Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — a speech that reaffirmed the parameters of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence.
As the nation remembers one of the most famed speeches in American history, a debate still rages surrounding one central question: Did Lincoln omit the words “under God” from his delivered remarks?
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist organization devoted to church-state separatism, published a statement on Monday titled, “Godless Gettysburg Address Enjoys Sesquicentennial.”
In it, the group correctly notes that the words “under God” are missing from Lincoln’s original speech manuscript. But that actually doesn’t settle the issue
While later copies of the speech do indeed include a reference to God, a portion originally read, “this nation shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation dubs the speech “godless,” but the story really isn’t that simple. As TheBlaze reported last year, no one knows for sure exactly what Lincoln said on Nov. 19, 1863. After all, there were no audio or video recorders then, so all we can rely on are media reports from the time.
The National Constitution Center’s Scott Bomboy covered the “under God” issue in depth last year. He provided a transcription that the Associated Press prepared at the time. Published 150 years ago, it included a reference to God. Here’s the relevant section (see bold):
“It is rather for us here to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain. [Applause] That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that the Government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth. [Long applause. Three cheers given for the President of the United States and the Governors of the States….”
In June, Bomboy published another blog post in which he noted that Lincoln’s first two written versions did not mention God and that there are nine total versions of the speech floating around (not all are written in Lincoln’s handwriting).
“The inclusion of God in the speech is perhaps the most significant difference among the versions,” Bomboy wrote. “The fifth version of the speech, which was signed and dated by Lincoln, was considered the ‘final’ version and included ‘under God’ in its last sentence.
While Bomboy said it’s impossible to say with certainty whether God really was included in the proclamation, numerous media outlets — the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer — reported on the Gettysburg Address at the time and indicated that “under God” was a part of the speech.
The Boston Advertiser reportedly also noted at the time that the line was used as the address concluded.
Joseph Ignatius Gilbert and Charles Hale, two reporters who were at the speech, both recounted hearing “under God” in the speech, journalism institute Poynter noted. It is believed that Lincoln also relied on the Associated Press version of the speech when composing later versions.
An AP video explains the complicated “under God” history below:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation does admit that “perhaps Lincoln may have ad libbed ‘under God’ in giving his famous address,” but that he “failed to include those words in writing out a second copy.”
Despite this caveat, the atheist group goes on to say that this decision to omit “under God” in future versions “suggests Lincoln certainly didn’t think uniting our nation with deity was important.” While this may be the case, if the president did, indeed, choose to utter “under God,” then any definitive line of thinking on the matter is presumptuous.
Despite claims that the famed speech was “godless” in nature, much evidence points to the contrary, however we can never truly know for certain Lincoln’s words or intentions: they’ve been forever lost to history.