Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech/Sermon

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.
Powerful words! And words our national leaders badly need to hear and to heed today. May they do so! 
Excerpt from Manuscript of Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address


  1. Oh, Leroy, you're a true patriot at heart! Great words!

  2. I feel that our president uses some of the same expressions that President Lincoln did, in that, he is more concerned about doing what he thinks is right in bringing our country together and to bring parity among our people; than to please those who would like him to speak about something else.
    Example, President Obama is always trying to help our less fortunate and it brings this verse of scripture to mind-James 1:27.
    I think we should show more respect for our President and commend him for being our fist black president, and having a family that is a Good example for All families in America.
    Thanks Leroy for your support and truthful relaying of his words and actions.
    John T. Carr

    1. Thank you, John Tim, for reading and responding.

    2. Absolutely, John Carr. And thank you Leroy for calling this to mind. "With malice toward none!" May we strive for that lofty goal!

  3. Just a few weeks after that great address, President Lincoln was assassinated. On Good Friday, no less. Perhaps that is another reason no President since Lincoln has so spoken.

    Last night I saw KC Rep's production of "Angels in America." While the play(s) is fictional, not all the characters are. One, in particular, was based on an attorney who worked for Senator Joe McCarthy. Roy Cohn cut a figure of terrifyingly cynical conservatism in the play. In real life he became famous for his role in the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 50s. He got into the play for the juxtaposition of his politics with the fact that he died of AIDS in the 80s. In the play he reveled in the grasping side of the biblical Jacob. Cohn did not get his chance to wrestle with an angel in the play, but others did. He was about as far from the words and deeds of Abraham Lincoln as a man could get.

    Who saw the true Washington, Lincoln or Cohn? Or did both is some paradoxical way get it right? A theme in the background of the play is the absence of God. The author recently rewrote the ending, so the play ended quite differently that the previous productions I had seen. The original version of "Perestroika," the second play within the framework of "Angels in America," ended with a darkly comedic sales pitch from Cohn, explaining how badly He needed the best lawyer, one who just happened to be available, now that Cohn had died. With that pitch "Angels in America" finished joining a long list of court cases against God that stretches from "Job" to Elie Wiesel's "The Trial of God." Well, the new version took that out and gave us an upbeat feel-good look at people getting on with their lives. A great epilogue, but not quite true to the tone and truth of the now classic 90s play. Lost was the confrontation with the question of who better understood the ultimate truth of existence, Roy Cohn, or the rest of us? I guess postmodernism swallowed it up for now, sort of like Jonah and the Whale. Great endings are not to be, but "Millennium Approaches" anyway.

    1. Craig, thanks for sharing interesting comments, as usual.

      Although I remember the McCarthy era when it was in full swing, I did not know or remember about Roy Cohn and have not seen the play(s) you mentioned.

      In trying to find out more about Cohn, I was surprised to learn that Donald Trump was one of his legal clients and that in the early 1960s he became a member of the John Birch Society.

      Moreover, according to the Wikipedia article I read, he "maintained close ties in conservative political circles, serving as an informal advisor to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan."

  4. thanks for posting. this is my favorite speech. May we work for the day for "a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."