Back to Gettysburg.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections prompted by my visit to the battlefield there.  These meditations are meant as illustrations of what I mean when I suggest that we make our hearts vulnerable as we contemplate the past.  So far I’ve shared two examples.  The first involved the weight of the past that overcame me at Gettysburg, its palpable reminder of the innumerable host of image-bearers that have gone before us, and the way that this can jolt us out of our own small, comfortable, and self-centered worlds.  The second concerned the enormous chasm that separates us from those who clashed on this field a century and a half ago.  Realizing this leads us to marvel at the omniscience of God in contrast with how little we actually know of what transpired there.

I’d like to share another meditation.  This post will be a bit longer than usual, and I hope you’ll bear with me.  The reflection is rooted in the recognition that our inability to recapture what happened on the battlefield isn’t only a reminder of the chasm that separates us from the generations preceding us.  It also foreshadows how our own lives will fade from view in generations to come.  We all know that life is short, and if we were inclined to think otherwise, the Scripture would insist on bringing us back to reality: “My life is a breath,” sighs Job (Job 7:7).  “Our days on earth are a shadow,” his friend Bildad agrees (Job 8:9).  Moses observes that our days are numbered (Psalm 90:12), David likens them to a passing shadow (Psalm 144:4), James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14), and Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers away (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Deep down we get this, even as we conspire not to talk about it or acknowledge it.  But the wispy, smoke-like, breath-like quality of our lives is not only a matter of length; it is also a matter of legacy.  It’s a question of what sort of imprint we will leave behind when we’re gone.  The answer, to put it bluntly, is not much of one.  It’s not that our lives are without effect.  Because we have lived, any number of others lives may be touched.  Family members and neighbors, clients and coworkers, patients and students, customers and friends may all be affected, in some cases profoundly so.  I’m not discounting that.  But once we have passed, the memory of who we are (or were), the knowledge of those inner qualities that define us as unique individuals, will fade quickly into oblivion.  How many of us have any more than a faded picture’s acquaintance with our great-grandparents?

The English poet Thomas Gray felt the weight of this.  In his famous “Elegy in a Country Church Yard,” the eighteenth-century writer placed his narrator in a cemetery at twilight, where he considers the terse entries on the gravestones and meditates on “the short and simple annals of the poor.”  The lives of the “rude forefathers” sleeping there have faded with time, Gray realizes.  Humble headstones are all that remain, silent markers that preserve only “their names, their years, spelt by th’unlettered Muse.”  It’s not just that our lives are so short, we may read Gray as suggesting.  From retrospect they seem so insignificant.  We leave but the faintest of footprints for posterity.

Thousands of years before Gray, another writer confronted the same troubling truth.  “There is no remembrance of former things,” wrote the Preacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  “Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:11).  Indeed, the Preacher went on, “there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come” (2:16a).  This was one of many reasons convincing the writer that life is empty, meaningless, pointless, absurd.  “Vanity of vanities,” he laments in the book’s very first sentence, “all is vanity.”

Through eyes of faith, we read the Preacher’s bitter lament as an example of what Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft calls “black grace,” by which he means God’s revelation to us “by darkness rather than light.”  Ecclesiastes hardly captures the true meaning of life.  Rather, it brilliantly exposes the futility of life lived “under the sun,” of an existence shorn of all eternal perspective.  As we read, we are reminded repeatedly that all of our efforts to deny God and manufacture our own meaning and purpose for life are merely so many acts of self-deception or distraction.  Our hope lies not in crafting our own stories, but in realizing that we were born in the middle of a far larger story.  The path from despair comes through embracing the One True Story and seeing ourselves rightly as characters in its narrative of hope and redemption.

Intellectually, I understand this, but when I am honest with myself, I realize that the story of the Preacher is often my story, too.  I struggle with the desire to manufacture my own meaning, to be the architect of my own immortality.  Too often, my drive for accomplishments and reputation are less about a desire to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” in eternity, and more about erecting monuments to myself in this present age.

Here, too, Gettysburg speaks to me.  Visitors to Gettysburg not only get a glimpse into the battle that raged there in 1863.  They also see evidence of how those who survived the battle wished to be remembered.  The ten square miles of Gettysburg National Military Park constitute the largest statuary garden in the world.  There are monuments and markers galore (somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen hundred all told), the vast majority erected in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as the survivors of the battle were entering old age.

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry., Little Round Top

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry., Little Round Top

It would be interesting to undertake a systematic study of the inscriptions on these monuments.   I did not, but I did stop to read a fair number as I walked the battlefield.  One of the things that struck me is how mundane their perspective generally is.  The vast majority simply repeat the same kind of details that would go into an action report after battle.  A typical monument explains that the military unit being commemorated was positioned at such and such a spot for such and such a purpose, with such and such a result.  An enumeration of casualties invariably follows, and sometimes the names of those killed.

Attempts to speak to the motivation or values of those involved are far in fact extremely rare.  They usually involve brief references to “duty,” “valor,” or patriotism.  None of these is intrinsically Christian, of course, and a pagan soldier in ancient Rome would have welcomed them on a monument to Caesar’s legions.

What seems lacking in these monuments is any effort to connect what happened at Gettysburg to some larger narrative that would give the battle transcendent meaning.  Such a narrative had been provided years earlier, however, in the most famous effort to commemorate those who fought there, although this commemoration was not a monument but a speech.

We rightly remember the Gettysburg Address for its eloquence, but how deeply do we think about it?  I may offend some in saying this, but to think Christianly about it is to see it as deeply flawed.  Like the Preacher’s contemplation of life “under the sun,” its perspective is relentlessly earthbound, and at least one of its claims is vaguely blasphemous.

Probably the Address’s best known passage is its opening sentence: “Four score 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.”  We live in a talk-show culture in which contemporary political rhetoric is relentlessly parsed and dissected and critiqued unmercifully, but let a few generations pass and chisel the rhetoric in granite on the mall in Washington, and it becomes sacrosanct in our eyes.  It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered.

As in our own day, much of the criticism was politically motivated.   We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement.  In November, 1863, the North was badly divided over the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation.  The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it.  And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly.

His argument was essentially historical.  At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding.  For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers.  “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.”  Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined.  Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate.  And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this.  Democrats were livid.  It was to uphold the Constitution, the Chicago Times assured its readers, “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.”  What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable.  “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government?  They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

As a historian, I see northern Democrats’ response to the Address as understandable (although their reading of history was just as one-sided as Lincoln’s).  As a Christian historian, I am more disappointed by the way that Republican evangelicals across the North embraced Lincoln’s speech, for it contained elements that they should have found troubling.

For one thing, the Address is a classic example of rhetoric that conflates sacred and secular.   Read broadly, Lincoln’s address was a masterful effort to situate the tragedy of the American Civil War in a larger story of redemption.  The thing being redeemed, however, is not God’s Church but the United States.  The author of redemption  is not the Lord but “the people.”

The story Lincoln tells begins with its own creation account.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the opening verse of Genesis declares.  In the beginning “our fathers brought forth” the United States, Lincoln proclaims.  Their values now bind us.  Their vision–as interpreted by Lincoln–obliges us.  Ever since Lincoln’s death there have been countless efforts to “baptize him posthumously,” as Christian scholar Allen Guelzo notes in his marvelous biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.  Guezlo argues persuasively, however, that although Lincoln was biblically literate  and far from an atheist, he nevertheless died unconvinced of the gospel.  What is more, although he employed biblical rhetoric and adopted biblical cadences in his speeches, he rarely if ever referred to the Bible as authoritative.  As late as 1863, at least, the bedrock of his argument against slavery was not scripture but the Declaration of Independence and its assertion–penned by an apostle of the Enlightenment who owned 150 slaves–that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln goes on to make two other assertions that ought to have troubled the thinking Christians in his audience.  The first is his statement that “the brave men who struggled” at Gettysburg–presumably he meant the Union men–had “consecrated” the ground. To consecrate is to “set apart as sacred to God.”  Something that has been consecrated is now “holy.”  When the great “I AM” spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He informed the trembling herdsman that he was standing on holy ground.  Lincoln told his audience the same thing.  In what possible sense could that be true?   It makes little difference whether you believe that Lincoln was speaking literally or figuratively.  In his choice of words the president was draping the state with religious imagery and eternal significance, and that, however well-intended, is a form of what Christian scholar Steven Woodworth aptly labels “patriotic heresy.”

Second, Lincoln suggested that the blood of the Union dead justified the Union cause.  He urged his audience to renew their commitment to the struggle precisely because others had given “the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf.  My grandfather served in WWI, my father in WWII, and my son is currently in the Marine Corps, so I want to be very careful in choosing my words here.  We can rightly respect, admire, and appreciate those who, through suffering and great danger have risked their lives in our defense.  But that is a different thing from maintaining that the spilling of blood necessarily ennobles the cause for which it is shed.

We would not accept that view with regard to the storm troopers who died in the service of Adolph Hitler, nor the Islamic terrorists who knowingly went to their deaths on 9/11.  And as American Christians we ought not to swallow the argument as applied to our own soldiers.  If we accept the view that death in war automatically justifies the perpetuation of that war–so that the “dead shall not have died in vain,” as Lincoln put it–we abdicate our calling to live as salt and light.  When we do so, the church forfeits its prophetic voice and becomes merely an extension of the state.

Thinking Christianly about the past requires that we make our own hearts vulnerable, so my purpose in sharing these thoughts is not so that we can smugly condemn those who have gone before us.  Instead, we are called to identify with them.  Their example reminds us, warns us, of the ever present temptation to confuse our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments, whether nation, race, class, or party.  This is but one manifestation of the more general seduction that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes knew well: the illusion that we make our own meaning in life, satisfying our souls on our own terms, in our own way.  Others have unknowingly succumbed.  Why should we be immune?

Search our hearts, O Lord . . .


  1. Tracy, I did misunderstand roundly denounced to mean by most.

  2. The statements “We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement,” and “And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly” seem a bit exaggerated, given the evidence cited. The two statements “It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered” and “The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it” are contradictory. I think this blog post tries too hard to make its points about Lincoln and his speech.

    • Thanks for pushing back, George. You raise two important points: First, isn’t it an exaggeration to say that Lincoln was trying make a political statement about emancipation when he never referred to it? My point is that there is a historical context to the Gettysburg Address, and part of thinking historically about it is recapturing that historical context. There had been an ongoing debate since at least the mid-1850s concerning the attitudes of the country’s founders toward slavery. I encourage you to read the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In the debate at Alton, IL, Stephen Douglas (a leading Midwestern Democrat who would be the candidate of the northern wing of the Democratic Party in the presidential election of 1860) said the following: “I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes [sic] at all when they declared all men to be equal. . . . They alluded to men of European birth and European descent–to white men, and to none others–when they declared that doctrine. I hold that this government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” The meaning of the Declaration of Independence was one of the main issues dividing northerners in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln says that the war, at its most basic, was a struggle to determine whether a government founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal” can endure. Democrats effectively asked, “What does this war have to do with equality? We thought we were fighting to preserve the Union!” As Civil War historian James McPherson has so powerfully argued, the cause of Union unified the North, the cause of emancipation divided them. Northern Democrats correctly understood that Lincoln was making an argument that the war, at its most fundamental, was a war to end slavery. And when they heard that, Democratic papers like the Chicago Times rightly recognized Lincoln’s statement as expressing the Republican position on the war. In effect, they cried out, “You are not speaking for all of the Union dead when you claim to be honoring them.” Perhaps I might have chosen other words to convey my meaning more clearly. In saying that Lincoln was making a political statement, I did not mean to imply that he was simply being politically calculating in an effort to promote his party’s selfish interests. But it is important to note that Lincoln’s view in 1863 was the view of one party only in the North. He was not speaking FOR the North as much as he was speaking TO the North, i.e., sincerely trying to reshape how the free states viewed the fundamental meaning of the war.

      Your second point I can respond to much more quickly. If I understand you rightly, you suggest that it is contradictory to say both that Lincoln’s speech was “roundly denounced” and that Republicans supported it. I confess that I don’t follow why you think it is so. The adverb “roundly” is not a synonym for “universally” or even “widely.” When applied to speech (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), it means “plainly” or “vehemently.” All I meant by the first statement was that there were voices in the North that loudly, vehemently condemned the address. The second statement makes clear where the criticism came from. It came from the Democratic Party, while Republicans defended it. (Lincoln only took 48% of the popular vote in the free states in 1860, by the way, so it is not at all the case that the Democratic view represented a small minority.)

      Thanks for pushing me to be more clear.

  3. Very thought provoking blog! When I was in high school (the 1950s), my history teacher asked us to memorize the first part of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. We did not try to read between the lines of that speech. We, in a northern classroom, accepted it whole as a legitimate expression of American Christian patriotism. Dr. McKenzie has undermined this unthinking approach and has demonstrated how historians, especially historians who are also Christians, can think differently about this document. My question, as a history teacher, is – should we still be assigning our students to memorize this speech? Should we not also be helping these students see this speech as a brilliant (but flawed?) piece of political theater rather than a universally accepted patriotic utterance? Will the nation’s citizens tolerate this kind of thinking about a document that has been regarded as sacrosanct?

  4. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

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