“A New Birth of Freedom”: The Gettysburg Address

“A New Birth of Freedom”: The Gettysburg Address November 19, 2013

November 19, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his most famous speech and one of the most famous in American history. He delivered the speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, four months after the conclusion of the Civil War’s decisive battle. The renowned orator Edward Everett was the main speaker for the day, giving an entirely-forgotten two hour speech prior to Lincoln’s. Lincoln’s dedicatory address was stunningly brief – about two minutes – but it has resonated, with its biblical cadences, as a kind of “sacred scripture of the Civil War’s innermost spiritual meaning,” as historian Harry Stout has written.

From its Old-Testament style dating of the nation’s founding (“four score and seven years ago”) to its veneration of the field’s “honored dead” who gave the “last full measure of devotion,” Lincoln painted the war and the republic in providential, transcendent colors. Those who perished during Gettysburg’s terrible three days did not die in vain, but had helped to ensure that  “government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Though the speech gathered little notice at the time, it was a remarkable rhetorical triumph – a political sermon par excellence in the annals of American speeches. It displayed a theological subtlety and richness that only his Second Inaugural Address would surpass. As Stout notes, some African American Christians did immediately herald the speech, rejoicing that the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg could signal the end the war between North and South. Hopefully someday, reunion would come and “we shall all be Americans,” the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, posited. They might well have been disappointed that, while the war brought emancipation, it did not bring equal opportunity or civil rights to the South, or the nation.

The most striking phrase of the address was Lincoln’s aspiration that, with slavery now in serious jeopardy, the nation could have “a new birth of freedom.” Some might forget that this language was unmistakably referencing Christ’s words in John chapter 3, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The specific phrase “new birth” became a staple of Anglo-American religious rhetoric during the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. Lincoln grew up in a Primitive Baptist family but never joined a church. Yet because of his religious milieu, his insatiable appetite for reading, and inquisitive spiritual nature, he knew the King James Bible backward and forward, and its themes and images suffused his speeches. Here he suggests that not only individuals, but a nation itself, could experience a new birth. This was not so the nation could “see the kingdom of God,” but perhaps that the kingdom’s purposes, in the matter of slavery, could be manifested on earth.

It was a bracing vision, one he needed to cast in order to mobilize northerners to keep sacrificing legions of their sons for the cause of union and emancipation. But even on the 150th anniversary, some Christians might pause at Lincoln’s appropriation of this essential biblical metaphor. For the Christian, the new birth speaks of forgiveness, conversion, and eternal salvation through Christ alone. Lincoln’s new birth served the purposes of nation, civil spirituality, and war, however noble that war’s aims. Lincoln was probably the most skillful proponent of that kind of civil spirituality in American history. But what is lost when the new birth becomes tied to a nation’s history, rather than a redeemer’s saving work?

See also Richard Gamble, “Gettysburg Gospel,” The American Conservative

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  • John C. Gardner

    I like the Gettysburg Address but think it sounds much like civil religion(these have hollowed). It is not distinctly Christian and seems more secular. We do live in a fallen world(I am a Missouri Synod Lutheran) and understand the two kingdoms view. How do you interpret civil religion and this address? Can you recommend a good book on the Address itself and its historical use/development over the last 150 years?
    Good post

  • It appears that Lincoln was simply one more man, in a long line of men (including many of the Founding Fathers). who understood Christianity to be a religion (and a civic tool) rather than a spiritual conversion. This seems to be an “occupational hazard” of Christianity (and similarly to Judaism before it).

  • curtis sheidler

    I don’t know–I think this might be demanding a bit too much theological precision on Lincoln’s part. I don’t read him here as tying the “new birth of freedom” to national history per se, but to “the honored dead,” or (to use his earlier phrase), to “those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

    So it seems to me (at least at first blush) that Lincoln isn’t so much trying to obfuscate a redeemer’s work, but rather showing that the sacrifice of the dead on the field at Gettysburg mirrors to some degree the sin-bearing sacrifice of Christ the Redeemer.

    What’s that line from Julia Ward Howe’s hymn? “As Christ died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” I wonder if the same concept isn’t at play here–new birth not because of renewed national determination to end slavery, but redemption purchased at great blood-price.

    Any thoughts?

  • Thomas Kidd

    John, thanks – I think the standard book, and a very readable one, on the Gettysburg Address is Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg, although Wills can be a bit exuberant in some interpretations.