God Blessed America: Lincoln and Slavery
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12a).
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
In the struggle to end slavery in the 1800s, three men deserve honorable mention.
William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament, had a conversion experience, became an evangelical Christian, and led the fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire.
David Livingstone, Scottish missionary to Africa, fought till he died against the East Africa slave trade; he called slavery “the open sore of the world.”
Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth USA President, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln was born in a slave state, Kentucky, but his parents were strongly anti-slavery (G.91). Their beliefs rubbed off on their son. Emancipation became his great crusade. He said of slavery, “I may not see the end; but it will come” (S.2.373). He wrote, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel” (W.95).
Lincoln had little regard for Christian denominations that would not oppose an institution as obviously sinful as human slavery (T.100). Lincoln was amazed that people who claimed to be Christians could actually defend slavery.
It especially hurt him that the evil institution was often defended from the Bible (AG.261). Lincoln struggled with the Bible’s seeming indifference toward slavery (AG.314). On the issue of slavery, Lincoln mused, “I have sometimes thought that Moses didn’t quite understand the Lord along there” (S.5.232).
In a book written in 1857 by a minister to defend slavery, Lincoln wrote, “Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs, not because it is good for their own greedy maws (stomachs), but because it is good for the lambs!!!” (AG.314).
Lincoln mentioned he had been significantly influenced by reading a book on slavery by a Reverend Dr. Leonard Bacon of New Haven. “It had much to do in shaping my thinking on the subject of slavery. He is quite a man” (S.5.232).
In an attempt to refute pro-slavery theology, he wrote, “Give to him that is needy is the Christian rule of charity, but take from him that is needy is the rule of slavery” (W.171) A southern lady pleaded for pardon for her husband, saying he was a religious man. Lincoln granted the pardon, and then lectured her, saying “any religion that permits some men to eat their bread in the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven” (S.5.670).
Lincoln emphasized the same theme in a May 30, 1864, memo to the American Baptist Home Mission Society. He thanked them for adding to the almost unanimous support the Christian community was giving the country. He then added, “to read in the Bible, as the word of God himself, that ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,’ and to preach therefrom that, ‘In the sweat of other mans faces shalt thou eat bread,’ to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity. When brought to my final reckoning, may I have to answer for robbing no man of his goods; yet more tolerable even this, than for robbing one of himself” (B, VII, 368).
Lincoln opposed the pro-choice position, commonly called popular sovereignty, letting each state decide for itself about slavery, because it was built on the assumption if a state voted in favor of slavery that meant it could be morally right for one person to enslave another. To Lincoln, slavery’s morality was not subject to a vote of the people. It was absolutely wrong in and of itself.
This new, harsher stand against slavery was adopted by Lincoln in the 1850s. He began speaking of slavery as morally wrong, as an evil made so plain by our good Father in Heaven (AG.187). This developing conviction was leading Lincoln in the direction of believing in a God who not only existed, but who also cared about what happens in this world. Lincoln’s conviction that slavery was immoral implied he believed in a violation of an absolute standard, a personal God. Absolute right or absolute wrong implies an Absolute Arbiter.
When nominated to run for U. S. Senate in 1858, Lincoln began his acceptance speech by quoting Jesus, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The image was graphic. The USA was a house groaning under the load of a divisive slavery debate. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. 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” (G.198).
As President, Lincoln’s struggle was how to juggle his opposition to slavery with his oath to uphold the Constitution, which protected slavery. He was convinced the founding fathers meant for slavery to never expand out of the south, and to become extinct (W.95). The founding fathers were Lincoln’s patriarchs in what he called in 1838 a civil religion.
The Declaration of Independence became the basis of Lincoln’s arguments against slavery. He referred often to its unalienable rights clause. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The pursuit of happiness referred to the right everyone had to rise on the economic ladder.
Lincoln believed every American should have the right to rise in social standing, as he himself had done. Slavery stymied this dream by denying slaves the chance for self-improvement (W.89).
Lincoln loved the Biblical proverb, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). He felt the Declaration of Independence’s emphasis on liberty for all was the USA’s word fitly spoken, which had proved to be the country’s apple of gold (AG.196). The Constitution was but the picture of silver, later framed around the apple of gold to highlight its beauty (AG.197).
Lincoln felt the difference between the Declaration and the Constitution was the tension that always exists between idealism and reality. Lincoln explained his position by expounding Jesus’ command in the Bible to be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). “The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect. . . .He set that up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be nearly reached as we can. . . .Let us turn this government back into the channel in which the framers of the Constitution originally placed it” (AG.197). To Lincoln, this channel was one that would lead to the containment and ultimate extinction of slavery.
On July 22, 1862, Lincoln read to his Cabinet a draft of an Emancipation Proclamation he had written. He said he was not seeking their advice. He had decided to free slaves in rebellion states.
Secretary of State Seward suggested the Proclamation not be announced until after a major military success. This would keep it from looking like a gesture of desperation. Lincoln agreed and set the Proclamation aside.
On September 13 a delegation of Chicago ministers visited Lincoln and urged him to emancipate the slaves in mass. He said a proclamation of this nature would do little good at the current time, but promised, “Whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do.” Unknown to the preachers, he had recently made a secret promise to God (AG.341). Unknown to him, he would soon have to make good on his secret promise.
On September 17, the North won a major victory. Lee’s army, beaten in the Battle of Antietam, was forced to retreat from Maryland across the Potomac into Virginia. Espionage gave McClellan a huge advantage over Lee at Antietam. Lee’s battle plans had been found. Someone had carelessly used Lee’s orders to wrap three cigars. Unfortunately for Lee, the individual never lit and smoked them (G.481). Antietam yielded 23,000 casualties: 6,000 dead, 17,000 wounded. This is four times the number of Americans who died on D-Day in World War II (G.481).
On September 22, Lincoln brought an updated draft of the Proclamation to the Cabinet (T.38). He told them the time had come to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He said he had decided two weeks earlier to do this if Lee were driven out of Maryland. He said he had told no one of his promise. It was a commitment he made only “to myself,” and, at this point, Secretary of the Treasury Chase’s diary says Lincoln hesitated “to my Maker.” Secretary of the Navy Welles, in his diary, called Lincoln’s words a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of the divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation (AG. 341).
Lincoln had spiritually come a long way from his days of skepticism. Only once before, in his March 6, 1862, speech to Congress had he ever referred to God with the possessive My. He seemed to have crossed a line. He told Joseph Gillespie, Circumstances had happened during the war to induce him to a belief in special providences. Lincoln more bluntly told the Cabinet, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves” (AG.342).
A preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was published on September 23. Lincoln said the final, official Proclamation would be delayed till January 1, 1863, thereby giving states in rebellion a chance to preserve slavery in their territories by returning to the Union before the Proclamation’s issuance (G.482).
On the evening of September 23 Lincoln told well-wishers at the White House, “I can only trust in God I have made no mistake” (G.482).
Chase suggested an invocation should be added to the Proclamation’s final edit. Lincoln agreed to the wording. “Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
As 1863 drew near, some thought Lincoln had been bluffing, but he never entertained even the slightest notion of not signing the Proclamation.
On New Year’s Day, Robert Todd Lincoln said his mother asked his dad, “Well, what do you intend to do?” The President looked up toward Heaven and replied, “I am under orders, I cannot do otherwise” (AG.345).
Lincoln spent New Year’s morning in three hours of formal handshaking with diplomats and several hundred people. He later went to his office, where Seward brought the final copy. The three hours of handshaking was causing his hand to tremble. He later recalled, “I could not for a moment control my arm” (AG.345).
Lincoln put the pen down to rest his hand a while, and said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, He hesitated.”
After a few minutes, Lincoln picked up his pen (G.499), and wrote, as he rarely did, his full name, Abraham Lincoln (AG.345).
Across town, when naval guns boomed out the news, a mass meeting of African-Americans began singing, “I’m a Free Man Now, Jesus Christ Made Me Free” (AG.345). Lincoln would henceforth be called the Emancipator.
When Sojourner Truth visited Lincoln October 29, 1864, he showed her the Bible a Baltimore delegation had brought him. The plate on the Bible read: “To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, the friend of Universal Freedom. From the loyal colored people of Baltimore, as a token of respect and gratitude. Baltimore, July 4, 1864” ( S.5.402). She commented on its beauty, and noted the irony of it having been given to the Head of a government that had sanctioned laws that would not let people learn enough to enable them to read this Book. When Lincoln wrote her a personal note, she commented it was written by the same hand that signed the death warrant of slavery.
Near the end of the war, when Lincoln entered Richmond, black dock workers recognized him first, and began crowding around, hailing him as their messiah. They attempted to break through his military escort, trying to touch his hands and his feet. “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln said. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him” (AG.424).
When a slave-born woman thanked him for the gift of freedom, Lincoln replied, “You must not give me the praise. It belongs to God” (S.5.402).
As hostilities were ending, questions were raised about the legitimacy of the Emancipation Proclamation after the war. Was it valid only as a war measure? Would slavery be restored after the war? Lincoln was adamant. “While I remain in my present position, I shall not attempt to retract or modify the Emancipation Proclamation, nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress. If the people should, by whatever mode or means, make it an executive duty to re-enslave such persons, another, and not I, must be their instrument to perform it” (S.5.650).
Lincoln, sensing the significant role he played, said, “It is a momentous thing to be the instrument, under Providence, of the liberation of a race” (T.26).
Freeman Morse, American consul at London, said the Emancipation Proclamation was slavery’s epitaph written by the finger of God on the heart of the American President (S.4.519).