Lutheran Sermons on Lincoln’s Assassination: Part 2

Sermons on a National Day of Prayer


[1] When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Lutheran ministers preached about him and the events of the time. Five long-forgotten sermons tell us what people heard from some Lutheran pulpits following his death. Attention to these published sermons is one way to remember Lincoln during this year that marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. These public sermons also give us a glimpse into how certain Lutherans saw their relationship to their society and placed events in the context of Christian meaning. They allow us to view the thinking of some important American Lutherans in the nineteenth century.


[2] In the first part of this article published in last month’s Journal of Lutheran Ethics, I looked at a sermon by the Rev. G.J. Butler. Butler preached on the day after Lincoln’s death in the same city as the President’s assassination during worship on Easter, the major festival in the Christian calendar. In this second part I focus on four sermons or discourses delivered in Pennsylvania on a national holiday on June 1, nearly seven weeks after Lincoln’s death. These four Lutheran preachers had time to reflect and prepare for their tributes which they gave on a special Day of Humiliation and Prayer called by President Andrew Johnson as the conclusion of public mourning for the slain President.


[3] Those who lived through the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the 1960s will have some sense of the depth and breadth of the public mourning for Lincoln. In his Washington funeral on April 19, in the numerous memorial services in the cities where the train carrying his remains back to Illinois stopped, and at his burial in Springfield on May 4, the North expressed publicly its sorrow and appreciation for a beloved leader. “Never did a national loss assume more thoroughly the character of a private sorrow; in the hearts of a great people there was mourning as if death were in their own homes.”[1] A Lutheran periodical described the events of April 19:

This day, the 19th of April, presents to the world a spectacle what has no parallel in all the past. Twenty millions of people are simultaneously gathered to the funeral services of our fallen President. Not only are all public buildings displaying the ensigns of sorrow and lamentation; not only are private dwellings and the temples of God draped in mourning; not only are all the bells of the land tolling out their funeral dirge, but at the very hour the weeping crowd is following the remains of the Chief Magistrate to their temporary resting place in Washington, the entire loyal nation, summoned by tolling bells to houses of worship, is simultaneously attending a funeral service of the President. Such a spectacle could not have been exhibited before science had discovered the art of sending intelligence instantaneously into every city and village of the land.[2]

(Those who experienced the assassinations of the 1960s also marveled at the power of new media.)


[4] According to David Chesebrough’s research on published religious discourses after Lincoln’s death, Lutherans contributed to them, but in a limited way. Only five of the 340 publications he located were by Lutherans.[3] These Lutherans lived in the North, in the Northeast; they were born in the United States, were part of the General Synod and were somehow connected with Gettysburg Seminary. They were Americanized Lutherans even where they differed in their attitude toward S.S. Schmucker’s “American Lutheranism.” They expressed what Chesebrough found in the sermons he studied. Lutherans at the time too preached public sermons that were in sync with a shared and wide-spread American Protestant ethos.


[5] Special days of prayer were not uncommon in the United States in the nineteenth century.[4] Only one of the four Lutherans here who spoke on that national day of prayer and fasting commented on the appropriateness of participating in it. The Rev. E.W. Hutter found such a day “right, and wise, and well.” He also thought it correct for there to be “suitable pulpit exhortation to seek the application of the event to purposes of an enlarged public spiritual improvement.” This belonged to the ministry “for although its strict and stated duty is, to expound and enforce the glorious Gospel of the blessed God, yet to not seize upon great public events” would be delinquent, especially when invoked by the powers God has ordained.[5] Hutter’s remarks assumed a friendly, cooperative relationship of church and state which he understood not to violate the unique calling of the church or ministry.


[6] In what follows I review sermons by Charles P. Krauth, Joseph A. Seiss, E. S. Johnston, and Hutter. For each, after very briefly describing who the person is, I present the major points of his sermon, injecting at times my own comments. I let the preachers speak for themselves, although my extensive quotations do not capture adequately the ornate language and rhetorical power of these sermons. I conclude with some general comments.


Krauth—A Wonderful Chasm between Two Pageants


[7] The Rev. Charles P Krauth, D.D., (1823-1883) is best known for internal Lutheran affairs; he opposed “American Lutheranism” and exerted major influence in the development of confessional Lutheranism in the United States. Here, on the other hand, we have an excellent example of his concern for society, a concern also shown in his participation in a committee that prepared a report for the General Synod in 1862 on the war and slavery.[6] Krauth “was the most scholarly among the Lutheran theologians in America.”[7] In 1864 he was called to be professor of dogmatics at the newly established seminary in Philadelphia, and in 1868 he also became Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.


[8] Though he spoke in a church, Krauth delivered a “discourse,” as he called it on the title page; it was not a sermon to proclaim the gospel. His purpose was to honor the fallen President. Krauth’s scholarly credentials shone through his lengthy speech, which was learned, carefully crafted, of high rhetorical and literary quality, with numerous references to historical figures. Krauth’s focus was entirely on Lincoln, his character, his development, his accomplishments, his significance, and not, for example, on slavery or what attitude the North should have toward the South.


[9] Krauth gave historical context to Lincoln’s presidency. He framed his discourse by referring to two pageants, two contrasting events that involved the citizens of Pennsylvania and Lincoln, one at the beginning and the other at the end of his presidency. The first pageant took place after seven states had already seceded from the Union and the second after the North’s victory in the Civil War. On April 21, 1861 Lincoln stopped in Philadelphia on his train trip to Washington to assume the presidency. Four years later, on April 22, 1865, Lincoln’s body was present in Philadelphia as the train carrying his remains made its way back to Springfield. “The first was a day of joy, when there seemed so much to make us sad.” The second “was a day of sadness, when there seemed so much to make us glad” (6).


[10] Krauth identified with the “horror of great darkness that had fallen upon an exultant land” on that second pageant, yet his theological eye saw something amiss. It took a few weeks for the nation to realize that “the first anguish of an unspeakable loss” (6) demonstrated both a lack of trust in God and the human instinct to make idols. “Oh! the first pang of hopelessness was the reaction of an unconscious atheism against an unconscious idolatry” (7). In warning of the danger of making Lincoln an idol by deifying him, Krauth carved out space for properly honoring his human goodness and greatness.[8]


[11] Krauth asked how did “this intense national affection” come about for one who came to office “with less personal devotion, less enthusiasm, clustering around him” than any other President. Lincoln was elected in 1860 because his enemies were divided. “As every one now sees that the providence of God was the cause of his election, so all have long seen that the political enemies of Abraham Lincoln were the occasion of it” (8). Yet his greatness was “wrought out by himself,” with God’s help. Between the two pageants there was “a wonderful chasm,” in which a lawyer became interpreter and defender of the Constitution and a politician, a statesman (9). “Simple, homely, rugged, self-depreciating, he was to play the first part in the greatest drama of modern history” (10). Among “all men thought of for leaders, who would have been to us what Abraham Lincoln has been?” The nation showed its grateful response to his leadership by re-electing him in 1864 with a majority of nearly half a million, a major shift from 1860. Krauth cited the numbers (11).


[12] There were many reasons for this vast change, but “the mightiest of them” was Lincoln’s “character” (11). He remained one of the people. His “integrity, simplicity, openness… did not forsake him in his august position.” Krauth celebrated his firmness and calmness, and with a light touch remarked that others would have recognized his grandeur sooner if he had had some character flaw. “He confessed his mistakes with a charming frankness, but had nothing to say of his successes.” In a well-chosen phrase that called attention to his great speeches, Krauth described Lincoln as “a man whose language carried more weight than ancient oracles” (12).


[13] What Krauth found most important in Lincoln’s character was his moral integrity, his dedication to do what was right. Lincoln’s cause was “the cause of the negro, and the common cause of the poor white” (12), and like Luther, he was “sure because his cause was of God.” He had “but one fundamental principle—one grand idea, in statesmanship. This was the thread of his life. That principle is, The absolute right of the right. He asked only, What is right?” He opposed the rebellion because it was wrong and upheld the Constitution because it was right (13). “His motto was: My country, because she is right; freedom, because it is right; The Union, the Constitution, the laws, because they are right.” His conviction of the right brought hopefulness, so that “there were hours when his lone faith was more to us than all our armies” (14).


[14] Krauth’s point echoed Lincoln’s call in his Second Inaugural Address for the nation to strive “with firmness in the right.” What Krauth did not address is the second part of that phrase: “as God gives us to see the right.” Lincoln’s own struggle to know what was right, his skepticism about those who seemed so sure they knew the right and his recognition that his own grasp of what was right stood under God’s judgment were not mentioned by Krauth.


[15] Krauth compared Lincoln to many others “in the immortal fellowship of the history of the world’s best and greatest sons.” One of these could probably only come from a Lutheran professor: “In his personal traits, men will think of him with Luther in his playful unbendings amid the loved ones of the home.” Another comparison was and still is expected: “In the magnitude of his services in the Chair, posterity will place him by the side of Washington.” As an orator, people will compare him to Patrick Henry and Henry Clay (15). “Among the great of humble origin, who was more thoroughly self-made than he, and yet so absolute in all the grand elements of a rounded, self-poised well-making?” (16)


[16] Recognizing the risk in making historical judgments so soon after Lincoln’s death, Krauth nonetheless was confident in his judgment: “That this man was good, is conceded; but we, who belong to early posterity, anticipate and pronounce the verdict of its latest generations, when we say he was great” (16-17). Lincoln’s greatness was “a development” (17). With his capacity to develop, “his views became larger, his grasp broader and tenacious; his style assumed weight and solemnity; the sublimest elements of religion seemed to penetrate it more and more, till his latest words breathed the purest spirit of the higher world.” Even his appearance changed, so that when posterity gazes “upon the mild, thoughtful, earnest, sad lineaments” of his latest best pictures, they will be at a loss to account for his supposed homeliness.


[17] Among the virtues Krauth praised were Lincoln’s patience and self-control, which he demonstrated when solely tested as no one else by “open warfare” and “by the no less unscrupulous warfare of falsehood and partisanship” (17). He defended at some length Lincoln’s sometimes-criticized “abounding wit, humor and anecdote” (20). In all he was “ever his own true self, without evasion, affectation or pretence.” Lincoln was “so firm, yet so forgiving; so true to his land, yet so gentle to its foes; so unconscious, so genial, so childlike” (21).


[18] Krauth reflected on why in God’s providence Lincoln had been allowed to be killed. “Out of the chaos of disunion and civil war wrought by slavery,” Lincoln “had brought us peace, unity and universal freedom.” He had gained “the profoundest respect and most devoted love of his whole land.” His work was done, “he had reached the very height of all that he could do,” so what was left “for God to do to crown His own work in him?” (21) “To preserve the uniqueness of the divine conception of this wonderful history of a child of Providence,” to hallow the principle for which he lived by his blood, to open eyes to his character, to melt away hatred, “these may have been in the mind of God” (22). Krauth wisely spoke of his grasp of providence in terms of possibility not certainty.


[19] As a good rhetorician, Krauth concluded his discourse with a flourish. His words recalled Elijah passing on his mantle to Elisha as he was taken up in heaven (2 Kings 2).

  A dark cloud closed for a moment around the object of the fondest gaze; the flash as of a sparkle struck from some wheel of fire, burned for a moment in the eyes of the nation: cloud and sparkle vanished, and on the cold earth there lay only the mantle. He—was gone; but one convulsive sob of a whole land, stricken, astounded, heart-sick, in a loss too great, a grief too deep for comprehension, followed in the cry: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.”

  Gone, but not dead. Gone, but not lost. He lives in the life of that for which he lived, and is immortal in the love of those for whom he died; for life cannot die, and love is the life of the heart, most deathless of all deathless things. A living man was the honored one in the first pageant; an immortal man hallowed the second….If the day shall come it may be truly said that the life of ABRAHAM LINCOLN has vanished from earth, then shall the pulse of Freedom herself lie still and cold beneath the eager fingers which grope, but grope in vain, to find it (22-3).


[20] Throughout his discourse Krauth spoke of Lincoln as an historical human being, great and good, but not divine; Lincoln clearly belonged to “this age.” Therefore this concluding reference to Elijah who was taken up in heaven and his language of immortality seems out of place. To interpret him in the best light, however, Krauth was speaking of immortality before humans not before God, of immortality in historical memory. It is this earthly immortality which Krauth must have had principally in mind when he quoted Isaiah 25:8 (KJV; compare 1 Corinthians 15:54) on the title page: “He will swallow up death in victory.” Yet why he chose this biblical citation may leave one puzzled; his discourse was not a sermon proclaiming Christ’s victory over death.


Seiss—Our Moses


[21] The Rev. Joseph A. Seiss, D.D., (1823-1904) was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Philadephia (1858-1874), where he delivered this sermon. He was a founder of the General Council in 1867 and served as its president for a time. During his lifetime he wrote a great deal on a variety of topics, including unusual ones such as premillennialism, astronomy, and pyramidology. He was a student of liturgies and hymnody and translated “Beautiful Savior” from German.[9]


[22] Seiss’s sermon was set within a devotional service of prayer and hymns. The service began with a reading of the Ten Commandments from Exodus and the Confession of Sins, in which the congregation “acknowledge[ed] thy righteousness in the sorrowful visitation which has come upon us, and bow[ed] to thy holy will in submission and self-abasement” (3). The Scripture lessons were Isaiah 59, a call to national repentance, and Luke 6:20-38, the Beatitudes and the call to love your enemies.


[23] A lengthy General Prayer thanked God “that when dangerous conspiracies arose, thou didst bring them to nought,” “that no invasions of loyal territory have been permitted to prosper” (7) and for “the success with which thou hast favored [Lincoln’s] administrations to the preservation of our national unity and the enlargement of human freedom.” The prayer asked God to “give to the erring and the vanquished the spirit of loyal submission to the rightful authority of the nation. Heal the wounds that have been made in their homes and neighborhoods, in their peace and prosperity. Take away from them and from us all bitterness, wrath, and anger, and make us all kind one toward another. Make us again one people….Show thy goodness to the sorrowing and afflicted, and give deliverance to the enslaved and oppressed” (8-9). One of the hymns sung was “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform” (10).


[24] Seiss structured his sermon around a point-by-point comparison between Moses and Lincoln. He recalled an event from Moses’ life and then drew an often ingenuous but forced parallel with Lincoln’s. What this device did do, however, was allow Seiss to place Lincoln within a biblical narrative and to praise him for his leadership and for ending slavery.


[25] Seiss spoke extensively on slavery. The Constitution, “contrary to the convictions and desires of its framers,” embodied and legalized “elements of oppression and undoubted wrong…by which millions of human beings, brought hither in their misfortune, were doomed to abject and unqualified servitude” (17). What the founders regarded as a wrong, “had come to be accepted and defended as the sublimest beneficence, the foundation of liberties, and the proper basis of republican government; nay as the very ordination of Almighty Goodness, to touch or question which was considered treason to the country and sin against God” (18). Then God acted. “Long had, the nation submitted and yielded to the ever-multiplying demands of the ‘peculiar institution,’ until the God of justice said, “It is too much,” and gave commission to his angels to strike it down, yea, to sweep it from the earth” (19).


[26] In comparing Moses’ “self-sacrificing devotion to the convictions of justice and right, based upon his religious faith,” Seiss candidly noted that Lincoln “though not, so far as I am informed, a professed Christian, at least not in all particulars,” and then added that he “was a man of decided religious turn of mind, who lived and acted in the light and influence of a practical faith. It was from his religious persuasions that all his ideas were shapen, and according to which he honestly sought to settle his judgment and direct his course, whether in matters of private life or of public policy” (20).[10] Among these Lutheran preachers, only Seiss made reference to Lincoln’s ambiguous and disputed relation to Christianity.


[27] Lincoln “had learned, from the holiest authority, that God ‘hath made of one blood all nations of men,’ [Acts 17:26] and that the immutable rule of right, as between man and man, is to do unto others as we would that they should do unto us.” Seiss enumerated Lincoln’s early protests against slavery’s expansion and his growing opposition to it (21). He quoted at length a speech from 1858 in which Lincoln took his stand on the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that all men are created equal, an affirmation growing out of what Lincoln believed the founders found in Genesis 1: “’In their belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded and imbruted by its fellows’” (22).[11] More so than the others studied in this article, Seiss captured the centrality of equality for Lincoln while pointing to its biblical roots in Lincoln’s thought.


[28] Seiss could speak of Lincoln as “uncouth and inexperienced…at the beginning,” but who grew in character and executive capacity “until there shone forth from under that ungainly figure a grasp of principle, a directness of judgment, a dignity of manner, a solemnity of purpose, a goodness of heart, and a comprehensive simplicity and justness of policy” (26). He launched a sustained, vigorous counter-attack against the notion that Lincoln was a “tyrant” (26-31). He quoted from “that organ of our country’s enemies, the London Times” that Lincoln “’was as little of a tyrant as any man who ever lived’” (31). This quotation from the London Times, which had been pro-South, illustrates how Seiss and other Lutheran preachers were conscious of what Europe was saying about the Civil War and Lincoln.


[29] With all his praise of Lincoln, Seiss insisted that “he was but a man.” He felt there was a real danger, especially “as the peculiar snare of the last times, of falling into a spirit of hero-worship, and an apotheotizing of human leaders, which is among the subtlest, easiest, and deadliest of idolatries.” Yet “let us not fail to do justice to the virtues of the dead” (33). Although recognizing that future ages would have to determine Lincoln’s significance, Seiss believed that “we know enough to warrant the remark, that generations to come will recur with grateful interest and holy reverence to the story of that rugged pioneer….His administration will mark a new era in the history of this continent, and the time will come when his name shall be cherished by freedom’s children as warmly as that of Washington himself” (34-35).


[30] Part of Lincoln’s legacy was that he illustrated “the value of talents which often lie hidden in the humbler walks of life.” His life offered “a foundation of ever fresh inspiration to improvement” and a lesson “to the proud, the high-born, and the wealthy, that their children are by nature no better and no greater than the children of those who serve in their houses, hew their wood, and draw their water” (35). The larger legacy was that Lincoln faced “terrific perils” caused by “treason and rebellion” to preserve liberty and the Union (36-37). Lincoln was “a martyr to his country and to principles which good men in every age will honor and approve” (39).


[31] Seiss concluded his sermon by calling his listeners to follow Lincoln’s example, “always to conform your course to the same Divine standard, and live to truth and right and God, in business and in politics, the same as your charities and in your church.” “We may be humble, feeble, and unnoticed in the great crowd of men; but we are each God’s workmanship….” and “we each have spheres of importance in which we operate.” He ended by quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,”: ‘“Lives of great men all remind us…Footprints on the sands of time’” (42-43). Seiss claimed Lincoln as an inspiration for others to lead a moral life.


Johnston—God Decreed: Slavery Must Perish


[32] The Rev. E.S. Johnston, D.D., (1834-1926) had been at Second English Evangelical Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for four years when President Lincoln was assassinated. This was his first pastorate in what would be a long ministry.[12] What stands out in his sermon was the prominence of providence, his forceful condemnation of slavery and his recognition of the North’s involvement with it, and his stern attitude toward the South. Like the other sermons Johnston called the fallen President a great and good man, yet in comparison with the sermons by Butler, Krauth and Seiss, he spoke much less about Lincoln.


[33] The text heading his sermon was “The Most High ruleth in the Kingdom of Men” from Daniel 4:25. The other preachers dealt with here assumed a strong notion of providence, but only Johnston put it front and center. “God is the Sovereign Lord and Governor of all things,” he stated in his first sentence. (3) God’s ways, that may lead through Calvary, “seem mysterious, but God rules. There is a purpose and a Providence in them all.” He quoted the same verse from Psalms (19:9) that Lincoln had in his Second Inaugural Address: ‘“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”


[34] When Lincoln, Johnston and others spoke of providence, they gave meaning and comfort to people baffled and crushed by inexplicable events. Johnston assured his congregation that the “calamity” of the President’s murder “was no blind chance.” As in the calamities of the last four years, so now “God’s hand is unmistakably manifest,” spurring the government in the direction of justice and teaching “the people to sustain the Government while they crush the remains of the rebellion with an iron hand, and inflict upon its prime movers the punishment they deserve” (4). The affliction of “the terrible catastrophe which deprived the Republic of its chief” tells us “that the Demon Spirit that prompted and sustained [the rebellion]…must be driven wholly from the land.”


[35] Johnston viewed Lincoln’s as a life well completed. “His work was done; his duty fulfilled, and his fame imperishably inscribed on the hearts of his countrymen.” He succinctly summarized Lincoln’s significance: “His name will remain forever associated with the emancipation of the slaves, the reduction of the rebellion, the preservation of civil liberty, and the vindication of popular Government” (5). Johnston praised Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address —“how truthful, penitential and christian….like a requiem—sad, sacred, solemn and sweet”—and quoted from its last two paragraphs (6-7). Lincoln “sealed his life with his death, and now his spirit works more mightily in the nation, since his bodily presence is withdrawn. Why then should we mourn?” (7) Rather Johnston encouraged people “to rejoice…that it was given him to die gloriously amid the consummation of a grand mission nobly performed, and to shed tears for ourselves and our country!”


[36] On that special day of humiliation and prayer, when we “humble ourselves before Almighty God” because of the wickedness, injustice and oppression that “required such a terrible mark of God’s displeasure,” Johnston asked, “How far then are we responsible for this crime?” This was a national chastisement to which his listeners were personally connected. He called on them to confess their guilt for not resisting the evil spirit that brought discord and now to strive against it (8).


[37] “The evil spirit is slavery. It has been the cause of all our four long years of suffering. It is a terrible source of evil. It destroys all human rights. It desecrates all the sanctities of heart and home. It wastes the slave. It destroys the master. It corrupts the public morals. It is an enemy both to God and man.” Although “the spirit of the Bible is manifestly against slavery,” stated Johnston, “yet, because the national law legalized it, and we loved it on account of the power it controlled; we stood by it and sustained it in opposition to right and to God….Thus through all the past we clung to slavery and sympathized with it, sharing its profits and its guilt” (9). Then God’s decree went forth, “and it must perish.” Johnston was alone among the Lutheran preachers to mention Northern complicity in slavery.


[38] The great majority in the North found “in the fact of its death a grand consolation in this day of sadness.” Johnston quoted the governor of South Carolina describing the devastation in his state as testimony to “the terrible retribution that must come upon all who take the sword to assist them in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” The last phrase of that sentence comes from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

“It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” The phrase was the same but the change in meaning between the two sentences was important: The preacher pronounced God’s judgment on the South, and the President withheld final judgment and then placed both North and South under God’s righteous judgment.


[39] In view of this retribution on the South, continued Johnston, “how great the folly, and how extreme the madness of those who sympathize with and wish to perpetuate the institution of slavery” (10). The “monster” of slavery must “fire our souls with an invincible determination, that both it and all the unholy prejudices it has engendered against a certain class of our fellow-men shall be destroyed forever.” Was Johnston speaking of racial prejudice? If so, and it appears most probable that he was, he once again stands out as unique. While the Northern church had by this point become clear about the evil of slavery, they had not even begun to identify and to address the evil of racism. In such a context, his words were remarkable.


[40] Although Johnston had quoted Lincoln’s “with malice toward none; with charity for all,” his tone became different when he spoke of the instigators of the rebellion. He admonished his congregation “to estimate aright the crime of treason, and permit no false magnanimity to lead you to attempt to ward off the vengeance which God has plainly indicated shall be poured out upon the leaders of the rebellion….Crime must be punished.” Johnston concluded his sermon by asking people to pledge themselves to be faithful to the country, hate slavery, and, echoing Lincoln, “to stand firm in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” Through the new leader whom Providence has raised up “God will lead us safely into the promised land” (11).


Hutter—The Cry of Death


[41] The Rev. Edwin W. Hutter, D.D., (1814-1873) was pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Philadephia his entire ministry, from 1850 until his death. Before entering the ministry he was a newspaper editor, Private Secretary to President James Buchanan and Assistant Secretary of State. When a child of his died, his religious views changed and he began to prepare for the ministry.[13]


[42] Hutter’s tribute to Lincoln, “the wise Magistrate,” was relatively brief in comparison to other sermons studied here, perhaps because, as he mentioned, he had already spoken on his assassination.. His words of praise focused on Lincoln the person: “Endowed by nature and by his early allotments, with a most felicitous combination of personal qualities, our institutions have rarely produced a character, so original, so amiable, so gentle, so sweet-tempered, of such noble simplicity, and so perfectly unspoiled by public honors and rewards.” People from all over the world “to the end of time” will come to his grave “and mourn him as one of a class of men, very rare indeed, upon this earth.”


[43] The thrust of Hutter’s sermon, however, was not in eulogizing Lincoln. Instead Lincoln’s death became the occasion for Hutter to confront his listeners with the reality of death, their own death, and to call them to turn to God. His narrative placed mortal human beings before the eternal God. One might say, although Hutter does not say it, that he preached the law, the futility of life in the face of death, to drive people to the gospel. In this sense his sermon was the most evangelical of the five.


[44] Hutter’s sermon text came from the Exodus story after the death of the first-born in every Egyptian house: “There was a great cry in Egypt” (Exodus 12:30). Just as it was death that caused the great cry in Egypt, so it was also death that caused his country’s “wail of woe.” Beyond that one point of comparison, the analogy hardly works, for it would mean comparing the North to Pharaoh’s regime. Yet that difficulty did not keep Hutter from using the text effectively to speak of death.


[45] Like other Protestant preachers, Hutter viewed Lincoln’s death in terms of providence, an inscrutable providence. “Before the providence, that permitted his assassination, we bow in humble submission. Seeing in it a mystery we cannot comprehend, we await the development of the Eternal Wisdom. We discern in it one of ‘secret things that belong unto God’—one of those inexplicable dispensations, whose deep profundities no human reason can fathom.” Hutter nevertheless understood something about it. The assassination was not a judgment on the departed, just as the death of Stephen and other martyrs was not a judgment on them. Nor was Lincoln’s death a divine judgment on the nation, for all were appointed to die. Yet his death was “a deep affliction,” for his family, for “the four millions of long oppressed and degraded bondmen of the South, whose Emancipator” he was, and for “mankind itself.” His assassination was “a most painful and trying bereavement,” a “great cry in Egypt,” in which “we have participated.”


[46] This affliction “does, indeed, seem part and parcel of the Divine method of conducting the affairs of the world.” As God’s dealings with his chosen people showed, “afflictions are among God’s chosen instrumentalities” to bring repentance. So “let this event serve anew to impress us all with the importance of religion and the grandeur of Eternity.” No matter the manner of death, “how short is life!” Hutter spoke passionately about how “our months and our years, like billows of the ocean, roll away,” and in which “there is no pause.” He described at length people’s “infatuation” with “the world’s vanities and vices,” forgetting “The One Thing Needful.”


[47] God “has again addressed a most solemn and impressive warning. The ‘great cry in Egypt’ speaks to us the doings of Death—tells us, that from his inexorable shaft, there is no one exempt, no matter how high in authority, or how much soever encircled with renown.” All “are marching to the tomb.” Hutter asked if “we will continue to reject the great salvation” found in “the suffering of [the world’s] expiring God.” He implored his listeners “to number your days” and to “husband time with a miser’s care!”


[48] Lincoln was permitted to fall ‘“that the works of God might be manifested.’” His works are power, wisdom and mercy and “a Warning, A Lesson, A Trial, for a great disciplinarian is our God. This is the meaning of the ‘great cry’ that is now heard throughout our land. It is to remind men of DEATH, of the JUDGMENT, of ETERNITY.” It is to awaken confidence and repentance. Hutter implored that these works of God “may urge us…to a closer familiarity with Christ” so that we may wait with patience for the time when we “never more give way to any ‘cry in Egypt’.”


[49] In distinction from the other sermons, Hutter did not use this national holiday to speak about the war, slavery or the nation’s future, but to address the mortal individual in his or her relationship with God.


“He Belongs to the Ages”


[50] Abraham Lincoln’s impact on his contemporaries was extraordinary. As the sermons in this article illustrate, many who lived during his presidency and experienced his sudden death gave him soaring praise and echoed one another in calling him good and great. In often elegant ways these five sermons expressed the belief that Lincoln was a remarkable person. They rightly prognosticated that Lincoln’s character, words and deeds would be remembered and honored by future generations and by people in other parts of the world.


[51] For these preachers to have said something negative about Lincoln would have been unpopular and perhaps even dangerous. They spoke entirely in a positive vein, most surely not from fear, but out of affection and respect for Lincoln. Their sermons or discourses were, of course, tributes or eulogies, a genre that lends itself to recall what is good about a person, which they did in sometimes exaggerated and flowery language, as was common in nineteenth-century rhetoric.


[52] “Apotheosis” and “deification” are words sometimes used to describe what preachers and others were saying about Lincoln at the time. Whatever may be true of others, this was not the intention of these Lutheran preachers. Krauth and Seiss, for example, recognized the danger of making Lincoln into an idol and criticized the tendency. What they claimed explicitly or implicitly was that it was possible and proper to honor human greatness without deifying the person. While they idealized him, they did not deify him.


[53] Their homage included what Peterson calls the five “building blocks of the Lincoln image.” Most prominent were Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and Lincoln as the Savior of the Union. They spoke of Lincoln’s contribution in terms of peace, union and freedom. Some of them emphasized Lincoln’s humble origins (Self-Made Man) and his humble manner (Man of the People). Less often some called attention to what he said and did for equality and democracy (First American).


[54] These sermons represent Lutheranism in an “Americanized” version. These preachers took for granted the compatibility of Christianity and republicanism, which characterized nineteenth-century American Protestantism.[14] Like other American Protestant preachers they interpreted events in light of a benevolent providence providing special care for their country. As partisans in what had been a devastating war, they identified completely with North’s “righteous” cause.


[55] Was there a distinctive Lutheran voice in these sermons? No, not if one is looking for a consistent pattern to be found in all the sermons. Perhaps such themes as the warning against idolatry, calls for obedience to civil authority, modesty (by some) in interpreting providence and restraint in what some said theologically about their country carry a Lutheran accent. Hutter’s sermon on death had a Lutheran tone. Disappointingly, these sermons for the most part tended to blur the distinction between Christ and country. Common American Protestant themes are more evident than distinctive Lutheran themes.


[56] These Lutheran preachers shared with others in their context two serious omissions. One, they were selective when they spoke about wartime atrocities. When speaking of the conduct of the war, they condemned the South’s atrocities but said nothing about the North’s. They did not apply existing just war standards such as non-discrimination or proportionality to their own side, as they did implicitly to their enemies. In their public view, only the South acted inhumanely on the battle field.[15] Two, although they spoke passionately against slavery, they did not address the reality that it was racial slavery, “black-slavery.”[16] These preachers did not prepare their listeners and readers to face their country’s racism.


[57] When Lincoln died in the home of a Lutheran family, Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, remarked, “Now he belongs to the Ages.”[17] These five Lutheran preachers send to us the same message: “Abraham Lincoln belongs to the ages—in this age.” They did so by placing the Lincoln narrative in the context of a certain Christian narrative.





[1] Krauth, Charles P. “The Two Pageants: A Discourse.” Delivered at the First Eng. Evan. Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, PA., Thursday, June 1st, 1865, 21. (Pittsburgh: W.S. Haven, 1865;


[2] “Remarks on the Character and Assassination of President Lincoln,” The Lutheran Observer (April 28, 1865). I thank Joel Thoreson in the ELCA Archives for his friendly assistance in locating this source and other material for this article.


[3]No Sorrow like Our Sorrow”: Northern Protestant Ministers and the Assassination of Lincoln (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994). See my summary of Chesebrough’s book in “Lutheran Sermons on Lincoln’s Assassination: Part 1,” paragraph 4, in the April issue of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. See also endnote #8 in “Part I” for further information on Lutheran sermons. It should be noted that The Evangelical Review Quarterly, a Lutheran scholarly journal, published a major unsigned article on Lincoln in its July 1865 issue (LXIII), 404-425.


[4] Mark A. Noll, “The Election Sermon: Situating Religion and the Constitution in the 18th Century (with Implications for Interpreting the Constitution in the 21st Century),” Unpublished lecture given at the Center for Church State Studies, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago, March 12, 2009. Noll traced the election or political sermon from its beginning in 1633 to its virtual demise around 1870. During the Civil War the political sermon was at one of its peaks. He noted that when Washington died, there were around 100 published sermons. In a private conversation, he commented on how many more sermons there were at Lincoln’s death and how in contrast to sermons at the time of Washington’s death, many of those at the time of Lincoln’s also made reference to the New Testament, due in large part because he was assassinated, martyred, on Good Friday. Noll also made the point that in contemporary United States religious voices make their impact on public life in other ways than by the political sermon.


[5] Rev. E. W. Hutter, “The Nation’s Wail of Sorrow.” “Fast Day Sermon. Preached in St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, New Street, Philadelphia, Thursday, June 1st, 1865.” The Lutheran Observer (June 16, 1865). Italics in quoted material belong to the original text. ELCA Archives.


[6] Gerhard E. Lenski, “Krauth, Charles Porterfield,” The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, Julius Bodensieck, Editor (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1965), 1228. For his participation in the General Synod’s resolution, see “Historical Documents: A Lutheran Response on the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s Response to a Lutheran Delegation,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (March 2009).


[7] Abdel Ross Wentz, A Basic History of Lutheranism in America, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 144. The number in parenthesis in the text refers to the page from which the quote comes.


[8] In his one line summary of the sermons, Chesebrough writes the following about Krauth: “Krauth emphasized that Lincoln had to die in order that people would understand that God was their only true leader.” Page 171. I do not find that idea in Krauth’s discourse, either here or later when he asks about why Lincoln was allowed to be killed.


[9] Gerhard E. Lenski, “Seiss, Joseph Augustus,” The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, Julius Bodensieck, Editor (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1965), 2152. “The Rev. Joseph A. Seiss, D.D., L.L. D,” Lutheran Standard (July 9, 1904), 441. “Pyramidology” was the belief that the Great Pyramid encoded advanced knowledge of the physical universe and the course of human history. One of Seiss’ books was called “A Miracle in Stone, or The Great Pyramid of Egypt.” His sermon is: “The Assassinated President, June 1st, 1865 St. John’s (Lutheran) Church, Philadelphia, Seiss, Joseph A. Philadelphia, 1865 (NA). ([]=seiss)


[10] Seiss was the only Lutheran preacher to refer to Lincoln being shot in a theater, after which he assures his congregation that Lincoln was a Christian. “Neither do I conceive of the surroundings in which the assassin found him, as good, pious, or becoming a Christian’s dying-place. He was but a man, lacking in experience in public affairs, and of that meek and generous nature which was, perhaps, too willing, in smaller matters, to acquiesce in the tastes and wishes of people less conscientious than himself. But, in the great elements of his character, he was just, devout, Christian, and of a moral make and stamen, to which few in politics have ever attained. He believed in God, in Revelation, in Christ, in prayer, in the necessity of virtue, in providence, and in the habit of settled dependence upon the precepts and administrations of Heaven” (38).


[11] Seiss was referring to a speech Lincoln had given in Lewistown, Illinois, on August 17, 1858 and reported on by the Chicago Press and Tribune on August 21, 1858. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2 (


[12] “In Memoriam Rev. E.S. Johnston, D.D.,” “Eighty-seventh Convention of the Alleghany Synod” (May 1927), 79-81. Sermon delivered on Thursday, June 1st, 1865, “Abraham Lincoln,” at the Second English Evangelical Lutheran Church, Harrisburg, Pa., by Rev. E. S. Johnston (Theo. F. Scheffer, Printer, 1865). (


[13] “Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Drs. Hutter and Stork,” Thirty-fourth Annual Convention of the East Pennsylvania Synod (1874). “Obituary Elizabeth E. Hutter” (June 20, 1895). “The husband of deceased was in his days one of the best known citizens of Pennsylvania…. During the War of the Rebellion, Mrs. Hutter frequently went to the front, rendering valuable service to the wounded and suffering. She was
the first woman to go to Gettysburg after the great fight, receiving permission from President Lincoln and going in a special car.” (


[14] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). See especially “Chapter 1, Historical Contexts,” 17-29. After the War of Independence, Protestants reversed European judgments that considered republicanism “as tantamount to religious heresy, and embraced a republic vision of politics….The American denominations that expanded most rapidly were the ones that most successfully presented themselves as both traditionally Christian and faithfully republican,” p. 23.


[15] Harry S. Stout, “Baptism in Blood,” Books & Culture (July 1, 2003). “In what would become characteristic of Civil War reporting and clerical preaching, the cause of patriotism effectively stifled any moral inquiry into acceptable losses or just conduct.” Page 8. ( This is one of the themes in Stout’s major book Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006).


[16] See Noll’s book, endnote 14. Noll demonstrates that in the debate in the United States on slavery neither proponents nor opponents noted that the reality they were talking about was black slavery. For example, he commends Philip Schaff for writing in 1861, “The negro question lies far deeper than the slavery question” (italics in Schaff). Yet Schaff “did not even raise the question whether the general sanction for slavery he found in the Bible could be applied unambiguously to the black-only form of slavery that existed in the United States,” page 51. Stout writes, “If the Civil War had the salutary effect of abolishing chattel slavery once and for all, it failed to counter racism at all.” “Baptism in Blood, 3.


[17] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 599.



© May 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 5