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Lincoln's call for God to end the Civil War echoes today
Wednesday marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural address. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Seven score and ten years ago, Abraham Lincoln offered his second inaugural address. (That's 150 years, by the way.) Contemporary scholars call it one of his most eloquent speeches, noting he needed only 10 minutes to offer profound thoughts on war, race and faith in God.

"It aspires to three coherent but unique arguments in three distinct sections, each brief, each different in tone, and each conveying a discrete message: history, guilt and redemption the past, the present and the future," wrote Lincoln researcher Harold Holzer in a column for The Wall Street Journal. "That one writer, in a mere 703 words, could address such momentous subjects so definitively, so provocatively and so succinctly is what makes the text so breathtaking."

The speech, the text of which is available online through Yale Law School's Avalon Project, reviewed the history of Lincoln's first four years in office, reflecting on the atrocities of war and considering how to stay faithful to a God who allows for such violence.

"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 so it still must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, Lincoln said.

This excerpt illustrates why Star Tribune columnist D.J. Tice describes the address as a "sorrowful sermon." Expected to gloat about his come-from-behind re-election victory and the fast-approaching end to the Civil War, Lincoln instead pondered the heartbreak of a divided nation and tried to imagine a future when old wounds would be healed.

He was searching for a divine purpose, one that could explain more than four years of bloodshed on the battlefield and decades of unjust slavery, Tice wrote, highlighting Lincoln's sentiment that "Both (the North and the South) read the same Bible and pray to the same God."

"That the most sincere beliefs can fuel the most misguided ideas is an insight worth recalling today. So is Lincoln's warning against ever supposing that one possesses the whole truth," Tice noted.

According to the organization Abraham Lincoln's Classroom, some attendees on that rainy March day were scandalized by the president's focus on faith. Frederick Douglass told the New York Herald that he clapped and cheered throughout the message, while taking note of the displeasure of nearby listeners.

"The biblical allusions and deep religious fatalism of the Second Inaugural are all the more fascinating because Lincoln's spiritual beliefs have always been something of a mystery and controversy," Tice wrote. "Secular Americans from his day to this have been eager to claim Lincoln as a skeptic about Christianity."

Perhaps even more notable than Lincoln's Bible lessons and thoughts on spirituality was his assessment of American race relations, Holzer wrote.

"There would be no chest-thumping, no vindication of Northern superiority, no claim of victory, no kudos for gallant generals and no revelation of postwar plans," he explained. "In their place came the full disclosure, at long last, that the war to save the Union had indeed been a war to destroy slavery."

New York University professor Martha Hodes reflected on the speech's racial message in a column for the Los Angeles Times. She said Lincoln's hope for ultimate peace can be read in two ways: As an admonishment of Southerners and an encouragement of black Americans.

Hodes focused on the final and most famous line in the speech:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

For many, it's work that continues today.
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