Lincoln’s Greatest Speech

While on a “stay-cation” a couple years ago, I was wandering through Upstart Crow, one of my favorite book stores that’s in Seaport Village in San Diego. Over the years, I’ve always enjoyed the eclectic selection of books. It’s not a large book store, but it serves a great cup of coffee and has a collection of titles that catch my eye that I don’t usually catch online or in the “chain” book stores.

That’s what happened while browsing the history section upfront. I saw, “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech“. I thought I knew the answer to that one. What would you say is Lincoln’s speech?

Gettysburg Address, right?

That’s what I thought. But author Ronald C. White Jr. says, it’s Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural address. Really? Really! And after reading the book, he’s right.

You probably know at least one phrase from the 2nd inaugural address, but perhaps like me didn’t associate it with an inauguration speech. The best known phrase I had heard was “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

What makes this 2nd address interesting to me is the theological tone of what Lincoln says. As a pastor, that grabbed my attention. White does a great job of analyzing the speech, phrase by phrase, mining it for its worth and highlighting Lincoln’s gift of turning a phrase while also being willing to address the theological undertones of the speech. Phrases like …

1. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God …” Before Lincoln’s 2nd inauguration, there had been 18 inaugural addresses. Each one had made a reference to God in some form or another (Washington, “Parent of the Human Race” or Buchanan’s “Divine Providence”). Each of these references had been a desire for divine guidance. Typically they came at the end of the speech.

Only John Quincy Adams (a daily Bible reader) had specifically quoted the Bible (Psalm 127:1). Lincoln affirms here that in the bloody battle of the civil war, both sides looked to God for guidance. Both sides read the same Bible. Both sides asked for God’s blessing as they battled the other side.

Unlike other inaugural addresses Lincoln thinks theologically as well as politically. That’s why this speech and White’s book intrigued me. The Bible provided a common book to again rebuild a divided people. Such is its power, such is its message. To that power, he also refers to prayer 3 times. He wisely observes, “the prayers of both could not be answered that of neither has been answered fully.”

2. “The Almighty has His own purposes …” Lincoln makes God the center of his address, the primary actor in the battle of a divided country. Each side believes its cause to be just. Each side suffers in judgement. At this point in the war, it looked like the north would finally have victory. Most had expected the 2nd inaugural to rub the impending victory of the north into the wounds of the south. But Lincoln does not claim God to be the God of the North vs. the God of the South. He argues for an inclusive God over America, a God who is willing to deal with our offenses. A prime offense is that of slavery, caused not just by the south but also by the north.

3. “With malice toward none; with charity for all …” Perhaps most shocking to his hearers were words of forgiveness, when his audience was waiting for vengeance, even divine retribution. Lincoln does not seek to blame his enemies as he seeks to build a path of forgiveness and grace. In Lincoln’s speech, both sides are blamed, both sides need forgiveness. In the land of Red States and Blue States, when was the last time you saw that in American politics?

That’s why I agree with White, that this is Lincoln’s greatest speech. Since reading Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, I have looked for other books that dig deeply into great speeches and provide insight analysis. None has captured my attention as much as this one.

As we celebrate our nation’s freedom, may their be a greater recognition of the work of the divine in our midst and even more bringing the divine work of charity to all as we live out the gift of freedom.

As you celebrate the 4th of July, what gift of freedom speaks to your heart this day?



Filed under Leadership and America, Leadership Book Reviews

3 responses to “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech

  1. Well written and excellent thought-provoking stuff. I recently read or heard information connected with Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural speech. The focus was on “with malice for none, charity for all.” Had the privilege in April to visit Springfield, Illinois, and walk where Lincoln walked. Great experience.–Tom

  2. Pingback: Soul Food for Friday: The Greatest Speech | Richard Burkey

  3. Pingback: 2 Thumbs Up for Lincoln | Richard Burkey

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