Indeed, when he announced his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet on the heels of the much-needed Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln said he was honoring a promise he made to God in exchange for a battlefield win. "God had decided this question in favor of the slaves," Lincoln told them, according to one account. A stunned cabinet member asked the ever rational Lincoln to repeat himself.
As the casualties on both sides mounted, Lincoln privately hashed his Civil War theology out on paper. In an undated writing thought to be from 1862 and never meant for publication, Lincoln describes a God whom neither abolitionists nor Confederates could claim as their own. "I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet," Lincoln wrote, in a piece his secretary later titled "Meditation on the Divine Will." " . . . He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."
Though he attended a Christian church, Lincoln's God hewed closer to the Old Testament's ruler of nations. "His concept was that God calls nations to repentance just as he calls man and woman to repentance," says Joe Wheeler, author of Abraham Lincoln, a Man of Faith and Courage.
Some historians believe the undated "Meditation on the Divine Will" provided the basis for Lincoln's second inaugural address, the most overtly religious inauguration speech in American history. Fewer than 800 words long, the speech managed 14 mentions of God, four biblical allusions, and three invocations of prayer. "I read the previous 18 inaugurations and was surprised that they all mentioned God in the last paragraph, as a kind of add-on," says Ron White, author of the new A. Lincoln: A Biography. "Lincoln's mentions are not ornamental. They're part and parcel of the very strength of his argument."
That argument was that the Civil War was America's divine punishment. "If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which . . . He now wills to remove," Lincoln told a war-weary nation, "and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?"
Since his assassination the following month, Christian believers and secular freethinkers have tried to claim him as one of their own. But Lincoln was neither. "He was theological but not religious," says White. Indeed, Lincoln was the first to admit to the uncertainty that shadowed his views of God. Today, politicians see such public doubt as political suicide; President Obama and every member of Congress identify themselves as members of a specific religious tradition.