The Repentance of Lincoln

Five Hundred Years ago, on January 1st, 1863, the 16th President of the United States of America, President Abraham Lincoln, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves in the Confederacy were “forever free.” While much can be said about the way Christian salvation elucidates the notion of emancipation, there is also a valuable lesson from the example of Lincoln himself concerning his repentance. The following reflection illustrates how the President demonstrated this virtue.

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Abraham Lincoln is best known as commander-in-chief of the Union Army, which fought to preserve the nation and to free the slaves. But on March 30, 1863, he served more conspicuously as “repenter-in-chief,” for it was then that he signed a Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day for “National prayer and humiliation.” His focus was the shame of slavery.

This might seem a curious activity for a nation whose sons were dying on the field of battle for the cause of freedom, but Lincoln knew that the North had been complicit in slavery. In the decades preceding the Civil War, Congress had admitted slave and free states in pairs, so as to keep a balance of interests, even though one of the interests was evil. In 1854, the Supreme Court had handed down the Dred Scott decision, declaring a runaway slave to be property.

Lincoln himself had been less than stalwart on the issue. To be sure, he found slavery to be repugnant and had denounced it on many occasions, as he did during his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas. But in his First Inaugural Address(March 4, 1861), Lincoln compromised: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

A month later, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, and the War Between the States was on. By March of 1863, both sides to the conflict had been bloodied, with deaths in the thousands. Few would have blamed the president had he turned to Psalm 35 (“May they be like chaff before the wind. . . .”) and Psalm 58 (“Break the teeth in their mouths, O God. . . .”) But instead of condemning the enemy, he led the Union to consider its own culpability.

He issued the 1863 proclamation (echoing sentiments expressed in an 1861 proclamation) in hopes that “the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins . . .” The document, originally submitted to the Senate by James Harlan of Iowa, used blunt biblical language. (Today leaders are inclined to say “Mistakes were made.”)

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God . . .

Later that year, employing similar language, the president issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, calling the nation’s blessings, “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” He recommended that the citizens join him in “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”

This was the Lincoln who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) and whose Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865) was strikingly different from the first one. In this latter message, he acknowledged that before the Civil War, an eighth of the American population “were colored slaves” and “all knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” He prayed that the “scourge of war may speedily pass away.”

Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’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 response to a citizen’s kind words regarding the address, Lincoln penned the following:

Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told, and, as whatever of humiliation there is in it falls mostly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.1

A popular, contemporary school of leadership counsels men and women, “Never let them see you sweat (or flinch or blink).” Perhaps this was Lincoln’s policy in the face of human opposition, but it was manifestly not his policy toward God. Indeed, he prostrated himself before the Lord, imploring mercy, and it was in these moments that his leadership shone most brightly.

Footnotes:

1 Abraham Lincoln, "Letter to Thurlow Weed," in The Living Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle and Earl Schenck Miers (1995; republished, New York: Barnes and Nobles Books, 1992), 640.

HT: Kairos Journal

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