The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War. Over the course of just three days in July 1863, over 50,000 soldiers of both the North and South were killed, wounded or captured. This was the largest battle of the War and the largest battle ever fought in North America.
Five months later on November 19, 1863, the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was dedicated—the remains of hundreds of unknown soldiers had been finally interned in the landscape, and dignitaries showed up to show their respect. Among them were two very significant men of their day.
The first was the distinguished orator, Edward Everett. Everett gave a two-hour long speech steeped in the tradition of Greek oratory. When he was finished, President Abraham Lincoln stepped up and gave a two-minute-long speech that contained merely 272 words. Though his brevity was at first criticized, the words of the Gettysburg Address soon became one of the classic utterances of all time, a masterpiece of prose poetry.
On the occasion of this Memorial Day Service 160 years later in 2023, I am going to step out of my normal pattern of preaching from the Gospel texts to remind us all of these magnificent words once again. Most people (me included) no longer choose to memorize speeches and poems—why should we when we can look them up on Google and instantly have the words before us.
This is a loss for us as individuals and as a culture. Memorized words, whether scripture or speech, come to reside deep in our souls. Meaning is not found by passing letters before or eyes. It is found when those letters become part of who we are: the substance of what we believe and run our lives by, the subject of what we teach and pass onto our children.
Please listen to Lincoln’s words and set them against the context of how our country nearly dissolved and why the fight for the values of freedom and justice for all, won out in the end, but at such a cost.
Listen for the relevance this little speech still has for us today as we face a world now in 2023—both within our borders and outside of them—where freedom and justice for all is still worth our dedication and our sacrifice.
And I challenge you to memorize these words yourself in the days between the Memorial Day Holiday tomorrow and the celebrations we hold on July 4th this year.
The words of Abraham Lincoln, Delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863
Four score 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 battle-field 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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not 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 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.