Lincoln's Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War
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Lincoln's Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War Nicholas Porrillo The role of religion in Abraham Lincoln's political leadership very much deserves to be studied, for, as Reinhold Niebuhr claims, Lincoln apprehended the religious meanings ofpolitical events more deeply than did almost any other American of his time.1 Yet the sources available on the subject present serious difficulties. While Lincoln's statements on religion were at times profound, they were never lengthy or great in number. Some historians have tried to fill in the picture by using thereminiscences ofpeoplewho knew Lincoln, but these sources entail problems of their own. Authors ofreminiscences suffered from the tricks of memory. Further, they were especially tempted to bias their accounts when talking about religion, for after Lincoln was murdered and consequently canonized as a national saint, a heated controversy ensued over what religious group might claim him.2 One approach to this problem of sources is to put aside reminiscences and look at Lincoln's undisputed writings to see what they reveal about the shape of his beliefs. A whole line of scholars have followed this method.3 While many I wish to thank John Stauffer for his excellent instruction in American cultural history and for his guidance as I wrote and edited this paper. I am grateful to David Herbert Donald and Lawrence Buell for their valuable criticisms of the manuscript. 1 Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Religion ofAbraham Lincoln" inLincoln andthe GettysburgAddress: Commemorative Papers, ed. Allan Nevins (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), 72-87. 2 For the confusion on Lincoln's rehgion after his death, see Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 68-69, 76, 226-30. For an overview of major reminiscences, see William E. Barton, The Soul ofAbraham Lincoln (New York: George H. Doran, 1920), 101-221, 303-6, 309-57. 3 William J. Wolf was the first to call for a tighter focus on Lincoln's writings. Though Wolf looked more closely at Lincoln's works than had his predecessors, he still cited many reminiscences . See TheAlmost Chosen People: A Study ofthe Religion ofAbraham Lincoln (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959). Elton Trueblood's use of sources was similar. See Abraham Lincoln: Theologian ofAmerican Anguish (New York: Harper and Row, 1973). Wolf's stated goal to focus on Lincoln's works was executed much more faithfully by Glen E. Thurow, Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion (Albany: State University ofNew York Press, 1976), and David Hein, "Lincoln's Theology and Political Ethics" in Essays on Lincoln's Faith andPolitics, ed. Kenneth W Civil War History, Vol. xlvi No. 3 © 2000 by The Kent State University Press 228CIVIL WAR HISTORY have traced what Lincoln said, none has traced how he said it. Numerous writers , from Edmund Wilson to David Herbert Donald, have noted that Lincoln's references to God and religion became more frequent and profound in his later Ufe,4 but there has never been an attempt to chart comprehensively how the emphases, nuances, and shadings of his religious rhetoric developed over the years.5 The time has come for such an approach, for it sheds new light on one of the most confusing aspects ofLincoln's religion. He said throughout his life that he believed in providence, that is, the ordination of all earthly events by a higher power, which he frequently called God. Lincoln's lifelong use of this concept makes it hard to tell whetherhis beliefs on the subject ever changed, and ifso, when and how.6 Literary analysis reveals that, eventhough Lincoln always subscribed to the same technical definition of providence, the role that this concept played in his rhetoric underwent a gradual but dramatic change during his presidency. Before the Civil War, the understanding of providence that appeared in Lincoln's rhetoric was complacent and conveniently amenable to the existing arrangements of society. Lincoln's God lacked any palpable motive force or determinative power. Such a conception was made possible in part by perfectionist and postmillennial currents in the Protestantism of his day. Indeed, his portrayal of a relaxed and accommodating God was typical ofhis contemporarThompson (Lanham, Md.: University Press ofAmerica, 1983). There are, of course, other...