Since this blog began in the spring of 2011, the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible, we’ve examined inscriptions from the King James Bible in several locations around Washington, DC, home of the Folger Shakespeare Library. We took a look at the Library of Congress and at biblical influences on Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, including a biblical inscription at the Martin Luther King Memorial, which we revisited recently as part of our Washington, DC, cherry blossoms entry.
On this Memorial Day weekend, Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac, seemed like a good place to look for King James Bible inscriptions. Two examples on the Arlington memorials and monuments are perhaps the best known, in addition to some private citations on individual tombstones. (Robert E. Lee’s former home, Arlington House, still stands at the highest point on the grounds; in yet another KJB connection, you can see Lee’s own King James Bible here.)
One of the two King James Bible inscriptions is on the World War I chaplains memorial, dedicated in 1926. The memorial includes a line from John, 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Located on the brow of Chaplains Hill within the cemetery, the memorial is now accompanied by memorials to Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chaplains that include later wars; the Jewish chaplains memorial was dedicated relatively recently, in 2011.
The Confederate Memorial was unveiled in 1914, almost half a century after the end of the Civil War, in a section of the cemetery that was set aside for Confederate graves in 1900. Both the graves section and the memorial were seen as symbols of national reconciliation.
The memorial is encircled near the top with the line from Isaiah 2:4, “and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.” Above this inscription, a female figure representing the South lifts a laurel wreath southward with one hand; she holds a pruning hook in her other hand, which she rests on a plow. The pruning hook and plow are meant to illustrate the King James Bible passage.
Learn more about the King James Bible in American history, including Confederate and Union copies of the King James Bible, in our Historic American Bibles image gallery.
Curious about the post-Civil War origins of Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day? Try this recent blog post from the Smithsonian American History Museum.
On April 6 & 7, 1862, opposing Confederate and Union forces met in the woods and fields of rural Tennessee. The ensuing battle would become the bloodiest to date in the United States. Casualties totaled over 23,000 dead and wounded—more than the number killed during all 8 years of the Revolutionary War. Even today, the Battle of Shiloh conjures up images of intense suffering.
For soldiers facing injury, illness, and possible death, the Bible could be a source of comfort. Bibles were distributed with items such as food and blankets by the Sanitary Commission, a relief organization organized to aid Union soldiers. One prisoner of war, Thomas P. Meyer, received a King James Bible while he was held captive at Belle Island prison in Richmond, Va. Other soldiers inscribed their names or listed battles in which they had fought inside their copies of the Bible, as this short video from the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum shows. The Museum of Biblical Art is currently featuring an exhibition on soldiers’ Bibles from the Civil War to the present day.
While armies fought on the field, orators waged a war of words for public opinion. Two of the most famous abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, both have connections to the King James Bible. A personal copy owned by Douglass is the subject of an earlier post, and Lincoln (and later, President Obama) were sworn in to office on a King James Bible.
Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website. She is a communications associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library.