Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, by James P. Byrd

When a hurricane ravaged the waters off of eastern Newfoundland on September 9, 1775, churning waves up to 30 feet, the devastation was enormous. Four thousand sailors drowned, most of them from Ireland and England. The British Royal Navy lost two armed schooners. When word reached the American colonies, William Foster, a Presbyterian minister, eagerly fit what became known as the “Independence Hurricane” into an ancient and venerable typology. “Pharaoh’s chariots and his hosts were cast into the sea,” Foster preached to American soldiers; “they sank as lead in the mighty waters.”

The American Revolution was by no means the first time preachers wielded the Bible to justify armed conflict and the slaying of enemies; they did the same during the Crusades, of course, and the French wars of religion, not to mention the English Revolution, which culminated in regicide. In the American colonies, as James Byrd points out in this superb book, ministers used the scriptures to justify violence at least as far back as King Philip’s War in the 17th century.

Byrd makes a persuasive case for the centrality of sermons in propagating and justifying armed rebellion. “In the biblically saturated American colonies, ministers were the agreed-upon experts on the Bible,” he writes, and “their sermons were the most serious engagements between scripture and war in America, both before and during the Revolution.”