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The Bible in the Civil War

Photograph of a now-destroyed painting of Abraham Lincoln showing Sojourner Truth the Bible presented by Black residents of Baltimore, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., Oct. 29, 1864. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

The Bible did not cause the US Civil War. But the Bible shaped how people navigated the war and the issues surrounding it.

How did people engage the Bible at the time of the Civil War?

At the time of the Civil War, the Bible was relevant for ritual, study, and governance in the institutions where it was understood as a scripture. Examples of this extend far beyond church customs. It was not uncommon for heads of households to use the Bible as a ledger for recording births, baptisms, weddings, deaths, and persons enslaved. Biblical verses peppered turns of phrase. And many Americans drew support from Bible passages they interpreted as sympathetic to their social stances. Indeed, many in America looked to the Bible for divine guidance, blessings, and justifications. But the Bible was more widely important as a cultural document emmeshed in the very fabric of American society. In light of this frame, the Civil War magnified the poignant and diverse ways people were already using the Bible in the mid-nineteenth century.

The slavery question proved to be among the most famous sites of biblical interpretation. Abolitionists cited the singular liberatory power of God as a constant: from the Israelites’ exodus to America’s revolution away from Britain to the black freedom struggle. Meanwhile, slaveholders locked onto Philemon and, among others, passages from the deutero-Pauline household codes (i.e., Eph 6:5, Col 3:22), which they understood as illustrative of slavery as a fact of life or even ordained by God’s plan. All the while, Prov 14:34, “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (KJV), played well as an affirmation of America being on the right side of history according to people on both sides of the issue.

Such hermeneutical ambivalence informed skeptics of American Christian nationalism. Abraham Lincoln, though clearly knowledgeable of the Bible, made relatively soft appeals to the Bible in articulating his political agenda, especially when one considers the damning, verse-laden jeremiads (that is, harsh speeches like those one might expect from the book of Jeremiah) made by black abolitionists like David Walker and Frederick Douglass. Douglass in particular showed little reservation in his rebuke of altruistic missionary groups like the American Bible Society, who assumed teaching the enslaved to read the Bible to be a good thing. Douglass himself was a benefactor of such tutoring but argued that those committed to slavery would use literacy to further spell out the hell coming for slaves who dared to disobey their Bible-wielding masters. The post-Protestant Reformation notion that all were free to interpret the text did not extend to those unable to avail themselves of their unalienable human rights.

And yet black people responded to this existential crisis with at least as dynamic an approach to biblical interpretation—most notably, the interpretive song form known as of the spiritual. Songs like “Go Down, Moses!” (commonly recognized by its refrain, “Let my people go.”) coupled prophetic statements with rich emotions. Such spirituals communicated black desire for emancipation, encoded instructions for fleeing slavery, and rallied enslaved persons to go north and fight for the Union Army. The message of the Bible was a powerful vehicle for carrying black aspirations.

A similar commitment was placed in the physical Bible during this time. Soldiers on both sides carried pocket Bibles as devotionals and protective amulets with them on the battlefield. When blockades cut off the South’s supply lines to North-based publishers, Southern cities like Nashville filled the void by developing their own presses. The appeal of possessing a Bible had considerable purchase throughout the nation because it was an investment on which many in America expected to see a return.

  • Newton-Richard

    Richard Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He is the founding curator of the social media professional development network, Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion and Teaching. Newton is also the author of Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures (Equinox 2020).