Recently, while studying Chinese translations of this classic speech,


that this nation, under God, 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.

I noticed that four different translations translated the phrase to something approximating "with the blessings of God" or "with the protection of God." This ran counter to my prior belief that, as enshrined in the Pledge of Allegiance, the phrase refers to the fact that the USA is (at least according to those who added it) a Christian nation first and foremost, a 'subsidiary of God's domain', if you will. This prior belief is essential to the interpretation of the Library of Congress when consulted on the addition in the 1950's:

The Library of Congress reported the following recommendation:

". . . Under the generally accepted rules of grammar, a modifier should normally be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies. In the present instance, this would indicate that the phrase 'under God,' being intended as a fundamental and basic characterization of our Nation, might well be put immediately following the word 'Nation.' Further, since the basic idea is a Nation founded on a belief in God, there would seem to be no reason for a comma after Nation; 'one Nation under God' thus becomes a single phrase, emphasizing precisely the idea desired by the authors . . ."

The reason I feel gaslit is that I have also encountered evidence that it was used as a phrasal idiom to mean something like "with God's help" or, as we say might say today, "God-willing." Reference: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001090.html

Therefore, there exist several distinct possibilities:

  1. The purveyors of this phrase today have rewritten history (intentionally)
  2. The purveyors of this phrase today have rewritten history (ignorantly)
  3. Lincoln actually meant what we believe this phrase to mean today.
  4. Other?

EDIT: With these interesting asides out of the way, the thrust of my inquiry is for the purpose of translation to another language (Chinese).

Indeed, what was the meaning behind his utterance at the time? Since my historical knowledge is limited to a cursory high school treatment, any answer that can shed some light or add a source would be appreciated.

  • 6
    As with most political speeches, I would assume that the meaning is nebulous enough to appeal to all listeners. I'm skeptical that there was any intent to distinguish between teh subtle shades of meaning you enumerate.However, there both the first treaty signed by the US and Washinton's letter to the synagogue directly contradict the notion that the US was intended to be a Christian Nation,
    – MCW
    Aug 12, 2022 at 11:29
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    @MCW I think you have the essence of it, when you say there was no "intent to distinguish between ... subtle shades of meaning" but that also applies to Washington's letter. They were all intended to make true, but general and not legally precise, statements. It would take whole books to begin to precisely define the range of beliefs on that subject held by Americans. (And, of course, Washington also was a politician!)
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 12, 2022 at 12:10
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    @MCW Thanks for your clarification on a fourth possibility. I had not thought of this. What is mildly frustrating and perhaps irrelevant to the history stackexchange (but perhaps not) is that translators are sometimes forced to 'commit to an interpretation' in order to lay out the meaning clearly to their readers, although skilled ones can sidestep this difficulty on occasion. While the meaning is perhaps nebulous to us, I'm not wholly convinced that this was the case to the listeners at the time of the speech. Still, thanks for your proper application of Occam's Razor here.
    – NateFZ
    Aug 12, 2022 at 13:19
  • I'm reminded of the British joke, where a child asks, "What's CoE mummy?" and the parent replies, "It's what you put on the form dear" Political statements about God rarely have any meaning than to appeal to a sense of community that is successful to the extent that is not defined. There are counterarguments - I'd love to here an analysis of the series of great awakenings and revival movements and their impact on the common perception of God.
    – MCW
    Aug 12, 2022 at 14:05
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    I may write an answer to this, but I'm hampered greatly by the fact that the question in the title asks just about the Gettysburg Address, while the body seems to be more asking about the Pledge of Allegiance (which it was added to an entire century later).
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 12, 2022 at 14:23


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