Seven score and ten years ago today Pres. Abraham Lincoln delivered perhaps the most famous (and most concise) speeches in American history, at the dedication of a new national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — where, more than four months before, one of the worst battles in American history had raged for three days.
Not surprisingly, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has prompted lots of reflections, including:
• Lest we forget the soldiers whose deaths Lincoln honored… Smithsonian curator Shannon Perich reflected on how photographers documented the Battle of Gettysburg.
• John Fea reflected on honoring this milestone at Messiah College, about thirty miles from Gettysburg. Because of Messiah’s partial roots in the Anabaptist tradition, John “could definitely understand why someone from a Mennonite or Brethren tradition might feel uncomfortable affirming publicly a statement from a United States president who waged war to save the Union and then gave a speech ‘consecrating’ such an act.” At the same time, he concluded his post on an ambivalent note: “Should the fact that the Gettysburg Address remade the Declaration of Independence (and the Constitution for that matter) by offering a more inclusive nationalist vision make us, or my Anabaptist friends, feel any better about all the war, bloodshed, and patriotism? I don’t know, but it certainly makes me feel slightly better about it, even if I am not entirely sure the Civil War was a just war.”
• Fellow evangelical historian Thomas Kidd called Lincoln’s address “a political sermon par excellence in the annals of American speeches,” one that “displayed a theological subtlety and richness that only his Second Inaugural Address would surpass.” Kidd was particularly struck by Lincoln’s appropriation of the biblical theme of new birth. Though, like Fea, he was less than entirely comfortable with the legacy of the speech, finishing his post with the question, “what is lost when the new birth becomes tied to a nation’s history, rather than a redeemer’s saving work?”
• Kidd noted that, in 1863, the African American press was especially enthusiastic about the Gettysburg speech. But among white journalists, the response was decidedly mixed. One Pennsylvania newspaper recently retracted its original judgment that Lincoln’s were “silly remarks” deserving a “veil of oblivion”: “In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.”