The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXII. Lincoln

§ 6. Mystical Faith

And out of these conditions grew the spiritual life of Lincoln. He absorbed to the full its one great quality, the mystical consciousness of a world transcending the world of matter. He has no more doubt of this than all the other supreme men have had, whether good or bad; than Napoleon with his impatient gesture toward the stars, that night on shipboard, and his words, “There must be a God.” But when it comes to giving form to what he feels encompassing him, then Lincoln’s lucid mind asserts itself, and what has imposed on his fellow–villagers, as a formulation, fades into nothing. And here is revealed a characteristic that forms a basal clue. His mind has no bent toward this sort of thinking. Before the task of formulating his religion he stands quite powerless. His feeling for it is closer than hands or feet. But just what it is that he feels impinging on him from every side—even he does not know. Heis like a sensitive man who is neither a scientist nor a poet in the midst of a night of stars. The reality of his experience gives him no power either to explain or to express it.

Long afterward, in one of his most remarkable fragments, the reality of his faith, along with the futility of his religious thinking, is wonderfully preserved. It was written in September, 1862. The previous February the death of one of his children had produced an emotional crisis. For a time he was scarcely able to discharge his official duties. This was followed by renewed interest in religion, expressing itself chiefly by constant reading of Scripture. Whether any new light came to him we do not know. But in the autumn he wrote this:

  • 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 quite different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities working just as they do, are the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest and wills that it shall not end yet. By His mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, He could either have 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.
  • Six months later one of the great pages of his prose called the nation to observe a day of “national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” That the Dionysian and circuit-riding philosophy had made no impression on his mind is evinced by the silences of this singular document. Not a word upon victory over enemies—eagerly though, at the moment, he was hoping for it—but all in the vein of this question:

  • And insomuch as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishment and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?
  • The context shows that he was not—as the abolitionists wished him to do—merely hitting at slavery over the Lord’s shoulder. The proclamation continues the fragment. This great mystic, pondering what is wrong with the world, wonders whether all the values, in God’s eyes, are not different from what they seem to be in the eyes of men. And yet he goes on steadfast in the immediate task as it has been given him to understand that task. So it was to him always—the inscrutable shadow of the Almighty for ever round about him; the understanding of His ways for ever an insistent mystery.