“The Almighty Has His Own Purposes”: Abraham Lincoln, Religion, and the Emancipation of Slaves



Abraham Lincoln has been remembered, both in his own lifetime and thereafter, by the nickname, “Honest Abe.” His characteristic trustworthiness, nevertheless, has not necessarily permitted historians to easily interpret all aspects of his personal life and political career. One such topic that has been somewhat shrouded in mystery is Abraham Lincoln’s religious views. The prolific American theologian, Reinhold Neibuhr once referred to Lincoln as “unquestionably our most religious president,” who was “superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of the day, but of the religious leaders of the era.”[i] On the other hand, a contemporary of Lincoln, William Herndon, attempted to combat the idea that Abraham Lincoln changed his views about believing in a personal God by dismissing the existence of any evidence for such a claim.[ii] However, Wayne C. Temple’s more recent tome, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, has compiled scores of evidence to outline the religious views of Abraham, which were by no means static throughout his life, but nonetheless gradually moved away from skepticism and towards a more theistic worldview, heavily grounded in biblical imagery.[iii] By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Edmund Wilson writes the following:

We are far here from Herndon’s office, closer to Harriet Beecher Stowe. If the need on Lincoln’s part, as a public man, to express himself in phrases congenial to his public may have had some part in inducing him to heighten and personify the formulas of his eighteenth-century deism, if it is true that as the went on and gave rise to more and more disaffection, it became more and more to his interest to invoke the traditional Lord of Hosts, it is nevertheless quite clear that he himself came to see the conflict in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect. The vision had imposed itself.[iv]

This research will trace the background of Abraham Lincoln in brief, and then especially focus on the religious transitions that occurred during Lincoln’s presidency. It will be argued that Herndon’s hypothesis of Lincoln’s religious ideals is inconsistent with the available data and that Lincoln was a deeply religious man, despite the uncertain characteristics about some of his specific beliefs.

Yet, the primary purpose of this research is not simply to better ascertain what Lincoln thought about religion. Rather, the core focus will be to demonstrate how his religious views affected the ways in which he dealt with the abolition of slavery, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many scholars as of late have propagated interpretations that highlight changes during Lincoln’s presidency pertaining to both his religious beliefs and his strategies for emancipating slaves.[v] However, it seems that most historians focus either on Lincoln’s religion or on emancipation, without connecting the two issues. Admittedly, both topics have tremendously rich historiographical backgrounds, thus, an attempt to link the two together in a concise paper is somewhat of a challenging task. At the same time, the available primary source material, along with secondary literature, arguably allows for the interpretation that Lincoln’s religious beliefs played a significant role in how he attempted to carry out his policies in relation to emancipation.

The Religious Background of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln experienced both positive and negative aspects of religious activities as he grew up. His own father, Thomas Lincoln, was said to be, “A devout Christian of the Baptist order,” according to fellow church member, Nathaniel Grisby.[vi] His family would attend Little Pigeon Baptist Church throughout his childhood, a congregation that faced many controversies in its day, especially pertaining to the funding of missionaries (an especially strong movement in New England), the doctrine of predestination, and issues of local church autonomy.[vii] It is quite plausible that one of the most serious frustrations Lincoln faced in his Baptist background was the inability of older congregants to speak to him in communicable ways. In Lincoln’s later recollections, he stated:

I remember how when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I do not think I ever got angry at anything else in my life; but that always disturbed my temper. I can remember going to my little room, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down trying to make out the exact meaning of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, although I tried to, when I got on such a hunt for an idea, until I had caught it; and when I thought I had got it I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over again; until I had put in language plain enough, so I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me, for I am never easy now when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.[viii]

John F. Cady comments, “The church of his youth had been too void of perspective, too much concerned with futile theological bickerings to be able to contain the inquiring spirit of the young man. Religious considerations seemed to lead into narrower and ever more exclusive channels.”[ix] That very well may be true, though it is also suggested that the unlearned, Calvinistic Baptists from Indiana could not satisfy his curious nature for religious inquiries.[x] At the same time, Lincoln did first encounter, while living in Indiana, a biography on George Washington by Mason Locke Weems, which, “no doubt, influenced his later stand against slavery.”[xi] Notably, Weems was also a Christian minister that unabashedly interpreted aspects of Washington’s life in light of “Providence.”[xii]

In 1831, Lincoln moved to the town of New Salem, Illinois, where he would eventually begin his political career. This six-year stay also seems to be the period of time in which Lincoln became most skeptical about religion, particularly of Christianity. He is believed to have read writings from religious skeptics, such as Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Constantin Volney’s The Ruins.[xiii] According to local legend, Lincoln had even written a manuscript that denied the divine qualities of the Bible, though it was apparently burned.[xiv] A man who met Lincoln in 1834, believed that the Scottish poet, and former Calvinist, “[Robert] Burns helped Lincoln to be an infidel…at least he found in Burns a like thinker & feeler.”[xv] How much of an extended impact these writings had on Lincoln’s life and beliefs is hard to say with precision. Thankfully, for the sake of historical records, once Lincoln moved away from New Salem, he began to write more frequently.

Lincoln moved to the new capital of Springfield, Illinois in 1837. Nearly a decade later, when running for a seat in Congress, his opponent, revivalist preacher, Peter Cartwright, accused Lincoln of being antagonistic towards the Christian faith. Lincoln’s response is tremendously insightful for understanding how his New Salem inquiries of skepticism had since worn off a bit:

A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.[xvi]

It is clear, therefore, that Lincoln was not hostile to Christians or even certain denominations, but his response also notes the following:

It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”—that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years.[xvii]

The eminent Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, defines the Doctrine of Necessity to mean, “all events are determined by a blind necessity.” Thus, “This necessity does not arise from the will of an intelligent Being governing all his creatures and all their acts according to their nature, and for purposes of wisdom and goodness; but from a law of sequence to which God (or rather the gods) as well as men is subject.”[xviii] In January 1851, Lincoln received news through his stepbrother that his father was dying. Responding with care and sensitivity, Lincoln’s thoughts derive from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” and are far from full-blown Deism: “Tell him to remember to call upon, and confide in, our great and good, and merciful Maker, who will not turn away from him in any extremity. He notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads; and He will not forget the dying man, who puts his trust in Him.”[xix] Whether or not Lincoln was actually an “orthodox” Christian in terms of believing in certain doctrines such as Trinitarianism, the deity of Jesus Christ, or the divine inspiration of the Bible, is not necessarily the intention of this research. Instead, the focus will be on how Lincoln came to more distinctively understand the doctrine of providence, and precisely how that belief influenced his attitude towards emancipating slaves.

One of the most significant relationships that Lincoln developed while in Illinois, concerning his religious development, was with the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Dr. James Smith.[xx] The distinguishable characteristic between Smith and the Baptists Lincoln had known in his childhood, other than obvious denominational differences, was Smith’s intellectual rigor as a Christian thinker. He had previously been a Deist, and even made a practice to attend camp meeting revivals for the purpose of mocking preachers. However, through the ministry of Rev. James Blackwell, Smith converted to Christianity and became a Presbyterian pastor. Abraham Lincoln thoroughly read Smith’s book, The Christian’s Defense, and has been quoted to have said, “I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of Christianity, and have heard him preach and converse on the subject, and I am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.”[xxi] Though he always seems to have been profoundly respectful of and attracted to the Bible, his religious convictions still had plenty of potential for alteration.[xxii] During his service as president, a notable change was undertaken, albeit gradually, in his beliefs of man’s free agency and God’s providence.

Religious Transitions During Lincoln’s Presidency

Andrew R. Murphy says the following about Lincoln’s presidency: “Lincoln knew the Bible well, and it seems clear that he became increasingly comfortable with religious rhetoric as his presidency unfolded (culminating, of course, in the Second Inaugural).”[xxiii] It has been commonly interpreted that Lincoln’s speeches became progressively religious further into his presidency. That might be true, but it should not cause one to think that Lincoln avoided religious rhetoric in the first couple of years in his presidency either. At a speech in Cincinnati, as his first term was about to begin, he proclaimed, “I take your response as the most reliable evidence that it may be so, along with other evidence, trusting that the good sense of the American people, on all sides of all rivers in America, under the Providence of God, who has never deserted us, that we shall again be brethren, forgetting all parties—ignoring all parties.”[xxiv] And in his first inaugural address, Lincoln boasted, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.”[xxv] The real significance of Lincoln’s religious transitions during his presidency is not necessarily that he spoke more often in religious terms, but that he changed his foundational view of God’s providence by the summer of 1862, just before the Emancipation Proclamation was given.

Lincoln had moved away from the naturalistic “Doctrine of Necessity” for several years, and at the beginning of his presidency his view of providence might be best understood by the phrase, “divine assistance.” In other words, God was available to intervene in the affairs of mankind, contrasting with the impersonal “Doctrine of Necessity,” but the relationship between “Creator” and “created” was not quite Calvinistic in the sense that the world is to be seen as God’s “glorious theatre” where God’s will surpasses man’s plans.[xxvi] Nicholas Parillo substantiates this claim by stating, “Literary analysis reveals that, even though Lincoln always subscribed to the same technical definition of providence, the role that this concept played in his rhetoric underwent a gradual but dramatic change during his presidency.”[xxvii] Lincoln, in his acceptance letter for the Republican presidential nomination, wrote:

Imploring the assistance of Divine Providence, and with due regard to the views and feelings of all who were represented in the convention; to the rights of all the states, and territories, and people of the nation; to the inviolability of the constitution, and the perpetual union, harmony, and prosperity of all, I am most happy to co-operate for the practical success of the principles declared by the convention.[xxviii]

The words, “the assistance of Divine Providence,” are notable, as they infer that Lincoln believed God would intervene upon the request of the one who seeks aid. To borrow John Calvin’s theatre analogy again, both men and God, according to Lincoln’s understanding of providence, were actors in world events, but the added power of God would give an advantage to those, in particular, who request and rely on his divine assistance.[xxix]

Lincoln addressed Congress in December of 1861, saying, “The struggle of today, is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”[xxx] Lincoln would not have known that the nation’s present “struggle” would eventually yield results such as the deaths of well over 600,000 Americans, or even a more favorable outcome such as the abolition of slavery. His own role in the Civil War seems to have been guided by his evolving understanding of God’s providence. Lincoln never joined a congregation as a member in Washington, D.C., but he did end up attending another Presbyterian church governed by a well-educated clergyman. According to Ronald C. White, Jr., “Lincoln, ever attuned to paradox, appreciated the Presbyterian belief that the sinfulness of human beings did not lead to passivity, because Christian men and women were called to be instruments of divine purpose in society,” and the minister, Phineas Densmore Gurley, was undoubtedly true to his “Old School” Presbyterian roots.[xxxi] And it is plausible that Gurley’s own views on God’s providence rubbed off on the president. Gurley once preached the following message:

I believe this Triune God is in history; I believe He is in all history: I believe His hand and His mercy are exceedingly conspicuous in our national history; and never more so than in the present eventful and perilous crisis: and my confident hope is, that, when the crisis is over, and the Divine purpose in permitting it is fully developed and accomplished, the nations who now predict, if they do not desire, our ruin, will be compelled to say: “the Lord hath done great things for them;” and our simple yet grateful response will be: “the Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad.”[xxxii]

Clearly this is not comparable to a “Doctrine of Necessity,” but neither is it advocating that people do their deeds with “divine assistance.” Rather, Gurley emphasizes the much more Calvinistic approach that speaks of God superseding over the world’s affairs, and the necessity that Christians align their plans with the Almighty’s.

In 1862, Lincoln appears to have altered his own views of providence to closely resemble the teachings of Reverend Gurley. This also happened to be the year that his son, Willie, tragically died.[xxxiii] Furthermore, the U.S. Army had not been nearly as successful as expected, particularly in the Northern Virginia Campaign. Perhaps, then, circumstances also had an effect. On September 13, 1862, he delivered an address in Chicago that could almost be considered a sermon on providence:

I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree.[xxxiv]

The “matter” referred to here by Lincoln is emancipation. Clearly, he believed that God was sovereign over the nation’s concerns of the war, and of slavery as well. Lincoln’s struggles centered on his desire to do “the will of Providence,” without having direct revelation on what action to take towards emancipation. Later in his speech, he claimed, “Whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do.”[xxxv] He no longer held to the “divine assistance” view of providence, in which one decides to act and then hopes for God’s favor. The “theatre” of God would operate as the Almighty willed; Lincoln just hoped to do what was “wise and right,” but obviously with fear and trembling. In a later letter to Albert G. Hodges, Lincoln confessed in retrospect, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”[xxxvi] The Emancipation Proclamation, then, would become one of the biggest actions undertaken by the president, following his final transformation in his religious ideas pertaining to God’s providence.

In September 1862, the same month in which Lincoln publicly announced the Emancipation Proclamation, the president wrote a private note to assess the situation, which has since been designated, “Meditation on Divine Will.” Lincoln asserted the following evaluation:

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 this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet 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.[xxxvii]

Here, Lincoln makes evident his views on God’s sovereignty and human free agency: all that occurs is under the guiding hand of Providence, but the “human instrumentalities” are still accountable in their actions.[xxxviii] He apparently was ready to make his move towards the Emancipation Proclamation.[xxxix]

A Synthesis of Lincoln’s Religious Views and Evolving Ideas Concerning Emancipation

The transformation of Lincoln’s understanding of providence, starting with the “Doctrine of Necessity,” to a “divine assistance” view, and finally, to a more Calvinistic perspective, created a structure that linked his religious beliefs with his evolving ideas concerning emancipation. Although his plans for dealing with slavery while president changed over time, Lincoln’s distaste for the institution had always been the same. He once stated, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I [cannot] remember when I did not so think, and feel.”[xl] Thus, even before his life in the White House, when skeptical of religion or when accepting of it, he was no friend to slavery. However, circumstantial events during his political career in Illinois seemed to have motivated Lincoln towards a more mature understanding of how the nation ought to view slavery. Eric Foner comments that after eyeing the momentous occurrences related to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then the violence in Kansas, the events in 1857, such as the Dred Scott decision, the Buchanan administration’s oversight in the enforcement of slavery in Kansas, and his debates with Stephen A. Douglas “would propel Lincoln to address directly questions he had until then touched on only tangentially—the rights and future status of black Americans, and the underlying differences between two societies resting on antagonistic systems of slave and free labor.”[xli] But Foner also writes, “All in all the first sixteen months of Lincoln’s presidency—the period from March 1861 through June 1862—witnessed noteworthy changes in the government’s relationship to slavery,” which included him being the first ever president to submit an abolition plan to Congress, as well ending slavery in Washington, D.C.[xlii]

It should be pointed out by way of reminder that Lincoln’s intellectual framework concerning providence had changed from the time he entered into the presidential office to the Emancipation Proclamation. As noted by Ronald C. White, Jr., “Although his heart had long been tormented by the immorality of slavery, his Enlightenment, precedent-based, Old School head had heretofore tethered him to what he believed to be the Constitution’s prohibition against eliminating slavery where it already existed in the South.”[xliii] Lincoln gave his well-known “A House Divided” speech in 1858, wherein he stated:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.[xliv]

It seems quite likely that Lincoln carried this mindset into his presidency, together with his “divine assistance” view of providence. Whatever that was to occur with slavery, then, was basically contingent upon the actions of Americans, though God could be called upon for added support. In an 1861 speech, Lincoln went on to say, “And having thus chosen our course, without guile and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.”[xlv] Throughout the spring of 1862, Lincoln adamantly recommended that emancipation be administered gradually, along with the incentive of compensation.[xlvi] In June, the hopeful William Bernard declared his “earnest desire that [Lincoln] might, under divine guidance, be led to free the slaves and thus save the nation from destruction.” To which Lincoln responded:

[I] had sometime thought that perhaps [I] might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work and [I] certainly was not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end which the memorialists have in view may be different from theirs. It would be [my] earnest endeavor, with a firm reliance upon the Divine arm, and seeking light from above, to do his duty in the place to which he had been called.[xlvii]

Nicholas Parillo’s interpretation of how Lincoln viewed the war appears to be correct: “the events of the Civil War became, for Lincoln, manifestations of God’s intention for the future of slavery.”[xlviii]

When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, which was set to be effective starting January of the following year, he apprehensively admitted, “I can only trust in God I have made no mistake.”[xlix] By this time, it would appear that Lincoln’s view of God’s providence had made an impact on his considerations of emancipating slaves. He made a major motion, but Lincoln did not request divine assistance to fulfill his own plans. Instead, Lincoln possessed the hope that he was fulfilling God’s plans. “For Lincoln,” writes Nicholas Parillo, “[E]mancipation served as no holy crusade but merely fulfilled divine providence.”[l] That Lincoln changed his view of providence, as it has been argued in this research, is not necessarily significant in terms of whether or not the Emancipation Proclamation would have ever happened—it seems unlikely that a change in his view of providence would have altered his motivation for emancipating slaves. On the other hand, this analysis does bring to light the intellectual framework for which Lincoln operated as president, and as the “Great Emancipator.” Furthermore, it also appears that his post-1861 view of providence set himself on a spiritual trajectory that would lead to an even more religious-focused presidency.

Two speeches in particular especially highlight Lincoln’s more intense concentration on matters of religion following the Emancipation Proclamation. On a national fast day in 1863, Lincoln presented a jeremiad-like message to his country:

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? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.[li]

Evidently, Lincoln now believed that the Civil War was not merely permitted by God, but that God providentially ordained it for just retribution, a theme he again featured in his Second Inaugural, which is completely saturated with biblical imagery. Although Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, slavery was still not obliterated, and the war carried on ever still. Perhaps what is most striking about this speech is Lincoln’s understanding of providence in relation to the perpetuation of slavery. He stated:

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.[lii]

At the same time, Lincoln went on to say, “Yet, if God wills that it continue…so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[liii]


Although deemed the “Great Emancipator” by some, Lincoln merely saw himself as an instrument in God’s created order. Despite his human effort attempts at suppressing the institution of slavery, such as in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and in persevering through the war, Lincoln’s religious views—particularly that of providence—significantly influenced the ways in which he lived out his role as president. His earlier belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” was replaced by a “divine assistance” view of providence before his election to Congress in Illinois, only to morph into a more Calvinistic understanding by the middle of his first term as president in 1862. His latest understanding of providence did seem to influence his attitude towards emancipation and even the war as a whole—that actions ought to be made towards ending slavery, but the success for such endeavors was up to God’s providential will. While not everything is clear about Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs, he did not seem to distinguish between the secular and the sacred when it came to how he viewed his role as the country’s president. If his religiously skeptical ideas had stayed with him throughout his life, perhaps his second inaugural address would have declared, “Nature has her own purposes.” If he had remained steeped in the “divine assistance” view of providence, perhaps Lincoln would have stated, “The Almighty will help us in our purposes.” But in the end, Lincoln came to believe, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”[liv]













[i] Quoted in Andrew R. Murphy, “Religion, Civil Religion, and Civil War: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the Lincoln Presidency” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 9:4 (Winter 2011): 21.

[ii] See Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 102.

[iii] Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet (Mahomet, IL: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995).

[iv] Wilson, Patriotic Gore, p. 106.

[v] Having already noted a couple of sources on the transitional views of Lincoln’s religious beliefs, Eric Foner’s text, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), is a marvelous resource that provides an overview of Lincoln’s transitional views of emancipation. James Oakes’s The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) is also a helpful work, particularly in the way it provides a historical context for how Lincoln eventually found legal confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

[vi] Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York, NY: Random House, 2009), p. 35.

[vii] See John F. Cady, “The Religious Environment of Lincoln’s Youth” Indiana Magazine of History 37:1 (1941): 16-30.

[viii] Quoted in Charles W. Moores, Abraham Lincoln, Lawyer (Greenfield, IN: Wm. Mitchell Printing Co., 1922), p. 484-485.

[ix] Cady, “The Religious Environment of Lincoln’s Youth,” p. 30.

[x] On the Calvinistic, yet anti-educational origins of Little Pigeon Baptist Church, see Ibid., p. 16-18, 27-30.

[xi] Temple, Abraham Lincoln: from Skeptic to Prophet, p. 11.

[xii] For example, Weems writes, “Where George got his great military talents, is a question which none but the happy believers in a particular Providence can solve: certain it is, his earthly parents had not hand in it.” M.L. Weems, The Life of George Washington; With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1800), p. 30.

[xiii] See Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 35; White, A. Lincoln, p. 54.

[xiv] See Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 35.

[xv] See White, A. Lincoln, p. 55.

[xvi] Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:382.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940), 2:280.

[xix] Quoted in White, A. Lincoln, p. 183. Lincoln’s eulogy for Henry Clay further demonstrates his revitalized belief in a God who providentially intervenes in His creation: “Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us. But he is gone. Let us strive to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.” Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2:132.

[xx] Biographical material on Dr. James Smith is cited from Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 36-48.

[xxi] Quoted in Ibid., p. 40.

[xxii] On Lincoln’s love of the Bible, his “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible” is quite helpful. In it, Lincoln confesses, “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All 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.” Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 7:542.

[xxiii] Murphy, “Religion, Civil Religion, and Civil War: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the Lincoln Presidency,” p. 22.

[xxiv] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 4:199.

[xxv] Ibid., 4:271.

[xxvi] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans., p. 63. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.pdf [accessed August 8, 2015].

[xxvii] Nicholas Parrillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War” Civil War History 46:3 (2000): 228.

[xxviii] “To George Ashmun,” in Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 4.

[xxix] His farewell address to Illinois as he left for the White House supports this interpretation:

A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. (Ibid., 4:190)


[xxx] Ibid., 5:53.

[xxxi] White, Jr., A. Lincoln, p. 404.

[xxxii] P.D. Gurley, Man’s Projects and God’s Results. A Sermon: Preached by the Rev. P.D. Gurley, D.C., on Thursday, August 6, 1863, Being the Day of National Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer (Washington, D.C.: Wm. Ballantyne, 1863), p. 5.

[xxxiii] Wayne Temple comments, “Religion appears to have become much more important to Abraham Lincoln following Willie’s death.” And he further writes that according to one witness, Lincoln stated, “When my [Willie] died, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian.” Though later, when asked if he was a Christian, the president said, “I hope I am a Christian.” Therefore, it does seem that Willie’s death impacted the religious outlook of the president, and it happened to coincide while the Lincoln family was under the pastoral care of Reverend Gurley. See Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 191-192.

[xxxiv] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:420.

[xxxv] Ibid., 5:425.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 7:282.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 5:403-404.

[xxxviii] It might be tempting to assert that Lincoln had reverted to fatalism. But as Ronald C. White, Jr., explains:

The content of this private reflection illuminates how far Lincoln had traveled on his journey from fatalism to providence. The modern suggestion that fatalism and providence are part of a continuum would have surprised Protestant theologians in the nineteenth century. The two constellations of ideas had different origins and different outcomes. In fatalism, events unfolded according to certain laws of nature. In 1859, Francis Wharton, author of A Treatise on Theism and Modern Skeptical Theories, described fatalism as ‘a distinct scheme of unbelief’…Wharton contrasted fatalism with the God of Christianity known by ‘his watchful care and love.’” (A. Lincoln, p. 625.)


[xxxix] It is difficult to know with certainty whether or not the “Mediation on Divine Will” was composed prior to the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862. Basler, the editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, makes a case that September 2, 1862 is a preferable date, rather than September 30, the date interposed in Nicolay and Hay’s Complete Works. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:404. Whatever the case, his address in Chicago on September 13, 1862, makes it clear that Lincoln’s new view on providence had certainly been established prior the Emancipation Proclamation.

[xl] Ibid., 7:281.

[xli] Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 91.

[xlii] Ibid., p. 204-205.

[xliii] White, Jr., A. Lincoln, p. 495.

[xliv] William Benton, pub., The Annals of America: Volume 9, 1858-1865: The Crisis of the Union (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1968), p. 1.

[xlv] Ibid., p. 274.

[xlvi] His recommendation was “that the United States ought to cooperate with any state which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such state pecuniary aid, to be used by such state, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.” Ibid., p. 328.

[xlvii] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:279.

[xlviii] Parillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War,” p. 242.

[xlix] Quoted in Ibid., p. 244.

[l] Ibid., p. 243.

[li] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 6:155-156.

[lii] Benton, pub., The Annals of America, p. 556.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Ibid.


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