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Pilgrim politician

"Pilgrim politician" Continued...

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Lincoln's new belief in God contributed to a policy decision: In September 1862 after Union forces stopped the Confederates at Antietam, he read the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, stating (according to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles), "God has declared this question in favor of the slaves."

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase recorded Lincoln's further explanation: "I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker," that the proclamation would follow a Union victory. Newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Christian Advocate rejoiced as Lincoln broke down the separation of church and army: God "will now fight for the nation as He has not yet fought for it."

If so, it seemed just in time. As Lincoln announced the Proclamation, Washington was a city of hospitals, over 50 temporary ones. Almost 20 more stood in and near Alexandria, across the river. When Lincoln visited the injured, gaping wounds assaulted his eyes and groaning resounded in his ears. Whenever Congress was not in session the Capitol itself became a hospital, with 2,000 cots set up in the rotunda, legislative chambers, and hallways. Most deaths occurred on the battlefield, but those who died in the hospitals, typically 50 per day, cost the army $4.99 per soldier (pine coffin, transport to the cemetery, and burial all included).

The fatalities and injuries led Lincoln to God; he had nowhere else to go. In October 1862, he told visitors, "We cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it." Calling the war "a fiery trial" and himself "a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father," Lincoln said, "I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to His will, and that it might be so, I have sought His aid."

Some insisted that the Republican Party was doing God's will; Sen. Henry Wilson said the party was "created by no man" but "brought into being by Almighty God himself." An Illinois Christian leader said that a Democratic triumph in the 1862 congressional elections would force God's "chastising hand."

Lincoln, though, did not claim that God is a Republican. In 1863 his "Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day" asserted, "We know that, by Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world." He called the war "a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people."

Furthermore, Lincoln's proclamation emphasized how Americans had taken for granted God's kindness: "We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own." That proclamation applied the Old Testament pattern-God's faithfulness, man's forgetfulness, God's discipline-to a new people who had become "too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us."

Lincoln, who had questioned prayer previously and not even affirmed it under earlier political pressure, was becoming a praying man. He told one general that as reports came in from Gettysburg during the first two days of fighting, "when everyone seemed panic-stricken," he "got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed. . . . Soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into His own hands."

Increasingly he relied on the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Once Pastor Gurley announced at Sunday morning service that "religious services would be suspended until further notice as the church was needed as a hospital." Officials had already made plans and stacked supplies outside the building, but Lincoln stood up-he did that often, believing that all prayers should be made standing up-and announced, "Dr. Gurley, this action was taken without my consent, and I hereby countermand the order. The churches are needed as never before for divine services."

Lincoln also needed the Bible. By 1864 he was even recommending Scripture reading to Joshua Speed, his fellow skeptic from Springfield days. When Speed said he was surprised to see Lincoln reading a Bible, Lincoln earnestly told him, "Take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man." When the Committee of Colored People in 1864 gave Lincoln a Bible, he responded, "But for this book we could not know right from wrong."

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