With each new post I write for the Manifold Greatness blog, I am struck anew by the long reach of the King James Bible and how much history was covered by just our one exhibition. Take, for example, the 1863 King James New Testament loaned by the American Bible Society for the Folger exhibition. When images of the Bible first arrived at the Folger, we were all struck by the book’s inscription:
Presented by the Sanitary
the rebel authorities at
Richmond, Feb. – 1864
Thomas P. Meyer
Prisoner of war
This extraordinary copy dates back to the American Civil War, when it was given to a Union prisoner of war named Meyer “through the rebel authorities” by the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization that provided relief to Union soldiers. Wanting to learn more, I began reading about the prison on Belle Isle and ended up on a website that had a transcription of the diary of Zelotes A. Musgrave, a Union prisoner of war from Ohio, who spent about five months in the prison. Spare, though compelling, daily entries such as “Belle Island. The body lice are fat.” provide a captivating glimpse of the harsh conditions at Belle Isle. At one point Musgrave receives a blanket from “our government, as rather the Christian Commission,” a moment of comfort reminiscent of the Sanitary Commission’s gift of the New Testament to Thomas P. Meyer.
Reading through Musgrave’s diary also brought back memories of what I had learned about the Civil War history of my own hometown. I grew up in Elmira, New York, which was the site of a rather brutal Union prison. I thought about how the words of the King James translation have brought relief to many in need. A Confederate prisoner of war in Elmira likely read the same Biblical passages as a Union prisoner of war at Belle Isle (see Hannibal Hamlin’s earlier post on the Civil War)—just as a young man sailing “beyond the seas” sought comfort in the Psalms and Martin Luther King inspired millions with verses such as Amos 5:24.
In the planning stages of the Manifold Greatness exhibition, Hannibal and I agreed that we wanted to show the human side of the history of the King James Bible. Meyer’s Civil War New Testament is a powerful example and we are thankful to the American Bible Society for allowing it to be a part of our exhibition.
Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, open through Monday, January 16.
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.