Religious expression by Presidents today is infrequent, and if it happens at all there are some who claim to have been offended. We live in time where many want to sweep faith under the rug and when protests are made, usually by a tiny but noisy minority, that religion has no place in the public square. But the two presidents we honor today lived in a different time, a time when religious expression was an accepted part of the national scene. The ease with which both Washington and Lincoln speak of God, and the lack of protest at their utterances depict a time when Faith was integral to life in America.
Back in November we discussed some of the ways our First President George Washington invoked God in National Addresses. If you missed it, it is here: A Founding Father Gives Thanks to God. But today I’d like to present a few quotes here from Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was not initially known as a religious man. He belonged to no denomination and did not attend church with any regularity. When asked of this he responded by citing annoyance over the varying creeds and doctrinal squabbles among Christians. But Lincoln lived in a time where God was more present in the national psyche than today. The more religious climate than now combined with the terrible tragedy of the war and also the death of his son in 1862 combined to make Mr. Lincoln more religious as his presidency unfolded. More frequent and fervent references to God and requests for prayer began to dot his speeches and proclamations. There are many that could be cited, but perhaps just a few here. As you read them, consider how they reflect his own faith and trust but also how they reflect the religious sensibilities of the time. Imagine some of these things being said of done now! Caution you are about to enter a non-religion-free zone!
“That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular….I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.” [Abraham Lincoln On Campaign, July 31, 1846]
The Almighty has His own purposes….Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, 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.” (Abraham Lincoln – Second Inaugural Address)
It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.” [Abraham Lincoln, a Proclamation of a National Day of Fasting and Prayer, March 30, 1863]
“I invite the people of the United states (on Aug 6)… to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit… to guide the counsels of the government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles, and sieges have been brought to suffer in mind, body, or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and internal peace.” [Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation of a National Day of Prayer, July 15, 1863]
Amazing really. The third quote sounded almost like the sermon of a prophet. Go on Mr. President!
My, how times have changed. I am not that old (just shy of 50) and I can remember living in the deep south and attending public school. Every day the Principal, Mr Bulware would turn on the PA system. Every one stood and we said the Pledge of Allegiance and then a student would read from the King James Bible. Mr. Bulware would then called us to a moment of silent prayer and things concluded by the Our Father (with the Protestant ending). Evidently Mr. Bulware had not gotten the memo that the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 had issued rulings against such prayer. But there we were still, in the late 1960s, praying and reading from the Bible (John 3:16 was a favorite along with the 23rd Psalm). But no one in our sleepy Southern town of Orange Park ever questioned the fact that you started the school day with prayer. Even into High School in the mid 1970s we still sang Christmas carols that spoke clearly of Christ and his birth (e.g. Silent Night, O Come All Ye faithful). But in my brief lifetime that’s all changed. Don’t you dare mention Jesus in a public school today! Prayer and Bible Reading? Unthinkable! But not so long ago things were very different. Imagine a president today speaking like Lincoln did in these quotes.
Once upon a time in a moral galaxy far far away, God was freely mentioned, invoked and accepted as part of the National Discourse.