How did religious beliefs shape the origins of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s actions during the conflict? As Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders clashed over the question of slavery, each side turned to the Bible to argue its cause.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist newspaper editor, despaired that people who called themselves Christians could defend the evils of slavery. Protestant denominations fractured, with each side declaring God was on its side. Meanwhile, Lincoln, who had put his faith in reason over revelation, confronted the mounting casualties of the war and the death of his young son. In his anguish, he began a spiritual journey that transformed his inner life and changed his ideas about God and the ultimate meaning of the Civil War.
The war was a theological as well as a political crisis. There were sharp disputes in America over what God might be doing in and through the war. For some, the turmoil of the war years called into question the belief that America was a chosen nation with a special destiny. The war also moved Lincoln to re-examine his own understanding of God’s purposes and the role of divine Providence in human affairs. Six weeks after he delivered his stirring Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, with its sermonlike language, deeply moral sentiments and conciliatory closing words, Lincoln was dead. For many he became a martyred prophet, and the Second Inaugural Address has come to be regarded as American Scripture.
(You can also click the photo below for a direct link to the on-line video site for PBS and then navigate to Episode Three.)
For the first time on television, God in America explores the tumultuous 400-year history of the intersection of religion and public life in America, from the first European settlements to the 2008 presidential election. A co-production of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and FRONTLINE, this six-hour series examines how religious dissidents helped shape the American concept of religious liberty and the controversial evolution of that ideal in the nation’s courts and political arena; how religious freedom and waves of new immigrants and religious revivals fueled competition in the religious marketplace; how movements for social reform — from abolition to civil rights — galvanized men and women to put their faith into political action; and how religious faith influenced conflicts from the American Revolution to the Cold War.