Celebrating Past Beauty (2)
Abraham Lincoln delivering the Second Inaugural Address
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)
It is astounding that what I consider to be the most beautiful non-Scriptural theological prose ever written was composed by a politician rather than a theologian. This Second Inaugural Address may have been delivered on a political occasion, but it utterly transcends the dross of politics. Rather, at its core, this is a profound theological meditation on the causes and meaning of a truly cataclysmic event in the life of our Nation — the Civil War in which well over 600,000 lives were sacrificed to settle the question of slavery once and for all.
The speech itself is exceedingly short, consisting of only 698 words. The first 359 words serve as a preamble for the theological meditation of only 339 words. For the sake of brevity I excerpt only the theological meditation.
… 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.”
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, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Thinking back to the components of beauty for theological prose, what could be a deeper point of human need than that of the millions of lives that had been (and that were still being while the speech was given) scared by this most terrible war in U.S. history? And, from whom were words of explanation and purpose more needed than that man whose election as President had set into motion that very war? By bowing humbly to that terrible need Abraham Lincoln was able to compose a theological meditation of terrible beauty.
Although the Civil War still raged at the time of this speech the outcome was no longer in doubt. In fact, only 36 days later General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. So, Lincoln’s primary purpose was to begin the process of healing for a nation that had suffered a grievous, perhaps even mortal wound. But how could such a goal be pursued given the disunity and hatred of total war?
While living in Washington D.C. Lincoln and his family attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. It is certain that there he would have experienced teaching aligned with the Westminster Confessions. Thus, as the reelected President pondered his impossible task the theological framework upon which he would draw stressed God’s sovereignty and providential purposes in history.
How though could Lincoln invoke the Christian God Whom both citizens of the Union and Confederacy worshiped? Lincoln courageously raised this conundrum as the starting point of his meditation. But, although he included a powerful argument in support of the Union, he yet refused to claim that God was on the Union’s side. For here the Reformed doctrine of sin’s universality allowed him to see that the sources of this terrible conflict encompassed the entire nation. Thus, although the specific position on slavery had been decided in the Union’s favor, citizens of both sides were reminded that they shared a common responsibility for the existence of the sinful institution of chattel slavery. Upon this ground the rightness of the Union’s cause might be maintained but without inciting an attitude of destructive moral superiority.
But it is when Lincoln addresses God’s place in the tragedy that beauty reaches its zenith. How could there but be the most powerful temptation to blame God for this monstrous war? That is, how could a kind and loving God have allowed so much terror and death to occur? Here the humility of the created creature finds voice in Lincoln’s use of Psalm 19:9, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Rather than demanding that God answer at the dock of human pride, Lincoln humbly submits to the reality that God’s purposes are just even if the consequences are dreadful. That is, “shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” The answer is a resounding no. Thus, Lincoln rejects the spiritually destructive temptation to blame God for sin while calling all humanity to repentance for their sin.
It is upon these theological foundations that Lincoln calls to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and to pursue “a just and lasting peace.” It is therefore on our universal need for a Savior that Abraham Lincoln sought to rebuild the United States. The miraculous fact is that the nation was indeed rebuilt in spite of Lincoln’s assassination by a Confederate sympathizer on April 15, 1865.
Can there be any doubt that Lincoln’s speech, particularly after his sudden death, encouraged the “better angels” of their natures in both the North and South? These words, so humbly, so humanely, so worshiply composed and delivered set in motion the events by which a nation riven by hatred could yet be reconciled. Had God not taught Lincoln utter humility in the crucible war and the school of Reformed theology this speech would have been very different, and a great nation may have been destroyed rather than reborn.
We once again find ourselves riven by seemingly irreconcilable political differences. It is a sad commentary on the Christian Church that it no longer seems capable of providing the theological resources necessary for healing and renewal. Were the Church just another human institution there would be no hope. But it actually is the Body of Jesus Christ, so we wait with expectant hope for resurrection.