The Gettysburg Address

by Abraham Lincoln

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Why did Abraham Lincoln use references to the Bible in the Gettysburg Address?

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Lincoln uses biblical references in the Gettysburg Address to elevate the Civil War with spiritual and aspirational concepts that his audience would understand. By including Biblical sources recognized by the majority of his audience, he underscores the social justice and righteousness underpinning military action to legitimize the war that led to heavy losses of so many soldiers. Biblical references also elevate the sacrifices made by the soldiers who had given their lives to protect the Union.

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Abraham Lincoln uses references to the Bible in his Gettysburg Address to bring the concepts to his audience in a way that would make his message more understandable by alluding to a commonly understood and authoritative source. Lincoln does not actually quote the Bible, but the various allusions to the New Testament would be well understood by the audience. For instance, opening his speech with “Four score [20 years] and seven years ago” rather than just saying 87 years parallels Psalm 90’s description of the days of our years as “threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength, they be fourscore years.”

His speech recalls imagery that parallels the conception and development of the nation with concepts from the New Testament, culminating in his theme of the nation's “new birth of freedom” as a result of the Civil War. By including references to the Bible, he also elevates the sacrifices made by the soldiers who gave their lives to protect the Union.

The audience who heard him make the Gettysburg Address was familiar with the New Testament and understood how he intended to elevate and honor the loss of lives experienced during the Civil War. He also uses the religious authority to legitimize the political authority that supported the war effort and allowed families who lost people in the war to think of the loss as a sacrifice for a nearly holy, rather than political, purpose. In other words, by casting the war in spiritual terms that his audience would understand, he galvanized the support for ongoing military action even in the face of severe losses.

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