Reviewing And There Was Light, Jon Meachem’s new biography of the sixteenth president, Andrew F. Lang examines the unique political theology that animated so much of Lincoln’s thinking. Nowhere is this theology more apparent than in Lincoln’s second inaugural address:
On that day in March 1865, Lincoln asked his fellow citizens to consider why God wrung American blood to affect His holy will in accounting for the nation’s collective sin of slavery. His query embodied a lifetime of introspection into the mysteries of providence, the consequence of time, and the enduring battle between good and evil.
As a young man, Lincoln struggled with questions of divine will. He nevertheless sensed the world gripped in a supernatural struggle between virtue and malice. To what extent did God mediate this eternal dispute? Lincoln did not know. But as he matured, particularly when he engaged in the national debates over slavery during the 1850s, Lincoln came to see history not as an arbitrary or random process. The world was rather “defined by a moral drama” in which God furnished His people with clues and a compassionate soul to discern His will. When God’s children ignored or cursed His holy designs, they confronted an inevitable punishment foretold in the Old Testament. For Lincoln, perpetuating American slavery beckoned the Lord’s wrath.
Meacham thrives in surveying Lincoln’s swift evolution into seeing the Civil War not merely as a political crisis, but as a spiritual battle that engulfed Americans and their divine Maker. How did Lincoln arrive at this mystic proposition? He committed his presidency to untangling why God acted “in a specific place and a specific time—in the United States of America in the mid-19th-century” to impart a prophetic message about the dignity of all individuals.