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Lincoln and the ‘unfinished work’ of racial equality

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31 Jul 2020
Lincoln and the ‘unfinished work’ of racial equality

When I was researching for my book “Floodgates” several years ago, I became fascinated by the life and beliefs of Abraham Lincoln in relation to Charles Darwin and their comparative views on God and mankind. Lincoln is a towering figure in world history most remembered for emancipating black slaves in America, and like his contemporary Darwin, his true religious views are vigorously debated to this day. And I believe the world would do well to remember Lincoln’s words and actions concerning the equality of man as we wrestle with the heated racial tensions now plaguing an America and world also beset by a global pandemic.

Darwin published his book Origin of Species in 1859, on the eve of the American Civil War. Though some have framed that great conflict as a battle over states’ rights and other issues, President Lincoln rightly boiled it down to a struggle over the equality of man as a creation of God. This makes the Civil War unique from all other conflicts in human history, and the man who presided over the nation during that grueling fight is equally unique.

It was a time when Darwin and others began using his evolutionary theory to question the divine origin of man. Lincoln read these works, was drawn to them intellectually, but in the crucible of the “War Between the States,” he came out retaining his belief in a God who made all men equal. He also firmly believed that God’s judgments are righteous and true, and they are still in the earth today.

Lincoln’s worldview
The long, swirling debate among scholars and biographers concerning Abraham Lincoln’s religious beliefs come in part because he kept them private as a matter of principle. This debate was already raging during his lifetime, as on several occasions Lincoln even considered bringing libel suits to stem rumors he had denied Christian beliefs. Today, Lincoln remains such a monumental figure that Christians and atheists alike claim him as one of their own. Thus, some portray him as a skeptic or an iconoclast who rejected the established Christian views of his day, while others depict him as a deeply spiritual man who was given over to much prayer and was fully cognizant of Divine Providence over human affairs.

Lincoln biographer Fred Kaplan notes three distinguishing characteristics about the 16th president of the United States. First, Kaplan lists Lincoln, along with Thomas Jefferson, as the greatest intellectual president in American history, whose every written or spoken word was composed by him alone Self-educated, Lincoln read profusely on an array of subjects.

Second, as a young man Lincoln first learned to read by candlelight from the Bible, a book which impacted him deeply for the rest of his life. Kaplan recounts that in Lincoln’s day the Bible “was given full currency as the source of the dominant belief system. It was also the great book of illustrative stories, illuminating references, and pithy maxims for everyday conduct. More than any other glue, it held the society together.”

Third, nearly everyone who knew Lincoln came to see him as a very decent and honest man. As a young lawyer, his clients took to calling him “Honest Abe” as a compliment to how he was always fair and deserving of trust. Accordingly, Kaplan notes that Lincoln “was also the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders.”

So whenever Lincoln quoted from the Bible, which he did quite often, it was not just to manipulate Christian voters or simply because he admired its literary value, but he honestly believed the Scriptures shed much needed light on the world. At an early age, he was steeped in the Calvinistic views of his mother, with its focus on predestination. And while he ventured into other views in his day, he always returned to the Bible as a guiding light of truth and morality.

We see this in his famous “House Divided” speech while running for the US Senate in 1858. Taken from Mark 3:25, the speech thrust Lincoln onto the national stage as an articulate opponent of slavery, and helped propel him to the presidency two years later.

A humbled man of prayer
No doubt the Union army’s poor showings early in the war drove Lincoln to his knees in prayer. Many sources also claim that the tragic death of his eleven year-old son Willie in 1862, and then the emotional experience of visiting the vast military cemetery at Gettysburg in late 1863, were catalysts for Lincoln’s deepening spirituality. He prayed more earnestly, and his public speeches reflected a leader with a deep personal sense that somehow God was using him as an instrument of good within His unfolding purposes for America.

Lincoln’s sense of Providence was already apparent in his First Inaugural Address in March 1861, in which he expressed hope that a combination of “intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land” would somehow resolve peacefully the crisis then brewing due to the secession of the Southern states.

Around the time of the Union’s sound defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, Lincoln sat alone in his office and penned the following words:

“In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party… I am almost ready to say that this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet…”

This grappling with God’s purposes amid the bloody conflict continued to dominate Lincoln's public remarks for the rest of the war. In his immortal Gettysburg Address, Lincoln distilled the essence of the Civil War as a struggle over America’s belief in the equality of all men:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure… It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom...” [60]

The Union’s victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 also prompted Lincoln to call for the first official nationwide observance of Thanksgiving Day in order to reflect on “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

Finally, we see a similar theological message in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865, in which he stated that both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other… The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln then referenced King David the Psalmist: “As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” With this precious truth from Psalm 19:9, the president humbly deferred to powers beyond the reach of logic: He had come to believe that God’s judgements were proper, even if they belied any rational explanation. Lincoln then concluded his speech on a note of reconciliation, with perhaps his single greatest utterance:

“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...”

Upon listening to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the famous black statesman Frederick Douglas commented that it “sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.” But Lincoln’s words, and especially his call for leniency on the South, provide us with a remarkable glimpse into his struggle to come to terms with four brutal years of war.

Trusting in divine justice
I believe that while Abraham Lincoln was intellectually open to new thoughts emerging in that day, including Darwinian evolution, he ultimately represents a man who still feared God and sought to understand His judgments in the earth. Though he may never have openly professed faith in Christ, his worldview was deeply infused with biblical insights into God, man and the universe. This included a high view of mankind as created in God’s image – a view he was willing to defend by force of arms.

Lincoln also rightly proclaimed that “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:9) The same Psalmist also said that “His judgments are in all the earth.” (Psalm 105:7)

I believe that, indeed, God’s righteous judgments can be seen working themselves out in every generation. In that regard, I believe the Civil War was God’s correction upon all of America for the sin of slavery.

The whole nation, both North and South, was morally complicit for having allowed slavery to take hold in the New World. The selling and enslavement of human beings was contrary to the principle expressed in the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” The abandonment of this sacred principle was already underway in the drafting of the US Constitution, when the so-called “three-fifths clause” counted black slaves as merely three-fifths of a person solely for purposes of allocating seats in the US Congress; otherwise they were not deemed to be persons entitled to equal rights. This clause was included as a compromise to sway the southern slave-owning states to join the new, centralized federal government.

Then as new states were admitted to the Union, more slave states were allowed to join, such as in the “Missouri Compromise” of 1830, which served to maintain the balance between slave and free states in Congress. That delicate balance lasted for another 30 years but eventually tensions over slavery boiled over into open conflict. Thankfully, the right side won that bitter contest, but not before both sides had paid an immense price for allowing the evil of slavery. I believe Lincoln came to realize this to some degree, and therefore called for leniency on the South just ahead of his untimely death.

Yet even though America paid a very costly price for the evil institution of slavery during the Civil War, it took another 100 years and the Civil Rights movement to finally shame many white Southerners (and many other Americans as well) out of their sense of racial superiority. We still have a ways to go, in all nations and societies, to recapture the biblical truth that all men are created equal by a benevolent God, and thus we should treat every human life with dignity and respect. It is indeed an “unfinished work,” as Lincoln said at Gettysburg.

But we can also trust that God’s judgments are righteous and true, and that they are still in the earth today. We do not have to try to force justice through senseless violence, as many are doing at present. Besides, our own human sense of justice is usually a lot different than what God considers justice. Rather, what we could all use right now is a little “malice toward none, charity for all.”

 

 

David R. Parsons is an author, attorney, journalist and ordained minister who serves as Vice President & Senior Spokesman of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. His book “Floodgates” is available at www.icejstore.com/collections/books

 

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