One of the books that is near the top of my reading list this summer is James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution.
Over at Religion and American History, Christopher Jones, a graduate student at The College of William Mary, reviews Byrd’s book and places it in a larger context of work on religion and the American Revolution.
Here is a taste of his review:
Byrd’s book, subtitled “The Bible and the American Revolution,” analyzes the context and content of “over 17,000 biblical citations in over 500 sources” in an attempt to understand what role the Bible played in motivating colonists to war and inspiring soldiers to fight. In a biblically literate society like British North America, orthodox Christians and avowed skeptics alike cited scripture in promoting and defending the Revolution.
But the Revolutionary War also altered how Americans read and understood the Bible, challenging and changing interpretations of both the Old and New Testaments. Byrd mines his dataset of wartime sermons during the long eighteenth-century to great effect, demonstrating the interpretive challenges colonists faced in rebelling against the British Empire. Whereas the Bible had previously been marshaled to justify war against Catholic imperial rivals France and Spain and non-Christian American Indians (as recently as the French and Indian War of the 1750s and 60s), the predominantly Protestant colonists of North America were now facing off against the British Crown they’d previously held up as the standard and protector of the English-speaking Protestant Empire. Individual chapters focus on prominent biblical passages and themes and the ways in which the colonists skillfully employed them. Some of these are predictable—the American Israelites sought freedom from the oppressive bondage of a wicked Pharaoh (chapter 2); Peter and Paul became preachers of “apostolic patriotism” (chapter 5); and the Revolution and the book of Revelation combined to usher in a new age of American millennialism (chapter 6). Others are perhaps less so—the “prophetic violence” of Deborah and Jeremiah “pushed the limits of just war theory and gave patriots biblical license to endorse the atrocities of war” (chapter 3). Chapter 4’s consideration of “David’s revolutionary heroism” typifies the complexities of biblical interpretation during wartime. For American patriots, David simultaneously served a multitude of roles. His youthful courage personified the patriotic cause (wielding his sling and stone against the British Goliath) and in his Psalms could be found inspiration for wartime violence, “uniting military heroism and spiritual devotion.” He also came to typify the dangers of royal authority, as revolutionaries like Thomas Paine linked his spiritual and moral corruption to his monarchical abuses.