Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lincoln and Religion

Alexander Gardiner photograph
from February 5, 1865. 
Today is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s last birthday. He turned 56 on Feb. 12, 1865 and died a little over two months later. These are my notes for a talk I gave today to a St Louis-area interfaith group to which I'm happy to belong. The theme was Lincoln and Religion. I talked about three different aspects on the theme, and we discussed how biblical ideas of providence still shape our national identity.

Lincoln’s positive relationships with Jews 

Lincoln was known as an honorable person. His racial sensibilities changed over time, although he was consistent in his opposition to slavery, but he was apparently free from some of the sadly common prejudices.  For instance, his law partner William Herndon marveled that Lincoln felt positively toward the Irish!  From early in his life, Lincoln had friendships with Jews and was known during his presidency as a supporter of Jews. When he was a young man in New Salem, IL, he knew Louis Salzenstein, a storekeeper and trader from nearby Athens IL. Julius Hammerslough of Springfield, IL, who was later one of the planners of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., was a friend.  Others included Abraham Kohn, with whom Lincoln conversed about both Bible and politics, Henry Greenbaum of Chicago, and a few others.

Still another friend was Abraham Jonas, an English settler of Illinois who lived in Quincy. He seems to have met Lincoln in 1838, when they were both involved in Whig politics. Like Lincoln, Jonas later joined the Republican party. During the 1850s Jonah warned Lincoln that he (Lincoln) was supposedly seen at a Know Nothing Party event, which Lincoln (opposed to that nativist movement) vigorously denied. Since Jonas had Southern relatives, he also gave Lincoln a warning about Southern plots against him. Later, four of Jonas' sons served in the confederacy, and when Jonas was dying he asked Lincoln to intervene for his son in a military prison. Lincoln was able to secure the son’s release.

Lincoln's other notable Jewish friend was Isachar Zacharie, also an English immigrant. He met Lincoln in 1862. He was a physician and chiropodist who treated Lincoln’s bad feet. Lincoln also trusted Zacharie to do a little intelligence work for him in New Orleans, probably concerning the city's military circumstance.

There were two notable situations during the war concerning Lincoln and Jews. One was the fact that initially Jews were not allowed to be chaplains in the war. The Volunteer Act of 1861 only made reference to Christian clergy. Ohio congressman Charles Valdingham tried to amend the act to allow Jews, but the amendment was defeated. But soon a Union regiment out of Virginia sought to appoint a rabbi as chaplain, Arnold Fischel of New York, and Jewish publications raised the issue of discrimination when Fischel was turned down. By the end of 1861 Fischel met with Lincoln about the situation. Lincoln then issued several recommendations for improvement of the chaplaincy act, including the need to permit Jews to serve as chaplains, and by July 1862 Congress passed substantially the same amendment as Valdingham had raised earlier. Thus, Jews became chaplains.

Lincoln also addressed the situation of Gen. Grant’s “General Order #11”, which expelled Jews “as a class” from northern Mississippi, western Tennessee, and western Kentucky. The circumstance seems to be the black market activity. There was still trade between those north and south during the war, but Lincoln limited it to dealers with licensees from the treasury dept. One of Grant’s duties was to oversee this effort. A few Jews may have been involved but most were not.  Yet Jews of that area were blamed en masse and were given twenty-four hours to leave.

Many Jews were expelled from Paducah, Kentucky. One man there, Cesar Kaskel, telegramed Lincoln, and he soon made a trip to Washington. Lincoln apparently was unaware of the order. After Kaskel made his case, Lincoln asked, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” Kaskel replied, “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking for protection.” So Lincoln quickly ordered that Order # 11 be revoked, which Grant did.

Lincoln also appointed seven Jewish generals to the US forces:  Frederick Knefler, who served at Cickamauga and on Sherman’s march; Leopold Blumenberg, who served in the Peninsular campaign and Antietam, Leopold Newman, in First bull Run and died from wounds at Chancellorsville; Edward S. Salomon, and he was also at Antietam and Sherman’s march (Grant, when president, appointed him governor of Washington Territory); Alfred Mordechai, a West Point grad, Phineas Horowitz, surgeon general of the Navy, and William Meyer, who helped deal with the New York draft riots.  About 10,000 Jews served in the war, about 7000 from the Union and about 3000 from the Confederacy. About 600 Jews died in the war.

(Principal source: Naphtali J. Rubinger, Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, New York: Jonathan David, 1962.)

Lincoln’s Religion

As biographer David H. Donald points out, Lincoln was not conventionally religious but embraced the Doctrine of Necessity: “that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” In this regard, Lincoln appreciated and often quoted a line from Hamlet: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough hew them how we will.” Like many Calvinist Christians who embraced this doctrine, Lincoln was motivated to action by the idea of a divine providence, rather than remaining passive in the face of unalterable events.

Lincoln’s parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, were predestinarian Baptists. These ideas certainly influence him, but although he was taken to church as a chil,d he disliked and sometimes mocked the emotional preaching. His experiences of several deaths likely influenced him as well. His mother died when he was nine. His infant brother died, and his older sister, who had been a surrogate mother to him, died when Lincoln was nineteen.  During the years he lived in New Salem, IL (1831-1837), Lincoln was close to a woman named Ann Rutledge, but she died when she was only 22. He was said to be distraught over her death.

During his entire life Lincoln never joined a church or made a public confession of faith, nor was he baptized, but he was a frequent Bible reader. He was sometimes criticized as a free thinker and skeptic. He experienced criticism when he ran for Congress in 1846 against the Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright. In a public statement, he maintained he had never spoken against biblical authority or the divinity of Christ, and he stated that he could not support a candidate who was an enemy or scoffer of religion

Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln had four children, all sons. The second son, Eddie, died when he was 4 in 1850. The third son, Willie, died during Lincoln’s presidency, in 1862, and this devastated the family.  With Willie’s death and the difficulties of the war, Lincoln’s determinism became more theological, and he did attend a church in Washington (but never joined).

His theology of theological determinism became a deep meditation on the purposes of God, the idea of providence.  His more abstract ideas about a Higher Power became more a search for something more personally helpful. He called it “a process of cryrstallization” rather than “conversion.”  His idea of the doctrine of necessity became more a sense of divine purpose in the war that, in turn, compelled him and others to work toward the “great ends” that God willed.

This was an era when people intensely believed in providence, AND they believed they could accurately discern God’s purposes. Religion historian Mark Noll writes, "[Stonewall] Jackson, who was anything but ordinary in his military capacities, was also probably not ordinary in his profound trust in providence...Early in his adulthood, he started peppering his speech and corresopndance with phrases like ‘an all-wise Providence’ and 'the hand of an all-wise God.’ .. Jackson was almost incapable of accounting for any event or outcome during the war itself without referring it to God’s sovereign direction. After the dreadful fighting of the battle of Second Manassas, an aide observed to Jackson that the Confederates ‘have won this battle by the hardest kind of fighting.’ Jackson... would not hear of it: ‘No, no, we have won it by the blessing of Almighty God.’”

Noll continues, "Not surprisingly, when Jackson died from wounds suffered at the battle of Chancellorsville.. . common people throughout the nation... instinctively sought the divine meaning in the passing of someone who had so consistently ascribed to God the rule over daily life. Yet what would that message be?” Answers varied: God was blessing the Union cause, or alternately the Southern cause, with victory. “[S]ome Southern ministers proclaimed that removing Jackson was a providential means of stripping away human props so that the glory for the South’s forthcoming victory would be given to God alone.” (Mark Noll, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” University of North Carolina Press, 2006, pp. 85-86).

Like his contemporaries, Lincoln sought the divine meanings in the prolonged war, but he was unusual in his belief that neither the North nor the South was exempt from God’s justice.

Lincoln’s Great Speeches

Taken together, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863 and the Second Inaugural Address in 1865 are a compendium of Lincoln’s faith and reveal his ideas about the providential purposes of God in the American experience.

In his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Willas notes that the Gettysburg address (November 19, 1863), draws upon 19th century transcendentalist philosophy about nature, as well as Greek funeral oratory.  But the speech---which from the outset alludes to Psalm 90 in its use of the word “score”---mainly builds upon biblical language of miraculous conception and of new birth. Like the supernatural conception of Jesus (one could also add Isaac and Samuel), American was “conceived in liberty”; the democratic ideal of liberty crossed the waters from Europe, as God’s Spirit moved across the waters, and was conceived in America.

The Gettysburg Address also contains language of new birth in, for instance, the Gospel of John chapter 3. Since this is a funeral oration honoring the dead, repentance is implied but not stated. But repentance is implied in the idea of new birth: American has drifted from the founding father’s principles of liberty and equality, requiring now a “new birth of freedom” that draws from Jesus’ language of new birth in John 3.

The Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865) draws upon theology of judgment and atonement, in a way that the Gettysburg Address could not since the occasion was a memorial rather than a sermon against sin. In the long third (of four) paragraphs of the speech, Lincoln quotes Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:7, a warning against being the cause of sin in someone else’s life. But slavery is such a sin, and both the North and the South are not immune from the stain of that sin. Thus, according to Lincoln, Northerners should not be perplexed if their prayers were not answered fully; “Judge not, that ye not be judged,” as Lincoln quotes Jesus (Matthew 5). Lincoln calls slavery an offense (sin) calling for punishment and the payment of the “debt” incurred by the sin. He uses accounting language: “paid” and “sunk” (which means to pay a debt) but especially the biblical language of blood sacrifice. Lincoln suggests that, if persons of faith do believe in the God of the Bible---who demands righteousness and punishes sin---they should not be surprised that the Civil War may be an atonement for the sin of slavery.

Here is an excerpt from that third paragraph of the Second Inaugural:

“Both [Northerners and Southerners] 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 [and he quotes Psalm 19], ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

Garry Wills points out that the providential theology of Lincoln is by no means the triumphalism of, for instance, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Lincoln is more humble in the face of mysterious providence than, for instance, Stonewall Jackson. Instead, the speech concludes with a reference to “the work we are in,” which harkens back to the Gettysburg Address and makes the two speeches complementary:

“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 [that’s certainly a biblical expression!], to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Since the days of the Puritans, Americans have often believed themselves providentially guided and have adapted the biblical narrative of Israel to American experience, so that the United States is a chosen people obliged to witness to Liberty and to trust in God’s ways. (“In God, we trust,” “One nation, under God.”)  But God demands faithfulness, and judgment looms if we as a nation neglect God or pursue policies contrary to the divine will. My daughter and I used to see a billboard along I-70 in Indiana: “If American will worship God, God will bless America.” I’ve also heard preachers and others cite 2 Chr. 7:14 as applying to America (forgetting its context with Solomon and the Temple): “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Lincoln certainly fits within this tradition of American identity, but unlike the triumphalism of some of his contemporaries, Lincoln is more humble about the purposes of God and our corresponding responsibilities to serve one another, especially in the aftermath of the hideous war of his time, where 2% of the national population perished. Lincoln provides a good point of departure for a discussion about the role of religion and religious imagery in public and political discourse.

(See Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.)

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