Summer/Fall 2002
Volume 7 Number 1
 

 

 

 

 

 


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Alum Ronald C. White Jr. Visits PTS’s Theological Book Agency on National Book Tour

Sparked by an exhibit on Abraham Lincoln titled “The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America” at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, Ronald C. White Jr.—then a professor of American intellectual and religious history at the University of California, Los Angeles—created and taught an undergraduate course, “Abraham Lincoln and the American Experience,” which included a visit to the exhibit at the Huntington Library.

Surprised that his students—ranging from 18 to 22 years old—seemed to really enjoy the course, White continued to teach it again and again, and eventually found himself asking the question “What is Lincoln’s understanding of religion or theology?” knowing all the while that Lincoln had never joined a church.

Coming across Lincoln’s second inaugural address, White found it remarkably profound and felt that the address had been appreciated but not understood. So with newer eyes he revisited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. While there he saw that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was on one side of the Memorial and on the other side was his second inaugural.

Ronald C. White Jr.

White later learned that Lincoln considered his second inaugural address his best effort, and Lincoln thought it somehow lived under the shadow of the Gettysburg Address. “One reason for that, I think, is, interestingly, the religious language that I think a lot of scholars have not known what to do with,” says White. “They either said it was formulaic—the way 19th-century people spoke—[or that Lincoln] was speaking to an audience that was largely Protestant—and they failed to give him his due: that this language came out of his deep grappling, in the midst of the Civil War, with the question ‘Where is God in all of this?’”

And from this was born White’s newest book, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2002).

In the book, White compares Lincoln’s spare, poetic style to the long-winded speechifying common in his day. The speech, on March 4, 1865, was given in under seven minutes, with Lincoln speaking slowly and solemnly its 701 words, 505 of them monosyllabic. It was the last major address of Lincoln’s life, and, according to White, came to be regarded as his epitaph.

Ironically, White says, Lincoln intended the speech to be a prelude to a new age of mercy and unity in the nation. “Instead of rallying his supporters, in the name of God, to support the war,” White writes, “he asked his listeners, quietly, to imitate the ways of God.”

White also believes that Lincoln’s second inaugural address is his best statement about the meaning of the Civil War. “I think he offers us an attitude about the way we should deal with difficulties, even enemies,” says White. “Instead of demonizing the South, he tries to understand the South and give to the South the best intentions. So, throughout the speech [Lincoln] keeps using words like ‘all, all, all,’ or ‘both, both, both.’ ‘Both’ read the same Bible. ‘Both’ pray to the same God. He’s giving to the opponent the best intention.”

White says he has written the book for two audiences. The first is a general audience asking basic questions like “What does America mean today?” The second is the Christian community, because “I think there are deep core Christian values here, and what is remarkable is that in 701 words Lincoln mentions God 14 times, quotes Scripture four times, and evokes prayer four times,” says White.

White is professor of church history at San Francisco Theological Seminary and former director of continuing education and lecturer in church history at Princeton Seminary. He is the author or editor of six previous books.


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