A New Birth of Freedom
Updated: Aug 13
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.
"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."
3rd Great Awakening & Beyond (1855 - 1930)
The turn of the 20th century saw another great move of God. As the dust settled in America and people began to be more casual about God, revival broke out yet again. This movement was characterized by great signs and wonders, like that at Azusa Street, John G. Lake's Spokane Healing Rooms, & tent meetings across the Midwest. Then, almost like clockwork, America saw another move of God in the 60's & 70's called the "Jesus Movement," a great counterraction to the "sexual revolution."
Think of our nation in terms of its many phases. If the moral character of our country and its people were to be graphed we'd see ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. When things got dark and the people abandoned God, revivals touched communities and people turned back to God. One such moment of turning back was the one Lincoln memorialized in his famous address. The gap between man and God had been identified and corrected, thus America triumphed and propelled forward under God.
For these reasons, the greatest heroes of American history are names like Edwards, Whitefield, Finney, Moody, and Etter, yet they're often forgotten or abbreviated in our text books and documentaries. These revivalists introduced or re-introduced God to a people that never knew him or forgot what he was like. No other single force has provided for the blessing, prosperity, and character that Americans are marked by today than American revival. It's as intrinsic to our heritage as anything else. But, we find ourselves in yet another dark moment in need of God. It's another turning point and some hard work must be done to pull us through. So, what were the lessons of revival's past?
Prayer - The private and little recognized ministry of prayer always paved the way
Repentance - Repentance was both preached, however unpopular it may have seemed, and sought
Unity - One common goal superseded all else - seeking God and fulfilling His mandate, at whatever personal cost necessary
As we stand, there are similarities with our current state and the time preceding some of our nation's past revivals. This current time is marked by division, confusion, strife, & fear. But, our great aid in those trying times of the past was God, and more specifically, moral and cultural revival. It was the American response to what had gone wrong. It was the much-needed redress to the chasm that developed between God and people, and more broadly, God and a nation. It was the call to come home.
So, the consequential question is this... will God be our great aid now? The answer to this question will probably define us for the next century.
-JF D'Orsie - Communications Director