A New Birth of Freedom
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Did you know that the 19th & 20th centuries saw epidemics that far surpassed our current Coronavirus scare? 100 years ago the Spanish Flu claimed roughly 700,000 American lives, or about 0.6% of the population. Almost 60 years prior another more severe epidemic shook our nation. This epidemic, by most accounts, claimed well over 600,000 lives (in a much less densely populated United States). That figure comes out to over 2% of the population of America at the time. To put that into perspective, 2% of today's population would compute to over 6.6 million lives lost, or the combined populations of Los Angeles & Chicago. To add further perspective, the Coronavirus death toll in America to date is reported to be about 164,000, less than 0.005 % of the population. All of this adds much needed context to one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in American history: the Gettysburg Address. What was this epidemic if you've not already guessed? America's Civil War.
Several pieces of President Abraham Lincoln's November 19th, 1863 Gettysburg Address live on today. "The last full measure of devotion," for example, has been repeated, copied, written about, and more. And, of course, the famous introduction of "four score and seven years ago," is still recited by child and veteran alike. But the most intriguing little phrase appears near the end and is almost certainly borrowed from the Biblical text of 1st Peter 1. "That this nation, under God," Lincoln concludes, "shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
In comparison, 1st Peter 1:23 reads this way...
"You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God." 1st PETER 1:23 - NRSV
This phrase contained within Lincoln's speech, and its counterpart from Peter's 1st letter not only speak of a new birth, in one instance for a nation, and in another instance for the individual who is in Christ, they both go on to highlight the idea or state of being "imperishable." For these reasons I think Lincoln was mindful, as he addressed the crowd in 1863, of not just this Biblical text but its spiritual implications as well. America was about midway through a war that would claim many more lives than any other conflict she would ever enter into. This war was fought for several reasons but chief among them was the institution of slavery, a system that abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner likened to both a "harlot" and a "snake" on the senate floor seven years prior. Decades of turmoil, strife, and sectarianism had boiled over into civil war. And, as Sumner put it, "...the criminal also must be dragged into day (not the crime only) that you may see and measure the power by which all this wrong is sustained." Sumner's fiery speech, the carnage of the war, mounting political pressure, and many other variables helped to kindle this combustible moment. But in that moment there was a chance at this one great and American thing: a new birth.
READ THE FULL GETTYSBURG ADDRESS HERE
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated 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 of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Conclusion of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
A New Birth - A Spiritual Awakening
Experiencing a "new birth" wouldn't be possible without God. Lincoln knew it, the crowd gathered to hear his address knew it, the soldiers strewn across the Shenandoah & Cumberland Valleys knew it, and America's pattern of Christian revival forecast it. It was a turning point for sure. It was a 2nd Chronicles 7:14 moment, a plea to God to heal our land.
And the people did turn back to God, the soldiers did spend their last full measure of devotion at the battle of Gettysburg, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob did heal the land. This new birth, which Lincoln in a sense prophesied, was actually born on a spiritual battlefield as much as a physical one. This battle was won in prayer closets, in selfless acts of heroism, and the most recent battle, the one for abolition, was prompted by Christian revival.
In fact, two great revivals, the 1st & 2nd Great Awakenings, instigated the reversal of this moral wrong and several others. Not only that, these great moves of God shaped our nation, characterized our people, and catalyzed our reforms and rise to prosperity. Revivalism isn't just a blip on America's chronological course, it's our heritage.
2nd Great Awakening (1790-1840)
The 2nd Great Awakening, powered by the camp meeting revivals, pushed the country into Civil War, not because of lust for power or violence, but because all roads converged there. A moral awakening demanded that we reconcile, and so we did.
1st Great Awakening (1730-1755)
Revivalism greatly contributed to our freedom from British rule, the forging of our founding documents and governing principles, and consequently our victory in the Revolutionary War. Prior to the revolution, the wake of the 1st Great Awakening had swept the land, particularly New England, and had dismantled the religious and powerless orthodoxies and systems of the inherited Anglican church. Now, a people individually accountable to God rather than being pressed down by rules and regulations, tasted a form of liberty she'd soon pursue. It was this foundation of self-government, endowed by God, that forged a new republican form of governing only a few years later. It's no surprise, then, that the revelation of being "born again" was a predominant theological feature in our nation's first great awakening.
"Revivalism isn't just a blip on America's chronological course, it's our heritage."