CREDOS: Great wisdom — VII

So much of what today is delegated to political staffs and civil servants then required a direct decision from the president. He controlled patronage, from the embassy in China to the post office in St Louis. He reviewed scores of cases of soldiers sentenced to death.

In all these matters he had to exercise his judgment in accordance with law, custom, prudence, and compassion. The paradox is that Lincoln’s emphasis remained on the material world of cause and effect. “These are not the days of miracles,” he said, “and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.” Lincoln did not expect God to take him by the hand. On the contrary, he said, “I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”

Lincoln was typical of “sick souls”— to use William James’s phrase — who turn, from a sense of personal distress, to the relief of faith. Yet, Lincoln’s religion was hardly typical. Indeed, he emerged as an original theological thinker. For centuries, settlers on the North American continent had been assured that they were special in God’s eyes. They were the “City upon a Hill,” in John Winthrop’s phrase, decidedly chosen, like the Israelites of old. Lincoln turned this on its head when he said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.” —