Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” provided “the words that remade America,” says the subtitle of Garry Wills’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the speech. But the title of a new book defiantly proclaims “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural” (Simon & Schuster) was exactly that.
It’s natural that historian Ronald C. White Jr. would object to the domination of “Gettysburg” and give first place to the “Second Inaugural” address of 1865. He is the dean at San Francisco Theological Seminary (Presbyterian), and Lincoln’s speech is just about the most biblical utterance from any American president.
Previous presidents’ inaugural speeches merely tipped the hat to an indefinite deity as they referred to the “Parent of the Human Race” (Washington), “Patron of Order” (John Adams), “Infinite Power” (Jefferson), “Almighty Being” (Madison) and “Divine Providence” (Buchanan). Only John Quincy Adams had ever quoted the Bible.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln spontaneously added “under God” to the written text. But his “Second Inaugural” explored a distinctly biblical God, active and potent. The 703-word speech (one-seventh the length of his 1861 inaugural) quoted four Bible passages and was otherwise saturated with Scripture.
As Allen Guelzo indicated in “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President” (1999), the younger Lincoln was a skeptic and never joined any church. But beliefs changed as he struggled to win the war, reunite the nation and, eventually, end slavery (which by that time existed only in the United States, four Latin American lands and Africa).
Lincoln’s boyhood Separate Baptist church had taught “necessity,” a form of fatalism in which, Mr. White says, “events unfold according to certain laws of nature,” whereas conventional Christianity believes “God’s divine power is able to embrace human freedom and responsibility.”
Mr. White traced Lincoln’s mature thinking about God through a private note in 1862, later correspondence with a Quaker and an 1864 letter to a Kentuckian who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln was influenced by the Rev. Phineas Gurley of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which the president regularly attended on Sundays. During midweek worship, Lincoln often would sit in Mr. Gurley’s office with the door ajar, listening to the sermons.
The president liked Mr. Gurley because he shunned politics and “new school” Presbyterianism, whose partisan preachers favored abolition and emotional evangelicalism. Mr. Gurley embraced “old school” theology at Princeton seminary.
Americans after September 11 can well understand that Lincoln’s listeners wanted triumphant words of victory, if not vengeance. The war cost 623,000 combat deaths in the North and South combined one of every 11 men of military age. But instead of self-congratulation over victory, the president urged the North to reflect on universal sin and God’s judgment upon all sides.
The treatment of God and the Civil War in the “Second Inaugural” climaxed with Psalm 19:9: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Lincoln was insistent that divine judgment for slavery affected North as well as South, encompassing 250 years in which the nation denied slaves justice and just pay.
Mr. White thinks “Lincoln speaks forever against any ‘God bless America’ theology that fails to come to terms with evil and hypocrisy in its own house.”
The speech’s best-known phrases “with malice toward none; with charity for all” meant “charity” not in today’s do-gooding sense but in the deep, King James version sense of all-encompassing love. The appeal for reconciliation between North and South reflected Jesus’ admonition cited by Lincoln: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).
Virginia’s Richmond Examiner said the address was “the tail of some old sermon,” while Washington’s Daily National Intelligence protested that Lincoln had endangered church-state separation. But black firebrand Frederick Douglass offered a wiser verdict on that Inauguration Day:
“Mister Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
Momentous events quickly followed the March 4 inauguration. On April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, and on April 14, Good Friday, the Great Emancipator was assassinated.