Editor’s Note: The following commemorates the 150th anniversary of the burial of Abraham Lincoln on May 4, 1865.

“Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” One-hundred and fifty years ago, those words lined the walls of the Illinois State Capitol as the body of Abraham Lincoln lay in state on the 4th of May 1865. Tens of thousands read them as they came to pay their respects. Millions more encountered similar sentiment in the nation’s papers, pews, and parlors. To a distant and more secular generation, eulogizing Lincoln as a national savior might seem like embellished hero worship, but understanding the context of such praise reveals profound and seldom-told meaning in the Civil War.


“Abraham Lincoln the Martyr Victorious”, designed by W. H. Hermans, engraved by John Sartain.

Perhaps foremost in the minds of Americans then (and now) was Lincoln’s success in “saving” the Union. That was, after all, what Lincoln first described as his “paramount object.” But in the summer of 1862, Lincoln concluded that to save the Union, its armies must free the slaves. And for that decision, he would be praised as the Great Emancipator, a messiah-like liberator and savior of men.

At war’s end, yet another meaning would emerge. In his Second Inaugural Address, just weeks before his own assassination, Lincoln described the death and destruction of the Civil War as the “judgments of the Lord” for the nation’s “offense” of slavery. For many Bible-believing Americans, the assassination of the venerable commander-in-chief became a last sacrifice to redeem the nation for its original sin of slavery. Though the modest and self-deprecating Lincoln would have demurred at such adulation, his role in American history was memorialized as a national savior.

Lincoln’s evolving understanding of the purposes for the Civil War—from saving the Union, to freeing the slaves, and finally to redeeming the nation—coincided with a profound and personal spiritual journey that, to borrow a description from the PBS documentary God in America, “ultimately transformed his inner being, his conduct of the war, and his understanding of divine Providence.” Lincoln came to see a higher power at work in the Civil War, and by studying his journey so can we.

“God governs in the affairs of men,” Benjamin Franklin famously confessed during the Constitutional Convention. At the outset of the Civil War, the rational Lincoln would likely have eschewed such avowals of divine intervention. But as the war dragged on, a searching Lincoln wrote to himself, “I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” By war’s end, his private reflection had become a public confession that “a living God” now “wills to remove” slavery and “that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”

The history of Lincoln’s conversion as he presided over the redemption of the nation is a little-known story. But as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end to the Civil War, it deserves our attention. In its sesquicentennial series The Civil War by Those Who Lived It, the Library of America called the Civil War “our Bible, a story of sin and judgment, suffering and despair, death and resurrection in a ‘new birth of freedom.’” The study of this “American Gospel” is as relevant to our generation as to any before, for each is responsible to “nobly save, or meanly lose,” what Lincoln called, “the last best hope of earth.”

Lincoln before presidency (photo)

Photo of Lincoln before his Presidency.

Saving the Union

In the very same Springfield hall where his body would lay in state, Lincoln foretold in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Though invoking Scripture, Lincoln was not warning against Divine judgments, but rather the “machinery” of slavery’s advocates who threatened to “push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States.” The “crisis” that Lincoln predicted was a political one, and he was summoning his fellow Republicans to “arrest the further spread” of slavery and to set its “course” for “ultimate extinction,” though not immediate abolition.

While Lincoln predicted no Divine punishment, he nevertheless opposed slavery as a moral wrong. “I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist,” he said in 1858, and later wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” That moral opposition to the “peculiar institution” was as old as the Republic. Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence decried slavery as a “cruel war against human nature itself.” For the sake of unity, that condemnation was excised, but the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” endured. That truth exposed the nation’s original sin and goaded self-convicted slaveholders who disavowed Union and made slavery the “cornerstone” of their Confederacy.

The “rub” of the conflict, Lincoln wrote Alexander Stephens of Georgia, and the only “substantial difference” between them, Lincoln concluded, was this: “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” Decades of statesmanship had tempered that moral disagreement, but Southerners, as historian Bruce Catton would observe, “liked being called sinners no better than anyone else.” And so, in Lincoln’s words, “the war came.”

Northerners, of course, were no more saints and no less sinners than their Southern compatriots. Rife with their own racial prejudices, the North rallied around Union, not abolition. And for many Northerners, fiery abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, infamous for his public burning of the Constitution and his agitating motto “no union with slaveholders,” were as responsible for the war as the Southern plantation class.

Not surprisingly, in his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln avowed no purpose “to interfere with the institution of slavery.” For him, the question was only “whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.” So when General John Fremont decreed emancipation in Missouri during the first months of the war, Lincoln quickly rescinded the order, calling it “dictatorship” to his close friend Orville Browning and asking, “Can it be pretended that it is any longer the government of the U.S.—any government of Constitution and laws—wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation?” And yet a year to the day later, he would announce to the Cabinet his decision to do just that in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. What changed his mind?

Freeing the Slaves

While Lincoln devoted his efforts to saving the Union, others saw a higher purpose at work. Shortly after Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave, told an audience, “The control of events has been taken out of our hands . . . we have fallen into the mighty current of eternal principles—invisible forces—which are shaping and fashioning events as they wish, using us only as instruments to work out their own results in our national destiny.”

For Douglass, that could only mean emancipation, and remarkably, it would begin where American slavery had begun, along the shores of the James River in Virginia. A year before pilgrims landed at Plymouth, a Dutch merchant ship brought “20 and odd Negroes” to Jamestown. Two and a half centuries later, there were four million African Americans. And in May 1861, just weeks after Frederick

On to Liberty by Theodor Kaufmann (cropped)

“On to Liberty” by Theodor Kaufmann

Douglass spoke of “invisible forces” shaping “national destiny,” three of them rowed across the James to Fortress Monroe, a Union stronghold.

Their arrival presented a dilemma for the fort’s commanding general who was conscious of Lincoln’s promise not to “interfere” with slavery. But these men had freed themselves, and reckoning that Southerners considered their slaves valuable property for the war effort—after all, the three escaped men had been building Confederate fortifications—the general declared them “contraband of war” and sheltered them within Union lines. Thousands would follow, making Fortress Monroe into “Freedom’s Fortress.” In their camps, they sang the words of a “Negro spiritual” popular among Virginia’s slave population: “O! go down, Moses, away down to Egypt’s land, and tell King Pharaoh, to let my people go! O let us all from bondage flee, O let my people go! And let us all in Christ be free, O let my people go!”

It was the beginning of the end to slavery. Not only did slave labor build Confederate forts, it also plowed and harvested Confederate fields, freeing more whites to join Confederate armies. Emancipation would erode the means by which the South could make war. And by July 1862, Lincoln concluded that emancipation was a military necessity. But it was a decision—what his secretaries called “the weightiest question of his life”—that he wrestled with all summer.

Popular Union generals like George McClellan vehemently opposed emancipation, and border-state politicians warned that their slave-holding populations would turn against the Union. With no authority to enforce it in the South, emancipation might be, Lincoln said, “like the Pope’s Bull against the comet.” Finally, without sufficient military success, it would be seen, counseled Secretary of State William Seward, as “our last shriek, on the retreat.”

And as September 1862 began, Union military success was nowhere to be found. In June, a massive Union army was within sight of the church spires of Richmond, the Confederate capital, and perhaps the end of the war. But it was driven back in July, and at the end of August another Union army was crushed in a demoralizing loss just a few miles outside of Washington, D.C. If that was not troubling enough, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, fresh from his victories, invaded Maryland, threatening to turn the slave-holding state against the Union, cut off the federal capital from the rest of the North, and win European recognition of the Confederacy.

Amidst the panic, Lincoln received a delegation of ministers from his home state of Illinois. They urged him to issue a proclamation emancipating the slaves, certain that there could be “no deliverance from Divine judgments till slavery ceases in the land.” Lincoln assured them it was his “earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter,” and promised, “if I can learn what it is I will do it!” But how to learn was the difficulty. “These are not . . . the days of miracles,” Lincoln mused, “and I suppose . . . that I am not to expect a direct revelation.”

That same afternoon, General McClellan received a peculiar paper that had worked its way up the Union chain of command. Earlier in the morning, a corporal had found three cigars lying on the ground and wrapped in a paper labeled “Special Order No. 191.” It was the Confederates’ detailed battle plans. Known to history as the “Lost Orders,” historian James McPherson called it “a million to one” discovery. Alerted to his enemies’ plans, the habitually cautious McClellan uncharacteristically seized the initiative at Antietam, forcing Lee and the Confederate armies to retreat.

Five days later, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln called his Cabinet to announce his resolve to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He described it as keeping a “promise to myself,” and hesitating a little, “to my Maker.” Two members of the Cabinet recorded his explanation. Sometime in the uncertain days leading up to the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln had made “a vow, a covenant” that if the Confederate army “should be driven out of Maryland,” he would issue the proclamation.

“Waiting for the Hour” by William Tolman Carlton

As a young lawyer, Lincoln had praised the “Reign of Reason.” Now, as a wizened statesman, he self-consciously confessed that submitting the question to God “might be thought strange.” Nevertheless, he “was satisfied it was right, was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results.” Lincoln would later write, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” The result was profound: “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”

Redeeming the Nation

With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, a war to save the union also became a war to free the slaves. But it would take two more years of war to redeem the nation. From Gettysburg to Petersburg, North and South suffered human calamities previously unknown to Americans, who Lincoln had once called the Almighty’s “almost chosen people.” Union armies had fulfilled the oath in their marching hymn, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free!”

During the Constitutional Convention, as delegates debated how the fledgling nation should deal with slavery, George Mason warned, “By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.” By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln reached the same conclusion in his Second Inaugural Address.

To a nation eager for victory, Lincoln did not triumph the virtues of the North over the vices of the South, but rather preached repentance for their mutual “offense” of slavery. Though it was the nation’s fond hope and fervent prayer “that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln reverently admonished, “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.’”

Frederick Douglass called the speech “a sacred effort.” With it, “Lincoln endowed the Civil War with sacred meaning,” notes the PBS documentary God in America, “creating an American Scripture and articulating an American civil religion that still suffuses the idea of the nation with religious significance.”

Gettysburg cyclorama 2

A month later, on Palm Sunday, Lee’s Confederate army surrendered at Appomattox. And then, on Good Friday, Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theater. Frederick Douglass, at times a stubborn critic of Lincoln, was perhaps the first to eulogize Lincoln’s life as an offering for national sins. In spontaneous remarks the day of his death, Douglass reverently observed: “It may be in the inscrutable wisdom of Him who controls the destinies of Nations, that this drawing of the Nation’s most precious heart’s blood was necessary to bring us back to that equilibrium which we must maintain if the Republic was to be permanently redeemed.” The next day, Easter Sunday, and throughout the nation’s mourning, hundreds of ministers and preachers “interpreted the president’s death,” writes historian Ronald C. White, Jr., “as a sacrifice for the nation’s sins . . . the Civil War’s final casualty.”

last photo portrait of Lincoln

The last portrait taken of Lincoln.

When viewed out of context, the eulogy “Lincoln the Savior” might seem irreverent. But rather than prideful hubris boasting triumphant success, it is best understood as reverent homage magnifying humble sacrifice. Then and now, Lincoln’s admirers call him a “genius,” and his detractors brand him a “tyrant.” Both focus excessively on his personal prowess. But in honoring Lincoln as a national savior, we need not focus on the greatness of the man; instead, we can see the goodness of God in redeeming the nation.

On the eve of the Civil War, and on his way to assume the presidency of a divided nation, Lincoln paused in New Jersey, where he honored Washington and his heroic crossing of the Delaware to take Trenton at the end of the tumultuous and pivotal 1776. “I shall be most happy indeed,” Lincoln said of his role in the national crisis before him, “if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty.” Four years later, as Lincoln walked the streets of Richmond, the recently captured Confederate capital, an elderly slave ran to meet him and fell upon his knees. “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln kindly told him, “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”

When we remember “Lincoln the Savior,” it is God, not Lincoln who we should honor.