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Sorry about the long lay-off between articles. We have been dealing with some personal setbacks and writing-related ones too. Here is a piece about the 16th's president speech at Gettysburg and our take on a theory of it.
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Is The Gettysburg Address A Prayer? - Op-Ed Piece
The Gettysburg Address is one of the most iconic, well-known speeches in American history and is a cornerstone for the country in terms of its development and its place in history. No one can mention the story of America without mentioning the Gettysburg Address. It summarizes all that America is and wishes to be, and everyone knows it shouldn’t have been that way.
Part of the story of the Gettysburg Address, aside from being the backdrop of the most violent battle ever fought on American soil, is that it is short. It was an afterthought on the night. The original speaker spoke for two hours, and nobody remembers a single word that guy said. Abe Lincoln spoke for a few minutes, and his words echoed throughout all of history.
It is the speech at the field of Gettysburg where writers can use the phrase “quality over quantity” as an excuse for not hitting their word count for the day. Of course, many of the writers don’t take into account the severity of the moment in which the speech took place, allowing for the quantity to not be there. It was not quality that the speech got right, but importance. Or maybe, there was something else going on with the speech. Maybe the speech wasn’t a speech at all. Maybe the Gettysburg Address was a prayer.
I admit that when I heard this theory thrown out by a YouTuber, I was surprised and intrigued. The Gettysburg Address is a prayer that is not something I ever heard of as a kid; not even in my adult years have I heard such a thing. That is a joke, right? There is no way that the speech is a prayer, right? Right?
Before we get into the speech, let us define what a prayer even is. I have made a criterion for what makes a prayer a prayer. If we find that the speech fits the criteria, then it is a prayer.
Short – Prayers can’t be too long either; since you are expected to recite them as you kneel, you will probably not say someone who spoke for two hours was saying a prayer. Word count does matter for prayers.
Inspire Hope – A prayer is meant to inspire hope from the reader. You shouldn’t hear a prayer and then think something bad can happen. You go to prayer to feel good afterward. You are going to God asking for help with a problem, but you know that that problem can be solved through God. You are flipping the bad scenario upside down.
Submit/Plead – This last part is not as clear as the other three, but the person saying the prayer has to give in to the power of God. They have to admit that there is such a power and that the Lord can help them, and there are some things not in their control. There is a certain level of acceptance from the worshipper since they are giving in to whatever God wishes for them to be done.
Now, let’s read the speech.
“Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives so that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
So what does this mean for the Gettysburg Address?
If we go over our checklist, then it gets pretty interesting.
First off, we can mark off the second one, Short. The Gettysburg Address is not even 300 words, so it qualifies there. To put this into reference, a Word document is normally 500 words, and SAT passages are around 750-800 words.
The speech also is meant to inspire hope from the reader, a sense that the future of the nation will be better.
The two parts we have to ask ourselves is whether Lincoln ever talked about God or ever submitted/pleaded with him. If you view the whole thing as Lincoln addressing God, not the audience, then you can almost certainly say yes to the first point, About God. (I admit that it took me a while to catch the prayer meaning of the title)
If you begin the speech with the words, “Dear God, as you know…” Then the speech is Lincoln talking to God. The words that follow can just as easily be said to himself as he kneels just as much if he is talking to a crowd. If you ask about who or what Lincoln is addressing in the speech, you can say God.
The last part of his submitting/pleading can be seen when Lincoln makes the death of the fallen more than death on the battlefield, but a cause to be championed. There is a fight to be won by not the fallen but those alive, and we must ask for God’s hand in this struggle, the struggle of the nation tearing itself apart.
So we have Lincoln talking to God. The speech is short. It is meant to inspire. It submits to the higher power of God. Yeah, I would say that makes the speech a prayer.
I originally was going to compare the Gettysburg Address to the prayer for D-Day by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but I want to stay more with Lincoln for this article, and perhaps another day we can talk about FDR and other prayers that presidents say. Would Abe Lincoln even write a prayer? Was he religious enough? Asking whether Lincoln was the type of president who would write a prayer is like asking if Marty McFly went back in time. The answer is a resounding yes.
The sixteenth president taught himself to read through the Bible. The book of God is literally one of the cornerstones of man’s education. Also, Lincoln took from the Bible once before, when he wrote his A House Divided speech. We are not talking about a man in Lincoln that didn’t believe in God or was not aware of the books of the Bible. There are some scholars I heard say that at a certain point in the war, Lincoln viewed it as providence he should help the Union win, almost viewing himself as a saint or prophet-like figure to carry the nation to where the Lord wished them to go. Moses had to lead his people out of Egypt and slavery, and Abe Lincoln had to lead his people away from slavery and to a new Egypt (in a sense). If you were to ask Lincoln about the writing of the Gettysburg Address, he might have said that God helped him write it since the guy believed in him and put a higher calling on the war than others. If you don’t think that Lincoln was aware of the spiritual tone of the speech, then here are some words by the man himself about prayer:
“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about seemed insufficient for that day.” – Abraham Lincoln
This is the part where I have to mention that we don’t have any memoirs of Lincoln as an old man looking back on his impact of the war, where he devoted a whole chapter to his inspiration for the composition at Gettysburg. I don’t need to tell the reader why. We do have that from other leaders in history, like Napoleon Bonaparte, who we got some insight into his thoughts as he was in exile for years before his death. For better and worse, Lincoln died too soon for that analysis of his life.
Before I get into the questions, I have to say that Lincoln is one of my favorite presidents to read because he wrote as if he was trying to write poetry, similar to Thomas Jefferson, as compared to a more modern politician, who writes like a lawyer. His works have grammatical errors because he was self-taught, and he didn’t have a copy editor on hand to correct him or a website like Grammarly to perfect the minor errors, but you can tell that he made the words his own. The fact that he had a unique voice as a writer and was somehow the president simultaneously is quite astonishing. Most writers can’t find a voice without running the nation. This guy found his great voice while leading the nation through its darkest hour. I would suggest to the reader to pick up a copy of speeches by Lincoln and give it a read sometime if you want to get to know more about the man and his views. The read is well worth it.
There are some interesting questions we can ask of this whole situation regarding the speech and its link to religion. First off, why are we not being taught this in schools? It took me until I was an adult watching a random Youtube video to look into this! Why is this speech, which is a prayer upon further review, not presented that way to the masses? My guess is that the schools are too focused on the Civil War to discuss the Gettysburg Address being a prayer. I think some would feel more comfortable with the secular approach to the speech, which is about America and the struggle for freedom, rather than a president praying for the nation.
Also, talking about school, this is a speech I have taught some of my students; for some reason, the words seem to confuse most of them. The kids I had read the speech and then didn’t seem to understand what they read, as if the whole thing was too much for them. I think that is because the kids probably don’t know much about the Civil War, and the American Revolution may not be fresh on their minds. As a kid, I don’t know if I truly grasped the severity of a battle like Gettysburg just from reading a few chapters on the war in a book. When I teach the students this, I find I have to teach about the speech and the situation. I theorize the phrase “four score and seven years ago” intimidates students because there is no other instance where they would see the word score used to represent a measure of time (20 years). I have to tell the kids that Lincoln is saying poetically, 87 years ago.
The second question is for the writers out there. As we all know, the first speaker spoke for two hours, the poor guy probably spent a long time practicing the damn speech, and he heard comes Abe Lincoln with some words he wrote on the train over, and Lincoln’s words are the ones that are remembered. If the most famous speech in American history is a prayer, does that mean that writers should write their works as if they are prayers too?
I am not going to say that writers are all of a sudden going to start to produce prayers for every story they write. We all know that is not happening, but writers should note the speaker’s tone, which does lend credit to the prayer-like setting he wants us to feel. Is that only found in prayers? Of course not. But that way of setting the tone is part of the reason the piece is timeless.
The third question asks about the relevancy of the speech to all that hear it. Do we like the speech because it is a prayer? Is that why it is so well-remembered? After all these years, do we like it for the charm it casts over us more than the message or American imagery it holds?
The unfortunate thing about this speech is that it couldn’t happen in today’s large government, where the president is not required to write speeches. Can you imagine the president sitting down, writing what he can for the speech he has to give at a memorial? It wouldn’t happen since the man has a bunch of writers who would do that for him.
In a way, there is something spontaneous and raw about the Gettysburg Address. There is no law being made. No legal system is being changed. Lincoln barely even spoke about the battle itself in that he didn’t mention the strategy involved. The Gettysburg Address is a plea by a desperate courageous president to whatever power he believed in to guide this nation in a struggle he knew one man couldn’t solve. It is almost as if Lincoln was really saying, “All right. You win. I don’t know what to do with this nation anymore. We are tearing ourselves apart. Please, God, guide us to be better.”
In his moment of weakness and the nation’s, Lincoln displayed that the nation should always believe in brighter days, for reasons even the Founding Fathers and himself can’t even explain. Without that doubt and fear, and by giving the assignment to a writer on his staff, we never would have gotten such a plea from a president. Does this make him weak and unfit? Does this make him less of a leader? No, it makes him great because even he can admit that some things are out of his control.
The president, as many know, is the head of the government and not only that but the leader of the American people. He is the voice the people go to in times of trouble. Yet, the greatest president of all time, in his greatest moment, a moment that has defined the American ideology, seems to have gotten help from a higher power in composing words to inspire the nation.
If nothing else, the idea that the Gettysburg Address is a prayer certainly makes you wonder.
Once again sorry for the time between articles.
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Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on pensandwords.com. His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes the reader shares that passion.
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