A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood

The Bible and the American Civil War

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James P. Byrd
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2021.
     392 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190902797.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

James F. Byrd’s A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War relies on a method he developed for a previous work. Several years ago, in Sacred Scripture, Sacred War (Oxford University Press, 2013), Byrd examined the importance of the Bible in the American Revolution by gathering hundreds of colonial American sources and then using a computer program to compile a database of over seventeen thousand biblical citations found in those sources. This use of quantitative methods allowed readers to see how Americans used different parts of the Bible to justify their cause. Byrd does the same thing for A Holy Baptism, combining his own huge cache of Civil War sources (sermons, tracts, letters, diaries, and the like) with a massive database of US newspapers and then running it all through the same program to find thousands of biblical citations from the Civil War era.

As Byrd notes, “The Bible saturated the Civil War” (1). That biblical references were pervasive at the time will surprise no one who is familiar with several recent works, including Mark A. Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), George C. Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), and Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2006). Byrd’s contribution to this growing body of literature is to organize those biblical references in a way that allows readers to better understand how Americans read and understood the Bible during the Civil War.

The book is organized chronologically, from the debates over slavery that preceded the war to the surrender and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Byrd integrates his discussion of biblical references so well into their historical contexts that the book could almost be read as a history of the war itself. But of course the Bible is always in the forefront of the story, and readers see along the way the various roles that the Bible played in shaping, or perhaps at times reflecting, the thinking of different groups.

In his Second Inaugural Address, in March 1865, Lincoln noted that both sides “read [present tense, as the war was not yet over] the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other” (1). The most fascinating part of Byrd’s work shows that, while North and South read the same scripture, they often emphasized different biblical references. It was almost as if there were a Union Bible and a Confederate Bible, as Byrd shows in his appendix, which lists the most-cited verses in each section. The most popular verse in the South was Job 1:21: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” This verse, Byrd explains, brought comfort to Southern families who had lost a loved one on the battlefield. In the North, the most-used verse was Acts 17:26: “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men.” If people were “of one blood,” surely slavery was wrong.

The early verses of Romans 13—“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God,” and so forth—were used frequently in the North to condemn the Southern rebels, but Confederates sometimes pointed out that the Revolutionaries of 1776 had rebelled against “higher powers.” In fact, loyalists and patriots alike had used Romans 13 to buttress their causes, as Byrd knows from his previous work.

One cannot help but wonder whether people’s reading of the Bible shaped their cultural and political beliefs—or did their beliefs shape their reading of the Bible? (Perhaps one cannot help but wonder the same thing today.) Throughout the book, Byrd assumes a sincerity of belief on both sides. “Americans were never in more disagreement over the Bible,” he notes in the epilogue, “and yet never more in agreement that the Bible proved the sacredness of war” (301). A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood provides the most thorough discussion to date of the Bible’s role in the Civil War.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David B. Parker is a professor of history and assistant department chair at Kennesaw State University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James P. Byrd is chair of the Graduate Department Religion and associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He earned his master's degree at Duke University and his PhD at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (OUP, 2013).

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