June 20, 2004

"(Next) Under God," Phrasal Idiom

In my previous post on "under God,"  I missed the real meaning of the expression, as Lincoln and others used it -- and so, by a wide mark, did  the people who interpolated it in the Pledge.

The OED gives as one entry for under the meaning "In addition to; besides," as in "This woman lovid by wey of synne an other knyght, vndir hire husbond." That sense was obsolete by the 16th century, but it seems to have partially survived in the idiom "under God," for which the dictionary gives a sense, "under God: as a secondary cause or mediate object of gratitude."

That definition may be a little hard to understand, but you can see how the phrase is used when you search for it in the works collected in the Library of America, where it's actually rather frequent in works published before 1860, usually with the meaning "with God's help," or "after God" (with an implicit "of course") in expressions of indebtedness, gratitude, obligation, and the like:

 ...their labors have certainly been the means, under God, of producing fruits of moral and social regeneration. The United States Democratic Review 1843

On their [Evangelical ministers'] skill, their judgment, their decision, their energy, their faith, will depend under God the glorious result. What are Ministers to do in the Great Controversy of the Age, 1844

He then, thanked him very kindly.for his help in our great danger, and said to him, John, ye have been the means under God to save our natural life, suffer me to be a means under God to save your soul, by good information to bring you out of your dangerous errours. Books Relating to America, 1815.

And it occurs in this meaning in Parson Weems' biography of Washington, as well:

"Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father--around the last bed of him to whom you and your children owe, under God, many of the best blessings of this life."

The meaning of the phrase is particularly evident in the variant "next under God," which occurs several times in the collection:

"The death of William Barents put us in no small discomfort, as being the chiefe guide and onley pilot to whom we reposed ourselves next under God." Early English Explorers, 1856

Thereto help me, next under God, the confidence of my fellow-countrymen! Freiligrath's Poems, 1845

In short, the phrase "under God" had nothing to do with God's temporal sovereignity; it was, rather, a way of acknowledging that the efforts of men are always contingent on His providence. And that is how Lincoln intended it, as meaning something like "with God's help, of course":

It is rather for us 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 gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom...

Lincoln would have had trouble making sense of the use of the words in the Pledge -- to him it would have been an ungrammatical way of saying something like, "one nation, with God's help (of course), indivisible..." or "one nation, after God, indivisible..." As I said in my earlier post, a strategic misreading of history.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at June 20, 2004 03:07 PM