The Lord Is A Man of War: A Review of James Byrd’s A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood – The Bible and the American Civil War

by Edward Manger

In October of 1994, a group of historians gathered at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary to participate in a symposium which included “many of the leading scholars of American religious history and the Civil War era” (Miller, Stout and Wilson 1998: v-vi). The resultant book from that event Religion and the American Civil War was published four years later and can be seen as marking a shift in the relative weight given to religion in studies of the Civil War. The eminent historian of that conflict, James McPherson, had written an afterword to the volume which declared “Religion was central to the meaning of the Civil War…Religion should also be central to our efforts to recover that meaning” (McPherson 1998: 408). Over the succeeding years the field has seen several major works that have taken this charge seriously and built upon the initial work of the 1994 symposium [1]. It is my aim in this review to place James Byrd’s recently published A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible And the American Civil War within this scholarship, to give an impression of some of its highlights and to hopefully encourage readers to delve further into the growing corpus of literature on religion and the American Civil War.

James P. Byrd: A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood – The Bible & the American Civil War, 2021

In 2001, Steven E. Woodworth published While God Goes Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Woodworth moved away from simply focusing on the literature produced by specific denominations for the consumption of soldiers to instead examining how soldiers themselves engaged with religion and conceived of the war in religious terms according to their own experience. This was followed by Mark Noll who famously cast the Civil War as a Theological Crisis in 2006. He argued that both the North and the South read the Bible in the same way but came to irreconcilably different conclusions on the crucial issue of slavery. The same year also saw the arrival of Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, which, whilst being a broader exposition of the moral climate of the Civil War, interacted with a contemporary ethical framework which was primarily informed by a biblical worldview. His volume, like James Byrd’s A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood, which I will explore in this article, makes particular use of the many jeremiad sermons preached by ministers, which were discourses of lament over the sins of the nation, a tradition that originated in Colonial New England that was given renewed vigor and relevance during the war years. Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, whilst not restricted to religion specifically, chronicles a nation’s experience of death that was significantly shaped by the Bible and is generously cited by Byrd. The most comprehensive treatment of the intersection of religion and the Civil War so far, George C. Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War, was published in 2009 and highlighted the role of providence in the mindset of church ministers and members both North and South. A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood, published earlier in 2020, can be seen as standing squarely on the foundation of these volumes and draws deeply from the work of each of these historians. As such, James Byrd pulls together strands of thought present in contemporary scholarship on the Civil War and weaves them together to produce a book that while overlapping with what has preceded it, provides a narrower, more focused emphasis, namely the usage of the Bible in the American Civil War.

In 2013 James Byrd, a professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University published  Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and The American Revolution. He sought to examine the ways in which the Bible was used by Americans during the Revolution and how it was deployed to interpret events and provide a theological rationale for their fight. His innovative method was to collate as many references to the Bible as he could find in sermons and literature of the Revolution. Then, using a ‘relational database’, he analyzed the themes and patterns that emerged (Byrd 2013: 169). He has now employed this tried and tested method to look at the usage of the Bible in the American Civil War. [2]  In doing so, Byrd argues that the Civil War was “saturated” by the Bible and could “arguably be America’s most biblically infused War” (Byrd 2021: 1,2). He seeks to demonstrate throughout his work that the Bible was utilized by both sides at every stage, from the build-up of the sectional confrontation to the last days of the destruction of the Confederacy. However, Byrd is not just indulging in a numbers game by collating the texts referenced; rather, his discussion of the Bible’s use highlights the complexity of the myriad ways it permeated the conflict (Byrd 2021: 16-17). There was no uniform way to deploy the Bible; it could be read for political insight, moral invective, to provide individual comfort or inform policy choices. It was used by all sections of society: Generals, politicians, wives and mothers as well as both abolitionists and slave-holders. To illustrate this, Byrd invokes Seth Perry who recently argued that historians need to examine “the Bible’s authoritative use by individuals in their relations with others, not from the assumption that the inert book itself possesses authority” (Byrd 2021: 17, Perry 2018: 2).

Byrd structures his book chronologically and deftly guides the reader through a complex and multifaceted war with ample contextual information about battles, key figures, and events, which provide a useful backdrop to his discussion of the Bible at each stage of the war. Byrd also helpfully places the use of the Bible in the Civil War within the context of antebellum cultural interactions with the Bible.  A particularly insightful instance of this is how Byrd underlines the importance of the Bible to John Brown, instigator of the attempted slave revolt of October 1859 known as the raid on Harper’s ferry. Byrd specifically demonstrates the resonance of the apocalyptic language of the Israelite prophets for John Brown and shows that the violence of the Old Testament and the strength of the language of God’s word were already fermenting division prior to the official commencement of hostilities (Byrd 2021: 35-40). Byrd is therefore in broad agreement with Mark Noll’s Civil War as Theological Crisis when arguing that divisions in the country were fostered by variant interpretations of the biblical teaching on slavery. (Byrd 2021: 20-21).  Yet, Byrd stops short of concluding that the war was “primarily a war over the Bible” rather, he prefers to say “for many Americans it was a biblical war” (Byrd 2021: 287). On this point, Byrd is in line with contemporary scholarship when arguing that no particular view of the Bible was included in the officially stated war aims of either party. However, there were ministers who saw their situation in exactly that way, a war over the interpretation of the Bible. For example, J. W. Tucker, presbyterian minister of Fayetteville, North Carolina, described the nature of the war to his congregation, saying “It is a conflict … of the Bible with Northern infidelity” (Tucker 1862:11). Thomas Smyth the minster of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church was of the opinion that the South had “Crossed swords with the Northern Confederacy over the Bible” (Byrd 2021: 90).

One main contention of Byrd’s book is that the bible was used to interpret major battles and provide a narrative for either victory or defeat that put God in center stage. For example, Byrd zooms in on the opening battle of the war, the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston South Carolina, which took place on April 12th and 13th 1861. Byrd showcases the Northern response with a sermon preached by the Congregationalist minister of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher turned to the biblical story of the exodus to draw a comparison between how God had preserved the Union troops in their withdrawal from Fort Sumter and how he preserved the Israelites in the face of an Egyptian advance by withdrawing them across the Red Sea. Now, God was about to crush the Egyptian/Confederate army in the waves of the sea, a work that Beecher urged the North to take part in (Byrd 2021: 60-62). In the South, however, ministers preached sermons of thanksgiving for the ‘bloodless victory’ of Sumter and saw in the battle ‘God’s Mastery and Mercy’ (Smyth 1861: 1). In the minds of Southern clergymen God was clearly signaling approval for secession and the Confederate cause (Byrd 2021: 80). Byrd highlights how diametrically opposed interpretations of battles in the North and South occurred time and time throughout the war. Byrd can even demonstrate that often the very same texts were appealed to for each battle. For example, the initial pitch battle victory for the Confederacy known to them as the First Battle of Manassas and to the Union as Bull Run was also explicated in terms set by the Exodus narrative, just as the first battle of Fort Sumter had been (Byrd 2021: 99).

Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter,  April 12th – 13th 1861

Byrd does not restrict himself to chronicling the battles and campaigns, however. Central to his project in this book is to examine the Bible’s use by individual groups within society. Consequently, interspersed among discussion of the important major events of the war are chapters exploring other ways in which the Bible shaped peoples experience, such as the importance of the Bible for women on the home-front attempting to justify a situation that seemed opposed to the current of scripture, the need to convince men steeped in language of biblical injunctions to love and forgiveness to actively engage in killing (Byrd 2021: 159-162), as well as the role of religious groups like the Mormons who were supportive of neither South, nor North, but saw the war as a judgment of all protestant denominations (Byrd 2021: 91-94).

The other central pillar of Byrd’s book is the movement towards emancipation and its consequences. Byrd sees this as marked by interaction with scripture and biblical themes and concepts at all points, not least in the mind of Lincoln himself, who Byrd depicts as a thinker profoundly influenced by the language of the Bible (Byrd 2021: 217-220). Following the Emancipation Proclamation, which came into legal effect on January 1st 1863, Lincoln claimed the ‘character of the war will be changed’ and so it was (Byrd 2021: 163). Byrd outlines how this development gave a new lease of life to the Northern belief that they were conducting a Holy War. He does not stop there in his analysis of the effects of the emancipation declaration, but also shows that it had the opposite effect in converting the South’s war of defense into a more overtly holy crusade to preserve what they saw as a biblically mandated institution of slavery. (Byrd 2021: 175) The war consequently intensified the ongoing debates over race and slavery, and Byrd provides analysis of the ways in which the Bible was commandeered by both sides to exacerbate this confrontation to its crescendo.

In keeping with Drew Gilpin Faust’s work, This Republic of Suffering, Byrd also devotes a large portion of his book to dealing with death. Byrd contends that after a lull in fighting over the winter of 1861-62, the battle of Shiloh on April 6th and 7th 1862 “jolted Americans back to reality” with the fighting’s scale and its casualty lists (Byrd 2021: 111). The experience of a war unprecedented in terms of the levels of destruction and the ubiquitous presence of death was one aspect that the North and the South had in common. Byrd relates how the Bible was able to “give significance to the shedding of blood” through its sacrificial motif that is central to both Old and New Testaments along with the correlative concept that salvation, justification, and redemption come through death (Byrd 2021: 119). This was something both sides drew solace from as battles seemed to increase in terms of their ferocity and deadliness through Antietam to Gettysburg and destruction became evermore widespread in Sherman’s march to the sea. Byrd also concludes his work with one death in particular, the assassination of Lincoln, highlighting the way in which he was widely compared to the figure of Moses, who led his people to the promised land, but was himself not permitted to enter (Byrd 2021: 261-284)

Byrd’s greatest strength is first and foremost his readability. His book is engaging and entertaining as well as thought-provoking and simulating at almost every turn. Byrd’s methodology of collating the scripture citations from the Civil War period from a range of sources to provide quantitative research on the bibles use does yield interesting results and could be used for several future avenues of investigation. One such area that could prove fruitful is the question of why certain proof-texts were perceived to resonate in different contexts, and a related question would be what we can learn about the relative authority given to different sections or genres of scripture.

It would be hard to find a major fault with this work, although, there are one or two areas that are still ripe for further development. One is that overall, Byrd deals more with the North than the South, giving more space to discussions of events from their perspective, a tendency that can clearly be seen in the fact that Byrd gives little attention to the theological discussions in the South surrounding the fall of the Confederacy, instead focusing almost entirely upon the Lincoln’s assassination.  Another point for further exploration would be his treatment of the Black community (both enslaved and free) and their relationship with the biblical texts. This issue is not completely ignored but is largely confined to one or two major figures, mainly the abolitionists David Walker and Frederick Douglas. In the case of Douglas, Byrd is largely indebted to David Blight’s 2018 biography Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom. Notwithstanding these quibbles, James Byrd has produced a worthwhile contribution to the growing field of research on religion and the Civil War that builds upon the foundations of existing work. In doing so, he points the way to continue exploring the meaning of the Civil War to its participants and those who live in a nation still shaped by its outcome.

 


About the Author

Edward Manger is a doctoral researcher in the graduate program Authority and Trust (GKAT) at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA), funded by the German Research Association (DFG). His research focuses on the production and uses of history by Protestant denominations in the South during the Antebellum and Civil War periods. He can be reached by email (rc263@uni-heidelberg.de)


Notes

[1] For reasons of space I have only mentioned the most prominent publications, and those which Byrd cites most often. A far more comprehensive overview of recent scholarship on Religion and the American Civil War can be found in Chandra Manning, “Faith and Works: A Historiographical Review of Religion in the Civil War Era,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 10, no. 3 (September 2020): 373-386.

[2] One of the most interesting elements in the book comes in the appendix where Byrd compiles a list of the most cited Biblical texts from the Civil War. The most cited biblical text in the Confederacy was Job 1:21 “Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the lord.” In the North, the most cited verse was Acts 17:26 “And hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth, and hath determined the time before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” Much could be said about these two verses alone and the reasons for why they come out top of their respective charts. However, to my mind, they almost perfectly epitomize the tone of the war as it came to be both at its conclusion and subsequently. The Job quote favored by confederates perfectly sums up their war experience. It contains a sense of loss, an attempt to deal with pain, but a refusal to deny God’s role in the world and his hand in the lives of his people. Rather, a quiet resolve and unshakable faith is displayed in a dignified response to suffering. This is certainly one element of an attitude that allowed the ‘lost cause’ myth to perpetuate and grow in the South (Wilson 1980, 72). On the other hand, the verse most cited by the North contains the central element of race. It includes the unity of mankind, emphasizing commonality and lays forth the unassailable refutation of racism and utter repudiation of all oppression found in the underlying fact of all Christian anthropology. All men are created by the same God and all are equally dignified before him.  Also contained within the verse is the sense of righteousness combined with an inevitability and indisputable correctness that is derived from the pre-determined course of men and nations, a theme that beats hard in the hearts of Americans even today.


References

Blight, David Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom. New York: Simon & Schuster Press, 2018.

Byrd, James P. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution. Oxford: OUP, 2013.

Byrd, James P. A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War .Oxford: OUP 2021.

Faust, Drew Gilpin.. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. London: Vintage 2009.

Manning, Chandra. “Faith and Works: A Historiographical Review of Religion in the Civil War Era.” The Journal of the Civil War Era 10, no. 3 (September 2020): 373-386.

McPherson, James. “Afterward” in Miller, Stout and Wilson, ed. Religion and the American Civil War. Oxford: OUP, 1998: 408-412.

Miller, Randall M., Stout, Harry S., and Wilson, Charles Reagan, ed. Religion and the American Civil War. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Rable, George C. God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2010.

Smyth, Thomas. “The Battle of Fort Sumter: It’s Mystery and Miracle – God’s Mastery and Mercy” Southern Presbyterian Review 14, no, 2 (July 1861): 365-398.

Stout, Harry S. Upon the Alter of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. London: Penguin, 2007.

Tucker, J. W. God’s Providence in War; A Sermon. Fayetteville: Presbyterian Office, 1862.

Wilson, Charles Reagan  Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Woodworth, Steven. While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers.  University Press of Kansas, 2001.


Photo Credits

Header Image/Image 2: Bombardement of Fort Sumnter, Library of Congress

Image 1: Cover Image James Byrd – A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood, Oxford University Press


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