The Fourth of July has come and gone, but the long Fourth of July holiday weekend is still in mid-swing, so I thought I would add one more title to my list of suggested summer reading on faith and the founding. (If you missed it, see here.)
The book I have in mind is Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, by Vanderbilt University’s James P. Byrd. I just reviewed the book for Christianity Today online (see here), and I thought I would call it to your attention as well here, without going into the same details that I shared for CT.
Boiled down to fundamental categories, historians undertake three basic tasks. They describe, they explain, and they evaluate. In other words, they ask the questions “what happened?” “why did it happen?” and “was it good that it happened?” Because description is so essential to history, the first step of historical argument is laborious but simple–the historian wades through mountains of primary historical evidence on a particular topic and looks for patterns. The heart of historical thinking comes in making sense of the patterns that appear. What can explain them? What might they teach us?
James Byrd has done a marvelous job of systematically, exhaustively sifting through evidence to answer a basic “what happened?” question. Byrd’s question is this: how did colonists who supported the cause of American independence defend their position through scripture? Despite all the ink that has been spilled on the relation of Christian faith to the American founding, we lack a comprehensive analysis of this basic question–until now.
To answer the question, Byrd read all of the colonial writings that he could find that addressed the the topic of war while appealing to scripture. When all was said and done, he had systematically evaluated 543 sources (the vast majority of which were sermons) that included 17, 148 biblical citations. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of what he has accomplished.
The heart of Sacred Scripture, Sacred War is Byrd’s delineation of the five most striking patterns that he discerned in the course of his investigation. Without developing those in detail, I thought I would share with you the scripture verses or passages that appeared most often in these pro-independence colonial writings. If you’re up for a game, take a minute before proceeding and ask yourself what verses you might expect to see on the list, and then compare them with the list I share below.
In an appendix to the book, Byrd lists the eight most commonly cited scripture references in order of their frequency. I’ll summarize them here:
The first, fifth, and eighth most common were passages that loyalists frequently appealed to in condemning the revolution, and patriotic ministers who cited them were typically doing so defensively, i.e., they were trying to explain why the texts did not apply in this instance:
#1: Romans 13:1-7–Paul’s teaching on obedience to civil rulers, which begins, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.”
#5: I Peter 2:13-17–Peter’s teaching on obedience to civil rulers, which begins with the injunction,” submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” and concludes with the exhortation to “honor the king.”
#8: Matthew 5, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, especially Jesus’ teaching in verses 38-48 that seem to teach a peaceful response to mistreatment (“turn the other cheek,” etc.)
The remaining five most commonly cited passages were appealed to not negatively but positively, i.e., the colonial ministers who quoted them appealed to them as proof texts supportive of violent resistance to British rule:
#2: Exodus 14-15, the chapters dealing with God’s deliverance of His chosen people by parting the Red Sea and then destroying Pharaoh’s army.
#3: Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” (It is interesting to note that, in The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel stated that it was this biblical text that convinced them that the American Revolution was a righteous response.)
#4: Judges 4-5, including the Song of Deborah after God had granted the Israelites victory over Jabin, king of Canaan, and especially verse 5:23, in which the angel of the Lord pronounces a curse on the people or community of Meroz “because they did not come to the help of the Lord . . . against the mighty.”
#6: I Kings 12, the story of the revolt against Solomon’s tyrannical son, Rehoboam.
#7: Psalm 124, David’s thanksgiving for God’s defense of His people, including his statement: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their wrath was kindled against us” (vv. 2-3).
Were you able to predict any of the passages that made the list? I would be very interested in hearing your response to the list, especially to those passages that patriot ministers employed to promote the cause of independence.