What preachers can learn from Lincoln

8 01 2009
Image by Believe Collective, via Flickr

Image by Believe Collective, via Flickr

It’s the most famous speech in American history. School children learn it word for word. And it is indeed a powerful word; or, rather, words—just 272 of them (depending on the version you use to count). Yes, it’s Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, of November 19, 1863.

‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

What can preachers learn from Lincoln? Others have suggested some things already (see Justin’s thoughts here), but I thought I’d mention a few things that strike me. (I’ve previously posted on what preachers can learn from Obama, and since Obama self-consciously styles himself on Lincoln, this seemed appropriate. Also, it’s the 200 year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth this year. Also, I’m a huge Lincoln fan.)

1. Obviously, the speech is SHORT. At two minutes’ length, most preachers are barely into their introduction, or have yet to finish adjusting the microphone, saying hello to their congregation, welcoming visitors, or throwing in some joke. Actually, I don’t think the length is particularly instructive for preachers, except to say that Lincoln achieved incredible heights and profound insight with so few words. It is simple, but carefully crafted (mirroring Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides’ Pelopennesian War). It does not waste a single word. Edward Everett, on the other hand, preached for two hours before Lincoln spoke, but who remembers what he said? In fact, Everett himself perhaps said it best, when he commented to Lincoln, ‘I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.’

2. While being short, the speech encapsulated the spirit of America, by invoking the Declaration of Independence (‘all men are created equal’), by casting the civil war as a struggle for a ‘new birth of freedom’, and by the closing words, ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’. I would love to see preachers tap into the spirit of the family of God. Not so much with explicit descriptions of what the kingdom is like, but by conveying the aesthetic of that reality. Take them there.

3. As did Obama, Lincoln spoke of the past (the birth of the nation, and the blood spilt at Gettysburg), the present (‘we are to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us’), and the future (‘this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom’). The effect of this is that his hearers were reminded of who they are and where they came from, and where they are going. Lincoln even makes an ‘eternity’ statement: ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’. Preachers would do well to remind their hearers of similar things: who and where they were before God called them, the challenges that confront us in the present age, and the glorious future, which is, indeed, eternity.

4. Lincoln cast the civil war in the light of fulfilling the catch-cry of the Declaration of Independence, ‘all men are created equal’. While the war had been about preserving the union, the nation needed to know that all this bloodshed was for a higher purpose, which it really was. The war was noble because the real issue was that of slavery. All men are created equal, and government is of the people, by the people, and for the people—whatever the colour of their skin. The practice of slavery, rather, was a form of tyranny. Gettysburg created a vision of the noble struggle for freedom and equality.

Preachers need to cast suffering and struggle in light of the greater good to which it contributes. We know that suffering produces character and hope, but it also contributes to that grand vision of the eschaton, in which God will bring an end to suffering, and we will know that the struggle against the opposing forces of evil has not only been endured to the end, but has been the work of God for our good, and for his glory.

5. The address was not considered a success at the time. The Chicago Times was scathing in its review, though there were some positive reviews as well. And yet the speech has endured, in spite of Lincoln’s prediction within the speech itself: ‘The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here’. It has not only endured, but has shaped nations—and not just the U.S. The Constitution of the Republic of France is based on the principle of Lincoln’s words, and contains a direct translation of the speech’s most famous phrase: ‘gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple’.

What may preachers learn from this? I am struck by the fact that the popularity, or otherwise, of a message is no necessary indication of its long-term effect, nor of its poignant truth or profundity. But if the message is remembered, if the spirit of the family of God is made known through it, and if the grand vision of the glory of God is impressed upon its hearers, then we might thank God that it was not a ‘total failure’, as Lincoln had worried his might have been.

Posted by Con Campbell




4 responses

8 01 2009

These are all valid points but omits the obvious–Lincoln was schooled in Rhetoric.
Both the Gettysburg Address a Letter from a Birmingham Jail were written by two men steeped in rhetoric. Most people today are NOT taught rhetoric.

8 01 2009
The Gazman

Hey Conman, happy birthday. We can learn even more when you hear a recording of it, it’s not just the words themselves but the delivery. I remember being blown away at Uni when we analysed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech on video. Check it out sometime! Happy New Year btw…

9 01 2009

You raise some interesting and eloquent points Con. I am a little concerned however at the way you inhabit (probably understandably), a non self-reflexive paradigm. For example, by highlighting the parallels between Pericles oration and Lincoln’s, are you not promoting the idea that the most effective speeches are those which are formulaic? Mich picked up on this in commenting on the degree to which people throughout history have or have not been schooled in rhetoric. This is a valid point, to which I have two responses: Rhetoric can be self-taught (and indeed absorbed bya discerning reader), and a lack of knowledge of rhetorical devices may lead to fresher, newer or more effective ways of making a point.

Stating that the real issue of the war was slavery is highly simplistic. There were many reasons for the war, social, economic and political, and probably conscious and unconscious as well. While I recognise that they may not be relevant to the message you are trying to promote, making the blanket statement you have is a little reckless, in my view.

A link to the negative contemporary reviews would be interesting.

Studying and analysing inspiring speeches from the past is very beneficial, and I have responded mostly out of an english teacher’s need to be critical, and a need to shake my brain out of a summer holiday torpor. Thank you for the opportunity! Happy New Year.

9 01 2009
Con Campbell

Thanks all for your comments. Gaz, a bit to hard to analyze Lincoln’s delivery of the speech, since recording devices weren’t yet invented, but I take your point.

Hey Antonia, thanks for your thoughts.The rhetoric one is interesting; I don’t think I meant to imply whether being schooled in it was better than not, but there you are. I absolutely agree that self-taught rhetoric can be a great thing And let’s face it, what choice do most of us have?

I agree too that the reasons for the war were complex, but I still firmly believe that the key issue was slavery. It was the presenting issue that led the seceding states to want to protect their rights, and they were worried that Lincoln was an abolitionist who would oppose their right to own slaves. The irony was that Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and did not go to war to free the slaves, but it was the war itself that gave him the perfect opportunity to do so, hence the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. But then, he was a genius.
Thanks for the engagement! Let’s do it again sometime 🙂

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