When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he was certainly not thought of as a man given to religious fervor. But over the next 4½ years, as hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the Civil War, the 16th president evolved into a theologian of the American idea, using the language and concepts of the Bible to reflect on the war’s larger meaning. This year on Presidents Day, Americans will observe the 211th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. But in an age of declining biblical literacy, we are in danger of losing touch with a key source of his greatness.
Why, for instance, did Lincoln begin the Gettysburg Address with the words “fourscore and seven years ago?” It isn’t because he usually spoke that way, as many readers of the speech might now assume. Rather, he knew that his audience was deeply familiar with the King James Bible and would recognize the language of the Psalms: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years.” As Adam Gopnik has written, Lincoln “had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in biblical terms.”
The Bible’s influence on Lincoln’s language can be seen even before he took office. In February 1861, with the South seceding and the future of the Union hanging in the balance, the president-elect received an unusual gift from Abraham Kohn of Chicago. A Bavarian immigrant who was fiercely committed to both Judaism and Republican politics, Kohn was convinced, as his daughter later wrote, that Lincoln “was the destined Moses of the slaves and the savior of his country.” The gift that he sent reflected those convictions—a framed painting of an American flag, on whose stripes Kohn had inscribed Hebrew verses from the book of Joshua: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee; I will not fail thee nor forsake thee. Be strong and of good courage; be not affrighted, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”