By Robert Dilday
A “profound spiritual odyssey” prompted Abraham Lincoln’s forging of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of “the most revolutionary documents ever signed by an American president,” a prominent religious historian told a conference on racial reconciliation.
“Not much attention has been given to the religious aspect of the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Harry Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale Divinity School. “But it can’t be understood without understanding Lincoln’s God.”
Stout focused on the religious influences on the proclamation — issued 150 years ago — during a keynote address at the three-day annual conference of the Baptist History & Heritage Society, centered on the theme, “Faith, Freedom, Forgiveness: Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in Our Time.”
The May 20-22 conference, also hosted by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, met on the campuses of the University of Richmond and Virginia Union University.
Unlike other Lincoln addresses — such as the ones made on the Gettysburg battlefield and at his second inauguration — the Emancipation Proclamation is generally not taken as an “inspirational event,” said Stout. “Its language is dry and mechanical, and its eloquence is suppressed.”
Some historians have regarded it as insubstantial rhetoric, since the document freed enslaved people only in those parts of the nation in rebellion and largely outside of federal control.
But Stout said the proclamation was “the most revolutionary document ever signed by an American president” and set the stage for complete emancipation nearly three years later.
What’s more, the historian added, “Lincoln’s God informed the act from start to finish,” and that reflected a shift in the president’s religious outlook that had begun in 1862.
In the early years of the war, Lincoln’s attitude toward religion remained what it had been since his youth, said Stout. “The weight of evidence points to a Lincoln more in sympathy with unitarianism than with trinitarianism,” he said. “He had come very close to atheism.”
But two years of war and preoccupation with slavery moved Lincoln toward a deeper sense of a providential God “who can intervene in human affairs to effect his purposes.”
“Nothing would push Lincoln’s religious evolution more than his election as president and as commander of troops in a bloody war,” said Stout.
While he never adopted an “evangelical Christology,” Stout said, Lincoln’s “transcendent, impersonal God” became “the Puritan God of the Bible.” He also began expressing his motivations with religious language — a vocabulary which surprised many in his Cabinet when he told them he planned to announce the proclamation.
Despite Lincoln’s confidence in the religious and moral support for emancipation, he initially struggled with its legality.
“Lincoln was always antislavery, but he never believed the presidency conferred on him the power to act on this belief,” Stout said. “He didn’t think he could free slaves [only] because of his moral views. The Constitution protected slavery, and he was required to abide by the Constitution.”
He resolved that difficulty by appealing to military necessity, which trumped constitutional liberties. In making that argument, Stout said, Lincoln chose a route that strengthened the moral claims not only of emancipation but also of racial equality — both consistent with what Lincoln now believed to be God’s moral judgments.
Lincoln could have made an economic claim that military victory required the South’s economy to be shattered and emancipation would accomplish that. Instead, he argued that the Union army needed more troops, and freed slaves could be put in uniform to fight for a cause they endorsed.
“He instinctively chose the argument that would eventually point to equality and citizenship,” Stout said. “Though he denied that racial equality was his goal, he made it inevitable by the choice he made.”
“Had Lincoln’s moral lodestar gone with the economic argument, the slaves could have been returned to their former state,” Stout said. “Putting guns into their hands meant there was no turning back.”
“Every decision Lincoln made was a leap of faith,” Stout said, “always tilted in the direction of moral equality in ways of which even he wasn’t always aware.”
Stout said Lincoln’s confidence in the religious underpinnings of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t suggest that he “presumed to read God’s mind” — a characteristic of some clergy that infuriated him. Rather, “it was an act of transcendence and understanding. He knew his role aligned with God’s hatred of slavery.”
Once accepting a view of divine providence, “he couldn’t let it go,” said Stout. That religious vocabulary subsequently permeated both the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses.
“Lincoln was indispensable in emancipation, and he knew it,” the historian said. “He realized the enormity of what he was doing. He caught the thunderbolt. It was the single most important outcome he would accomplish in his lifetime.”