Several books and news articles recently have observed that second presidential inaugural addresses are rarely memorable.

The exception is Lincoln’s, considered one of the finest pieces of American oratory ever.

(RNS1-jan21) President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.

(RNS1-jan21) President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.

Much is made in the news media of which Bibles President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden use when taking their oaths of office, but what is really noteworthy about Lincoln’s address is not which Bible he used but the extent to which he drew on the King James Bible for his speech.

The words “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces” are an allusion to the Fall of Man in the book of Genesis. As a result of Adam's sin, God tells Adam that henceforth, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19).

Lincoln's phrase, “but let us judge not, that we be not judged,” alludes to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1, which in the King James Bible reads, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Lincoln quotes another of the sayings of Jesus: “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” The language comes from Matthew 18:7; a similar discourse by Jesus appears in Luke 17:1.

The quotation “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” is from Psalm 19:9 in the King James Bible.

A further example of Lincoln’s use of the Bible is found in his 1858 comments when he accepted the Republican nomination as candidate for the U. S. Senate. In his introductory remarks he paraphrased Matthew 12:25 and said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Lincoln was hesitant to associate himself with any organized church, but he read the Bible extensively, and quoted from it regularly. Furthermore, he expected his audience to recognize the source of the quotations and allusions.

That probably would not be the case today.

 

Video courtesy of The Washington Post.

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