The other day someone asked me if my book on the American Bible Society covers the role that Bibles played in “protecting” Civil War soldiers.
Yes, it does.
Here is a taste of Chapter 7 of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).
The chapter is entitled “A Bible House Divided.”
Many soldiers viewed the Bible as a holy book with spiritual power apart from the words contained therein. Even if the Bible was not being read, it still had the mystical power to provide spiritual solace in the most frightening of times as long as it was somehow connected to one’s body during the thick of the battle. It was common for soldiers heading off into battle to pull their pocket Testaments out of their knapsacks and place them in the breast pockets of their shirts. The object of such a move, according to the ABS, was “to have the Word of God with them if they should fall in battle, to be the lamp of their feet and the light of their path, even if called to the last march through the dark valley.” One soldier in Yorktown, Virginia pulled a worn-out Testament from his pocket and told a chaplain that he had carried the book during the entire Peninsular Campaign. He pointed to the outside of his coat pocket where a hole was developing over his heart in the exact size of an ABS Testament. When the chaplain asked him if he had been reading the worn-out Bible, the soldier slapped his hand on the battered Bible and declared, “I would not take five dollars for that book! It has been with me thus far through the war!” Oftentimes the armies used ABS Bibles as a means of identifying dead soldiers on the battlefield in the wake of a particularly bloody battle. One soldier described the Testament as a kind of “headstone.” It was not only a symbol of a dead soldier’s experience with Christian faith, but if he wrote in his Bible, as many were inclined to do, it might be the only means by which anxious parents and friends could identify the body.
Sometimes a Bible in the shirt pocket could save a soldier’s life by stopping an enemy bullet. As might be expected, these stories appeared over and over again in ABS publication. While it is unlikely that a pocket-sized ABS testament was thick enough to protect a soldier from a direct hit from a direct hit, these books were probably capable of shielding soldiers from spent bullets–balls that were near the end of their useful range. The ABS and its auxiliaries were quick to compare the spiritual and physical protections that the Bible offered Civil War soldiers. The Bible could save a soldier’s life and could save a soldier’s soul. John Hampden Chamberlain, a Virginia military officer, jokingly wrote in a letter to his mother that he had yet to meet “the man whose life was saved by a pack of cards in his breast pocket.”