Vail Valley Voices: Lincoln relied on divine providence |

Vail Valley Voices: Lincoln relied on divine providence

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

Memorizing generous portions of Shakespeare works and scripture, Abraham Lincoln held both in high regard.

Using these resources, he expressed an unconventional faith. His wife, Mary, said he wasn’t “a technical Christian” because he never held church membership nor subscribed to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Lincoln loved to watch Shakespeare’s plays in the theater. He quoted Hamlet’s lines that recognize a divine will’s providential plot unfolding in history and our inability to comprehend all of it.

“Our indiscretions serve us well. When our deep plots shall pall; and that should teach us. There’s divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” (Hamlet V, ii, ll7-10).

Orthodox Christians questioned Lincoln’s faith because he attended the theater. Here, actors recited bawdy speeches and portrayed unsavory characters. That Lincoln’s assassination occurred in Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday embarrassed Christians. The theater wasn’t a fitting site for the death of a martyred saint.

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Presbyterian clergyman George Duffield wished “he had fallen elsewhere than at the gates of Hell ” in the theatre.”

Repeatedly, Lincoln believed divine purpose was at work amid the Civil War’s carnage.

“The purposes of the Almighty are perfect and must prevail,” he confessed to Quaker Eliza P. Gurney, “though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this, but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. … We must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.”

Was the Great Emancipator a heretic, even though he had confidence in divine providence?

His humility granted him points, even when Lincoln’s beliefs didn’t square with orthodox Christianity. He confessed he was no saint. Nor did he recite easy answers to hard questions about providence.

“I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am,” he told Baltimore Presbyterian delegates in 1863. “Amid the greatest difficulties of my administration,” he confided, “when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that all would go well, and that he would decide for the right.”

Though sounding like a traditional Christian regarding providence, what divergent meaning did Lincoln give to it?

“No man had a stronger or firmer faith in providence,” reported William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and early biographer. But this didn’t mean “he believed in a personal God,” wrote Herndon. Lincoln “had no faith in the Christian sense of that term. Had faith in laws, principles ” causes and effects, philosophy.”

Herndon related how in 1854, “he asked me to erase the word God from a speech I had written and read to him for criticism because my language indicated a personal God, whereas he insisted that no such personality ever existed.”

Lincoln, in other words, studied creation’s laws of cause and effect more than he delved into the makeup of their creator.

Evangelical Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, in “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President,” believes our 16th president’s providential God wasn’t trinitarian.

“If Lincoln’s concept of God looked like anything else on offer, it was not the orthodox trinitarian God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit described by the old school (Presbyterian) theologians but a truncated one with God the father ” remote, austere, all-powerful, uncommunicative ” and neither Son nor Spirit.”

“Providence” means in Christian theology that the God who created the world hasn’t left it. He governs its path. He’s vitally active in how events play out.

Think of a Russian novel bulging with convoluted subplots. Main characters drift from the script, disappearing for hundreds of pages. Lesser themes tie the main plot into knots. On the surface, it seems as if sheer fickleness runs riot. Random evils hound good people. Life appears to be a crapshoot.

Still, a Russian novel’s author carries forward the plot. Mayhem isn’t final. Sequential actions, plus mystery seeking resolution, emerge in a complicated story line. An author sees the big picture. Readers discover it as the plot unfolds.

Lincoln had confidence in God, the author of history’s story. Contemporary believers affirm with him that we can’t completely decipher the ways of providence. Destiny schedules its rendezvous with us using mysterious logic. We can’t break the code.

Like Lincoln, Professor George Hendry at Princeton Seminary taught how the more we delve into providence, the more inscrutable its ways appear. He cautioned us not to give up on providence because of the questions it raises.

Hendry framed providence around two pictures: one seeking security, the other resting in assurance.

“Security is something behind which we shelter from the risks and trials of faith,” Hendry wrote. “Assurance is something only to be won in wrestling with them. Faith is not like finding shelter from the storm in a safe harbor; it is more like going out from the harbor to face the storm” (Princeton Seminary Bulletin No. 3 [1964] pp. 39-40).

Lincoln tethered his faith to an assurance that God pilots our ship, even when riptides threaten to drown us.

The Rev.Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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