Coming to terms with Lincoln: Christian faith and moral reflection in the history classroom

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In December 2003 I proctored the final exam for my Messiah University history course, "HIS 324: Civil War America." Students were asked to process a considerable amount of historical information related to the war, its causes, and its aftermath. I wanted to know, for example, if my students could explain the ways in which the triumphant North proposed to "reconstruct" the defeated South. Did they understand the significance of the battle of Antietam to the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation? Why was Andrew Johnson impeached? But perhaps more importantly, could they use the past-in this case the history of the Civil War-to help them better understand the present. As one might expect, we spent considerable time during the semester thinking together about the person of Abraham Lincoln and the ways in which his vision for America has shaped our society today. While preparing for the class, I was reading a book on Lincoln's wartime presidency edited by noted Civil War historian Gabor Boritt. In his introduction, Boritt reminded his readers that it was important for any student of American history to "come to terms with Abraham Lincoln."1 For a young instructor with limited experience teaching the Civil War, I realized that I had just stumbled upon the idea that would provide the moral center for the entire course. As part of the culminating exercise of the semester, I asked my students whether or not the America that Lincoln and the North secured with the Union victory was "good." I must admit that it took awhile before my students really began to grasp the importance of Boritt's challenge. Many seemed surprised that anyone in America today, especially those living in a "Union" state and attending college thirty miles north of Gettysburg, would really need to "come to terms" with Abraham Lincoln. His place as one of America's greatest presidents seemed indelibly engraved in the annals of history. Lincoln had many detractors and few friends during his presidency, but to reevaluate his legacy today, in light of the Union victory, the ensuing emancipation of slaves, and his redefinition of American nationalism, seemed to be downright un-American. Nevertheless, I try to teach my students that revisionism is the lifeblood of the discipline of history, so we pushed ahead, perhaps secretly hoping that there would be little to revise about this truly great American leader. As the semester progressed, I soon learned that I could not have asked for a better place to do the intellectual work of "coming to terms" with Lincoln. My history majors were eager to understand the sixteenth president in all his complexities. They were also, as Christians, open to the interpretive challenge of using their own faith commitments (which informed their diverse social and political convictions) to help them make sense of Lincoln and how his approach to war and society influenced their lives. Consequently, "HIS 324: Civil War America" was one of the most stimulating classrooms I have ever been a part of as either a teacher or a student. And I believe this was the case precisely because we were in a classroom at a Christian college, not in spite of it. The students who enrolled in my course represented an amazing cross-section of the Messiah University student body. Because of Messiah's roots in the Brethren in Christ Church, there were many students who were sympathetic to Anabaptist positions on pacifism, social justice, and the critique of patriotic nationalism. It was clear to me that the religious culture of the college would profoundly shape the way I taught the Civil War. I was teaching at a school where many believed that war was morally wrong, especially a war that, according to most historians, served to baptize American nationalism with the blood of its casualties. 2 As a result, I was forced to raise questions from the historical data that I had not asked students to think about when I taught the class elsewhere. Another large group of students taking the course came from conservative evangelical backgrounds. To many of these students, Messiah's Anabaptist heritage is not only foreign but in many ways scandalously unpatriotic. They arrive on campus with a worldview that links theologically conservative Protestantism to strong doses of nationalism and free market economics. These students made me realize just how deeply Lincoln's civil religion and commitment to "Whig" political and economic principles had permeated both American culture and American evangelicalism. If I were going to provide any criticism of Lincoln's nationalistic vision, I would need to tread lightly. I should also add that my students would not be doing the work of "coming to terms with Abraham Lincoln" alone. Whether they realized it or not, I also spent much of the semester engaged in this exercise. I was trained as an historian of colonial and revolutionary America, a specialist on the eighteenth, not the nineteenth, century. Because of my graduate school toils in the specific scholarly field of colonial America I had not thought deeply about the connections between my area of expertise and the larger tapestry of American history. My recent employment at a teaching college like Messiah, where I would need to offer classes outside of my research field, would require me to examine, in some ways for the first time, these connections. Messiah would also give me the academic freedom (yes, academic freedom) to explore these questions from the perspective of my Christian faith. For the first time since receiving my Ph.D., I became overwhelmed with the feeling that I was not in graduate school anymore-and I found it quite liberating! I prepared for a fun semester. The history of Lincoln and the Civil War-the defining president and defining moment of modern American life-was a wonderful way to test some of my own growing convictions about American society and my place within it. As I looked over the classroom, I realized that the faces looking back at me would be my partners in the process. I would need to be humble, listen, and come to grips with Lincoln for myself in the context of the community of Christian inquiry that met three mornings a week in Boyer Hall, room 277. Copyright © 2010 by University of Notre Dame. All Rights Reserved.


Originally published as: Fea, J., Green, J., & Miller, E. (Eds.). (2010). Confessing history: Explorations in christian faith and the historian’s vocation. University of Notre Dame Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvpj7cx2

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