God Blessed America:
Lincoln And America’s Most Famous Sermon
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12a)
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
As Lincoln rose to deliver his second inaugural address, a rainy, stormy morning turned to bright sunshine. This light allowed a good photo to be taken. It is the only known picture of Lincoln with his assassin (top row, second column from right, man with no hat). Six weeks later their story climaxed tragically.
Lincoln’s speech has remained our nation’s most memorable inaugural address. Lasting less than ten minutes, it was the second shortest inaugural address in history. Only Washington’s second inaugural was shorter. Lincoln explained the brevity of his remarks by saying less needed to be said than in his first inaugural, when the possibility of war was looming over the country.
“Four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war – seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
Fredrick Douglass said dead silence fell over the crowd as they listened to Lincoln speak. Douglass felt this was the case because it was more a sermon than a political oration. He categorized the speech correctly. Lincoln’s second inaugural address can safely be called the most famous sermon in USA history.
In 703 words, Lincoln mentioned God 14 times, quoted four Bible verses, and spoke of prayer three times. Before Lincoln, 14 Presidents had delivered a total of 18 inaugural addresses. Each referred to God, almost always in the last paragraph. The Bible had been quoted only once, by John Quincy Adams.
Lincoln’s second inaugural was not a victory speech or a scathing rebuke against the slave owners. He was instead trying to make sense of the war, to analyze it from both sides of the conflict. “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph.”
Lincoln then focused on the religious, “Both read the same Bible.” The Civil War’s most preserved memorabilia is Bibles. Soldiers, requiring small Bibles so as to not be too burdened down by carrying them, carried King James Version pocket New Testaments, with Psalms and Proverbs included.
The American Bible Society in New York City gave every Civil War soldier a Bible. Sixteen power presses published over 5 million Bibles for 3.75 million soldiers. The Bibles were made available to Confederates under flags of truce.
By comparison, 8.3 million World War II soldiers received 7.4 million New Testaments from the American Bible Society, plus 4 million from the Gideons. I asked my World War II Marine veteran neighbor, Mitch Jones, if I could borrow his World War II Testament to show you the size of one. He lost this Bible soon after the war. A friend saw it at a garage sale 45 years later, saw Mitch’s name in it, bought it for a quarter, and sent it to him.
These Bibles were a huge source of blessing and comfort for the soldiers. Mitch carried his for four years through all his engagements in the South Pacific.
It would be hard to overstate how important the Bible was to nineteenth century USA Americans, who commonly accepted it as God’s Word. The Civil War armies are generally conceded to have been the most religious in USA history.
Lincoln, the commander-in-chief, loved the Bible. In a public demonstration of his high regard for the Bible, Lincoln, after taking the oath of office a second time, ended with “So help me God,” and bent forward to reverently kiss the Bible.
Throughout his life, he was in the habit of memorizing large portions of the Bible, including whole chapters. Lincoln often read the Bible in the White House, usually right before or after lunch. His favorite book was Psalms. He claimed, “I find in them something for every day of the week.”
It would be good if we regained a deeper appreciation for the Bible. Other nations seem to be learning truths our country has forgot. Jerry Rankin, President of our Southern Baptist International Mission Board, in his book on our beloved missionary hero Lottie Moon, tells of a Chinese Pastor he heard preach. As the Pastor told in his sermon of how his government for years forbade him to have a Bible, he paused in his message, held up his copy of Scripture, and kissed it.
The Bible, God’s gift to us, is essential to all Godliness. The World War II New Testament had a foreword from President Roosevelt “Commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces.” He said people “have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel, and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength.” We need the Bible and should value it. Without it, saints shrivel, and churches fade into oblivion, as liberal Protestantism has proved.
From the beginning, God has ruled His people by revealing and preserving His will on the printed page. In the Bible, God articulates His will for us. Once we know God’s will, we must obey God’s will. This doing of God’s will, the most important activity in the world, can be difficult to perform.
Christians have often misinterpreted Scripture. We’ve been wrong, as in the Inquisition, Salem Witch trials, and racism, in addition to other issues. My great great grandfather is credited with being the strong Patriarch who set our family on its uninterrupted century-plus course of service to God. He fought for the South. He believed the Bible. He believed in slavery. He was wrong.
The Bible’s proper use is found when the reader has an inner dependence on God. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible must also be allowed to illuminate its readers. Be humble as we attempt to interpret the Bible.
Lincoln was amazed that two opposite views could be held by groups reading the same Holy Book. “They read the same Bible,” Lincoln said. He then added what was to him another mystifying fact, “And pray to the same God.”
Before giving the Lord’s Prayer, our Master said, “When” you pray, not if, you pray. To be without prayer is to be without spiritual life. As all people breathe, all Christians pray – no breath, no person; no prayer, no Christian.
Thus, Bible-driven people on both sides of the Civil War prayed. Since they read the same Bible, they prayed to the same God. Millions of prayers were wrong. Both sides could have erred, but both sides could not be right. What went haywire? How could so many have been wrong in their prayers?
Their disagreement reminds us prayer is so essential to our spiritual success that Satan takes extra pains to attack it. Few things make the foul fiend happier than to come between God and a saint who is in prayer. As the prayers offered in the Civil War prove, sin can defile our devotions while we are praying.
One would think prayer is always a safe spiritual haven to retreat into, but not so. Jesus’ two most intense spiritual struggles occurred when He was in prayer. During His forty days in the wilderness, and His agony in Gethsemane Garden, His trauma was so severe that angels came to comfort Him.
In these two most intimate times of prayer, Satan presented his strongest temptations to Jesus. Nothing is too sacred for Satan to attack. In fact, the holier an activity is, the more he loves to spoil it and make it foul.
How is it possible for Satan to hamstring us in our most sacred moments, to put sin in our prayers? Lloyd-Jones, extremely helpful here, advises us not to be surprised when sin follows us into the presence of God, for sin originated there.
It is a staggering truth. Sin began in Heaven, in God’s presence. One who stood as close to God as I stand to this pulpit, conceived the first plot against the Holy One. Lucifer, a bright shining angel, one of the innermost circle, had thousands of times bowed, saying, “Honor, praise, glory,” yet birthed sin in Heaven.
Be not surprised sin can enter heaven again by means of our prayers. Sin is so much a part of our nature that even when engaged in the holiest activity, we have to do battle against it.
Kneeling to pray does not automatically drive sin away. We must rather acknowledge its presence, and repent of it. Next time we pray, we have to repeat this process. Otherwise, sin insipidly overtakes even our prayers.
In the Civil War, both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Yet millions were desperately wrong. This reminds us nothing mechanical or outward is in and of itself a spiritual cure-all.
Christians do not believe in magic. All our outward disciplines can help us only to the extent they trigger a proper spiritual response within us. In all our Bible reading and prayer, make sure we are experiencing God, primarily wanting to know and do His will, rather than demanding Him to hear and do our will.