Abraham Lincoln

What Hath the Gettysburg Address to Do With Exposition?

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As many of you know, today is the 150th anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address by then President Abraham Lincoln.  He was invited to attend the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery give some brief remarks to commemorate the battle that took place just months before (July 1-3, 1863) where almost 30,000 Americans (Union and Confederate) gave their lives for their respective causes.  Though Edward Everett, a great orator of the time, served as the keynote speaker and spoke for over two hours, Lincoln’s speech took only ten sentences and landed shy of 300 words, Everett recognized that Lincoln captured the spirit of the times better in two minutes than he did in two hours. 

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 that this 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 before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they 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, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

So why speak about this on a blog regarding ex the positional preaching?  Simply put, Lincoln engaged in exposition himself.  He sought to expose the meaning, not of Bible as we preachers aim  to do, but of the Declaration of Independence.  He started off, “Four score and seven years ago.”  This 87 year marker took the listeners back not to the Constitution’s ratification (1787–only 76 years prior), but to 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Lincoln sought to take the readers ‘ad fontes’–to the source of the nation that declared that all men were “created equal.”  This issue did not simply go toward the South, but to also the Northerners who struggled with the ethics and rationale behind the war.  Racism was not relegated to the Confederacy.  The issue of slavery was left untouched by the Founders and the foundational documents of our nation, but the idea of all men begin created equal had far reaching ramifications.

Expositors take our document (the Bible) and preach not simply to expose the Bible, but to expose the hearts that listen to the Bible.  For many, a disconnect exists between His Word and our world–just like the disconnect existed between the Declaration of Independence and the declaration of most citizens living under that document.  And it took a Civil War to bring these issues to a head.  Did “a new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” really come to pass?

Lincoln in his exposition called for an invitation, if you will.  While he recognized that the purpose of the dedication was for the fallen soldiers on that battlefield, he turns this on his listeners  Though quoted above, let’s isolate this understanding:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought her have thus so far nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here  to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they 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 dedicated of freedom.

Lincoln knew that if he left this as simply something they did as soldiers, it would be left in the dustbin of history.  But he put it to the people–they fought, will we?  Will we move forward in such a way that the cost they paid would be worth it?  Or would it be all for nothing.  It’s up to you. 

Pastors, we must not preach the Scriptures as a historic artifact, but preach it in such a way that the price that Christ paid on the cross and His work in being raised from the dead is worth the price as He is raised in us (Romans 6:1-4).  The price that the martyrs paid will not be in vain.  The sacrifices made for the cause of Christ would not be in vain. 

What hath the Gettysburg Address to do with exposition?  Lincoln exposed the meaning of the text (the Declaration of Independence) and exposed the worldview of the listeners’ hearts.  Will we, having the power of the Spirit to lead and aid, do no less with the inspired text of Scripture?

Communication Lessons According to Lincoln

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Doris Kearns Goodwin provided all Civil War lovers with a wonderful book entitled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  As the title implies, Lincoln’s cabinet consisted of men who were running for president or were political rivals to Lincoln leading up to the 1860 presidential election.  I just learned that this book will become a movie (directed by Spielberg himself!).

As a pastor and preacher, I am always interested in how leaders communicate.  For us, it’s always a work in progress.  In reading this work, Goodwin relays the account of the beginnings of Lincoln’s rivalry with Stephen Douglas.  At the time, the issue of slavery was bringing the Union to a tipping point.  Western expansion of the United States brought the issue of whether to allow slavery into these new areas.  The newly passed Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed those new territories to decide for themselves if they would be slave or free—a doctrine known as popular sovereignty.  Stephen Douglas was the main proponent of this doctrine.  At the time, Lincoln was merely against westward expansion of slavery—a view that would increasing evolve into one who believed in emancipation.  Nevertheless, Lincoln, a young newcomer to Illinois political scene stood toe-to-toe with the veteran Douglas at the Illinois State Fair in 1854, soon after the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 

In just a few short pages, Goodwin paints the picture of Lincoln’s communication skills, giving lessons to all of us who communicate. 

  1. Preparation:  “Before speaking out against the Nebraska Act, Lincoln spent many hours in the State Library, studying present and past congressional debates so that he could reach back into the stream of American history and tell a clear, reasoned, and compelling tale.  He would express no opinion on anything, Herndon observed, until he knew his subject ‘inside and outside, upside and downside.’  Lincoln told Joshua Seed, ‘I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned.  My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out” (164).
  2. Conviction: “’He began in a slow and hesitating manner,’ Horace White noted.  Yet minutes into his speech, ‘it was evident that he had mastered his subject, that he knew what he was going to say, and that he knew he was right’” (165). 
  3. Connection to their history.  “While Douglas simply asserted his points as self-evident, Lincoln embedded his argument in a narrative history, transporting his listeners back to their roots as a people, to the founding of the nation—a story that still retained its power to arouse strong emotion and thoughtful attention” (165). “In order to make his argument, Lincoln decided to begin with nothing less that an account of our common history, the powerful narrative of how slavery grew with our country, how its growth and expansion had been carefully contained by the founding fathers, and how on this fall night in 1854 the great story they were being told—the story of the Union—had come to such an impasse that the exemplary meaning, indeed, the continued existence of the story hung in the balance” (166). 
  4. Clarity.  “Many of his arguments were familiar to those who had followed the Senate debate and had read Chase’s ‘Appeal’; but the structure of the speech was so ‘clear and logical,’ the Illinois Daily Journal observed, the arrangement of the facts so ‘methodical,’ that the overall effect was strikingly original and ‘most effective’ (165). 
  5. Ordinary language.  “Instead of the ornate language so familiar to men like Webster, Lincoln used irony and humor, laced with workaday, homespun images to build an eloquent tower of logic.  The proslavery argument that a vote for the Wilmot Proviso threatened the stability of the entire Union was reduced to absurdity by analogy—’because I may have refused to build an addition to my house, I thereby have decided to destroy the existing house!’  Such flashes of figurative language were always available to Lincoln to drive home a point, gracefully educating while entertaining—in a word, communicating an enormously complicated issue with wit, simplicity, and a massive power of moral persuasion” (166).