Book Reviews

BYRD: A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood (2021)

Posted 9/1/2021 Reviewed By Caleb W. Southern

A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War by James P. Byrd. Oxford University Press, 2021. ISBN: 978-0-19-090279-7. $34.95.

 

 

Historians of the U.S. Civil War have long recognized the power and centrality of religion during the nation’s defining struggle. James P. Byrd has entered the conversation with the goal of tracing the ways Americans used the Bible during the Civil War. A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood seeks to answer the question, “Which biblical texts did American turn to most often in the Civil War?”

During the conflict, Northerners primarily used Scripture to defend the Lincoln government and the nation against rebellion. Additionally, the “Northern” Bible attacked slavery but not racism. The Southern Bible, not surprisingly, “defended slavery and blessed the rebellion” (15-16). For Byrd, the Bible is only one of many other “authorities” to which Americans submitted. The Bible was often enlisted “to lend divine sanction” to political and ideological authorities (17).


Byrd’s book proceeds chronologically through the war. A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood opens with a discussion of the ways Americans marshalled the Bible before the Civil War. Throughout the antebellum era, and especially as secession approached, “Americans reaffirmed their belief in the Bible as a book of war” (40). 

Men and women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon figured that the First Battle of Bull Run was part of a divine plan. “For many southerners the battle confirmed their reading of God’s will; for many northerners, Bull Run stirred disillusionment and a call for the nation to rededicate itself to God” (95). The massive bloodletting at Shiloh stirred American “to crises of conscience” (115). Discussions of emancipation required that Northerners fight a harder war to undermine the Confederacy; this necessitated more frequent appeals to the harsh God of the Old Testament. As Americans sought to situate emancipation in their divinely ordained national story, Black Americans offered “some of the most persuasive arguments for war and liberty” (142).


After Gettysburg, a battle Byrd calls “the true turning point in the war” (203), Confederates turned increasingly to their Bibles to discern the “true” reasons for their defeats on the battlefield. Slavery—a sacred cause—could not be their national sin; instead, greed was identified as the South’s vice (215). Because Southerners so thoroughly intertwined their national and Christian identities, many could not understand how true Christian patriots would desert their comrades in the most vital hour of national struggle. Christianity was equated with patriotism, and the nation demanded martyrs (227).

Abraham Lincoln became the ultimate martyr after his assassination. Because of his role in leading a people to the Promised Land of Liberty, Lincoln was compared to Moses; the violence of his death likewise invited comparisons to King Saul (2 Samuel 1) and Abner (2 Samuel 3). The timing of Lincoln’s assassination (Good Friday) and the outpouring of Biblical analogies the following Easter Sunday worked together to make him “perhaps America’s most sacred president” (284).

Byrd’s analysis of the Bible’s place in the Civil War is thorough and detailed. Northern and Southern Christians read the same Bible differently. Northerners approached Scripture with an analogous interpretation, whereas Southerners took a literalist approach (136). These exegetical assumptions were vital in determining what passages Americans appealed to and how they applied those passages. Northerners in Byrd’s sample appealed most frequently to Acts 17:26; the Confederates appealed most frequently to Job 1:21 (304-305).

Civil War Americans held three convictions about their war. One was an intense feeling that their experiences could be compared to Scripture. Second, they were convicted of war’s redemptive, purifying capabilities. Finally, they “revered the sacred sacrifice of the dead, whose blood ‘consecrated’ the nation” (285-286). After the war, these convictions would continue to influence a wide array of postwar issues—among them Confederate memorialization, policies that affected veterans, white supremacy, segregation, and violence.

In sum, Byrd’s A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood raises important questions about the Bible’s place in the Civil War era. His history reminds us that the Bible—and not just religion or Christianity—greatly affected the ways that Americans thought about and fought their civil war. Future attempts to understand the significance of the Bible to Civil War Americans must build from this book.

 

 

Caleb W. Southern holds an MA in History from Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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