Thursday, 21 November 2013

Daniel Dreisbach on Lincoln, Religion, and the Gettysburg Address

ProfileDaniel Dreisbach, who recently gave a talk at UTC on the Founding Father's use of the Bible, emailed me today with a link to a post that he wrote on Lincoln's use of biblical imagery in the Gettysburg Address. Below is an excerpt of his post. To read the rest of his article, click here.

On the afternoon of November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a brief address at the dedication of a national cemetery on Gettysburg’s battlefield. The solemn ceremony took place four and a half months after Union forces turned back the army of the Confederate States on July 1-3 in the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War. The battle claimed the lives of nearly eight thousand soldiers. Lincoln’s carefully crafted address was barely 272 words in length and required approximately two minutes to deliver. It is widely acclaimed as one of the most poignant and eloquent speeches in American letters.

gettysburg address 
The Gettysburg Address reverberates with biblical rhythms, phrases, and themes. Its author was well acquainted with the English Bible – specifically the King James Bible. Those who knew him best reported that Lincoln had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the sacred text and was known to commit lengthy passages to memory. His biographer and friend of a quarter century, Isaac N. Arnold, recalled that Lincoln “knew the Bible by heart. There was not a clergyman to be found so familiar with it as he.”

American politicians and polemicists have long employed biblical language in their public discourse because, as an authoritative and sacred text, its mere invocation, it is believed, lends rhetorical weight to their words. The evocative use of biblical language, Joseph R. Fornieri observed, stirs an audience’s “religious imagination.” Such uses of Scripture, which sometimes mimic pulpit oratory, are calculated to persuade by capturing an audience’s attention (with, perhaps, the fear of God), arousing a righteous passion, solemnifying a discourse, projecting an aura of transcendence and truth, emphasizing the gravity of an idea or argument, and/or underscoring an argument’s moral implications or sacred connotations.

Although less obvious, but perhaps as significant, is the use of bible-like language; that is, phrases, figures of speech, or rhythms that resemble, imitate, or evoke the language of a familiar Bible translation. In the American experience, the translation most frequently imitated because of its wide availability and influence is the King James Bible. A mere resemblance to its mellifluous language and intonations infuses rhetoric with solemnity, sanctity, and authority.

No political figure in American history was more fluent in biblical language or adept in appropriating the distinct cadences and vernacular of the King James Bible than Abraham Lincoln. He routinely incorporated into his political prose direct quotations from and allusions to the Bible, as well as a diction resembling the distinctive language of the Jacobean Bible. He often appropriated the Bible and bible-like rhetoric to give authority, moral gravity, and solemnity to his political statements. The Gettysburg Address, perhaps better than any other example of political rhetoric, illustrates how a gifted communicator borrowed language merely resembling the King James Bible to great rhetorical effect. The address contains no direct biblical quotations; however, there are few clauses that do not echo the cadences, phrases, and themes of the King James Bible.

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