Magazine article The Christian Century

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution

Article excerpt

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution

By James P. Byrd

Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $27.95


When a hurricane ravaged the waters off of eastern Newfoundland on September 9, 1775, churning waves up to 30 feet, the devastation was enormous. Four thousand sailors drowned, most of them from Ireland and England. The British Royal Navy lost two armed schooners. When word reached the American colonies, William Foster, a Presbyterian minister, eagerly fit what became known as the "Independence Hurricane" into an ancient and venerable typology. "Pharaoh's chariots and his hosts were cast into the sea," Foster preached to American soldiers; "they sank as lead in the mighty waters."

The American Revolution was by no means the first time preachers wielded the Bible to justify armed conflict and the slaying of enemies; they did the same during the Crusades, of course, and the French wars of religion, not to mention the English Revolution, which culminated in regicide. In the American colonies, as James Byrd points out in this superb book, ministers used the scriptures to justify violence at least as far back as King Philip's War in the 17th century.

Byrd makes a persuasive case for the centrality of sermons in propagating and justifying armed rebellion. "In the biblically saturated American colonies, ministers were the agreed-upon experts on the Bible," he writes, and "their sermons were the most serious engagements between scripture and war in America, both before and during the Revolution."

It is hardly a new observation that different groups of believers emphasize different parts of the Bible--Catholics and mainline Protestants, for example, prefer the Gospels, whereas evangelicals gravitate to the Pauline letters--but Byrd demonstrates that 18th-century preachers were remarkably nimble in their biblical interpretations. "In battles against the Indians and the French, and in the later Revolution against the British," he writes, "wars influenced which biblical texts colonists saw as being most important and how they applied those texts in their political and spiritual lives."

Byrd argues that the French and Indian War (the American iteration of the Seven Years' War) provided a rhetorical warm-up for the American Revolution. Preachers decried the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, as a "horrid murder" that recalled Cain's slaying of his brother, Abel. By the time of the Stamp Act, the Quebec Act and the Intolerable Acts, the sounding boards of pulpits were reverberating with righteous indignation toward the British. In 1772, for example, John Allen, a Baptist, preached An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, or the Essential Rights of Americans, which went through five editions and seven printings.

Underlying Byrd's astute analysis is a database of biblical references he compiled. One of the most popular texts during the Revolution was Exodus 15:3: "The Lord is a man of war." Indeed, the Exodus narrative figured prominently in Revolutionary era sermons. George Washington was viewed as Moses, and colonists, goaded by the preachers, increasingly understood themselves as the beleaguered Hebrews toiling under the scourge of slavery in Egypt. The Promised Land of liberty lay at the far end of the wilderness of Revolution.

Although John Wesley, Samuel Hopkins and more than a few black preachers pointed out the irony of white slaveholders identifying themselves as bondservants, the Exodus metaphor served as a powerful motivation for armed revolution. "By making the Exodus story their own," Byrd writes, "the patriots set the parameters for later Americans, including nineteenth-century slaves, who saw the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt as a model for their own struggles. …

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