It came during dark days. It came in the midst of war.
War as we had never seen it, before or since.
It came to a nation bitterly divided.
The resolution had passed the United States Senate on the third of March. Now it was on the President’s desk for his signature. It called for A Day of National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.
The year was 1863. It was the third year of the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln had not grown up as a particularly devout man. In fact, early in his political career, he was forced to defend charges that he was an “open scoffer at Christianity.” Although the deaths of two sons, one just the previous year, had deepened Lincoln’s faith in Divine Providence, it could hardly have been said that the President was an avid practicing Christian, especially during the pious mid-nineteenth century. He had not, for example, joined any church, though he did occasionally attend a Presbyterian church in Washington.
Now, as the bloody conflict raged on and three months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation that officially ended slavery, Lincoln prepared to issue another presidential proclamation. He words were eloquent. They were also stark. The President, who never wore his religion on his sleeve and never pandered it to garner votes, spoke truth to power.
In his message, he revealed more spiritual insights and wisdom than many religious leaders – then or now.
Lincoln wrote that “nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world.” He argued that “the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins.” Lincoln revisited this theme of God’s judgment in his Second Inaugural Address.
“… inflicted upon us … “(emphasis added). The President was careful not to blame the South alone.
In this proclamation, he pointed out that America had been blessed with “the choicest bounties of Heaven” and “preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.”
Then the President dropped the hammer.
“But we have forgotten God,” Lincoln wrote. “We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us.”
One might be tempted to think that Lincoln was familiar with the warning of Moses to the people of Israel found in the Book of Deuteronomy:
“For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the LORD your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt.” [Deut. 8:12 -14, NLT].
Like Moses, Lincoln laid the responsibility for national seriousness and remembering in the hands of the citizens themselves. Like an Old Testament prophet, he rebuked a forgetfulness brought on by the arrogance of success.
“…we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”
If Lincoln wrote that in 1863, what would he say of us today?
The richest, greatest and most powerful nation on earth has neglected and trivialized worship, boasted of its own ingenuity and achievements, secularized Sunday and elevated and enriched those who those who are, to use Lincoln’s own term, “open scoffers at Christianity.” Our culture revels in debauchery and our national government continues to legislatively legitimize all manner of sexual immorality and – in the name of freedom – approves a virulent hostility toward religion.
Never in our history have we been more materially rich and spiritually destitute. It’s been aptly observed:
“We worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.”
Lincoln was a leader who understood and respected the power and holiness of a sovereign God Who had his own way with nations – even one as great as the United States. He had suffered tragic personal loss and had seen bloodshed on a massive scale. He knew it was a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Today, May 4, is the National Day of Prayer. God tells us that national healing and spiritual renewal begin with “my people, who are called by my Name” [II Chronicles 7:14].
Christians should be the very first to heed Lincoln’s call:
“It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”
Let this be our prayer for America.