The American Historian

20th Century American History

Christianity, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War

The 2020 US presidential election is steadily approaching which bring with it questions that we reflect on as a nation in moving forward. Where did America come from? What is America’s current state? What direction should America have in the future? While the second two questions are important, they cannot be approached until the first is answered. To forsake the past is to forsake the future. Equally, misunderstanding our past removes the sturdy foundation that we now stand. Christianity was, and is, paramount to America’s original vision of Western liberalism and serves as insulation from current competing worldviews and to reign in extremism of any form of economic market value system.

            Turmoil, anger, and violence seems to be popular in modern America. Its citizens use violence instead of reason, its politicians use abusive language instead of ingenuity of problem solving, and super PACs misrepresent American ideals to further motives of its donors. With so much anger and violence on the horizon, let us consider this examination on historical Christianity in America as an important aspect to why it has always been looked to in life-and-death circumstances in American society. Some American’s believe a civil war is again possible, so looking back in history to Abraham Lincoln and Christianity in from 1856-1864 is quite the opportunity.

            Lincoln walked into a hotbed of political discourse with his first election as president in 1860. Knowing that America was a firmly Western liberal Christian nation under extreme duress, Lincoln used his Christianity as a last line of political discourse with the South. In his first address as president he clearly associates both the North and the South subjects of God and pleads to look to Him for guidance and patience moving forward:

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied, still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied, hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty. In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.[1]

Lincoln believed that America was headed to war, a war that he did not want. Politics, the institution that advanced societies had created in order to handle dispute between its citizenry, had failed. There was no more reasoning, conversation, or debate on the issues for politicians to appeal their fellow countryman. With politics stripped away from society, there could only be religion left as the medium at which men could possibly come to agree. Appealing to this sentiment was all that Lincoln had left with his first address to the nation. This is a great demonstration of the value of Christianity in America during the time. 

            Lincoln’s use of Christianity in politics was not novel in the era. The establishment of the Republican Party regularly invoked the name of God and Christian values as guides to their actions in government discourse, especially during their Republican National Conventions in 1856, 1860, and 1864.  In 1856 for example, each day opened with a prayer to God, in the name of Jesus, asking that His guidance be upon them.[2] In 1860, representatives from Massachusetts considered this sentiment as the prevailing sentiment of the day:

“Gentlemen, the people of Massachusetts hold in the heart of hearts, next to their reverence and love for the Christian faith, their reverence and love for the doctrine of equal and impartial liberty. [Renewed Cheers]”[3] In 1864, during the Civil War, Edwin Morgan of New York used Christianity yet again as a primary example of Christianity leading the values of government saying that slavery was incompatible with Christianity and that Christianity was the leading principle in government. Christianity had its place in government by the actions and arguments of its citizens. 

Yet even during the war, Lincoln wrote, “: “The will of God prevails – In great contests each party claims to act in accordence [sic] with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. 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 this.”[4] Lincoln understood that God worked in ways which were larger than even his own ability might understand. Christianity was never abandoned, even in the worst of times.

            Even in times of war, the country has appealed to Christianity to save the country from destruction. Christianity has been openly involved in prays in political conventions, been openly discussed and appealed to by sitting presidents, and it has been looked to during the worst loss of life in the nation’s young history. This is to mean there is no hiding its influence over history. Christianity has been a visible and present part of the government of the United States from its founding, through its Civil War, and in the present. One could argue that if not for Christianity, there might not be any reconciliatorily ground left for Western ideology to remain popular, therefore opening the door for Islamic or Eastern European value systems to take hold. These systems have been far less successful in their implementation and coexistence with governments and best saved for another discussion. Christianity is the reason for this nations extreme success, as it recedes in popularity – so too will the nations prosperity.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” University of Michigan, accessed September 19, 2019,;cc=lincoln;type=simple;rgn=div1;q1=March%204,%201861;view=text;subview=detail;sort=occur;idno=lincoln4;node=lincoln4:389.

[2]Horace Greeley, Proceedings of the First Three Republican National Conventions of 1856, 1860 and 1864, in the Sabin Americana, Pg. 108.,

[3] Ibid., pg., 156.

[4] Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, September 1862, Volume V, pp. 503-504 (Meditation on the Divine Will).

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