The history of the American Revolution is, above all, a story about national beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. How we understand our origins informs our sense of identity as a people. We look to the past not only to understand who we are but also to justify who we wish to become. And so, as a nation divided over the proper place of religious belief in the contemporary public square, we naturally debate the place of religious belief in the American founding.
Outside of the academy, much of that debate has focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: Did religious belief play an important role in the American founding? This makes sense if the primary motive is to score points in the culture wars, mining the past for ammunition to use against secularists who deny that the United States was founded as a Christian country. There's a problem with the history-as-ammunition approach, however. It's good for bludgeoning opponents, but it discourages sustained moral reflection, the kind of conversation with the past that can penetrate the heart and even change who we are.
In contrast, books like Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press) have the potential to challenge us deeply. Granted, author James Byrd inadvertently offers ammunition to readers cherry-picking evidence for a Christian founding. He matter-of-factly contends that sermons were more influential than political pamphlets in building popular support for independence, and he insists unequivocally that "preachers were the staunchest defenders of the cause of America." And yet the question that really interests him is not whether religion played an important role in the American founding but how it did so. More specifically, he wants to understand how colonists used the Bible in responding to the American Revolution.
Toward that end, Byrd went in search of original colonial sources that addressed the topic of war while appealing to Scripture. He ultimately identified 543 colonial writings (the vast majority of which were published sermons) and systematically analyzed the more than 17,000 biblical citations that they contained. The result is by far the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of "how revolutionary Americans defended their patriotic convictions through scripture, which texts they cited and how they used them."
Arguments from Scripture
Byrd relates his conclusions in five thematic chapters, each of which highlights a common scriptural argument in support of the Revolution. Americans found in Scripture "a vast assemblage of war stories" relevant to their own struggle with England. From the Old Testament, ministers drew inspiration especially from the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14-15), from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, and from the example of David, the man of war who was also the "man after God's own heart." Ministers analogized each of these stories to the situation with Britain and drew pertinent lessons. The Israelites' enslavement in Egypt resembled their own bondage to British tyranny; ditto for the Israelites' subjection centuries later to Jabin, king of Canaan. The contest between David and Goliath, in like manner, foreshadowed the colonists' righteous struggle with a powerful but arrogant British empire. (That David went on to become a king was a fact that need not be emphasized.)