on that day [April 30, 1863], from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.”
The remainder of the day was for humble rest “in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.”
Lincoln would again revisit the theme of God punishing the nation for its sins as the war progressed. With each revisitation, the sins evolved until he allowed them to culminate in his Second Inaugural Address, perhaps the greatest speech made in all of American history.
Abraham Lincoln did not use religion as a political rallying cry. He did not promote one religion over another. According to most who knew him, Lincoln, at least until he became President, was a deist or perhaps even a universalist, having little use for organized religion. Though he attended Presbyterian churches before and after becoming President, he never became a member, and always backed quickly away from Evangelical Christianity.
In short, Lincoln’s spirituality was deeply personal. It is not possible to pigeonhole it into one of our modern denominations, or even religions. Lincoln, as his own expressed view of God, cannot be claimed by one singular sect alone. Abraham Lincoln, as Secretary Edwin Stanton put it following the assassination, belongs not to Universalists or Christians, not even to Republicans or Progressives – “Now, he belongs to the ages.”1
- Sources: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6; Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government by Lucas E. Morel; Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World by Eric Foner. [↩]