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Politics and religion intertwine in interesting and troubling ways. As a historical figure, I’ve always found Abraham Lincoln a fascinating study in politics and religion.

Lincoln makes use of religious language in his public addresses and many believe him to have been a man of deep faith. I think Lincoln was complicated and complex (as most of us are). While much has been written about Lincoln, I find that he is difficult to nail down on his faith. How do we know if someone is a Christian, exactly? It is quite difficult to ascertain who is a Christian in the present, let alone the past. While church membership or referencing God directly may be knee-jerk answers to who fits the definition of Christian, I think most of us also know people who mention God and are members of a church but probably aren’t what we would consider a Christian. It’s complex, isn’t it? Especially when you add the nuance of growth, change, mistakes, errors, perspectives, context, and immaturity in faith. Add another layer of complexity when the person has lived in a different era than ourselves and the questions continue to pile up.

However, despite the difficulties in knowing Lincoln’s heart and soul, I have always been drawn to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. The Civil War was essentially over and Lincoln had been re-elected by the eligible voters in non-seceded states. While I still don’t know for certain everything that Lincoln specifically believed, I find the theology of this 2nd inaugural address compelling.

What do you think of this address as an example of religion and politics? 

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this 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, 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.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. 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, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? 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.”

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.

This final paragraph is astonishing in that Lincoln did not gloat or claim victory. Even after he laid out the causes of the war, Lincoln still managed to show that both sides believed they were right, both sides fought a way to claim that ‘rightness’ and then he calls the nation to “malice toward none” and “charity for all” and to care for each other and live in peace. That surely sounds a lot like the gospel to me.

It sounds even more like the gospel when I consider the reality of living with malice toward none (!) and with charity for all, caring for our enemies and living in peace.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Marty Wondaal says:


  • Fred Mueller says:

    Edward Tanjore Corwin quoted these words of Lincoln at the Hillsborough Reformed Church at Millstone (NJ) the Sunday after Lincoln’ assassination 16, 1865): “When I left Springfield, I said to my fellow-citizens, ‘Pray for me;’ but I was not then a Christian. When my child died, soon after I entered upon my office, my heart was still rebellious against God. I was not then a Christian. But when I walked the battle-field of Gettysburg, and saw the wounded and the dying, and felt, by that victory, our cause was saved, I then and there resolved, and gave my heart to Jesus. I do love Jesus(these four words are in italics).”

    Corwin writes of Lincoln, “The departed President’s fault, if such it might be called, was his extreme leniency, his kindness of heart.” Further, “Indeed many good men feared that he might yet endanger the Republic by his extreme clemency; that the great cause of liberty was in peril from very kindness to his foes.”

    Incidentally, the volume from which this sermon is taken, Lincolniana, holds three dozen eulogies, addresses and sermons about Abraham Lincoln. Our own Rev. Corwin by a very big margin is the absolute best of them all.

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