Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address": The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Abraham Lincoln - The Orator as Prophet and Priest

3. The Gettysburg Address - Rhetorical Analysis

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has played a powerful role in shaping American public discourse over the centuries. It has become one of the central documents in the evolution of American civil religion - imbued with religious and biblical language and imagery, backed by the ethos of its orator, its rhetoric sanctifies the founding documents and itself becomes part of the canon of “holy writ” of American civil religion.

This is all the more remarkable considering the fact that Lincoln was originally only supposed to deliver a few appropriate remarks at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield as a cemetery for the fallen soldiers (Pierard, Linder 103). The main speaker, Edward Everett, had already given a long speech when Lincoln’s turn came. The situation which thus presented itself to the orator posed a considerable challenge, as the audience was already weary (cf. White, 242). It is therefore all the more fascinating to see how Lincoln succeeded in his short, dense speech - which did not even give the photographer sufficient time to take his picture - in molding American identity by fusing “organic union with transcendent purpose by utilizing the religious symbolism of the Christian tradition” (ibid., 97).

This paper will examine how the Gettysburg Address came to be one of the central document of American civil religion, which had a significant influence on all future public discourse. First, it will provide a brief discussion of Abraham Lincoln as an orator. This aspect is important insofar as it is necessary to determine what role his personal ethos played in the Gettysburg Address (cf. Pierard, Linder 92). In this context, it also seems meaningful to provide an overview of the theoretical framework of this paper, i.e. the term “American civil religion”, coined by Robert N. Bellah, and its implications with respect to Abraham Lincoln as an orator. However, an extensive analysis of this complex issue would be beyond the scope of this paper.

The main part will offer a close reading of the Gettysburg Address , focusing on an in-depth analysis of the rhetorical strategies and stylistic devices Lincoln employs. This part is concerned especially with the question of how these strategies contribute to the enduring significance of the Gettysburg Address as a central document of American civil religion.

2. Abraham Lincoln - The Orator as Prophet and Priest

What role does Abraham Lincoln play within this framework of American civil religion, and especially with regard to the Gettysburg Address ? What is the persona he assumes as an orator, and how does this enable him to achieve his purpose? In what ways does his ethos as an orator contribute to the speech? Did he employ biblical and religious rhetoric merely as a means of playing on the passions of the audience?

Joseph Fornieri, in his book on Abraham Lincoln ’ s Political Faith , states that Lincoln’s “evocative appeal to the Bible stirred the ‘religious imagination’ of his audience through emotion and rhetorical flourish” (Fornieri 46). However, we will see later that Lincoln does not rely solely on the affective dimension of rhetoric in his speech, but also subtly introduces a logical argument - his rhetorical strategies are not merely a “concession to public prejudice” (ibid, 68). Instead, Lincoln’s use of rhetoric was deeply rooted in his personal faith (cf. ibid, 51), thus imbuing the entire address with his credibility as a deeply religious man, and offering a viable ethos.

The development of his personal faith is a complex issue that cannot be dealt with in depth at this point. However, it is clear that Lincoln, although he never belonged to any religious denomination, was, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, someone “‘[whose] religious convictions were superior in depth and purity to those held by the religious as well as the politicals leaders of his day’” (qtd. in Miller 165). It was due to these personal convictions that Lincoln could become the “messiah” of American civil religion, as Robert J. Miller notes (Miller 182).

Robert N. Bellah called Abraham Lincoln “the man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied [the meaning of civil religion] for America” (qtd. in Pierard, Linder 97). Bellah defines American civil religion as a “public religious dimension [that] is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” (Bellah, 4), although others argue for a “more fluid reality” of religious state rituals (cf. Pierard, Linder 21). Similarly to Miller, Bellah views Lincoln as the Christ-figure of this new civil religion, maintaining that the “symbolic equation of Lincoln with Jesus was made relatively early” (Bellah 10).

However, Lincoln himself does certainly not stage himself as a Christ-figure in his speeches. Instead, he assumes roles that are essential to any religion, personas that invest him with divine authority as a speaker - those of priest and prophet. In his position as president, he is “in effect the ‘pontifex maximus’ of American civil religion - principal prophet, high priest, first preacher, and chief pastor of the American nation” (Pierard, Linder 25). Pierard and Linder elaborate on this statement, claiming that civil religion exists in […] two varieties which may be labeled as ‘prophetic’ and ‘priestly’ civil religion. In a functional sense, the prophet stands before the people and speaks to them the necessary (and sometimes unpleasant) words from God, but the priest stands before God and speaks on behalf of the people. The prophet focuses on judgment and repentance while the priest pronounces words of comfort, praise, and celebration. (ibid. 24)

Bearing in mind this distinction, it might seem at first glance that the persona Lincoln adopts in the Gettysburg Address is that of the priest rather than that of the prophet - he is, after all, speaking to a mourning people, comforting them and praising the fallen soldiers. However, in spite of Pieard and Linder’s insistence that “[in] the priestly variety […] the president’s prophetic role is muted” (ibid. 24), it can be argued that Lincoln, in effect, merges the two roles in his speech - he assumes divine authority in order to inspire hope and confidence. Lincoln here functions both as a priest who comforts the people and “strokes his political flock” (ibid. 25) and at the same time as the prophet who reminds the people of the importance of the sacrifice they had to bring and encourages them to attribute to this sacrifice its true, renewing meaning. Moreover, the role of the prophet as one who admonishes the people and warns them of divine judgment if they do not turn from their evil ways is implied in Lincoln’s subtle allusions to the issue of slavery. He affirms the equality of all men, speaks of the sacrifice of the Civil War as necessary and kathartic, making a “new birth” possible for the nation - thus implying that the nation has fallen and needs to repent. In doing so, Lincoln assumes the role of a prophet as well as that of a priest.

3. The Gettysburg Address - Rhetorical Analysis

With its complexity and rhetorical density, the Gettysburg Address poses a challenge for an in-depth analysis. It seems hardly possible to separate different levels of rhetorical techniques, as they are closely intertwined and depending on each other to contribute to the overall purpose of the speech. As Pierard and Linder say, “the address fused together the grand Christian themes of human life in natural birth, spiritual renewal and rising to newness of life with the experience of the nation” (Pierard, Linder, 104) - themes that are closely linked to the idea of sacrifice (cf. Fornieri 47). Also, the idea of progress is emphasized with respect to Lincoln’s notion of the nation. And although the language used and the images evoked are often explicitly religious and biblical, the speech is characterized by the undercurrent of a logical argument, as well.

The following part of this paper will examine the text with respect to the rhetorical strategies and stylistic devices that contribute to the function of this text as a central document in the evolution of American civil religion. However, due to the complex connections of theses different rhetorical strategies, the paper will attempt to follow the speech chronologically and examine the various devices and their function as the speech moves along.


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Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address": The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Allgemeine Rhetorik
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Adress, civil religion, American rhetoric, political rhetoric, founding documents
Quote paper
Katharina E. Thomas (Author), 2009, Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address": The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/172978


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