Looking for Religion in all the Right (and Wrong) Places

“The Revolution may be the most important event in American history,” James P. Byrd reminds us. Many of the readers of this blog will likely agree with him in that. Fewer, perhaps, will agree with one of the central arguments of his (very) recent Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution that “the Bible was arguably its [the Revolution’s] most influential book.”[1] At the recent OIEAHC conference in Baltimore I was able to get my hands on a copy of this excellent new book and Sacred Scripture, Sacred War has given me a lot (despite it’s relatively conciseness) to chew on over the last two weeks.

Fellow Juntoist Christopher Jones has written an excellent review of Byrd’s book over at Religion in American History and there is little for me to add as a direct assessment of Byrd’s treatment of the Revolutionary era’s sermon literature. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War is the best available treatment of biblical themes and stories evoked by patriot ministers (particularly chaplains) to justify colonial resistance, rebellion, and the Patriot military effort. For this alone the book deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the religion and the Revolution. Byrd’s argument that Patriot ministers’ sacralization of war through invoking the “sacred violence in the Bible” marks the beginning of a long American tradition of sacralizing all of our wars is provocative and possibly a fruitful line for further research.

The more I ponder the implications of Byrd’s arguments, however, the more skeptical I become that Sacred Scripture, Sacred War helps us answer our big questions of the place of religion (really: Christianity) in the American Revolution.

The reason for this skepticism may result from the fact that Byrd goes looking for answers to these questions in what appears to be the “right” place, but may actually be completely wrong for such purposes. The main problem is with his sources. Byrd draws “on an analysis of over 17,000 biblical citations in over 500 sources from New England, the middle colonies, and the South” but a qualitative analysis of Byrd’s cited sources suggests that they are largely only sermons (published and unpublished) and ministerial writings which skew north and have a strong Congregational and Presbyterian spice.[2] This presents several problems.

Ministers, at first glance, seem to be the natural place to look for the place of bible in the American Revolution. The bible, in some classes almost literally, was the bread and butter of preachers and theologians. In some ways, however, this makes the ministerial class the absolute worst place to go looking for the role of the bible in this era. By their very role Protestant ministers—be they Yale-educated Congregationalists or carpenters called the ministry by their Baptists fellowship—are a bible-centric lot. It is almost inevitable that they would interpret the central event of their times, the upheaval of the Revolution, through a biblical lens and evoke its themes and stories as they explained this world to their fellow Americans. This makes ministers, then, a poor window for the role the bible played in explaining the Revolution beyond the pulpit.[3]

New England Congregationalists and Middle Colony Presbyterians do not add up to the entirety of Revolutionary America. There is another region that sits on the sideline of Byrd’s narrative; the experiences of white southern Anglicans and increasingly Christianizing African-American slaves play bit roles in Byrd’s analysis. From Sacred Scripture, Sacred War we get little sense of how African-Americans understood all of these evocations of the Exodus story (something that had a direct bearing of their experience) or how white Anglicans employed the bible to justify their shift from membership in the Church of England to a firmly American Protestant Episcopal Church.[4] No matter where in the colonies they lived, we get little sense of how the bible was employed on the congregational level or by individuals, a few prominent examples exempted.

When historians debate the role of Christianity in the American Revolution debate tends to be dominated by a single chicken-or-the-egg question: did a republican God make the United States a republic or did republican Americans reshape their god into a republican? The former line of argument has a long and storied history—stretching from Alan Heimert to Nathan Hatch—and has gained increasingly traction in recent years as historians have paid renewed attention to late-colonial and Revolutionary era evangelicalism.[5] Thomas Kidd has gone as far as to argue, in 2010, that “the evangelical tradition supplied spiritual propulsion to the Patriot cause that was unsurpassed by any other element of Patriot ideology.”[6] Byrd, in Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, is firmly operating in this tradition—biblical imagery and stories are the fuel for the American rocket-ship as it blasts off into independence.[7]

Color me unconvinced. Looking at the evidence and narrative presented by Sacred Scripture, Sacred War it seems, to me at least, that the bible and biblical imagery only became central as the war unfolded and resistance transformed into bloody rebellion. Images of heroic Davidic leadership, martyrdom, and sacred war preached from the pulpit and ministered by chaplains helped Americans make sense of broken bodies, lost friends and family, and the waxing and waning of Patriot military success. Biblical justifications moved from periphery to center as the “textual” experience, as the Susan Juster describes it, of colonial martyrdom brutally transformed into material experience on Bunker Hill, at Valley Forge, and then in Carolinian swamplands.[8] Christianity and religion, then, was less the Patriots’ rocket fuel and more their salve.

James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution is the best scholarly treatment available today of the ways in which Patriot ministers described and defended their Revolution. Byrd’s mastery of the sermon and ministerial literature is sweeping and unsurpassed. However, as a window into the broader question of the role of religion and Christianity in the American Revolution, it cannot help but leave this reader more than a little wanting. These successes and failures have everything to do with the fact that Byrd, in some ways, goes looking for religion in all of the right and wrong places.

_____________________________

[1] James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 164.

[2] Quotation: Ibid, 3. The exact count is 17,148 citations from 543 primary sources according to his appendix (p. 169). Byrd provides a useful overview of the most cited biblical chapters of the Revolutionary era (Table 8.1, p. 170) but does not provide a bibliography of his primary sources, so we must rely on his notes. From his large and excellent citations I am able to glean that most of Byrd evidence is drawn, as I note above, from sermons and tends to skew towards northern ministers. See, for example, 212n25. He also includes some material from pamphlets and from some prominent figures (Washington, Adams, etc.). My point here is not to take issue with Byrd’s knowledge of the material presented in his book, which is extremely impressive and masterful, but rather to stress that it remains unclear to this reader just how much that material extends beyond sermons and the writings of ministers.

[3] More snarkily: going into a church looking for religion can only take you so far.

[4] Byrd rightly notes that employment of the Exodus story by white Patriots forced some to “acknowledge the grand hypocrisy of a people complaining of slavery while they enslaved thousands of Africans” (p. 56) and “that the biblical narrative in the Exodus mainly applied to the political ‘slavery’ of British tyranny.” (p. 59) It is really in the issue of African-American’s use of the bible that Byrd’s minster and sermon focused approach shows its blind spots. While Byrd is able to discuss a few surviving sermons by African-Americans (see: p. 57-58, for example) he is forced to shift, somewhat strangely, to William Nell. This is a large and impressive literature on African-American religiosity and Christianity in this period (for both enslaved and free) and Byrd fails to leverage this historiography to any productive use.

[5] See Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977); Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind from the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966).

[6] Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010), 94. For a case study for this logic (in more measured form) see: John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[7] See, for example, his frequent citations of Heimert. For a discussion of this issue, see Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, 184-186n8.

[8] Juster as quoted in Ibid, 11-12.

2 comments on “Looking for Religion in all the Right (and Wrong) Places

  1. Christopher J. says:

    Thanks, Roy. These are apt criticisms, I think, and I had some of the same thoughts as I read Byrd. I especially wish he’d paid more attention to the African American experience and understanding of biblical texts (though I do wonder how many sources exist documenting the wartime understandings, as opposed to post-revolutionary reflections on the Bible and revolution by black Christians) and the Loyalist counter-interpretations (especially since the few times he hints at this—primarily using British Methodist writings—it all seems quite interesting).

    Inasmuch as Byrd is following Kidd’s line of argument that “the evangelical tradition supplied spiritual propulsion to the Patriot cause that was unsurpassed by any other element of Patriot ideology,” consider me unconvinced. But I’m not sure that is what he is arguing, and he in fact directly clarifies that he is “not claim[ing] that the Bible was the key to understanding the Revolution, or that the Bible was the main source for revolutionary politics.”

    As I noted in my brief review at RiAH, the more interesting aspect of Byrd’s book (at least to me) is his analysis of the ways that the Revolution changed how people read and understood the Bible in the new nation (i.e. “Through the American Revolution, many British colonists became patriotically American—and so did their Bible.”) That’s not necessarily at odds with your critique that “the bible and biblical imagery only became central as the war unfolded and resistance transformed into bloody rebellion.”

    Anyway, good stuff. Thanks for the thoughtful review, and I look forward to the ways your own ongoing research contributes to this discussion.

  2. Roy Rogers says:

    Christopher, thanks for the comment.

    Byrd is quite circumspect in overreaching about the implications of his work. It is one of the (many) admirable things about his book. The more I delved into “Sacred Scripture, Sacred War,” however, the more I became convinced that he is towing the Heimert/Hatch/Kidd line. Though not as strongly as Kidd (who does), of course. This is particularly clear from his notes.

    As I note above, I hope, I am extremely skeptical of that entire historiographical perspective.

    I just want to say how much I enjoyed your review over at RiAH. It was a very sharp overview of the book.

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