A Journey from Skepticism to Faith

Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, Palm Beach Atlantic University President

Last month, in honor of President’s Day, Dr. Stephen Mansfield, a New York Times best-selling author and Executive Director of the Center for Global Leadership at PBA, wrote an article titled “Abraham Lincoln and His Covenant with God” for the Institute of Faith and Culture. The piece explores the life of one of our nation’s most revered figures, his journey from skepticism to profound faith, and how his leadership — encompassed by his desire to follow the Lord — changed the course of history. The following article is a reminder of the immense responsibility of leaders like Lincoln, who lead with courage, faith and an unwavering commitment to better the future.


Abraham Lincoln and His Covenant with God

It was something that President Lincoln had long hoped to do. He would, if the opportunity came, free the slaves. He did not have the authority to free the slaves in the north; that would have to come later, with an act of Congress. He could, though, issue a wartime proclamation freeing slaves in the states rebelling against the Union and slaves who were in contraband camps. It was the right thing to do, and he would act when the time presented itself.

And so he waited. For what exactly? For a sign from God.

He said as much in a cabinet meeting on September 22, 1862. Salmon Chase, the secretary of the Treasury, recorded the moment in his diary. Having reminded all present that he had often spoken of his proclamation before, Lincoln then said that the time had come.

“When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone; but I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) — to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.” [1]

“Chase, a meticulous man, asked if he had heard the president correctly. Lincoln replied, ‘I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.’”[2]

Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy, was also at this meeting and, like Chase, wrote of it in his diary.

“In the course of the discussion on this paper, which was long, earnest, and on the general principle involved, harmonious, he remarked that he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation. It might be thought strange, he said, that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied it was right, was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results.”[3]

skepticismIf Lincoln’s cabinet members were surprised to hear him speaking of “the divine will” and of making covenants with God, it was understandable. He was sometimes confusing in matters of religion. He refused to become a member of any religious denomination but attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC faithfully. He subscribed to no manmade creed, he often said, but read the Bible daily, commonly engaging visitors to the White House in long discussions of faith and theology. He despised the southern theologians who defended slavery from the pages of scripture but routinely stayed up late into the night writing himself notes in which he wrestled with the will of God for the nation. Everyone knew that as a young man he had declared himself an atheist and even written a booklet undermining faith in God. Friends who knew he had political aspirations ripped the offending manuscript from his hands and burned it.

Yet slowly, agonizingly, Lincoln had come to faith. It had come in the wake of grief over his dead sons, Eddie and Willie. It came through the ministrations of Dr. James Smith, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and his valiant presentation of Christian truth in The Christian’s Defence, a book Lincoln grew to cherish and consult often. It had come also as a tortured president cried out to God, begging the Ruler of Nations to end the bloody conflict destroying America.

Faith came to Lincoln, and it was a faith that surrendered human reason to the ways of a sovereign God. Thus it was that when the Emancipation Proclamation became law in January of 1863, it was confirmation of a covenant between God and the president of the United States. It was why Lincoln was able to say, “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”[4]

Historians often speak of the hinges of history, of turning points that shape all that comes afterward. The Emancipation Proclamation was such a turning point, and the fact that it arose from a nation’s leader making covenant with God to liberate a people is a tale we ought to know, we ought to celebrate, and we ought to commend to the generations that follow us. In doing so, we might help our nation return to the covenant-making God of Abraham Lincoln.


[1] David Donald, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954), 149–150. Emphasis added.

[2] F. B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 90. Emphasis added.

[3] John T. Morse, Jr., ed., Diary of Gideon Welles: Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 1:142–143. Emphasis mine.

[4] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 499.


Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (www.pba.edu)

For more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-debra-a-schwinn/


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