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The Biblical Imagery of the Gettysburg Address

225px-Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Delivered several months after the bloody, decisive Battle of Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Address put the brutal violence of the American Civil War into a grander civic and spiritual context.

Have you read the Gettysburg Address? You might be surprised to learn that it’s actually quite short. Here it is in its entirety:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Why mention this here on Bible Gateway? Because the Gettysburg Address contains a number of Bible and religious references that, while they might slip past us today, would have been quite evident to Lincoln’s original audience. In an LA Times essay on the power of the Gettysburg Address, Ronald White identifies some of the Biblical references embedded in Lincoln’s speech:

Lincoln rose, adjusted his spectacles, and began: “Four score and seven years ago.” The first two words rhyme, setting in motion a symphony of sounds. The biblical ring of his opening was rooted in lines from Psalm 90. Lincoln never mentioned the Bible, but the whole of his speech was suffused with both biblical content and cadence. […]

In his final three sentences Lincoln pointed away from words to deeds. He contrasted “what we say here” with “what they did here.”

In this closing paragraph, he continued his use of repetition: “To be dedicated; to be here dedicated.” And: “We take increased devotion”; “the last full measure of devotion.”

Lincoln, who always chose his words carefully, here selected words that conjured up the call to religious commitment he heard regularly in the preaching at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.

The reference to Psalm 90 might seem confusing to modern Bible readers; there isn’t an obvious connection between the Gettysburg Address’ opening words and Psalm 90 in most modern Bibles. However, reading Psalm 90:10 in the King James Version (the Bible most familiar to Lincoln’s audience) makes the reference clear:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. — Psalm 90:10 (AKJV)

Beyond its obvious political significance, the Gettysburg Address is an artifact from a historical era in which general Bible literacy (which, of course, doesn’t necessarily correlate to Bible belief) was common enough that a politician could reference a semi-obscure Bible verse (without explicitly calling attention to it) and expect their audience to understand it. Do you think a speaker today could make such a reference with the same expectation? And if they did… would you notice it?

Filed under History