Yesterday, July 21, was the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War. The coincidence of the anniversaries of the U.S. Civil War and the publication of the King James Bible offers an opportunity to reflect on how important the KJB was for this crisis in American history.
For both sides, South and North, the war was conceived in biblical terms. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address on March 24, 1865, “Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In the mid nineteenth century, the King James Bible was overwhelmingly the Bible of American Protestant Christians, with the American Bible Society alone publishing a million KJBs annually. Lincoln was sworn in on a copy of the KJB, just as George Washington and other presidents were before him. The key issue in the Civil War was slavery, and for Southerners the Bible provided its justification, as argued in works like Josiah Priest’s Bible Defense of Slavery (Glasgow, KY, 1852). Yet Northern Abolitionists from John Brown to Frederick Douglass (as discussed in this earlier post) found their justification in the Bible too.
In fact, though the KJB, along with Christianity, was introduced to slaves by their owners in hopes it would encourage obedience, the slaves turned the religion and the book against their masters, finding in them instead a source of hope and a manifesto for freedom from bondage. The spiritual “Go Down Moses,” for instance, interprets the story of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt as a promise for the exodus of blacks out of slavery. The language of African American religion, music, literature, and public oratory has been steeped in the rhythms and phrases of the KJB ever since.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
On July 1, 1889, Frederick Douglass was appointed to serve as the United State’s resident minister and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. Before his departure, the congregation of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C. presented him with a leather-bound copy of the King James Bible at a farewell reception.
Douglass wrote several autobiographies and in the second, My Bondage and My Freedom, he describes secretly practicing his writing by copying passages from the Bible and other books. He remained keenly aware, however, of slave-owning whites using Biblical passages to support the institution of slavery. For Douglass and other abolitionists, Christianity and slavery were incompatible, and his forceful argument in favor of religion based on equality carries reminiscences of the tone of the King James Bible:
”I love that religion that comes from above, in the ‘wisdom of God,’ which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy…I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by.”
As resident minister and consul-general, Douglass represented the United States and its interests to the Republic of Haiti, which had become the first black-led republic in the world following its break from France in 1804. Douglass served in this capacity from 1889-1891. His wife Helen (whom he married in 1884 after the death of his first wife, Anna) records their arrival at Port-au-Prince in October 1889 and other events from their time in Haiti in her diary. After Douglass’ return to the United States, he traveled to Chicago as the Haitian government’s commissioner at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, perhaps better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. He also built housing units for black families in Baltimore, MD, and continued his work as a writer and orator supporting equal rights for blacks and women. He died in 1895.
Frederick Douglass’ King James Bible will be featured in the Manifold Greatness exhibition when it opens at the Folger Shakespeare Library on September 23. Its permanent home is the Frederick Douglass Historic Site, one of the many places Douglass lived in Washington, DC.
Amy Arden is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library and developed the online children’s content and Family Guide for Manifold Greatness.