July 27, 2020
The history of the United States is preserved in archives, books, and the collective memory of the American people. It is also preserved in monuments, memorials, and statues made from marble, granite, bronze, or plaster.
Our nation's capital is home to some of the world's most recognizable and frequently visited monuments. This blog series will explore the events and people they commemorate, devoting particular attention to the spiritual themes depicted. By shedding light on our nation's deep religious heritage, this series aims to inspire the next generation to emulate virtues and merits from America's past that are worth memorializing.
FRC's blog series on monuments is written by FRC summer interns and edited by David Closson, FRC's Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview.
The legacy of America's 16th president lives on in the memorial built in his honor on the west end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Abraham Lincoln accomplished great feats against immense odds. His grand memorial recognizes his determination to sustain the Union and abolish slavery in America. Architect Henry Bacon designed the memorial, and sculptor Daniel Chester French carved the statue of Lincoln housed within. Bacon intentionally designed the memorial to symbolize three main themes — strength, union, and peace.
The Lincoln Memorial is 190 feet long, 119 feet wide, and almost 100 feet tall. The monument's outer structure is comprised of 36 pillars, representing the 36 states of the Union that Lincoln sought to preserve. Above these pillars, each state's name and respective year of admission into the Union are engraved. Each column is necessary for the structural integrity of the memorial; if any of the columns were removed, the whole structure would collapse. This symbolizes Lincoln's vision that the United States must be preserved in order for the nation to stand. The motto "E Pluribus Unum" — meaning "out of many, one" — is engraved in the front of the monument.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address are engraved on the memorial's interior walls, each with corresponding murals depicting the meaning behind the speeches. In both murals, there are fasces (bundles of bound rods) without axe heads to demonstrate the theme of unity and the binding together of the nation. Measuring nine feet tall and weighing 175 tons, the statue of Lincoln himself is also symbolic. Lincoln is seated, but bracing himself in his chair, as if ready to rise. In one of his hands, he holds several fasces. Lincoln grips them tightly to symbolize that he will not relinquish the Union. These fasces reflect Ecclesiastes 4:12, which says: "And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him — a threefold cord is not quickly broken."
The Lincoln Memorial took eight years to build. On May 30, 1922, a crowd of approximately 50,000 people gathered for the memorial's dedication. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft led the ceremony with President Warren G. Harding and Dr. Robert Moton of the Tuskegee Institute.
Many memorable events have taken place at the Lincoln Memorial over the years, but two stand out from the rest. These two events share a common theme of highlighting and decrying racial injustice. The organizers intentionally placed these events in the shadow of the memorial that honors the man who ended the scourge of slavery in America.
First, in 1939, after being denied the opportunity to perform at nearby Constitution Hall because of her race, the great contralto Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial. In front of a crowd of over 75,000 people, she boldly and elegantly sang her prepared piece, and people greatly enjoyed her breathtaking voice. This event prefigured the modern Civil Rights movement by protesting discrimination at the memorial of the man who abolished slavery.
The second standout event was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963. During this rally, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, speaking poignantly of a future day when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. This speech has become such an integral part of the memorial's story that the spot where King stood to give the speech was permanently marked in 2003.
The Lincoln Memorial helps remind us of two important truths. First, the importance of national unity. The Founding Fathers believed that when we are united in our beliefs, faith, and values, the nation will prosper and endure. In the darkest days of the Civil War, this vision of a united country inspired President Lincoln to remain steadfast in his desire to preserve the Union.
Second, by reminding us of the sobering history of slavery in our nation, the memorial prompts us to consider the words of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. Christians believe that every person — born and unborn, white and black, rich and poor, able-bodied and disabled — is made in God's image and possesses inherent dignity and worth. Unfortunately, our nation has not always lived up to this ideal. But this founding ideal is supported by Scripture and is a goal worth striving for in our churches and nation.
The Lincoln Memorial reminds us of our country's darkest hour. However, it also inspires courage to continue to contend for freedom as we consider President Lincoln's final words in his second inaugural address: "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."
Molly Carman is a Policy and Government Affairs intern whose research focuses on developing a biblical worldview on issues related to family and current events.