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Lincoln's Prescription for National Greatness

As every student of history knows, America was in crisis in 1863. Despite Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in January of that year, the Civil War raged on, with no end in sight.

Today America is in crisis again, even though the symptoms aren’t yet as obvious. And while presidential candidates promise to “make America great again,” they offer solutions that fail to recognize what made America great in the first place. Their faulty premise is that greatness will return if we have better trade deals, more jobs, a more equitable tax structure, or a stronger military.

We can argue about whether such things are an improvement. But none of them will make America great again.

In stark contrast to what is being promised today, on March 30, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation “Appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer.” Calling the nation to repentance and a spiritual awakening, he pointed to our need for God’s grace and favor. In support of this, he paraphrased Psalm 33:12, saying, “Those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord”:

Whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord…

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!

It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness…

All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or follower of some other political philosophy, I hope you will grasp the power of Lincoln’s message. We need more than better politicians or better policies. We need a spiritual awakening that begins with you and me.  

In addition to Abraham Lincoln’s diagnosis of our need for national repentance and revival, the words of nineteenth-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville are amazingly prophetic today: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Forgive us, Lord.

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