Today is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, a true master of political oratory. Though this sort of oratory is distinct from preaching, some of Lincoln’s gifts and insights as a speaker are as relevant for the latter as they are for the former. Lincoln was a masterful story-teller, who understood the power of narrative to explain and persuade. At the same time, he was admirably brief and succinct, especially at crucial moments in his career. In both of these qualities, Lincoln showed an appreciation for the power of words to move men’s souls.
Lincoln loved to spin a good yarn, and rarely missed an opportunity. When asked a question about public policy in a debate, he would relate a story from his tenure as a country lawyer. This would, of course, infuriate his opponents, but he frequently made his points this way. Lincoln understood that listeners far more easily grasp a story than a cold recitation of facts or opinions. Not only does it help with memory, but using stories satisfies a deep human need to find meaning and purpose in events. A good preacher knows this, and draws the people sitting in the pews into the great story of salvation history, the unfolding of God’s providence. We take our place within this narrative, and play our part in the whole. But it takes the power of preaching to lift us out of our time and place and to lay before us the God’s-eye view of the stage.
Of course, Lincoln didn’t always just ramble his way through endless anecdotes. He knew the importance of being brief and succinct at particular moments—even when it proved jarring at first. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln gave what seemed like a ridiculously short coda to the main event at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg. Edward Everett, a famous national orator of the period, preceded Lincoln on the stage. He was an astute scholar, a former president of Harvard, and a world traveler. He gave a two hour oration full of brilliant classical allusions and a detailed retelling of the battle. After he sat down, Lincoln stood and delivered his famous address, which was 278 words long, and lasted around two minutes. In his short address, Lincoln minimized the importance of what he said that day:
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.
How right—and yet how wrong—he was! Lincoln’s short address sticks in the mind, even if it attracted criticism when it was first delivered for not being suitably grand. The ideals he articulated have long been part of the American national ethos: freedom, sacrifice for the common good, and dedication to the Union. But he concretized and memorialized them succinctly for all time.
This is true for homiletics as well. A daily Mass homily can be two minutes long, yet contain a seed of truth that germinates for a life time. An insightful sentence, pondered over, can reset the course of a life. Saint Anthony, considered the father of monasticism, went out into the desert after hearing, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.”
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address ended with this stirring passage:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Words like these have tremendous power. They can move armies and alter lives. With simple words, Lincoln consoled and encouraged a mourning nation. His speeches inspire many to this day. Good preaching, though, reaches even deeper: it disposes the soul to receive the movements of grace, even as God works through the preacher to call his people back to communion. Lincoln’s words, like the man himself, now “belong to the ages.” More powerful still are the words that flow from the eternal Word himself!
Image: George P.A. Healy, The Peacemakers