C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey 2021 ranked Abraham Lincoln first among the 44 men who have served as America’s chief executive. The survey ranks presidential effectiveness across 10 metrics, including public persuasion, crisis leadership, moral authority, and pursuit of equal justice. This is the fourth time in the survey’s history that Lincoln topped the list.
Lincoln’s outstanding reputation among historians reflects popular opinion, too. According to a YouGov survey, 80% of Americans “have a favorable view of the president who freed the slaves and won the Civil War, including 56% who have a ‘very favorable’ view of him.” There’s a reason his face is carved on Mount Rushmore.
A steady stream of new books keeps our 16th president in readers’ minds. In just the past year, David R. Reynolds published a major new biography, Michael Burlingame profiled Lincoln’s marriage, and Ronald C. White probed the president’s private memoranda for insight (which I reviewed here). In spite of the never-ending stream of new books rolling off the presses, it’s also helpful to return to older works.
One of those is Elton Trueblood’s 1973 study on Lincoln’s religion, titled, Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership. As a minister, I’m fascinated by the topic of Lincoln’s spirituality and have read a handful of books on the topic. (See my review of Stephen Mansfield’s Lincoln’s Battle with God or my annual blog post, “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words,” taken from William E. Barton’s The Soul of Abraham Lincoln).
The outlines of Lincoln’s religious beliefs and practices are well known: Raised in a hard-shell Baptist church on the frontier, a freethinking skeptic in his young adulthood, a move toward a profound, if heterodox Christian faith in his mature years. That maturity is reflected in the theological interpretation of the Civil War present in his Second Inaugural Address.
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 thle believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
That paragraph reflects Lincoln’s understanding of the sovereignty of God’s will, which he epitomized in a note to himself that has been titled, “Meditation on the Divine Will”:
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 purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
According to Trueblood, this note, written in the aftermath of the Union Army’s agonizing defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, marked the final turning point in Lincoln’s religious evolution. On the one hand, Lincoln solidified his belief that God sovereignly controlled the events of history. “The will of God prevails,” he wrote. (“The Almighty has His own purposes.”) On the other hand, farm from resulting in fatalism or inactivity, for Lincoln, the prevailing of God’s will resulted in a strong commitment to vocation, which he referred to as “human instrumentalities.”
Mere weeks after the August defeat at Bull Run, the Union Army prevailed at Antietam. This victory prompted Lincoln to tell his cabinet on September 22 that he was ready to publicly announce the Emancipation Proclamation. Until that time, Lincoln’s primary war aim was to preserve the Union, even if it meant the continuance of slavery. After that date, he aimed to preserve the Union by beginning the process of abolishing slavery. Lincoln discerned his vocation — the emancipation of slaves — in the midst of the divinely willed Civil War.
The language Lincoln used with his cabinet to describe hie newfound resolution was inherently religious. In words recorded by Francis B. Carpenter, quoted by Trueblood, Lincoln said: “I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.”
Trueblood says much more about Lincoln’s religion than just the interplay of God’s will and human vocation, but that interplay seems to be Trueblood’s central insight into the development of Lincoln’s mature religious thought. After detailing the development of that thought, Trueblood devotes a chapter each to Lincoln’s views on the Bible, prayer, and the Church, ending with a consideration of Lincoln’s understanding of patriotism. I thought I was well informed about Lincoln’s religious views prior to reading this book, but Trueblood managed to reveal new information and nuanced interpretations that I found very helpful.
As our nation engages in extended culture wars in which secularism and religion are increasingly pitted against one another, studying the mature religious views of America’s best president may provide a way forward … for both sides. I heartily recommend this book, both for its historical interpretation of Lincoln and its vision for spiritual leadership in times of conflict.
Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012 [orig. 1973]).
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