Southern by the Grace of God: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Sins of the Father

From the pages of The Atlantic to the comments of Facebook, I have been reading with much interest the debates rekindled by the movie Lincoln. As a romantic, I took my wife to finally see the movie on our anniversary. Standing in the concession line, I noticed a man in front of me wearing a t-shirt with the image of an American flag intertwined with a Confederate flag. Boldly printed on the back were the words “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.” As the shock of what I just paid for a large Diet Coke began to wear off, I wondered if this was some kind of premonition.

There are two things regarding the Civil War I have known since childhood. First, my paternal great-grandfather (four times removed) fought and died for the Confederacy in the Battle of Atlanta. Second, on my mother’s side, our long-forgotten relatives once owned slaves. In fact, the house where I grew up is only a 15-minute ride from where these poor imprisoned souls worked, slept, and lived a life I cannot fathom. Truthfully and unfortunately, I’ve never really thought about this too much. It seemed like ancient history to me; however, the past was about to catch up with me.

As the much-anticipated movie unfurled before my eyes, I could not fully concentrate on the masterful performance of Daniel Day Lewis as the Great Emancipator. Instead, I kept wondering what the African American man sitting in front of me was thinking as slavery, racism, and hatred took center stage. When the credits rolled and the lights gradually appeared, my first inclination was to tap him on the shoulder and apologize profusely. Instead, I quietly exited the theater angry that chattel slavery was ever legal in this county and saddened that anyone ever raised a gun in support of this institution.

Soul Vexed

I am not a film critic or historian, even though I like to pretend at times. I understand that movies of this particular genre cannot present the multifaceted nature of the subjects they seek to capture. I also realize that directors are often prone to over characterization and simplicity. Historically speaking, I know the Civil War is a complicated mess with roots that reach beyond the American Revolution and deep into European history. However, as a descendant of the Old South, two scenes spoke deeply to my vexed soul.

The first is when Lincoln visits a military hospital. While inside greeting patients, his son remains outside and follows two soldiers pushing a wheelbarrow, which is leaving a trail of blood. This ultimately leads him to a pit full of dismembered body parts. It is a gruesome scene that epitomized for me the brokenness of man. Throughout the film, director Steven Spielberg presents the depravity of mankind as a central character. From the unethical political deals to the horrific battle scenes to Honest Abe himself, we see the hideous stain that sin has left on every human heart. I understand it is impossible to fully grasp the motives and beliefs of those who came before me. However, I do know the only hope for the very real sin of the father as well as the ever-present sin of the son. It is the trail of blood that leads to a place of death outside the walls of Jerusalem.

The other scene takes place in the White House after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln moves closer to a window because he hears a commotion. As he opens it, the light and thundering sound of church bells proclaiming justice and victory invade the room. For a moment, my heart jumped with excitement. It was such a poignant reminder that one glorious day our King will return bringing justice and peace and ultimate victory for every tribe, tongue, and nation. On that day, the rebellion will come to an end, and God’s people by his grace shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

  • Annie


    Thank you for pointing us toward our true North, the glorious day when we are all free from sin, and free to worship our King as He deserves, with undivided hearts. I am glad to see this post on such an important topic.

    As a white person, over time I have come to understand that I will never truly understand what my brothers and sisters of color feel about the things that have seperated us, and the injustices that my portion of the human race have perpetrated on their portion. This point was driven home in the last two Presidential elections. It truly surprised me to see how many people of color where willing to forgo so many principles and values to see a man of color in that high office. (see Trillia Newbell’s post, I Pledge Allegience to my Blackness for an insightful perspective)

    It runs deep and it runs wide. God help us to live as Paul admonished us, until our King returns,

    “… to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called,
    with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

  • John

    Have read a book called the Last Segragated Hour by Steve Haynes? He is an ordained minister and religion professor at Rhodes college. It describes the kneel ins in churches in the 1960s and the Memphis Church called Independent Presbyterian that didn’t apologize for its racist past until 2012. It is a PCA church. Shows how long repentance can take. It is a fascinating book.

  • http://PresbyterianPCAchurchesandracism John

    Here is the book. Also involves the Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis.

  • Adam

    I greatly respect how deeply you feel about the problem and devastating nature of slavery. I hold a great deal of respect for TGC and many of the blog posts are spot on… except when they delve into areas like this without exercising close discernment.

    I am sure, as a pastor, you are constantly aware of the problem many people have in believing half truths and perpetuating bad information. It is therefore essential for Christ’s clergy to rise above this bad information and present truth, not opinion or propaganda.

    “I quietly exited the theater angry that chattel slavery was ever legal in this county and saddened that anyone ever raised a gun in support of this institution.”

    I just want to point out that there were good, godly men fighting on the confederate side. The issues they were fighting for were not to do with slavery, but a firm belief that states should retain the right to secede from the oppression of the federal government. Anyone who lauds that the North was right in going into one of the bloodiest wars in order to stop slavery is undeniably mistaken. Every other nation that has outlawed slavery has done so without going to war.

    Even today, there are strong, sound Christians who hold to differing political beliefs. Some of which agree with the confederate principle that States should maintain the right to secede.

    I understand that your intention in the article was to point out the sinfulness of slavery, but you may have done so at the risk of giving approval to the atrocities that Lincoln committed at taking the nation into an unnecessary war in order that he could maintain federal power. I think this point should always be made clear when we, as Christians, talk about abolition. The ends do not justify the means, nor the precedence that it has set.

    Anyone choosing to believe that Lincoln was unequivocally right in his actions is one who has not approved themselves through scholarly study, nor have they demonstrated discernment in distinguishing truth from fiction.

    As steward, shepherds, and overseers of the Church, lets rise above the foolish perpetuation of bad information.

    • Sean Lucas

      Hi, Adam:

      As someone who has “approved myself through scholarly study,” I’m going to take issue with your post. Undoubtedly there were many southern Christians in the 19th century who defended race-based chattel slavery. And they were simply wrong.

      As I tried to point out in my book, *Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life,* pro-slavery southerners repeatedly tried to make a biblical case for slavery, but they always meant it to be race-based slavery. As a result, their arguments were unbiblical and wrong. Further, they missed the overarching narrative trajectory of the Bible, which is toward freedom and liberty–not just spiritual freedom and liberty, but physical liberty as well (e.g., Lev 25:1-22; 1 Cor 7:21b).

      To shift the point away from the wrongness of southern race-based chattel slavery to whether southern Christians were good people or whether Lincoln was a power-abusing president or whether America was a confederacy or a federalist republic is to miss the point: namely, that chattel slavery was wrong. The fact that it was wiped out as a result of the war and the Reconstruction aftermath is something in which every Christian should rejoice.

      Sean Lucas

      • http://ReconstuctionandCivilRights John

        Im not sure that Reconstruction really addressed the issues. Jim Crowe laws and segregation lasted well into the 1960’s. The PCA didn’t apologize for its racial history until 2002. Better late than never. The question is what actions are they taking? Most of the South is still racially divided especially in Southern cities and school. Lots of private Christian academies created in the 1970’s and white flight to the suburbs. Where were the Christians?

  • http://TheCornerstoneSpeechbyVicePresidentStephens John


    Are you saying that none of the confederates were fighting for slavery? How do explain this speech by the Vice President of the Confederate State? He said protecting slavery was the cornerstone of the new government. May want to take a trip to the library sometime. Here is a portion of it.

    “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us.”

  • William Dudding

    “…saddened that anyone ever raised a gun in support of this institution.”

    Most Confederate soldiers were not raising a gun in support of the institution of slavery, but in support of their state’s freedom from a tyrannical federal government that has only grown to be more tyrannical today. Ironically, the same people who wanted freedom from the Feds were fighting for a country that would have kept Blacks enslaved and the kind of liberal activists who make movies like this about freedom support a President and a form of government that would enslave people to that government as their master.

    All of which reminds me of what you brought up at the very end…we look forward to the day Christ returns and it is proven once and for all that men were never made to govern themselves, but to be governed by the Prince of Peace and King of kings!

    • LG


      Look. If we’re being honest, most Confederate soldiers were fighting first because they felt they had to, second to protect their lives and livelihoods, and then, perhaps, for political reasons.

      True as it may be that they were fighting for States’ Rights (a principle I affirm and with which I agree, incidentally), we cannot pretend that one of the States’ Rights for which they were fighting was the right of human beings of European descent to own human beings of African descent, with absolutely no legal limitation of any kind. What good came of the States’ Right to transport slaves into any state; to buy and sell human beings as chattel; to treat them however they wanted to, with absolute impunity; to extend this vile enslavement to future generations, including the generations the owners themselves had begotten; to be utterly free from any outside restriction on the trade or treatment of these precious image-bearers?

    • Chris H

      Hold on there brother. Did I read you correctly, that you compared living under a federal government elected by its people; to the institution of slavery which dehumanised, oppressed and murdered millions of people? Seriously?

  • Tamara

    I am not certain where to begin here. Good people disagree on the merits of this war. I myself side with the Confederacy, because even to this day I believe in a State’s right to determine how it should be run. The war was not about slavery, for even Lincoln himself said that if he could win the war without freeing slaves, he would do so. (Was that in the movie?) Southern slavery laws were merely a catalyst to the North’s victory.
    Good men fought on both sides, for their own reasons. Guns were raised for many good and bad causes. But I must be honest that for a pastor to pontificate on such things without being duly informed and then have it republished by TGC gives me a great amount of pause. Surely as a pastor one should be held to a very high standard of scholarship, and TGC should be seeking out only the best of the best to represent them.
    I say this not because we may disagree on the merits of the war, but because of the blatant acceptance of a Steven Speilberg film as not only an acceptable, but even a great representation of the most heinous and bloody tragedy in our country’s history.

    • Daniel Broaddus

      Thank you, Tamara. It couldn’t have been said any better.

  • Wyeth

    As a descendant of black slaves, I’m grateful to God the South didn’t win the war, and rejoice that God saw fit to use a “tyrannical federal government” to set my ancestors free.

    • LG


  • Jerry Nanson

    Tamara is quite correct and it must be pointed out that Lincoln didn’t free any slaves. The emancipation proclamation only affected slaves in states that seceded and did not, in fact, free the men and women that were being enslaved in states that did not secede. Lincoln made no attempt to help the slaves over over whom he could truly exercise his influence. Because Lincoln could have no true affect on slaves in the confederate states, he issued a proclamation that did nothing for slaves in confederate states or otherwise. If you want to see how slavery should have been defeated, read the story of William Wilberforce, a true hero who didn’t use the excuse of evil to justify equally evil action.

    • Jason Van Bemmel


      The Lincoln movie documents Lincoln’s fight for the 13 Amendment, which he got successfully passed just before he was killed. To say that “Lincoln didn’t free any slaves” is simply incorrect and ignores the 13th Amendment, which legally ended slavery in all of the US.

      • Jerry Nanson

        You are incorrect. Lincoln had no constitutional power to free the slaves, as is evidenced by the amendment to the constitution. It is absolutely correct to say that Lincoln didn’t free any slaves, as he is so often credited for based on the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was very weak on his position on slavery and, even after he shifted his position to that of abolition, he was a proponent of the ridiculous notion that freed slaves should be shipped off to Africa as if somehow men and women born in America would better assimilate in a land of which they had little or no knowledge. That being said, I’m also absolutely glad that slavery was abolished, I just get very frustrated with a pastor who lets Hollywood shape his thinking about history or anything else for that matter.

  • Daniel

    While we would all agree that American, chattel slavery was wrong and needed to end, I think what is lamentable is that the Civil War set in stone the political course of this nation. We ceased to be a republic at that point and it has just been a matter of time before the democracy we see today became a reality.

    Also, what precedent did the war set? Well, if one were to argue that it was fought over slavery, the only precedent we see is that the moral majority of the country can determine national policy, by right of conquest if necessary. There was once a time in the US when some goody-two-shoes decided alcohol needed to be prohibited and they forced that through. Well, how long will it be before someone decides children shouldn’t be raised by “bigoted parents” or that homosexuals should be allowed to “marry,” and then they appeal and win in getting national legislation pushed through? Well, that appears to be in the working right now.

    If in the course of conversation with an evangelical one were to suggest that war should be declared on homosexuals, pro-choicers, liberals, and the like, they [evangelicals] would dress you up and down at how horrible a proposition that was. I’m sure you would hear plenty of the two kingdoms, suffering for righteousness sake, etc…, but then at a moments notice they are willing to suggest that the shedding of their own countrymen’s blood, the devastation of one region of USA, etc…, is more than worth it for abolition of slavery.

    So, in fact, the war wasn’t about slavery, it was about States rights verses moral majority/national government. The States lost, national government won.

  • Matt

    Very thought provoking. Thank you for writing this.