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A Terrible Lesson: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War

As the Civil War dragged on and Americans died in previously-unimaginable numbers, preserving the Union became a weak justification for what historian Drew Faust Gilpin called “the Republic of Suffering.”

Making sense of the carnage required moving beyond politics and putting the war in its proper moral context, a context derived from a biblical understanding of God and His purposes.

That’s what Abraham Lincoln did.

Lincoln was an unlikely prophet: At the beginning of the war saving the Union had been his “paramount concern.” He once said:  “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.”

In addition, while his parents were devout Baptists, Lincoln, at least prior to becoming president, could rightly be called a skeptic. In 1846, a political opponent even called him an “infidel.”

Both things began to change during the war, and the catalyst was the death that surrounded him. The death of so many soldiers weighed heavily on Lincoln, a gentle man who felt things deeply.

Even worse was the devastating death of his beloved son, Willie, in 1862. While Mrs. Lincoln never recovered from the blow of Willie’s death, it transformed the president. The sermon at Willie’s funeral was delivered by Phineas Gurley, the pastor at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which Lincoln had begun to attend.

Gurley’s sermon, which exhorted the president to “trust in biblical Providence,” prompted Lincoln to consider the possibility that the war and the suffering it caused, was part of a divine plan.

In what posthumously came to be called “Meditations on the Divine Will,” Lincoln wrote that “God could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began.”  God could have given either side victory, Lincoln pondered, but He hadn’t. Why?

Because, Lincoln wrote, “it may be that God’s purpose is different from the purpose of either party.” What was that purpose? Ending slavery.

It was a sin in which the entire nation was complicit -- a nation overwhelmingly comprised of Christians who believed that they were a “chosen people” favored by God. Thus a terrible lesson had to be learned by both sides.

That lesson was the subject of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In it, he expressed the hope that the “scourge of war” might finally pass. Then he added “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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.’”

It was a lesson his audience didn’t care to learn. Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead.  And it would be another century before the bondsman’s descendants would be truly free. Once again, Christians were divided: some behaved heroically, others behaved shamefully, and many pretended not to see what was happening.

Until another unlikely prophet placed what was happening in its proper context. But that is a story for another day.

This article published on May 26, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. 

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