On November 19th, 1863, hundreds huddled together on a field still fresh with the smell of overturned dirt. Around them, a sea of gravestones lined the dying grass. Historians estimate that on that day, Gettysburg Pennsylvania was the largest city between Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
Never had the sleepy town seen such a group of important people. Politicians, professors, and dignitaries all flocked together to remember the bloody battle that occurred four months earlier, and to listen to the most famous orator of that day: Edward Everett.
Edward Everett was a former senator, preacher, professor, Secretary of State, and president of Harvard. His student, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called his public speaking ability “the most mellow and beautiful and correct of all instruments of the time." Everett was a superstar of his age, and thousands gathered to hear him whenever he spoke.
As a formality, President Abraham Lincoln was also asked to make an appearance and offer “a few appropriate remarks” following Everett’s keynote address. This clear stiff came as no surprise. Lincoln’s popularity was at an all-time low. The conflict had lasted over two years and Americans were weary of war. His prospects of re-election were slim.
It would be tempting for Lincoln to use a memorial service such as this to bolster his political popularity. As all politicians knew, eulogies were public relation goldmines. But as Abraham Lincoln unfolded his speech and looked at the crowd, he didn’t focus on the future. He focused on the past.
“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.”
Instead of outlining his own accomplishments, he outlined the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers, who believed in the idea of a free nation so deeply they called it “self-evident.” Lincoln could have used his speech as an opportunity to restore the people’s belief in himself. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to restore the people’s belief in America. His love for country transcended his desire for re-election.
A Crisis of Remembrance
As Americans, we take pride in remembering our past. Last Monday, we celebrated Memorial Day, and as we do on other days of remembrance, we stressed the importance of honoring the fallen—just as Lincoln did in his speech.
But what many of us excel in as Americans we fail in as believers. We remember the soldier but forget the Son. We honor the country but dishonor the Cross. While many of us remember the courage of the fallen, we forget the faithfulness of the Father. Which is why it comes as no surprise that Christians so often find themselves in times of spiritual turmoil. They wonder where God is in their present when they forget where He was in their past. American Christianity suffers from a crisis of remembrance.
A Lost Spiritual Discipline
But God commands us in His Word to actively remember what He’s done for us. King David wrote in the Psalms, “I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.” Before entering the Promised Land, God gave His people His law again with reasoning that “lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, God had them make a monument to remember what happened. When Jesus broke bread, He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Spiritual remembrance is a neglected spiritual discipline. But out of it comes a spring of blessings. Christians who remember God in their past can hope in God for their future. Christians who remember God’s love for them feel compelled to show love to others. Christians who remember God’s goodness can’t help but feel joy.
Think about how our lives as Christians would transform—and even more—how the surrounding communities would transform, when constant remembrance of God became the default setting of the Christian life? Imagine if churches fought for one another in the same way American citizens did? Imagine if Christians stood up against evil the same way the Allies did at Normandy? Remembrance creates stronger communities, which is why God always called His communities to remember Him. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by sharing, and sharing comes by remembering. Remembrance is the forgotten peg in the cycle of the Gospel.
A New Birth of Freedom
When Abraham Lincoln wrote his address (not on the back of an envelope, either), he did not include the words “under God.” We know this because of records of his speech that occurred before its delivery. But as Lincoln— whose belief in the Gospel is unknown at best—ended his two-minute speech, he declared that “This nation… under God… would have a new birth of freedom.” His mention of God was extemporaneous. When talking about rebirth, Lincoln could not help but acknowledge Yahweh.
As popular as he was, most people don’t remember Edward Everett’s Gettysburg address, or even Edward Everett. But today, Lincoln’s Address is considered the greatest political speech in human history. By remembering the past, Lincoln accomplished more in two minutes than Everett did in two hours.
And so it will be with us. Our ability or inability to remember will be what defines us. In the end, our legacies will not be determined by what we have done for ourselves, but by what God has done for us. Just as Lincoln understood that the future of America depended on looking to the past, the same is true of Christians. Only then will we truly experience "a new birth of freedom."
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” -Abraham Lincoln, 1863
Resting in Him,