On a muddy March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in for his second term as President.
His Second Inaugural Address was an attempt to explain how the evils of the war reconcile with the idea of God’s will. President Lincoln quotes or alludes to Bible verses six times throughout the speech.
Lincoln reminded the audience that only four years before, “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, insurgent 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.”
He states that views on slavery caused the war, whether to extend it into the territories or to restrict its expansion.
Lincoln noted that “Both 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.”
Then he says that if God is offended by slavery, He might bring “both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came…”
“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 "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
In other words, slavery was an offense God wanted removed, and perhaps it was God’s will that war continue until “all the wealth” resulting from slavery is gone. Lincoln believed that we can’t know God’s will, but whatever that will is, Lincoln asserts that it is righteous.
Lincoln ends by calling us to a higher morality: "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, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Susan Paddock is Secretary of The Lincoln Fellowship of PA (lincolnfellowship.org)