As hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the Civil War, the 16th president evolved into a theologian of the American idea, using the language and concepts of the Bible to reflect on the war’s larger meaning.
In Trenton, N.J., he gave a speech to the state senate in which he recalled reading as a child about George Washington’s battle for the city. “I recollect thinking then,” he reflected, “boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.” It was his intention, Lincoln concluded, “to serve as a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people."
Lincoln traveled on to Philadelphia, where on Washington’s birthday he visited Independence Hall. While bidding good night to a crowd, Lincoln offered another impromptu biblical reflection: “All my political warfare has been in favor of the teachings coming forth from that sacred hall,” where the Declaration of Independence was signed. “May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I prove false to those teachings.”
The audience would have recognized Lincoln’s allusion to Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” In the Bible, Jerusalem was the home of the Ark of the Covenant, the reminder of God’s promise to the Israelites. Independence Hall, Lincoln implied, was the American Jerusalem, and the doctrine that “all men are created equal” was the covenant of the “almost chosen people.” In the impending civil war, Americans’ dedication to that covenant would be tested.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons are created equal...