(RNS) When Confederate soldiers bore down on Gettysburg, Pa., in 1863, a quiet seminary building atop a ridge was transformed — first into a Union lookout, then a field hospital for 600 wounded soldiers.

The battle of Gettysburg print showing Union troops advancing from the right during fighting.  (c. 1867).  Photo courtesy Library of Congress

The battle of Gettysburg print showing Union troops advancing from the right during fighting. (c. 1867). Photo courtesy Library of Congress


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Now the structure that stood at the center of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most pivotal battle is being transformed once again.

On July 1, marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall, located on the campus of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, will reopen as a museum reflecting on the epic battle, the costly war and the complex role of faith.

Seminary Ridge Museum will take visitors into the minds of those who fought and explore their conflicting ideas of freedom.

Some 750,000 soldiers died during the Civil War and many of them carried and quoted from the Bible. But they read it in divergent ways that still reverberate in a polarized America.

“People have found it comfortable to find a way to think about the Civil War in terms of valor and heroism,” said Barbara Franco, executive director of the museum. “We want to really look at these other parts of it — causes, consequences — and leave people thinking there’s more to this than just the simple answers.”

Visitors begin with a big view of the battlefields. They gaze out from the cupola where Union General John Buford viewed advancing Confederate brigades. They walk the creaking floors where wounded soldiers built back strength over a course of months. They ponder how soldiers suffered and how they made sense of it.

“Here were these young men, caught up in these events, and trying to be as faithful as they could be as good Christians,” said Maria Erling, professor of church history at the seminary. “They were consoled by those faith commitments.”

Located on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum is able to explore the history of the seminary and the larger role that religion played in the 19th century. Photo courtesy Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum

Located on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum is able to explore the history of the seminary and the larger role that religion played in the 19th century. Photo courtesy Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In interactive exhibits, visitors grapple with mid-19th century moral dilemmas: Would you harbor a fugitive slave if it meant you could go to prison? What motivated nurses, such as the Catholic Daughters of Charity, to tend to the injured on both sides?

Exhibits also showcase religious belongings of soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. Example: a 3-inch-by-2-inch Bible carried by Jefferson Coates. A member of Wisconsin’s 7th Regiment and recipient of the Medal of Honor, he was blinded on the Gettysburg battlefield but survived.

“The fact that he carried this Bible with him tells me a lot about him and his purpose,” said Coates’ great-granddaughter, Jean Smith of Kansas City, who donated the Bible to the seminary. “If there hadn’t been some sort of a religious context for him, he wouldn’t have carried it.”

The museum, which cost $15 million to develop, popularizes new insights from recent scholarship, including how clergy on both sides were physically attacked for taking unpopular stands on slavery.

“It’s really a war of words that precedes the war of sabers and guns,” Franco said. “The slavery debate is very influenced by biblical passages to support one side or the other.”

As it turned out, both sides came to interpret Scripture in ways that would support their views on slavery, with literal interpretations hardening in the South and figurative ones gaining favor in the North.

Those interpretive principles still hold sway, Erling added, as the regions differ on social issues from women’s ordination to homosexuality.

“The North had its own agenda, its own reasons for reading the Bible the way it did,” Erling said. “And the South had its own reasons for reading the Bible the way it did. … That’s how we have a Bible Belt.”

YS/AMB END MACDONALD

8 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    The one thing we can say with near certainty is we have no idea how anyone in the Civil War felt about Christianity, unless we has supporting letters from the individual detailing their convictions. Carrying a small bible may be like carrying a lucky charm. We just don’t know and to say otherwise is pure conjecture.

    We know from Lincolns own writings that he was not a Christian, others would surely be the same.

  2. My additional comment would be: “What was the alternative?”

    Of course Christianity was there for these men. It was perfect for soothing fears and despair, and Hell sure sounded worse in comparison!

    Christianity, especially verses from Matthew, was also there for brothers to justify taking up arms against their own brothers. I hope, but hardly expect, that the museum will include stories from the types of non-believing veterans that I have found in my research. But their stories are not inspiring fluff. They speak truth, which is harder to swallow. Funny that the Bible is called the truth. We all know truth when we hear it, because we want to hear less of it.

    Without Christianity, there still would have been slavery, of course, but it would have been abandoned a lot quicker without a stubborn populace clinging to a tired dogma.

    Wait until tomorrow afternoon and you can watch the adherents of these dogmatic diatribes in action…

  3. Oh, I don’t know Mr. Lawson, I think you just spoke some powerful truth in your comment just now and I, for one , wouldn’t mind hearing some more!

  1. [...] On July 1, marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall, located on the campus of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, will reopen as a museum reflecting on the epic battle, the costly war, and the complex role of faith…. Read this in full at http://www.religionnews.com/2013/06/25/new-gettysburg-museum-explores-role-of-faith-in-civil-war/ [...]

  2. [...] On July 1, marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall, located on the campus of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, will reopen as a museum reflecting on the epic battle, the costly war, and the complex role of faith…. Read this in full at http://www.religionnews.com/2013/06/25/new-gettysburg-museum-explores-role-of-faith-in-civil-war/ [...]

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