​Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

St Peter’s Eastern Hill and the William Wilberforce Foundation recently hosted a reflection on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, its Christian roots and its relevance to 21st century Australia. Ian Hore-Lacy reports.

St Peter’s Eastern Hill was not yet 20 years old on 19 November 1863 when, half a world away, Abraham Lincoln delivered a two-minute address for the ages on the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

On 19 November 2013, St Peter’s and the Wilberforce Foundation sponsored an event to commemorate that historic oration. The two main speakers – Revd Dr Stuart Piggin from Macquarie University and the Revd Dr Mark Durie, Vicar of St Mary’s Caulfield – drew attention to the strong Christian foundation on which President Lincoln based his address at Gettysburg in 1863 and his Second Inaugural address 17 months later, applying their points to today’s Australia.

Dr Piggin suggested that as well as being political masterpieces, both were essentially sermons (despite their brevity), the latter more overtly so.  Indeed, he said, “it could not have been a political masterpiece had it not also been a sermon”.

But it was the foundational beliefs articulated then and having even more importance today that were notable, he said.  Foremost, of course, in the American Civil War context was that God had created all human beings to be equal.

“Jefferson had asserted in the American Declaration of Independence that it was self-evident that all men were created equal,” Dr Piggin said. “But Lincoln believed that this equality was more than self-evident.  It was God-decreed… (and) based on the Genesis doctrine of man as created in the divine image.”

Slavery was an offence against God.

The second of Lincoln’s foundational beliefs was that God is the Lord of history – Providence rules!  But precisely how He does so “is notoriously difficult to fathom”. Lincoln wrestled with this as war casualties mounted, and in a private note he conceded that “in the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party”.

Lincoln’s third foundational belief was that the Bible is the inspired word of God, guiding “how we are to live and as the source of moral clarity and moral energy”.

Dr Piggin then addressed what might be the insights for Australians today “derived from a public theology fashioned by the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln.”  First, the churches were too disengaged from the civic sphere and secondly, we don't have real public theology.  Christians needed to rectify both as “our commentariat (media plus academia) has become very secular, either ignoring religion because it is of so little influence or disparaging it as harmful whenever it is of influence”.

So between the churches and the commentariat was a void crying out to be filled, and Lincoln’s example could guide us in bridging it.  He conscripted rivals rather than marginalising them, and reached out to opponents. “For there are always two opposite sides.  Civil war is endemic to the human race.”

Emulating Lincoln, Dr Piggin said: “It is also the task of public theology to strive to identify a unifying vision for Australia, to define what makes our nation unique, and to spell out our international responsibility.

“Like most Christians, (Australians) find it easier to criticise each other than to look for the things we have in common.”

Dr Durie followed, introduced as vicar, former professor and activist for religious freedom.  He began with an anecdote of a public debate, which indicated that some Melbourne intellectuals had “historical amnesia”. Though historically verifiable, it was incredible to many that “in colonial 19th century Australia, most government officials believed human beings were created equal”.

“This was… because they were all either humanists or evangelical Christians,” he said.

Airbrushing this out of history made us immune to learning what we should from that history because we too readily dismissed or deprecated the values that motivated our more illustrious forbears. 

Dr Durie said the American Civil War was shockingly bloody and represented the last phase of a battle against slavery to establish human equality politically, a movement led by evangelical Christians worldwide.  Locally, his church in Caulfield had a very close connection with William Wilberforce through Sir George Stephen, its early benefactor, who had been one of the main players in Wilberforce’s abolitionist campaign and wrote a book on it.

The American Declaration of Independence cited by Lincoln was based in theology, Lincoln’s sense of destiny was shaped by the Bible, and he quoted Psalm 19 “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” in his second Inaugural Address.  Slavery was seen as a crime against God, “which every person with a Christian conscience has a duty to oppose, as a matter of inescapable urgency”. Lincoln believed in a God of covenant.  Then the Battle Hymn of the Republic echoed further biblical sentiments: God’s truth marched on, as the men of New England did then.

“Australian elites today do not appear to remember the convictions which delivered some of the moral treasures of the present to us,” Dr Durie said. “My focus tonight has been on the decades-long battle for the abolition of slavery, in which the Gettysburg address was a landmark event, and remains to this day as a cherished memory.

“It is regrettable that for many a ‘veil of oblivion’ has indeed fallen over the convictions about God and his dealings with the world, which provided the immediate inspiration for such great struggles and victories for human equality as were wrung out, at enormous cost, in Britain and America during the 19th century.” 

People-trafficking and human bondage today were symptoms of our loss of awareness of our Christian legacy, he said.

“A fundamental issue is truth. In a spirit of truth, do we, as a nation, have the will to remember, understand and honour convictions which have led us into the positive inheritance we now enjoy?  Are we even willing, as a society and as a nation to believe in moral truth? (As a nation, will we) “be able, over time, to maintain moral conviction?  And without such moral conviction could we ever be willing to pay the heavy price required to protect and nurture such rights?

“The danger is a steady deterioration of adherence to a standard of truth which eclipses narrow self-interest.”

Dr Durie said we could not do much “if truth is cast down to the ground, and we have lost our memories”.

Mr John Anderson, former Deputy Prime Minister and Patron of Wilberforce Foundation, said that most Western countries were bankrupt due to weak-kneed governments caving in to populism, and this amounted to monstrous inter-generational theft.  The commentariat was determined that Christians should not be heard.

He said if people forgot the huge legacy of the human rights era of Wilberforce and colleagues, they would be unable to grapple with today’s forms of slavery.  People should realise just how far they had strayed in washing God out of the public square and they needed to find their bearings again. Wilberforce operated in an environment just as bad as ours; we needed to understand why a man like him did what he did, given that he had personal wealth of $400 million in today’s money. But he was transformed by the renewing of his mind, epitomising the fact that those who truly loved others were those who know they are loved by Christ.

The Revd Michael Tate – former Tasmanian Senator, federal minister, ambassador and now a Catholic priest – pointed out that the lessons of the American Civil War were not incorporated into the Australian psyche in the constitution and its first parliament in 1901. In particular, the expulsion then of the Pacific Islander Kanakas had echoes now. The commentariat was relentlessly secular. But was this justified? Had Christian churches lost the trust of the Australian people, due especially to abuse of children? Christians had low credibility at the moment, and some blame is certainly with us.

Maybe new immigrants and refugees would change this. Social diversity here corresponded to that in the Kingdom, and a new silent majority may emerge. So, optimistic!

An American comment this week by Joshua Zeitz noted that around the turn of the century, “ironically, the (Gettysburg) speech became famous just as America forgot what it meant”.

“The Civil War was no longer remarkable for what it accomplished, but for what soldiers did on the battlefield.”



The texts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address may be found at:

http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm and http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/inaug2.htm respectively.


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