A Nation Reborn is episode 3 from the six-part God In America series which originally aired on PBS in October 2010. These are notes I made while watching this episode.
In the 19th century, most people believed that God had a special purpose for America; but there was disagreement about what God wanted. This came to a boiling point around the issue of slavery. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln was President during this time.
“What is the will of God in this crisis?”
1844 – Methodists were the largest religious group in the country. Bishop James Osgood Andrew was on his way to New York for their national assembly; worried about infighting among Methodist pastors and congregations about slavery. Abolitionists believed that clergy should speak out against the “sin” of slavery, in the same way they were outspoken about other sins.
One of leading Abolitionists was Frederick Douglass, a former slave that had fled to the North. He saw Christianity as liberating – both spiritually and physically. He believed that the Christian church was “in bed” with slave owners.
Bishop Andrew was a slave owner and was brought into question at the assembly in New York. There was much proof-texting regarding the subject of slavery. People “for” slavery cited examples in scripture where slave owners were among God’s chosen people (and, therefore, were bound for heaven). People “against” slavery could not point to any text which indicated slave ownership as incompatible with a Christian lifestyle.
The northern clergy voted to remove Andrew; the southern clergy wanted him to remain. The North prevailed, and the South broke away and formed the Methodist Episcipal Church South. Other Protestant denominations splintered as well.
Enter religious skeptic, President Abraham Lincoln.
“He had a deep and abiding suspicion of, and hostility to, that notion that there’s no possibility that I’m wrong. I’m absolutely right and, therefore, righteous.” (When his family joined a Baptist church, 14-year old Abe refused.)
Spring 1861 – seven southern states seceded from the Union. “Lincoln believed that Democracy should trump self-righteous religious conviction.” Southern leaders drafted a Constitution that, unlike the United States Constitution, “invoked the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” It wasn’t just a war about slavery; it was a religious war. Southerners felt that God was on their side…and that their cause was God’s cause. Nothing less than eternal salvation was at stake.
“For Frederick Douglass, the war was proof that God condemned America for the sin of slavery.” This notion was embodied in the new Christian hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. (“As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make men free.”)
As the war played out, and casualties mounted, both sides had to wrestle with the idea that God wasn’t choosing sides. “Good and bad” people were dying.
1862 – Lincoln’s 3rd son, Willie, died of typhoid fever. The words delivered by a Presbyterian minister at the funeral (God is both mysterious and comforting) provided a real religious turning point for Lincoln. He began to reexamine his relationship with God. Lincoln begins to write out his own feelings regarding God’s will and role in the war. “Out of this affliction, what good can come? If God is doing something new, what could it be?”
September 1862 – after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln felt this was a “sign” that he make a declarative statement abolishing slavery in the Confederate states.
“God has decided this question in favor of the slaves.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, freeing slaves in the rebel states.
This was, for slaves, the “coming of the Lord.” Southern slave owners ignored this new law.
As the war continued, Lincoln asked people who were suffering losses to think of their sacrifices as not unlike Christ’s sacrifice. “This redemptive bloodshed is like Christ’s redemptive bloodshed. It will lead to a new birth of freedom for all people.” The war will redefine human freedom – and the North must win.
Lincoln found solace in the Book of Job – a righteous man who endured great suffering.
The North won the Civil War in 1865. Many in the North felt that the victory was a vindication and justification that God was on their side. Lincoln, however, did not share their sense of joy. At his 2nd Inaugural, Lincoln asserts that the war was God’s punishment for 250 years of slavery. This was no cause for celebration.
About halfway through his speech, African-Americans began to chant “Bless the Lord” after every sentence. Prior to that moment, the crowd was silent.
Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, six weeks after his Inaugural Address. Religious leaders saw Lincoln’s death as an “atonement” – an offering to God as the last casualty of the Civil War. He bore the sins of a nation with his death.
“Jesus Christ died for the world; Abraham Lincoln died for his country.”
“It may be the blood of our beloved martyred president will be the salvation of the country. Though Abraham Lincoln dies, the republic lives.” ~ Frederick Douglass