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Lincoln’s overarching strategy was to emphasize common actions and emotions. He acknowledged, “Both [sides in the war] read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” The Bible had been quoted only once in the inaugural addresses of the previous 18 presidents (by John Quincy Adams). Lincoln’s introduction of the Bible signaled his determination to think theologically as well as politically about the war.

Lincoln and the Bible

Many visitors to the White House reported that Lincoln read the Bible frequently. Noah Brooks, a correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union, wrote that Lincoln “fixed in his memory” whole chapters from the New Testament as well as from Isaiah and the Psalms. In the summer of 1864, Lincoln invited his Kentucky friend Joshua Speed to spend an evening with him. When Speed arrived, he found Lincoln reading the Bible. Speed said, “I am glad to see you profitably engaged.” “Yes,” replied Lincoln, “I am profitably engaged.” “Well,” Speed continued, “If you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.” Lincoln rose, placed his hand on Speed’s shoulder, and said, “You are wrong, Speed. Take all of this book upon reason that you can and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”

But Lincoln knew that the Bible and prayer could also be used almost as weapons to curry God’s favor. On one side stood those who steadfastly believed that the Bible sanctioned slavery. On the other side were those who believed that the Bible encouraged abolition. Lincoln had become troubled by those who said, “God is on our side.” In his Second Inaugural Address, he was inveighing against a tribal God who took the side of a section or party. God, he would explain, was inclusive both in judgment and reconciliation.

“The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot 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 His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”