“If I were not sustained by the prayers of God’s people I could not endure this constant pressure. I should give up hoping for success.”
It was in the midst of his despondency that Lincoln, a man who had never formally joined a church and who was rumored to have once eschewed Scripture (Mansfield, 2012 & Herndon, 1888), began to look increasingly to the Bible as a source of comfort. Lincoln was believed to have found solace in Phineas D. Gurley’s funeral sermon for Willie and reportedly asked for his own copy (PBS, n. d.) as he grappled with his grief. In part, it read:
…Only let us acknowledge His hand, and hear His voice, and inquire after His will, and seek His holy spirit as our counsellor and guide, and all, in the end, will be well. In His light shall we see light; by His grace our sorrows will be sanctified — they will be made a blessing to our souls — and by and by we shall have occasion to say, with blended gratitude and rejoicing, ‘It is good for us that we have been afflicted.’ (Gurley, 1862)
While powerless over tragedy as Willie’s father, Lincoln began to search for divine will in his role as the nation’s Father Abraham. Southern victories and inept military leadership on the part of his generals led him to question, privately at first, whether the war had a higher purpose. Precisely when Lincoln decided to emancipate slaves in the Confederacy remains unknown (Foner, 2010 and Carwardine, 2006), but it was on July 22, 1862 that Lincoln informed his Cabinet that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation. According to Richard Carwardine (2006), he took the advice of Secretary of State Seward and decided to wait for a military victory before he issued the document. Lincoln knew this might take a long time—but exactly how long he did not know.
F. B. Carpenter’s portrait of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation (Carpenter, 1866)
In the interim, Lincoln did a lot of reflecting on God’s purpose in the war and his role in it. It is believed that in early September 1862, Lincoln privately penned his “Meditation on the Divine Will.” Discovered after his death, this undated rumination showed how deeply Lincoln considered the question of what God wanted. Lincoln wrote, in part: “God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. 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.” In other words, Lincoln did not claim to be on God’s side, but did endeavor to see if he could determine God’s purpose in the war while “the contest proceeds” (Lincoln, 1862).
Lincoln’s religious skepticism (Herndon, 1888), coupled with his earnest desire to determine God’s will, left him with very little patience for those who claimed with authority that God was on their side. After all, both the Union and Confederacy believed they were divinely inspired (Foner, 2010) and to paraphrase Lincoln, God cannot be for and against the same thing simultaneously. Around the same time he penned “Meditation on the Divine Will”, Lincoln addressed a group of Chicago Christians who presented a memorial in favor of emancipation:
I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!
Exasperated, Lincoln went on to explain to the Chicago delegation that he could not solely rely on divine inspiration, but had to continue to think and act rationally. He said, “These are not… the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right” (Lincoln, 1862, Sept. 13).
Of course, by the time Lincoln communicated with the Chicago Christians in September 1862, Lincoln had already decided he would issue a proclamation of emancipation; it was just a question of when. According to Allen C. Guelzo (2005), Lincoln asked God to give him a sign that the time had come to announce his decision. It came at Antietam, a bloody and costly Union victory where Lee’s forces were driven out of Maryland. A few days after the battle, Lincoln assembled his Cabinet and told them of his decision. Salmon Chase later recalled that Lincoln’s said:
When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, and Pennsylvania is no longer in danger of invasion, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little)—to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise. I have got you together to hear what I have written down. I do not wish your advice about the main matter—for that I have determined for myself (Chase, 1903).
While Lincoln was resolute in his decision, he realized that it might come at a price: Midterm elections were in November 1862 and things did not look good for the President and his Republican Party (Carwardine, 2006).
In this context—the chaotic, tragic intersection of personal, military, and political turmoil—Lincoln first met Eliza P. Gurney on October 26, 1862 while she visited the White House as the head of a small delegation of Quakers. Gurney began her meeting with him with a prayer later recalled by a colleague:
I can truly say it is not from any motive of idle curiosity that I have requested this interview. I come in the love of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, – that blessed gospel which breathes glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good will to men. In common with the members of my own Society, – may I not say in common with every true-hearted citizen of the United States? – my spirit has been introduced into near sympathy with our Chief Magistrate in the heavy weight of responsibility that rests upon him; believing, as I do, that in the faithful discharge of his various and important duties he does endeavor to preserve a conscience void of offense toward God and man (Mott, ed., 1884).
The fact that Gurney met with the busy, beleaguered wartime President for a visit was not unusual; despite the obvious demands on the President’s time, Lincoln made it a priority to regularly have what he called “public opinion baths” (Carwardine, 2006). What was noteworthy, though, about Lincoln’s meeting with Gurney and the Quakers was the extent to which Lincoln was sincerely moved by her earnest prayer for him. She acknowledged the burden he was under as President, said she prayed for him without any ulterior motives, and expressed her support for his decision on emancipation.
The encounter with Gurney made a lasting impression on Lincoln that would result in a correspondence between the two for the next two years. The first letter from Lincoln to Gurney, written the same day they met, is the focus of this close reading. The full text of the letter is as follows:
I am glad of this interview, and glad to know that I have your sympathy and prayers. We are indeed going through a great trial – a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, 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 – but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it (Lincoln, 1862, Oct. 26).
In this letter, Lincoln acknowledged that he took comfort in the Quakers’ prayers for him—a remarkable contrast to the exhausted tone that had been evident in his communication with the Chicago Christians. Notable in this letter also was his description of the Civil War as a “fiery trial”, wording that came from the Bible. Lincoln would use this phrase again later in his annual address to Congress in December 1862, when he stated that, “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation” (Lincoln, 1862, Dec. 1).
Lincoln also discussed in his first letter to Gurney his understanding of God’s will—an understanding he acknowledged as limited—and he tried to articulate where he fit in as part of God’s master plan. In a typically understated fashion, he described his role as “the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed.” Evocative of the “Meditation on the Divine Will”, believed to have been written almost two months earlier, Lincoln was clearly trying to figure out not only why the war happened, but why it persisted 18 months after Fort Sumter. He stated that, “we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own” but allowed that this purpose was “mysterious and unknown.”
Finally, in this letter, Lincoln discussed working earnestly with a limited vision to see God’s will, stating that he was “…endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me.” His use of an “obstructed vision” metaphor to describe mankind’s limited comprehension of God’s will was echoed in his subsequent letter to Gurney in September 1864. Here he said to Gurney that, “… we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains.” As an example of his spectacular oratorical skills, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865) marked the culmination of this theme when he spoke of acting “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
At first blush, Lincoln’s October 1862 letter to Gurney might be remembered merely as a well written follow up correspondence to a White House visitor. Or maybe this correspondence is remembered only as a footnote, since it marked his first use of the phrase “fiery trial” But a deeper look reveals that there was much more to this Presidential letter than that. Clearly, Lincoln used the occasion of thanking Gurney for her visit as an occasion to explore his emerging philosophy about divinity, fate, and finding a higher purpose amidst an ongoing tragedy (Wilson, 2006). Moreover, what makes this letter even more historic is that it marked the beginning of a connection between Lincoln and Gurney that would last another two years, up until the fall of 1864. Given Lincoln’s tendency to be private and enigmatic (Foner, 2010)—particularly with respect to matters of faith (Carwardine, 2006)—Lincoln did not seem to hide from Gurney his vulnerability (Wilson, 2006) in questioning God’s purpose in the Civil War and exploring his unique role in God’s plan as President.
While it is beyond the scope of this close reading to analyze in great detail the three additional letters that the pair exchanged, each are significant in their own right as part of an exploration of Lincoln’s theology. Therefore, to illustrate the genuine warmth and candor which existed in that first letter to Gurney, it is important to examine briefly his second (and last letter) to Gurney from September of 1864. Lincoln began this letter, “MY ESTEEMED FRIEND, – I have not forgotten, probably never shall forget, the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, ever been forgotten.” His next line revealed that, while Lincoln’s faith appeared to grow during his Presidency, he still kept a safe distance from organized religion. He stated to Gurney, “In all it has been your purpose to strengthen my reliance on God.” Characteristically enigmatic, Lincoln did not say whether or not Gurney had been successful in this pursuit. Nonetheless, Lincoln expressed to Gurney that he was truly grateful for the prayers he had received from her during the Civil War. He stated that he was “much indebted to the good Christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations, and to no one of them more than to yourself.”
Starting with his first letter, Lincoln’s correspondence with Gurney seemed to mark the transition from his private expression of searching for God’s will (as expressed in the “Meditation on the Divine Will”) to a more public stance before a small audience (Wilson, 2006), wherein he explored themes, ideas, and language that would ultimately become legendary in his Second Inaugural Address (1865). At one point in December 1862, in the depths of his despair, Lincoln questioned aloud to Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin, “What has God put me in this place for?” (as quoted in Guelzo, 1997). Although Lincoln, as Commander-in-Chief, would continue to “study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right,” his communication with Eliza P. Gurney gave him some solace as he fervently pursued the answer to his question.
In 1862, Lincoln said this to Noyes Miner, a Chicago minister and friend. This quote was taken from Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power by Richard Carwardine (2006).
Lincoln described his quest as a “process of crystallization” which dated back to about 1860, the year he was elected President (Lincoln, as quoted in Shenk, 2005).
There is some dispute about this date among historians and among those who knew Lincoln. Popularly accepted to have been written on September 2, 1862, this is an estimated date from the Collected Works who based the date on Lincoln’s anxious state of mind before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. By contrast, Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, who found the document after Lincoln’s death, estimated that the manuscript was written around September 30, 1862. The Lincoln Log puts the date at the end of October 1862 to coincide with Lincoln’s meeting with Eliza P. Gurney (the focus of this close reading). Finally, Douglas Wilson, author of Lincoln’s sword, estimates that “Meditation on the Divine Will” was written closer to 1864. This close reading proceeds from the assumption that the document was written in early September 1862—before the Emancipation Proclamation.
About meeting with the general public, Lincoln said, “I feel—though the tax on my time is heavy—that no hours of my day are better employed than those which bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of the average of our whole people” (Lincoln as quoted in Carwardine, 2006).
The phrase “fiery trial” comes from the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:12. According to the King James Version of the Bible, the sentence that uses this quote is: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” (Biblehub)
Eric Foner’s book, The Fiery Trial (2010), used as a source for this close reading, only attributes the phrase to Lincoln’s December 1862 address to Congress. No mention whatsoever is made of his letter to Gurney.
The extent to which Lincoln experienced a religious conversion during his Presidency relies on contradictory evidence among those who knew him and therefore, remains a contentious debate among historians (Carwardine, 2006).
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