By the Freedom From Religion Foundation
Tuesday marks the sesquicentennial of the delivery of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on Nov 19, 1863, at Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Penn. On this 150th anniversary we’re being treated, appropriately, to articles and renditions of Lincoln’s most famous address. Most commentators point to the brevity. In fact, Lincoln’s 2-minute speech may have been even briefer than generally acknowledged. Two words, “under God,” are missing from the original:
. . . this nation 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.
We’re all schooled in a version that reads “this nation, under God.” Check out the final sentence of the original manuscript, known as the Nicolay version, for yourself.
Perhaps Lincoln may have ad libbed “under God” in giving his famous address. If so, Lincoln again failed to include those words in writing out a second copy, known as the Hay version, because Lincoln gave it to his secretary John Hay as soon as he returned from Gettysburg. The second version is as godless as the first. This suggests Lincoln certainly didn’t think uniting our nation with deity was important.
Lincoln was asked to copy three additional versions, all for charitable purposes. These remaining three versions in his hand include “under God” in the final line. The Bliss copy, copied by Lincoln for Colonel Alexander Bliss to use as a fundraiser for soldiers, is now on display in the Lincoln Room of the White House. This widely replicated version is inscribed on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
Lincoln routinely punctuated his eloquent addresses with deistic references to “Divine Providence,” in which he firmly believed. But it’s doubtful most U.S. citizens realize Lincoln was strongly rationalist and not a Christian. Among other words also inscribed at the Lincoln Memorial is an excerpt of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address. While full of conventional references to the “Almighty,” Lincoln slyly observed of the North and the South: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
It’s entirely appropriate that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” leave divisive religion out of government, thus ensuring this nation “shall not perish from the Earth.”