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The Bible and the Civil War: An Interview with James P. Byrd

In this post I am interviewing James P. Byrd, Professor of American Religious History, and Chair of the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of books including “A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood”: The Bible and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2021).

[TK] The Bible and the Civil War is a vast topic, given how often the Bible was cited in sermons, speeches, and tracts. Tell us how you managed to get a comprehensive view of the uses of the Bible during the war.

[JB] It was quite a challenge, and I could not have done it without technological help. In my previous book, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, I examined the Bible’s uses in the American Revolution. It was based on a database of biblical citations that I generated by going through primary sources and manually entering biblical citations. There’s no way I could have done that with Civil War sources – there were just too many. So I turned to recent technological advances in digital humanities and received great help and advice from Lincoln Mullen, a history professor and expert in digital humanities at George Mason University. I still had to find all the sources – quite a challenge – then I had to digitize them and convert them to text files.

After that, Mullen scanned them with an application he had coded to identify biblical citations in a large number of documents. I also used Mullen’s outstanding website, America’s Public Bible, which reveals thousands of biblical citations in 19th century U.S. newspapers. That background work gave me an overview of the most cited biblical texts. Then I had to decide how to interpret them in their various contexts, and how to organize the book.

Some Bible verses were cited regularly by both sides in the war. There were also distinctive verses that appealed to particular purposes of the Union or the Confederacy. Can you give us an example of each side’s most-cited verses?

In the Union, the most cited text I found was Paul’s statement in Acts 17:26 (KJV): “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” This was part of Paul’s speech in Athens, where “his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17:16). Paul was instructing the people in Athens about the one God, the creator of all, in his attempt to convince them to cast off their idols. During the Civil War and well before it this verse became a major text used to attack slavery: if all of humanity were of the same family, then how could anyone justify the argument that some races were superior to others and that the superior races had God’s permission to enslave the inferior?

In the Confederacy, the most cited text I found was Job 1:21, which included the line: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” This verse’s popularity in the Confederacy speaks to the devastating effect of the war on the South. This was one of the most important functions of scripture throughout the war: as a healing source, a refuge, consolation in the midst of catastrophic loss, and with it assurance that a just and loving God was still in control.

Having written books on the Bible and the American Revolution, and the Bible and the Civil War, what differences did you notice between the biblicism of the two?

There were a lot of similarities, with some of the same texts being quoted, especially Romans 13:1-2: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” These and other verses from Romans 13 were popular in the Union because they implied that God rejected rebellion against an authorized government such as the United States. But that was just one of many applications of this incredibly important chapter. Yet, overall, the Bible of the American Revolution was more of an Old Testament Bible, while Americans in the Civil War cited more New Testament texts. The New Testament had outpaced the Old Testament in popularity in the US by the mid 19th century, as historians like Eran Shalev have shown, likely because of revivalism and the wide use of New Testament texts to debate slavery. That said, the Hebrew scriptures were still important to the Civil War, and some ministers remarked that the war had caused them to cite the Old Testament more than ever.

Abraham Lincoln is a key figure in your book. After your discussion of the Second Inaugural address of 1865, you say that Lincoln “remained transfixed by the mystery of God’s judgment, and that set him apart from most religious leaders of the time.” How so?

Lincoln believed strongly in divine providence; he was almost obsessed with it. Yet he refused to claim that God favored the Union and condemned the Confederacy. By the end of the war, he ruminated on the mystery of God but remained convinced of God’s justice. Perhaps the war was God’s punishment on both sides for slavery? He expressed these views in his Second Inaugural address, which we think of as one of the nation’s greatest speeches although it had mixed reviews at the time. Shortly after the speech Lincoln responded to a letter, admitting that the speech was “not immediately popular” in part because “men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told.”

Some Christians today might feel nostalgic about an era when Americans were vastly more familiar with the biblical text than they are today. Yet your book reminds us of the starkly different ways in which Americans interpreted the Bible during the Civil War. What lessons might your book offer about good and bad uses of the Bible in American civil religion?

The Bible has been cited to support some of the greatest efforts for justice in American history, including abolitionism and the civil rights movement. Yet the Bible has also been cited to support both slavery and white supremacy. The Bible has been used to argue for peace, and it has been cited to justify horrible forms of violence. Throughout American history the Bible has been one of the most read and most cited authorities, so the proper use of that power is an important responsibility. One of the lessons is that Bible readers should approach scripture carefully, with attention to their own biases and prejudices. It is important to ask, am I reading the Bible to enlist it in support of my agendas in ways that may not be faithful to scripture’s meaning in its own context?

[The book links provided here are part of the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.]

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