No, it’s not the Gettysburg address. According to Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White. Jr., Lincoln’s greatest speech was the Second Inaugural Address, his famous “with malice toward none, with charity for all” speech that promised healing and reconciliation to the almost defeated Confederacy.
White, in his lecture Abraham Lincoln’s Journey of Faith (website, iTunes) uses the Second Inaugural as a window into Lincoln’s religious ideas and the way Lincoln used biblical language to communicate with and lead his countrymen.
White starts out by noting that university history courses often neglect the importance of religious ideas and movements in American history. But during the Civil War Americans were overwhelmingly religious: pocket Bibles were among the most common possessions carried into battle by soldiers on both sides.
Although Lincoln was not a regular church goer, his religious ideas were an important and integral part of his governing philosophy. It was particularly apparent in his lifelong opposition to slavery which became more pronounced as the war progressed.
White relates this anecdote. Two women, wives of captured Confederate officers, met with Lincoln to ask for their husbands’ release on the grounds that “our husbands are religious men.” Lincoln responded, “I find it very difficult when you tell me that your husbands are religious men. How can religious men go against the duly authorized rule of this land?”Then Lincoln referred to from Genesis 3:19, saying “it seems strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”
This is a line Lincoln went on to use in the Second Inaugural, along with many other Biblical allusions.
White, the author of a number of books on Lincoln, including a book about the second inaugural entitled Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.
For more on Lincoln, see this Library of Congress Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Symposium.