July 4, 2014


Lincoln and the Will of God (Andrew Ferguson, March 2008, First Things).

What Herndon didn't know was that, after his own visit to the Falls, Lincoln had been moved to write an extraordinary note to himself, apparently for his eyes only. The note, as it's come down to us, is a single page, incomplete and trailing off in mid-sentence. It wasn't discovered until after his death and wasn't made public for another thirty years. In it we hear Lincoln talking to himself.

"Niagara Falls!" it begins. "By what mysterious power," Lincoln wonders, "is it that millions and millions are drawn to gaze upon Niagara Falls? There is no mystery about the thing itself."

No mystery? It quickly becomes apparent that this dismissive remark is intended ironically. Niagara, to Lincoln, is nothing if not mysterious. He ticks off the ways in which men have used scientific means to dispense with the mystery of so great a wonder. Geologists will determine the angle of the water's plunge, and measure the volume of the water, and calculate the speed with which it passes over the precipice. "Yet this is really a very small part of that world's wonder." Other scientists and philosophers will admire Niagara's role in the purely physical process of the water cycle: "This vast amount of water, constantly pouring down, is supplied by an equal amount constantly lifted up by the sun"--and so on and so on.

And yet, "still there is more" to Niagara, much more to this wonder of the world--something inexhaustible, he writes, some immensity that human reason can't explain or quantify or otherwise bottle up and before which men are powerless. What appears as "no mystery" to the literal-minded man, to the skeptic, is mysterious indeed. Lincoln, even in speaking to himself, is mute as to what that mystery might be. The fragment is the work of a man suffused with awe, awakening to a slightly uncomfortable appreciation for the limits of human understanding. It is a religious rumination, and, as far as we can trace it, the feeling it expresses would only grow as Lincoln himself grew older.

From fifteen years later, we have another, much better known fragment. Like the Niagara note, Lincoln wrote this to himself and stashed it away. It too reveals Lincoln's religious sense but in a different, more profound phase. From an awed appreciation of the physical world, it had deepened into a much darker apprehension of a Providence that haunts human affairs. The catalyst for this change, of course, was the Civil War--the torrent of suffering and blood that threatened to destroy the country and that Lincoln himself had played a part in unleashing. His secretaries, who found the scrap among his private papers, dated it September 1862, though it could have been written later. They called it "Meditation on the Divine Will."

It is written with a logician's care, in the categories of a lawyer. "The will of God prevails," it begins. "In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time."

Yet the bloody back-and-forth of the war gives no hint as to which of the two parties God has chosen to side with. That very inconclusiveness raises the terrible possibility that God is on neither side--or, rather, that God is simply in favor of the war itself for reasons unknowable. "I am almost ready to say this is probably true--that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet." The will of God, after all, prevails; his sovereignty, Lincoln has come to believe, is the necessary condition of human affairs. "He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest ­proceeds."

Note the bloodless phrasing: "I am almost ready to say this is probably true." Almost . . . probably. It is the expression of a cautious, legalistic mind being shaken up--confronting something too large to fit the intellectual compartments he has used to understand experience. But he is also being led, or leading himself, to a definite conclusion: This is no ordinary war, because this is no ordinary country.

The question of why Providence should have willed such a calamity is foreshadowed in one final fragment to consider, written (most likely) in the early days of the war. In it Lincoln plays with the figure from Proverbs 25:11: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver."

To Lincoln, the image illuminates the distinction between the picture and the frame, between a thing contained and that which contains it. In his reading, the Union is the frame that contains the golden principle: the proposition of liberty and equality--that all men are created equal--advanced by the Declaration of Independence. "The assertion of that principle, at that time [of the Revolution], was the word, ' fitly spoken' which has proved an 'apple of gold' to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple-- not the apple for the picture."

Read together, the fragments show Lincoln's mind as it matures toward his two greatest utterances, the fullest expressions of his most fundamental ideas. These are, of course, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. They are not merely works of statecraft but homilies in a civil religion of his own devising, steeped in the cadences and rhetoric of the King James Bible. They were the consequence of Lincoln's deepest contemplation and belief, arrived at with some care and (we may suppose) discomfort. At Gettysburg, Lincoln explained why the country--the Union--was worth preserving. It was not any Union that was being ­preserved, it was a particular kind of Union: a Union dedicated to a timeless proposition that existed before the Union was even conceived.

The war would determine whether such a proposition could be safely entrusted to human institutions. By the time of his Second Inaugural, with the end of the war in sight and the preservation of the Union a near certainty, he could say with confidence that the proposition had survived. And this "fundamental and astounding" conclusion had come about under the watchful and unfathomable eye of a Providence whose ways are ultimately beyond explanation but "whose judgments are true and righteous altogether."

This is what we know for certain of Lincoln's religion.

[originally posted: 7/05/08]

Posted by at July 4, 2014 4:33 AM

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 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. "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? 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, 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 "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Posted by: Abraham Lincoln at July 6, 2008 7:07 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus