Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by James P. Byrd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Byrd tries to broaden and deepen the scholarly work on clergy in support of the American Revolution. He looks at the major Biblical passages that informed their sermons relating to the war, and argues that “civil millennialism” (the belief in the close relationship between the patriots’ cause and the millennial reign of Christ) has been given undue attention by previous historians. Byrd argues that sermons were more often intended to inspire men to fight with courage and without shame. His concluding sentences are provocative: “In the American Revolution, when it came to making the case for war and ushering citizens to the battlefield, the Bible was a persuasive ally. The ramifications of this relationship would cascade throughout American history as the United States came to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars” (168).
Byrd offers a lot of insight into revolutionary preaching, but it seemed to me that he understated the continuity of Revolution-era sermons with colonial-era sermons. He offers many examples of pre-Revolutionary sermons that strike the same themes, though of course they supported fighting for Britain. It seems to me that the sermons studied show that the patriotic preachers used an inherited approach that assumed a close relationship between church, society, and the subject/citizen that all ought to be committed to righteousness and unalterably opposed to the forces of Antichrist (the Roman Catholic Church, in their view). They applied this inherited approach to the American Revolution, with Britain sometimes portrayed as being aligned with Antichrist. If you’ve read the book and I am missing something here, please set me straight!
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Several years ago, I passed on a post from Peter Leithart about the American use of relics from the Revolutionary era.
I was reminded of it when thinking about this passage from James Byrd’s analysis of patriotic sermons during the American Revolution, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War:
Whitefield’s patriotic reputation did not rest completely on political preaching. His sermons certainly had political ramifications, but he rarely addressed politics directly. Typically, he preached on the spiritual “New Birth” of salvation. Still, Whitefield became a source of patriotic authority. In September of 1775, five months into the Revolutionary War and five years after Whitefield’s death, a group of Continental Army officers visited Whitefield’s tomb in Newburyport, Massachusetts. They were looking for inspiration for battle, but in an unusual way. They asked that Whitefield’s coffin be opened. When the sexton complied, the officers removed the famous evangelist’s collar and his wristbands and took the relics with them. The army officers may not have known much about Whitefield’s political preaching, or the relative lack thereof, but they knew Whitefield as an evangelist who appealed to the people and resisted traditional authority. (17)
Thomas Kidd posted some quotes from these two founders here. I’m linking to them mostly to keep track of them in case I even need to find them.
At First Things, Peter Leithart summarizes the work of Haifa University’s Eran Shalev in American Zion. Shalev argues for the centrality of the Old Testament in Americans’ interpretation of their world, and that references to the New Testament began to increase in 1820s and 1830s. A couple of tastes:
American history was seen as a repetition of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Oppressed by a series of cruel English Pharaohs, the people of God crossed the waters to discover a land flowing with milk and honey. (That the land was populated by “Canaanites” who might need to be exterminated was a tragic implication of the story.)
During the Revolution, writers and preachers turned to the historical books of the Hebrew Bible to fill out ancient Roman analyses of political corruption. George III was Rehoboam, Solomon’s son whose high taxes divided Israel, or Ahab, who seized the vineyard of innocent Naboth. The charges against King George were sometimes moderated by reference to the book of Esther: The hapless king was manipulated by Haman-like advisors who turned him against the children of the land of the Virgin. Patriots were Mordecais or Maccabees, while loyalists were “sons of Meroz,” a Hebrew town cursed because its inhabitants refused to follow Deborah and Barak into battle. Colonial writers saw links with Roman history: Washington was Cincinnatus. But Washington was also Gideon, the judge who delivered Israel and very deliberately refused an offer of kingship….
The shift to the New Testament was partly due to the fervor of the Second Great Awakening. Debates about slavery are complexly implicated in the process. Abolitionists liked to cite Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth (“proclaim liberty to captives”), and Southerners defended slavery from the Old Testament. But Theodore Weld’s The Bible Against Slavery showed that ancient Israelites knew nothing of chattel slavery, and pro-slavery writers pointed out that Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon. African-American hymns and writings turned the old Puritan narrative upside down. America had become Egypt, white rulers Pharaohs, slaves the oppressed Israelites who would be liberated by bloody plagues sent from heaven.
You may have heard about the Pew Report from a few weeks ago. John Turner at The Anxious Bench wrote about the survey and linked to Mark Tooley’s article on the report. Tooley puts the report in some historical context. Here’s a key quote, part of which Turner quoted as well:
The myth that America was once a solidly Christian and church going nation that only recently has secularized is widely believed by religious and secular alike. But the 40 percent of Americans who’ve regularly across the last 80 years at least claimed they attend church regularly is almost certainly higher than church going was in the 19th century, which itself was likely higher than the 18th century, as a footnote in the Pew study briefly admits.
If America now today seems more secular, it is because cultural elites 100 years ago, including college presidents and faculty, publishers and newspaper editors, were likely to be churchmen. Fifty years ago, cultural elites were less churchy but remained at least respectful of religion. Today’s cultural elites, joined by popular entertainment and broadcast journalism, clustered in coastal cities or in university towns in between, are neither respectful nor even very aware of religious America. Almost certainly the 6 percent of Americans whom Pew reports are atheist or agnostic are disproportionately represented within their ranks.
I think that Tooley underestimates the importance of the cultural shift, but his article is still worth the read. As my friend Kevin pointed out when I shared the link on Facebook, Tooley seems to equate churchgoing with Christianity. It’s important to think about the wider cultural atmosphere. I wonder if there were some people in, say, 18th- and 19th-century America who didn’t attend church regularly who may have had a more Christian outlook than some who are regular church attenders today, simply because the cultural environment (the “plausibility structures,” as sociologist Peter Berger calls them) supported Christian belief more than it does now.
I’ve been reading Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, which is quite good. One of the themes that he discusses is the American revolutionaries’ Christian republicanism, which saw Protestantism and English liberties as inseparable and threats to them as Catholic and from Antichrist (in my understanding, the Catholic Church and Antichrist were closely identified for many early modern Protestants). Here was one part that stuck out:
An angry stamp distributor in Philadelphia, John Hughes, … reported that Presbyterians there had begun to question the authority of the king, declaring that they would honor “No King but King Jesus.” Parliament decided to repeal the Stamp Act, realizing that there was no point to risking civil war over the issue. But to the colonists, the repeal offered only a reminder to be vigilant in their defense of Christian liberty against the tyrannical spirit of this new manifestation of Antichrist. The Boston Gazette blamed an “Infernal, atheistical, Popish” cohort for passing the Stamp Act, but rejoiced that their “DIABOLICAL Purposes” had been frustrated.
One Connecticut account of the repeal shows how deeply the colonists had come to associate political tyranny with the spirit of Antichrist. When word arrived of the repeal in 1766, a crowed composed largely of evangelicals celebrated, saying “that victory was gained over the beast, and over his mark … [and] we can yet buy and sell without the mark, or the number of his name.” They called the king’s supporters “papists.” Pastor Joseph Emerson of Pepperell, Massachusetts, speaking at a thanksgiving service celebrating the repeal, noted that the protesters believed that their “civil and religious privileges” were were both jeopardized by the act. If the Parliament was not bound to respect the colonists’ rights in the matter of taxation, what would become of their religious liberty?” (33)
I find it surprising how quickly this language could switch targets from France (an actual Catholic and absolute monarchy) to Britain (a Protestant and constitutional monarchy). You can also see that conspiracy theories have a long history in American culture (and probably many other cultures too). The supposed Antichrist of Catholic France became America’s first ally, and Kidd notes that one preacher compared France to the Good Samaritan, and some hoped that the American alliance could lead to French conversion to Protestantism. Finally, it’s interesting to note that the French monarchy was far less threatening to liberty than the Republic that eventually replaced it.
None of this is intended to be condescending to the people of this period, but it’s just interesting to step back and look at it with the perspective of a couple hundred years.
Jeff Lacine, writing on the Desiring God blog, briefly tells three stories to illustrate Edwards’ approach to the ministry. Here is one:
Edwards’ first call to the pastorate, at age 19, was to a splinter church (a recent church split) in New York. He labored to reconcile the church he was pastoring to its mother. He accomplished his aim in two years, working himself out of the pastorate.
His ability to shepherd a whole church, full of anger and hurt over a recent division, back to submission and unity with its former rival shows amazing pastoral prowess. Those of you who have been a part of a church after a split know what kind of feat was accomplished in this work.