Sacred Scripture and Sacred War: An Interview with James Byrd

Sacred Scripture and Sacred War: An Interview with James Byrd February 1, 2014

The following interview was conducted by David Moore.  David blogs at www.twocities.org.

Wars are not simply military affairs.  For the Christian, they are theological to the core.   Mark Noll has made that clear with the various ways ministers interpreted the Civil War (see The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, University of North Carolina Press).

Last year, James Byrd of Vanderbilt released his Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: the Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press).  It received a book of the year award from Christianity Today.

Byrd teaches in the divinity school at Vanderbilt University.

Moore: What were the most popular passages of Scripture which preachers used to muster support for the American Revolution?

Byrd: Most popular was Romans 13, which included commands for obedience to civil rulers. Understandably this was a major text used by loyalists to oppose the Revolution, so patriots had to deal with it at length.

Second was Exodus 14-15, the parting of the Red Sea story, which made sense for patriots who felt that they were like the Hebrew slaves under bondage to the Egyptian Pharaoh, which they related to British tyrannical policies. Paul’s commands on the freedom of Christ (Galatians 5) was third, which they related to civil freedom as well. Fourth was the story of Deborah and Jael in Judges 4-5. This included the famous Curse of Meroz against any who did not join in God’s army to fight. There were several other popular texts, including many from David’s life, including his victory over Goliath, which made sense for patriots who saw themselves as Davids going up against a new Goliath in the British Empire.

Moore: Were there any influential ministers who preached pacifism?

Byrd: There were pacifists. Anthony Benezet, the great abolitionist, wrote Serious Considerations on War and its Inconsistency with the Gospel (1778). It went through several printings and patriotic preachers responded to it at length. Benezet and others made use of the Sermon on the Mount, which was another of the most cited texts because patriots had to respond to it.

Moore: What did Paine think about ministers preaching pro revolutionary sermons?

Byrd: I don’t recall reading anything about Paine’s views of the ministers.

Moore: You mention that Washington loved chaplains.  Why was that?

Byrd: Chaplains not only reinforced morality and discipline in the army, but they also spurred soldiers on to fight with patriotic sermons. Washington was also a strong believer in providence, and he believed that chaplains could appeal for God’s guidance and advocacy in the war.

Moore: Why was there a prevalent belief that Christians make the best soldiers?

Byrd: Christianity enforced morality and discipline, which were essential qualities of a solider, they believed. Also Christianity reinforced courage in the face of death in battle. At least as important was the belief that Christianity was a martial faith, which taught the necessity of just warfare and even fierceness in battle.

Moore: Apocalyptic fervor has been a besetting sin for thousands of years as Paul Boyer made clear in his seminal, When Time Shall Be No More (Harvard).  What lessons are there for preachers today who may be tempted to give current events, especially wars, end-times significance?

Byrd: One of the surprising findings of the book was the relative lack of apocalyptic preaching in the Revolution. For years scholars seemed to think that most of revolutionary preaching was apocalyptic. But even the apocalyptic preaching that was present usually did not focus in grand claims for the United States being only God’s chosen nation. Usually preachers were more cautious. But they did call on apocalyptic battle scenes (e.g. Rev 19) to prove that war was appropriate for Christians to engage in.

Moore: Methodists and Roman Catholics did not really come on the American scene until the nineteenth century.  If they had been around during the revolutionary period, do you think the anti-British sermons would have been as influential?

Byrd: Difficult to say. Most of the Roman Catholics in America at the time were patriotic — see Maura Jane Farrelly’s Papist Patriots (Oxford University Press). Methodists were suspect because of their ties to Wesley, who opposed the Revolution. But most American Methodists quickly distanced themselves from loyalism. If they had not, they would not have been as successful as they were. They had to make the case that they were true, patriotic Americans.

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