James P. Byrd. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 256 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-984349-7.
Reviewed by Tyler Rotter (University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-War (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
For nearly half a century, the religious nature of the American Revolution has been an important area of debate within the historiography of early America. The publication of Alan Heimert's Religion and the American Mind in 1966 instigated the debate by attempting to make a direct connection between the mentalities developed during the Great Awakening and those present within the minds of American patriots in the lead-up to the Revolution. While Heimert's work was widely criticized, it successfully prompted further research on the religious nature of the American Revolution.
While many scholars, including Edmund Morgan, Bernard Bailyn, Harry Stout, Patricia Bonomi, Thomas Kidd, Nathan Hatch, and Jon Butler, have primarily focused on religious ideology and how it may or may not have influenced the coming of revolution, James Byrd seeks to understand how the Bible was used to convince colonists to support the war as well as coax patriots to fight on the battlefield. Compiling sermons and other texts that made substantial use of biblical references to warfare, Byrd created a massive database that included 17,148 biblical citations from 542 sources, representing all regions of colonial America, that were published between King Philip's War (1675) and the turn of the nineteenth century. From this point, he identified those texts that colonists focused on most often to illustrate how the Bible promoted the patriotic case for war. Byrd contends, "many colonists revered the Bible not only as a moral and religious guide but also as an authority on warfare, and they ignited patriotic zeal with a patriotic Bible" (p. 5). While the Bible favors a discussion of spiritual warfare over actual warfare, Byrd states that ministers often connected references to spiritual and military warfare for patriotic ends. He asserts that by doing so, "they made patriotic service in war a sacred virtue" and hoped soldiers would be "inspired by the spiritual nature of patriotic duty" and "overcome their natural aversions to dying—and especially killing—in battle" (p. 13).
Setting the stage for his analysis of wartime sermons, Byrd begins by illuminating the martial power of the sermon. In conversation with Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the author explains, "Sermons were published at four times the rate of political pamphlets and were more influential as well" (p. 16). Beginning as oral communication, Byrd contends that sermons were intended for everyone and received wide dissemination, whereas most pamphlets were aimed at only elites. Because of this, sermons were more effective at uniting colonists behind the Revolution. He astutely shows how patriotic sermons increased in number and strength alongside reactions to events such as the Stamp Act and the Boston Massacre. As violence escalated, Byrd claims that "ministers had become primary authorities on war in colonial America" and "few public voices rivaled those of ministers" (p. 44). As colonists were trying to justify killing British soldiers, coping with destruction, and searching for meaning in victory and defeat, Byrd argues that religious discourse, especially in the form of wartime sermons, gave meaning to these issues and events.
While many historians previously cited the use of the Book of Revelation by ministers and the concept of millennialism as a primary religious motivator during the Revolution, Byrd challenges this assertion in arguing that Exodus, and its hero, Moses, was the most influential story. Ministers not only used the Exodus narrative to fuel patriots' zeal for resisting "Britain's Egypt-like slavery," but they also explicated Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea as an example of God as a warrior. Looking beyond ministers, Byrd states, "The fact that [John] Adams, [Thomas] Jefferson, and [Benjamin] Franklin," known for not being outwardly religious, "all pondered the Exodus narrative ... [indicates] that no biblical narrative surpassed Exodus in identifying the major themes, plots, characters, and subplots of the Revolution" (p. 47). Byrd argues that Revolutonary sermons show that ministers not only sought to make sense of British conspiracies, but also promoted Whig strength from divine militancy. In short, "The Lord is a man of war" (Exodus 15:3).
Religious legitimacy for war, however, was only the beginning for many patriotic ministers. Byrd further illustrates that the Old Testament stories of Deborah, Jeremiah, and David were regularly used to promote martial courage and the religious value of military service. As good patriots, soldiers not only had to be willing to die in battle, they also had to be willing to kill. Byrd illustrates that ministers used the curses of Deborah and Jeremiah and the psalms of David to promote the benefit of dying on the battlefield, promising eternal rewards in heaven and potential renown at home. He argues, "Colonial preachers shaped these violent curses into a military form of the jeremiad.... [M]aking such appeals to the violence in scripture, wartime preachers revealed the militant character of their faith and consecrated violence" (p. 74). Not only were the curses of Deborah and Jeremiah used to overcome aversion to killing and dying, but they were also used as a weapon against pacifism and loyalism. Additionally, the story of David and Goliath also received extensive treatment by patriotic ministers. As Byrd argues, they used it not only to give colonists courage to stand against the powerful British, but also to show the contrast in virtue between the "American David and the proud, corrupt British Goliath" (p. 97). Even after David became king, committed adultery, and murdered Bathsheba's husband, ministers showed how he would have supported the Revolutionary cause had he not been corrupted by monarchy.
Building upon this theme of corruption, Byrd turns to the New Testament texts used to challenge allegiance to sovereign rulers. He contends that it was "not an issue of whether patriotism could be Christian but whether there was any alternative" (pp. 116-117). Addressing the teachings of Paul, ministers advocated that Christians obey their rulers not because of their title, but according to how justly they performed their duty. Byrd explains that ministers argued that government may have been a necessary evil, but all governments were not necessarily evil.
In his final chapter, Byrd turns to the Book of Revelation in order to reinterpret its meaning for Revolutionary America. He expresses how previous historians concluded that ministers created a "civil millennialism" by combining expectations of Christ's millennial reign with republican political ideology; these scholars concluded that ministers viewed the Revolutionary War as the beginning of the millennium. However, Byrd maintains that millennialism did not dominate patriotic appeals to scripture since ministers rarely preached on Revelation or the apocalyptic scriptures from the Old Testament; he contends that apocalyptic preaching during the Revolutionary period focused more on urgent needs in battle, most importantly the recruitment of zealous patriots for a righteous cause. In conclusion, he asserts that patriots offered a martial reading of Revelation, specifically Revelation 19, in order to negate pacifists' promotion of the Sermon on the Mount and the virtues of docility, mercy, and peace. Byrd asserts that wartime ministers used the image of Christ at war to refute claims that Jesus would never endorse war.
As a whole, Byrd presents a well-researched and methodical examination of the Bible and how patriotic ministers used it during the American Revolution. While a large amount of important information is relegated to his extensive endnotes, the volume does not suffer and remains complex yet readable. While Byrd successfully ascertains the promotion of a patriotic Bible and how ministers used it to advocate warfare, his work is noticeably lacking information on how these sermons were received by the laity. Although reception was not the primary purpose of his work, today, more successful studies concerning ideology attempt to provide at least a minimal coverage of reception in support of their arguments. Additionally, because Byrd examines religious texts spanning nearly a century and a half, the examination of lay reception would help illustrate the changing face of organized religion, especially following the Great Awakening, and how this may have influenced the religious promotion of war. However, Byrd's objective approach to a topic that can easily elicit a biased interpretation is enlightening. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War is a useful addition to the historiography on the American Revolution and should be consulted by anyone interested in the relationship between religion and warfare during the colonial period.
. On main contributions by these authors, see Edmund S. Morgan, "The Purtian Ethic and the American Revolution," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 24 (1967): 3-43; Bernard Bailyn, Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence (New York: Knopf, 1990); Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Stout, "Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 34 (1977): 519-541; Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Thomas S. Kidd, The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977); and Jon Butler, "Revolutionary Millennium?," in Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
. See Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978); Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty; and Harry S. Stout, "A Nation Born at Once," in The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
. These virtues are three of the eight "Beatitudes" found in Matthew 5.
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