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Gettysburg Address laced with religious language and meaning

Few speeches have had more influence or been more examined than President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Delivered 150 years ago today as the closing remarks at the dedication of a cemetery, the short speech — or at least a portion of it — is etched into the minds of most Americans. Books have been written analyzing the 272-word speech's structure, rhetorical tools, historical context and legacy.

But nearly all the books and papers examining this famous and enduring speech either gloss over or completely miss the religious language and meaning of the Gettysburg Address, said A.E. Elmore, a retired English professor and playwright.

He examined every word of the address and found that many of the more prominent terms and phrases Lincoln used come from religious texts familiar to most people in the mid-19th century.

"It is far more powerful when seen in its religious context than when it is merely a political speech," said Elmore, who published his analysis in the book "Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer."

Religious language

The opening of the speech — and arguably the most familiar line — "Four score and seven years ago ..." used a biblical form of counting to remind the audience that the nation's founding principle of equality was penned 87 years ago, when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

The writer of the Old Testament book of Pslams (Psalm 90:10) uses that counting to describe old age: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."

Elmore said Lincoln used that to describe a nation that is growing older and is ready for the "new birth of freedom" that the president pronounces at the end of the speech.

Terms and phrases such as "conceive," "brought forth," "dedicate," "consecrate," "struggle," "under God," "new birth" and "perish" all have biblical and Book of Common Prayer origins and connotations that Elmore said would have resonated with the audience.

He explained that leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy used the Bible to justify their stances on slavery and that Lincoln was skilled at using biblical language to emphasize a point.

"Religious language was a part of him," Elmore said. "He could hardly talk without echoing the rhythms of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer."

Elmore, a lifelong Episcopalian, said Lincoln attended the Episcopal Church in the first years of his marriage in Springfield, Ill., and would have been familiar with the faith's Book of Common Prayer, which details the prayers to be said during church sacraments, ceremonies and other occasions.

And the dedication of a cemetery, which was in large part a religious ceremony complete with prayers and a hymn, was an ideal occasion for Lincoln to tap into his audience's religious as well as political motivations, Elmore contends.

"Nothing in (the Gettysburg Address) was unconscious, from my point of view, everything was fully intentional," he said.

Facts and fiction

One of the most enduring myths about the address was that Lincoln hastily prepared for the event, jotting the famous words down on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Gettysburg or composing them in his head on the platform during the two-hour speech that preceded the president's remarks.

Most historians dismiss those accounts, concluding they describe a process uncharacteristic of Lincoln.

"(Lincoln's) law partner, William Herndon, having observed Lincoln’s careful preparation of cases, recorded that he was a slow writer, who liked to sort out his points and tighten his logic and his phrasing," wrote Gary Wills, whose book, "Lincoln at Gettysburg: Words that Remade America," won a Pulitzer Prize. "That is the process vouched for in every other case of Lincoln’s memorable public statements."

Wills also notes that Lincoln's role in the ceremony was to simply offer closing remarks and not deliver a long speech. But he took advantage of his limited role in the event by carefully crafting a powerful argument for what was at stake in the Civil War — preserving the founding principle of equality and proving to the world that people can govern themselves, wrote historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In her book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Goodwin wrote that the dedication's main speaker, Edward Everett, wrote Lincoln the following day, praising the president for his concise and eloquent speech: "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."

Wills wrote that Lincoln's expertly crafted remarks became the accepted interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that instilled in people the idea that the United States had to be united.

"By accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed," Wills wrote about its impact today. "Because of it, we live in a different America."

Lincoln's religion

Another disputed point among some historians is whether the phrase "under God" was in Lincoln's original draft of the speech or spontaneously inserted as he stood at the podium, as some accounts claim.

Elmore contends that Lincoln left nothing to chance, conscientiously and carefully chosing every phrase of the address and skillfully using rhetorical devices that connected each sentence or thought to a preceding one.

"That is absolute nonsense," Elmore said of the claim that "under God" was not in the original draft of the speech. "The oldest copy (copied verbatim from the written speech by an Associated Press reporter who covered the event) that we have contains that phrase. It was as intentional as every other phrase in that speech."

However, two of the earlier copies of the speech do not contain the phrase.

That dispute is sometimes brought up in debating how religious Lincoln was.

Writer Stephen Mansfield, who has written about the faith of presidents, including Lincoln, said Lincoln's faith, like that of many people, evolved from a period of disbelief and skepticism to a profound personal reliance on God to carry him through periods of grief, sorrow and worry.

Mansfield said Lincoln told his cabinet that the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the rebelling states, was issued 11 months before the Gettysburg Address, would keep his end of a covenant with God, who would then deliver victories for the Union.

"He had come to understand history as orchestrated by God, nations as accountable to him, and men as the means by which God fulfills his will," Mansfield wrote in his "Lincoln's Battle with God."

Mansfield said he wrote his book to fill a void between historians who ignored how Lincoln's faith influenced his life and decisions and others who have over played Lincoln as a prophet.

"He never joined a church and didn’t speak much about Jesus, but you can't write the second inaugural address unless you are a man of faith at some level," said Mansfield, who considers Lincoln's inaugural speech after he was re-elected as one of the greatest American political sermons.

Elmore, too, wrote his book to fill a void left by historians who paid no attention to the religious content of the Gettysburg Address. Elmore, who taught a course at Athens State University on the famous speech, said the idea came to him after an article he wrote on the topic was rejected by the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

"So, I thought if the leading authorities on Lincoln can’t hear the Bible when it’s pointed out to them, that must be true with a lot of people, and that’s why I wrote a whole book about it," Elmore said. "We live in such a biblically ignorant age. Most people are incredibly ignorant of the King James Bible."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com Twitter: @deseretbrown