Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term as POTUS on March 4, 1865. The brief inaugural address he gave that day has been called “Lincoln’s greatest speech.”
That evaluation of Lincoln’s 1865 address has been made often. It is also the title of a book by Ronald C. White, Jr., who was professor of American Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary when his impressive book was published in 2002.
Remarkably, White takes more than 180 pages to examine, to explain, and to evaluate Lincoln’s 703-word speech delivered 150 years ago. (To give you some sense of how short that inaugural address was, my blog articles are generally around 600 words.)
I greatly enjoyed reading White’s book this month and highly recommend it.
Remarkably, Lincoln’s inaugural speech is also the first chapter of the book The Greatest Sermons Ever Preached (2005), compiled by Tracey D. Lawrence. That book includes sermons by John Wesley, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham—and also Tony Campolo’s sermon “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’” that I recently mentioned (here).
For a President’s inaugural speech to be included in a book of only 19 of the greatest sermons ever preached is quite amazing. But calling it a sermon is not something new. On the day he heard it, African-American statesman Frederick Douglass remarked, “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”
Since the Civil War was drawing to a close and the Union victory close at hand, many thought Lincoln would talk about the triumph of the North over the South, or even the triumph of good over evil. But the President sought to be conciliatory rather than divisive and to be compassionate rather than vindictive.
Lincoln talked about what the people of the country had in common, not about their differences. According to White, Lincoln “spoke out against a tribal God, on the side of the North, and spoke instead of an inclusive God—inclusive, as Lincoln would explain, in both judgment and reconciliation” (p. 113).
White writes (in 2002), “No president, before or since, has so courageously pointed to a malady that resides at the very center of the American national family” (p 150). And, “While the audience wanted to hear words of self-congratulation, Lincoln continued to explain the implications of the judgment of God” (p. 203).
In reading these statements, I couldn’t help but think how the current President resembles Lincoln in many ways. And just as in the present day there are some who have nothing good to say about President Obama, most of Lincoln’s critics responded only negatively to his inaugural address.
One of the most positive appraisals was by The Spectator, the venerable British magazine:
Mr. Lincoln has persevered through all without ever giving way to anger, or despondency, or exultation, or popular arrogance, or sectarian fanaticism, or caste prejudice, visibly growing in force of character, in self-possession, and in magnanimity.
Lincoln’s closing paragraph is especially powerful. It begins with those oft-quoted words,
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.