Picture a U.S. president today telling his people, “You must be born again.” Or comparing the nation’s life cycle to that of Jesus Christ. Or waving the banner of John 3:16 while he was at it, like an evangelistic football fan captured on TV near the end zone.
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t nearly as blunt as all that on the fabled November afternoon of his Gettysburg Address 150 years ago today, but his audience then would have realized, far better than we do today, just how religious that speech was.
“Although he never names the Bible, the whole of the speech is really suffused with the Bible in terms of both the content and the cadence,” said historian Ronald C. White, Jr., author of a biography and two other books about Mr. Lincoln, all of them closely examining the 16th president’s rhetoric.
President Lincoln wasn’t preaching but rather putting the Bible in the service of “American civil religion,” which the sociologist Robert Bellah described as “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that … reaffirms, among other things, the religious legitimation of the highest political authority.”
Mr. Lincoln’s audience would have known the biblical allusions in the address, beginning with “four score and seven years,” invoking language from a Psalm. Even people familiar with the Bible today use a myriad of modern translations. But in Mr. Lincoln’s day, almost every Protestant who read the Bible used the archaic but subtle intonations of the 17th-century King James Version, which by then had been shaping the English language for more than two centuries.
In fact, Mr. Lincoln referred to that version as the “Saxon Bible,” according to Mr. White, a reference to its terse directness. More than two-thirds of the words of the Gettysburg Address are one syllable, which made it especially supple in the hands of a gifted speaker. But the plain words also served as a background in which important concepts to Lincoln — “proposition,” “dedicate,” “consecrate,” “liberty” — stand out starkly.
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“The Gettysburg Address is wonderful to the ear, just to hear it,” Mr. White said. “I encourage readers to say it out, and they will hear the cadence.”
Mr. Lincoln began his address by alluding to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as the founding of the American Republic — rebutting those who dated the nation from the later Constitution, which accommodated slavery. Mr. Lincoln, in this and earlier speeches, sought to show that the nation had a primal and more universal ideal — that “all men are created equal.”
“Lincoln distinguished between the Declaration as the statement of a permanent ideal and the Constitution as an early and provisional embodiment of that ideal, to be tested against it,” wrote author Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.
Mr. Wills said this idea has religious roots. Mr. Lincoln, according to his one-time law partner William Herndon, was strongly influenced by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister from Boston and an advocate of Transcendentalism, which promoted the purity of inner ideals and individualism over corrupted social customs and laws.
Mr. Parker himself contrasted pure piety — “love of God, and morality” — with the conventions of the Christian church and other sects. Similarly, the abolitionist Mr. Parker said, the U.S. Constitution is a “provisional compromise between the ideal political principle of the Declaration and the actual selfishness of the people North and South.”
But rather than merely say this took place “87 years” before the 1863 gathering at Gettysburg, Mr. Lincoln opened with, “Fourscore and seven years ago” (a score being 20 years).
This recalls Psalm 90, which emphasizes the limits of human life: “The days of our years are threescore years and 10; and if by reason of strength, they be fourscore years, yet … it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
By that measure, America had by 1863 outlived a human life, and Mr. Lincoln had frequently called on his contemporaries to live up to the ideas of the passed generation of American founders.
The comparison of American history to a human life cycle permeates the address. The American founders were “our fathers,” and they “brought forth” the new nation, echoing the King James Version’s phrase in the Gospel of Luke that Mary “brought forth” her son, Jesus.
The nation was “conceived in liberty” and “dedicated” — a word often used with rites of passage, such as Jesus’ official presentation at the temple in the Gospel of Luke — “to the proposition” of human equality.
Mr. Lincoln urges his hearers to “dedicate” themselves to the cause for which the soldiers gave their “last full measure of devotion.”
“They’re religious words” and “commitment words,” Mr. White said, familiar in the open-air revivals of the day. Even though Mr. Lincoln himself distrusted the emotionalism of such revivals, the same language also coursed through the more learned sermons he was hearing at his own church in Washington, Mr. White said.
“They come right out of the Second Great Awakening, and they are words he would have heard at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where he was worshiping with increased frequency,” Mr. White said.
Finally, the nation’s “new birth of liberty” hearkens to the language of the Bible and the spirituality of Mr. Lincoln’s own day, Mr. White said. The hope that the nation should not “perish” also echoes chapter 3 of the Gospel of John, when Jesus tells a grown man he must be “born again” and, in verse 16, that those who believe in Jesus “should not perish.”
David Zarefsky, a Northwestern University professor emeritus of communications who has written widely on presidential rhetoric, sees the Gettysburg Address as emblematic of Mr. Lincoln’s thinking. “Lincoln was increasingly drawn to a spiritual and theological explanation for the war because he felt that was the only way he could make any sense of it,” he said.
With the amount of killing and destruction reaching biblical proportions, he said, “there had to be some kind of higher purpose” in Mr. Lincoln’s mind.
The late poet Robert Lowell went so far as to call the Gettysburg Address a “sacramental act.”
“By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked,” Mr. Lowell wrote. “For us and our country, he left Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Peter Smith is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.