In 1863 the Confederate Army was “flushed with victory.” Throughout the summer of that year, the Union had been taking brutal losses. The cost in human lives was high. “Sometimes it looked,” Elizabeth Keckley later recalled, “as if the proud flag of the Union, the glorious old Stars and Stripes, must yield half its nationality to the tri-barred flag that floated grandly over long columns of gray.” These were our nation’s darkest days.
For the man leading the Union, they were just as dark. The previous year, he had lost his beloved son to illness. Now, the potential unraveling of the Union under his administration, with hundreds of thousands of lives already lost, weighed heavily on President Abraham Lincoln, inducing an exhaustion that he could feel in his bones. His eyes were hollowed out, wrinkles lining his face. “These were sad, anxious days to Mr. Lincoln,” Ms. Keckley wrote, “and those who saw the man in privacy only could tell how much he suffered.”
Abraham Lincoln had grown up reading the King James Bible from an early age, but already the war had forced him to reconsider some of his most deeply held beliefs.
What role does religion have to play for a leader facing his darkest hours? In the midst of civil war, in the valley of despair, Mr. Lincoln grappled with this question. He had grown up reading the King James Bible from an early age, but already the war had forced him to reconsider some of his most deeply held beliefs. His reading of the Book of Job—the unusual story of a man from whom God takes everything, who confronts his Creator defiantly, and then appears to submit—illustrates many of these beliefs. Above all a realist, Lincoln struggled mightily to reconcile his experience of the world around him and the flawed nature of humanity with a passionate, if unorthodox, relationship with his religion.
For someone who has had most every scrap of his writing preserved, personal reflection at length from Lincoln can be hard to come by. Most of what we have are speeches, as well as recollections from his contemporaries. But these are not always reliable; many were recorded only years after the fact by individuals with varying personal and political agendas.
‘It Is Dark, Dark Everywhere.’
One of the most revealing insights into Lincoln’s private thoughts—and in particular, his private thoughts on religion, in an unusually unguarded moment—comes from Elizabeth Keckley and her memoirs. She was a remarkable woman who had been born a slave, bought her freedom and, after moving to the nation’s capital, became a handmaid and close confidante of the first lady, as well as a civic leader in her own community.
One day, Ms. Keckley recalled, she was measuring a dress on Mary Lincoln. The president walked into the room. He looked exhausted and worn out, “his step...slow and heavy, and his face sad.” “Like a tired child,” Mr. Lincoln threw his huge frame onto a sofa in the room, his long legs stretched out, covering his eyes with his hands. He “was a complete picture of dejection,” she recalled.
“Where have you been, father?” Mary Lincoln asked him.
“To the War Department.”
Any news?” she asked.
“Yes, plenty of news, but no good news. It is dark, dark everywhere.”
“Everywhere” was right—he could have been referring at once to the war effort, his administration in the nation’s capital and his own state of mind. Mr. Lincoln, still lying on the sofa, “reached forth one of his long arms,” taking a small Bible from a stand by the head of the sofa. He opened up the book and, Ms. Keckley recalled, “soon was absorbed in reading.”
Ms. Keckley went back to her work dressing the first lady, both women leaving the president to his reading. After a quarter of an hour had gone by, Ms. Keckley glanced back at the president, lying on the sofa with his Bible. “The face of the President,” she thought, “seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope. The change was so marked that I could not but wonder at it, and wonder led to the desire to know what book of the Bible afforded so much comfort to the reader.”
Abraham Lincoln’s views on religion were anything but orthodox or traditional.
Finding Comfort in an Unlikely Place
Her curiosity got the best of her. Making an excuse that she was searching for a missing article of clothing, Ms. Keckley discretely walked across the room. Passing by the head of the sofa, she glanced up to see what Mr. Lincoln was reading. It was the Book of Job—the story of a man Ms. Keckley referred to as “the divine comforter.” “He read with Christian eagerness,” she thought, “and the courage and hope that he derived from the inspired pages made him a new man.”
Ms. Keckley’s description of the Book of Job reflected a fairly orthodox and mainstream understanding of the biblical work. “Early Christian sources immortalized the patient Job of the prologue, seeing in him...a prefiguration of Jesus, who, though innocent, suffered greatly and ultimately became a paragon of righteousness and model of divine blessing,” writes the biblical scholar Edward Greenstein. “This traditional view of the patient Job, as it is stated in the New Testament...is familiar to nearly everyone,” writes Marvin H. Pope.
Yet Mr. Lincoln’s views on religion were anything but orthodox or traditional. In fact, Ms. Keckley’s description of the president reading “with Christian eagerness” is deeply ironic; for earlier in his life, his nascent political career had nearly ended before it began because of a question over his religious beliefs—and, in particular, his alleged lack of faith in Christ.
Lincoln was a deeply calculating, political and ambitious man. William Herndon, Lincoln’s sometime law partner and close associate, once wrote, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” He was someone who “was always calculating, and always planning ahead.”
But from a young age, Mr. Lincoln’s burning ambition was suffused with a sense of calling, of some higher purpose. According to his friend O. H. Browning, “Mr. Lincoln believed that there was a predestined work for him in the world…. While I think he was a man of very strong ambition, I think it had its origin in this sentiment, that he was destined for something nobler than he was for the time engaged in.” He believed that God had a role for him to play.
William Herndon, Lincoln’s sometime law partner and close associate, once wrote, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”
Moments of Doubt
But that role was put in question when the controversy over those religious beliefs was raised in 1846, in a race for the House of Representatives. His opponent was Peter Cartwright, a famed Methodist preacher. He raised questions about a rumor that had plagued Mr. Lincoln—of the existence of a “little black book” which contained scandalously heretical beliefs. According to a contemporary, Mr. Lincoln had “prepared an extensive essay, called by many a book, in which he made an argument against Christianity, striving to prove that the Bible was not inspired, and therefore not God's revelation, and that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God.”
But the book was promptly destroyed by his friends, and with that, “Lincoln's political future was secured”—until Mr. Cartwright resurfaced the rumors years later.
Fascinatingly, in a development that has been little appreciated or analyzed by historians, Mr. Lincoln then pulled a classic politician’s trick in response to Mr. Cartwright’s attacks. He put forth his own response—then proceeded to dodge and weave, defending himself without actually denying the truth of the claims, yet all the while giving casual readers the impression of doing just that. In fact, Mr. Herndon, his close associate, later recalled that Mr. Lincoln “never denied the charge,” and claimed that he “would die first.” Eight days after winning the election, Mr. Lincoln further circulated his defense for publication, along with yet another explanatory letter—perhaps seeking to inoculate himself against future attacks in what he hoped would be a long and fruitful political career.
While whispers of the allegations would occasionally turn up, Mr. Lincoln’s efforts to put the affair behind him were for the most part successful—except among some members of the clergy. According to Mr. Herndon, during Mr. Lincoln’s first presidential campaign, all but one of his town’s clergymen opposed his candidacy. At that time, Mr. Lincoln “commented bitterly on the attitude of the preachers and many of their followers, who, pretending to be believers in the Bible and God-fearing Christians, yet by their votes demonstrated that they cared not whether slavery was voted up or down.” He then made a remarkable statement: “God cares and humanity cares, and if they do not they surely have not read their Bible aright.” He hated above all those hypocrites who claimed to know God’s will, yet took no side in the great moral battle against slavery.
Lincoln hated above all those hypocrites who claimed to know God’s will, yet took no side in the great moral battle against slavery.
A Sense of Mission
Mr. Lincoln’s view of God, then, was not based in the “Christian” framework within which most of his contemporaries would have read Job. Rather, his view fit squarely within the paradigm of the Old Testament God who confronts Job. Mr. Lincoln in fact never professed allegiance to a particular church or creed, making the Book of Job, with its unorthodox view of God, a fitting choice for him to reflect on. And as demonstrated by the episode with Mr. Cartwright earlier in his career, there is no indication anywhere in Lincoln’s own extensive writings that he was ever a Christian.
The Book of Job has puzzled biblical scholars for years; Robert Alter called it “in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible.” If Elizabeth Keckley was correct and Mr. Lincoln was indeed comforted by it, he found that comfort in what is to most readers a deeply discomfiting book, raising difficult questions about humanity’s relationship to God. By the end, Job has a newfound resolution that is, paradoxically, born out of resignation and submission before the awful and awe-inspiring power and glory of God. Job regains a sense of his own agency only when he sees that he has none; no matter what he does, he is subordinate to God’s will.
The Book of Job has puzzled biblical scholars for years; Robert Alter called it “in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible.”
By the beginning of the war, Mr. Lincoln’s sense of mission—that idea that he had a role to play within God’s plan—had deepened, as had his faith that it was impossible for any mortal to truly know just what that plan was. He was deeply aware of the bitter irony of waging a war for the soul of the nation, shedding blood and turning brother against brother to preserve the Union, with both combatants all the while claiming to have God on their side. In Mr. Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will,” a private note preserved for posterity by his secretary, he wrote:
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong…. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
In this latter part of his life, religion did not make Mr. Lincoln feel that he had all the answers. This did not mean that he lacked agency; rather, the realization that God had a plan for him that was beyond his knowledge freed him up to act decisively during a critical moment for the war effort. This subtle evolution in his religious beliefs was one of the most important aspects of his growth as a commander in chief. He was, as Ms. Keckley put it, made “a new man” during this period, and would soon go on to win a decisive series of battles.
The realization that God had a plan for him that was beyond his knowledge freed Lincoln up to act decisively during a critical moment for the war effort.
There is more indirect evidence beyond the episode Ms. Keckley recounts that Mr. Lincoln took the Book of Job to heart. Consider this passage from his Second Inaugural Address—one of his greatest speeches, given in March of 1865, toward the end of his life. Of the two sides in the war, Lincoln said, “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.” In his lament before God, Job says, “neither had I rest, neither was I quiet: Yet trouble came. ” The two sentences have remarkably similar structure and phrasing; the Second Inaugural rings out with the rich cadence of the King James Bible.
Yet Mr. Lincoln’s sentence—“and the war came”—is, unlike Job’s, no indictment of God. Job’s statement is a complaint, railing against an injustice after he has had everything taken from him. But Job’s statement would be equally true by the end of the book: “Yet trouble came.” What changes over the course of the book is Job’s perspective. He accepts his powerlessness in the face of the awesomeness of God’s power. It is this latter perspective of Job’s that Mr. Lincoln represents in his Second Inaugural. His statement—“and the war came”—carries an air of resignation. Yet this resignation brings with it a sense of peace.
In the midst of his lament, Job dreams of a place where “the weary be at rest.” But this wish is misguided because he wants God simply to offer relief from his troubles. But relief does not, cannot come that easily. Job fundamentally does not understand at the beginning that doing good works is no guarantee of being free from trouble. By the end, however, he learns that missteps and trouble can come to anyone, even the most faithful. So be it.
In the end, submitting before the will of God, in all its power and mystery, Job is at peace. For Lincoln, that wisdom was hard-earned, coming in the midst of one of the most difficult periods of his life and the nation’s history. But in one brief moment of respite in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln too found peace.