National Edition

Gettysburg Address laced with religious language and meaning

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 19 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Few speeches have had more influence or been more examined than President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Delivered 150 years ago today as the closing remarks at the dedication of a cemetery, the short speech — or at least a portion of it — is etched into the minds of most Americans. Books have been written analyzing the 272-word speech's structure, rhetorical tools, historical context and legacy.

But nearly all the books and papers examining this famous and enduring speech either gloss over or completely miss the religious language and meaning of the Gettysburg Address, said A.E. Elmore, a retired English professor and playwright.

He examined every word of the address and found that many of the more prominent terms and phrases Lincoln used come from religious texts familiar to most people in the mid-19th century.

"It is far more powerful when seen in its religious context than when it is merely a political speech," said Elmore, who published his analysis in the book "Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer."

Religious language

The opening of the speech — and arguably the most familiar line — "Four score and seven years ago ..." used a biblical form of counting to remind the audience that the nation's founding principle of equality was penned 87 years ago, when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

The writer of the Old Testament book of Pslams (Psalm 90:10) uses that counting to describe old age: "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."

Elmore said Lincoln used that to describe a nation that is growing older and is ready for the "new birth of freedom" that the president pronounces at the end of the speech.

Terms and phrases such as "conceive," "brought forth," "dedicate," "consecrate," "struggle," "under God," "new birth" and "perish" all have biblical and Book of Common Prayer origins and connotations that Elmore said would have resonated with the audience.

He explained that leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy used the Bible to justify their stances on slavery and that Lincoln was skilled at using biblical language to emphasize a point.

"Religious language was a part of him," Elmore said. "He could hardly talk without echoing the rhythms of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer."

Elmore, a lifelong Episcopalian, said Lincoln attended the Episcopal Church in the first years of his marriage in Springfield, Ill., and would have been familiar with the faith's Book of Common Prayer, which details the prayers to be said during church sacraments, ceremonies and other occasions.

And the dedication of a cemetery, which was in large part a religious ceremony complete with prayers and a hymn, was an ideal occasion for Lincoln to tap into his audience's religious as well as political motivations, Elmore contends.

"Nothing in (the Gettysburg Address) was unconscious, from my point of view, everything was fully intentional," he said.

Facts and fiction

One of the most enduring myths about the address was that Lincoln hastily prepared for the event, jotting the famous words down on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Gettysburg or composing them in his head on the platform during the two-hour speech that preceded the president's remarks.

Most historians dismiss those accounts, concluding they describe a process uncharacteristic of Lincoln.

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