Dr. White speaks on theological focus of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
Author Ronald C. White, whose new book A. Lincoln: A Biography is currently on the New York Times best-seller list, spoke at Fuller’s Pasadena campus about the “public face” of Abraham Lincoln’s faith as revealed in his Second Inaugural Address.
“A bright light has been shined recently on the life of Lincoln,” Dr. White said, with the bicentennial of his birth last month as well as President Barack Obama’s frequent references to him as mentor and model. White began by posing a question he often asks others: For those who have visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, what was their personal reaction? “I often hear about a sense of awe,” White reported. “But it is my conviction that awe is not the same as understanding”—which is why, he said, he wrote his biography on Lincoln; so that “the non-Lincoln person” might better understand this great figure.
White then devoted his lecture to an exposition of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, paying special attention to what the speech has to say about God, God’s providence, and Lincoln’s own faith. Though it was one of the shortest inaugural addresses ever given by an American president—only lasting six or seven minutes—“It is filled with religious meaning,” White said, more than any prior inaugural address, with multiple references to God, Scripture, and prayer. God and the Bible form, in fact, “the foundational pillars of this address.”
Speaking of the opposing sides of the Civil War, “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully,” Lincoln proclaimed in his address. “The Almighty has His own purposes”—and this message of a providential God, said White, is central to the speech. “Inaugural addresses are typically either congratulatory or self-congratulatory, but Lincoln departs from this,” he said. “He is saying, instead, that there is a great evil in our midst, and God is holding us all accountable.” Many have considered Lincoln a fatalist, “but I propose that this Second Inaugural Address is not fatalist at all; it is one of biblical providence,” White stated.
The address is structured as is a sermon, he said: about three-fourths “indicative,” declaring what God has done—with an ending “imperative,” calling listeners to action. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish work we are in . . .” begins the final “imperative” paragraph of Lincoln’s address. “There absolutely is redemption here,” said White: “It’s all about the grace and forgiveness of God, without which we cannot have ‘malice toward none.’”
“I want to suggest that there is something very profound going on in this speech,” White said: “that Lincoln was engaged in a very profound search for religious truth. And I believe,” he said, “that Lincoln’s faith was very much a part of his humility, his inclusivity, his willingness to reach out to his rivals, and his deep ethical sensitivity.”
“This was Lincoln’s greatest speech,” said Fuller President Richard J. Mouw in concluding remarks, “and this has been the greatest exposition of Lincoln’s greatest speech I’ve ever heard!”
White, who holds a PhD in Religion and History from Princeton University, has taught at UCLA, Whitworth University, Colorado College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and San Francisco Theological Seminary. In addition to his new Lincoln biography, he is author of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (Random House, 2005).