While the nation was ripped apart by Civil War, the American Bible Society (ABS) endeavored to spread the word of God by passing out pocket Bibles to soldiers in the Union and Confederate armies. In December 1861, the ABS was printing, shipping and distributing 7,000 pocket New Testaments a day to soldiers in the field.
The ABS was founded in 1816 by clergy, educators, businessmen and national leaders who sought to provide and share the Holy Scriptures with everyone no matter their economic status or political persuasion.
The Society was led by such luminaries as Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress and John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Other leaders of the ABS included presidents John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. Francis Scott Key, who penned the Star Spangled Banner served as Vice President of the ABS from 1817 until his death in 1843.
Even before the Civil War, the ABS was instrumental in getting Bibles to the masses. One of its first endeavors, in 1817, was to provide scriptures for the sailors aboard the USS John Adams. Prior to the Civil War, they provided Bibles for Native Americans and placed the scriptures in inns throughout the states.
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By 1852, the ABS built the Bible House in New York City, forming their base of operations. Nine years later, the ABS was faced with a daunting task of providing scripture to soldiers who seemed hell-bent on killing each other.
While the ABS saw themselves as a provider of the Word for all of God’s children, their New York location made people in the south skeptical. Some southerners viewed New York and the northeast as the hot bed of abolition and didn’t want anything -- even if it was Holy Scriptures -- from people they viewed as starting the war.
The Society proclaimed neutrality in the war and worked to provide Scriptures for soldiers serving in both armies. In order to get the New Testaments to the Southern soldiers, the Bibles were shipped to the Maryland Bible Society and the Washington City Bible Society. From there, the scriptures reached the soldiers on the front lines.
Their determination was not in vain as thousands of Bibles were delivered to Confederate soldiers. The ABS, with the help of chaplains and the U. S. Christian Commission, also delivered New Testaments to Union soldiers as well.
The role of religion in both armies and the nation during the Civil War was important. Generals believed that devoutly religious men made better soldiers. Slave owners were also known to give Bibles to their slaves, thinking the Scriptures would make them more obedient.
Soldiers leaned on religion to get them through the horrific battles, the boredom of camp life and time away from home. Some even said that the pocket New Testament also served as “bullet-pullers,” in that a bullet aimed at a soldier would swerve and hit the Bible held in the breast pocket instead.
Civil War soldiers were said to carry few personal belongings. Of those, the Bible, a journal and playing cards were usually the most popular. There were some stories that soldiers, at the time of battle, would toss their playing cards. While the Bible served as a good luck token, the soldiers didn’t want to meet their maker with gambling paraphernalia in their pockets.
During the Civil War, there was a religious awakening among soldiers and citizens alike. While the North used the Bible as a means to rid the nation of slavery, the South found passages defending the “peculiar institution.”
In his second inaugural address in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of this oddity. “Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”
About the only thing North and South could agree upon was that the Civil War was a necessary evil which would bring about an age of peace, prosperity and spiritual harmony. By the end of the Civil War, the ABS had passed out roughly 5,297,832 Scriptures to soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war.