Daniel Dreisbach on Abe Lincoln’s Religious Rhetoric
Date: March 8th, 2015

On the sesquicentennial anniversary of the waning months of the US Civil War, Dr. Daniel Dreisbach — professor of Justice, Law, and Society at American University — stops by to discuss the use of religion in Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric.  We pay special attention to Lincoln’s most famous, and shortest, speeches – the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

The conversation starts with an examination into the use of biblical language dating back to the earliest days of colonial America.  Prof. Dreisbach notes three consistent aspects of political language used from the early 17th century through Lincoln’s era: 1) the citizenry was biblically literate; 2) the nation was by and large Protestant; and 3) there was a vision of America as being God’s “new Israel.”  We revisit some themes of earlier podcasts with Mark David Hall regarding how many of the Founding Fathers of the revolutionary era were influenced heavily by religious thinking, despite the best known Founders (e.g., Madison, Jefferson) being more influenced by the Enlightenment.

The interview then jumps over to the early life and times of Abraham Lincoln, a descendant of Puritans and born into a family that was active in a Calvinist Baptist tradition.  While Daniel points out that Abe was known to ridicule preachers and exhibit some skepticism about his theological upbringing in his teen and early adult years, Lincoln was unmistakably shaped by the religious milieu of his time.  The role of the King James Version Bible weighed heavily in his early education and was the dominant translation of Scripture in America during the early 19th century.  Prof. Dreisbach points out some of the unique aspects of the KJV Bible with respect to its use of words and cadence that made it accessible to a “less educated” (or ploughboy) population.  Tony notes that given Lincoln’s humble upbringing, this version of the Bible would seem to resonate with Lincoln.

We then move to Lincoln’s political career observing that the use of religious rhetoric in speeches was apparent quite early, including in his Young Men’s Lyceum and “House Divided” speeches.  Lincoln comes to the White House at a time when states are seceding from the republic and his First Inaugural Address takes on a more “workman” flavor, laying out the difficulties facing the divided nation, though at the end there are references to the “better angels of our nature.”  The podcast then fast forwards to the Gettysburg Address, given several months after the famed battle, and turning point, of the Civil War.  Daniel fills us in on some of the background of the speech itself, dismissing the popular notion that it was written on the back of an envelope during the president’s train ride to Pennsylvania.  Instead, Prof. Dreisbach points out that it is a carefully crafted speech with language that is  not directly taken from the Bible, but calls strongly upon its use of particular words and phrases.  He recounts a number of these portions of the speech and further observes that in its spoken form it has a cadence that is reminiscent of the King James Bible.  The theme of conception, birth, death, and re-birth is also highlighted.

With Gettysburg and Vicksburg behind us, and the war drawing to a close, we then examine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which also clocks in as a remarkably short speech.  Unlike the Gettysburg Address, though, the Second Inaugural uses references to God and the Bible more directly.  Daniel observes that this is not a speech that gloats upon (inevitable) victory by the Union forces, but instead develops a tone of reconciliation and noting that all parties in the conflict have borne the costs of the sin of slavery that blemished this young nation.  We discuss whether the concept of providence was a strong theme in the speech, with Daniel taking a very nuanced version of this question and noting that Lincoln was circumspect in seeing the United States as the “new Israel” as earlier Puritans had done.  We finish with some of Dr. Dreisbach’s personal reflections on what he learned in studying Lincoln’s rhetoric and what it means for our understanding of our modern times.  Recorded: March 6, 2015.

(Note: Tony is well aware of his odd pronunciations of “rhetoric” and “address” and was surprised at how “ploughboy” he sounded when reviewing the tape.)


Daniel Dreisbach’s bio at the School of Public Affairs, American University.

Lincoln’s 700 Words of Biblical Meditation,” by Daniel Dreisbach (at the Library of Law & Liberty).

The Sacred Sounds of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” by Daniel Dreisbach (at the Library of Law & Liberty).

Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, edited by Daniel Dreisbach and Mark Hall.

The Sacred Rights of Conscience, edited by Daniel Dreisbach and Mark Hall.

The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by Daniel Dreisbach, Mark Hall, and Jeffry Morrison.

Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, by Daniel Dreisbach.


Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric in the US Civil War.

Mark David Hall on Religion and the Founding Fathers.

Mark David Hall on Roger Sherman, Puritan Patriot.

Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities in the American Founding.

Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.

John Fea on Religion and the American Founding.

One Response to “Daniel Dreisbach on Abe Lincoln’s Religious Rhetoric”

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