Daniel 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 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.