Private Walter G. Jones, 8th New York Cavalry, and his New Testament

With the Hayfoot at work and no football for the first Sunday in months your humble writer was left to his own devices to keep himself entertained today. I decided to visit the Museum of Biblical Art to see the newly opened exhibit Finding Comfort in Difficult times: A Selection of Soldiers’ Bibles. The museum is part of the American Bible Society, an institutuion founded in 1816 to promote the reading of scripture and the abolition of slavery. I have always had an interest in the Bible as a librarian and historian and had been looking forward to this exhibit since reading a recent review in the Wall Street Journal. I was not the only one. When I asked the receptionist if attendance was good she said it had picked up since the WSJ article appeared. On the questionaire I was asked to fill out before leaving there was even a box to check off labeled “Wall Street Journal” for “How did you learn of the show?”

Finding Comfort examines the history of soldiers’ Bibles from 1861 to the present day, but the bulk of the exhibit is dedicated to the Civil War. About half of the thirty six monographs on display are from that conflict. Taking a “Hate the sin; Love the sinner.” approach, the ABS distributed Bibles to both Union and Confederate troops. The logistics of transporting and distributing Bibles to rebels proved difficult however, and the vast majority of the books were given to Union men. There were similar groups in the South that tried to pick up the slack. The Bible Society of the Confederate States of America, for instance, was one such organization that did so. Still, this was not enough. My favorite in the exhibit was a Bible published in England by Oxford University Press for the British and Foreign Bible Society. Copies of these King James Versions of the New Testament were shipped in bulk to the Caribbean to be smuggled into Charleston, South Carolina aboard the blockade runner Minna. The ship, the Bibles, and all the other goods aboard intended for the Southern war effort did not make it. The Minna was overrun by a Union ship on December 6, 1863 and towed into a Federal port.

Most of the Bibles on display are small tomes designed for their lightness during the march and to fit snugly in a soldier’s pocket. Indeed, the story of a Billy Yank saved from death by the Bible carried in his breast pocket is one of the cliches of the war. Finding Comfort is an apt title for the exhibit. The years 1861-65 were indeed difficult times and the ABS provided meaning and comfort throughout the war to hundreds of thousands of men who were scared, far from home, and facing death on a daily basis. Most poignant to me were the photographs and handwritten notes in some of the items. It is always jarring to me to walk into a museum off the street, examine the personal items of individuals like these in solitude, and walk back into the cacaphony of the city. It is like being in on a secret that those around me are not aware. The exhibit is small, but worth seeing. A good way to do it is the way I did today: catching the show and then having a walk in nearby Central Park.

The Civil War is better than football. It is the real life story of people not very different from us who did extraordinary things under the most trying circumstances. Not a bad way to spend Lincoln’s Birthday.

(image/Library of Congress)