Across the country, debates are raging about what to do with images of the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate leaders, most of them erected many decades ago.
In Washington, a museum will open this week — with new depictions of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate flag on the walls, and proslavery texts in its display cases.
The leaders of the Museum of the Bible asked many scholars for input about how to depict the Bible’s role in slavery and the Civil War, and ultimately chose to include the Confederate imagery. “We have to acknowledge the proslavery argument was often drawn from the Bible,” said Seth Pollinger, the museum’s director of content.
It was a fraught choice. Jonathan Alger stood last week in the nearly completed exhibit on the impact of the Bible in the world that his firm, C&G Partners, designed for the museum. He looked at the case showing proslavery arguments based on the Bible, including a 19th-century book titled, “A Brief Examination of Scriptural Testimony on the Institution of Slavery.”
The case is beside a companion display of abolitionist arguments based in Scripture. Next to that, a display heralds the formation of the black church in United States. But Alger’s gaze lingered on the historic texts arguing that human bondage was sanctioned by the Bible.
“There are people who don’t even want to see that. And there are people who still agree with that,” he said darkly. “I just hope no one ever puts a brick through it.”
The museum’s leaders have emphasized in the lead-up to the opening that their goal is not evangelistic: They want to encourage people to read the Bible, not necessarily to believe in chairman Steve Green’s form of evangelical Christianity or any other religion. That means that the museum’s exhibits do not take a stance on sexuality, contraception, gender identity or any of dozens of other polarizing issues.
But isn’t slavery different? Didn’t the country decide well over a century ago that there’s only one morally right side to that issue?
“This is a situation where we’re going to take sides,” Alger said. But Pollinger did not totally agree.
“What we don’t want to do is just say, ‘Here is the Bible’s principle on work, or the Bible’s principle on art or how you do art, or the Bible’s principle on even slavery,” he said. “Instead we want to demonstrate different positions. . . . We really tried to preserve historical veracity. Our goal is really not to point people toward the conclusions we would want them to make, whatever they may be.”
Pollinger said that the careful arrangement of the exhibit that deals with American history — on which he sought feedback from several biblical scholars, including African American researchers — does suggest which side is right. Across from the display case, only the abolitionists are depicted in a floor-to-ceiling woven illustration, which features the faces of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and others under the masthead of the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator.”
“We’re only picturing abolitionists on the tapestry, so that’s really tipping our hand,” Pollinger said.
In the next scene of the tapestry, however, a triumphant-looking Jefferson Davis takes his oath of office on a Bible as he assumes the presidency of the Confederacy, while a downcast Abraham Lincoln looks out over troops in battle, including some waving a Confederate flag.
Alger said he’s not sure he would have planned the Civil War scenes as they are rendered, considering recent demonstrations against Confederate iconography in Charlottesville, Baltimore and many other cities.
“It’s interesting how some of the topics that we’re dealing with have become suddenly flash-point issues,” he said. But the tapestry was planned long before: “If you want to get a 300-foot tapestry woven in Belgium, it has to be on the loom pretty early.”
If visitors step forward, they’ll see the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address inscribed just behind the Civil War tapestry: “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
Lincoln’s words are evidenced in the artifacts encased in glass nearby: On one hand, a Bible published by slaveholders for slaves, with the Exodus story and other passages about liberation from bondage removed; on the other hand, a beautiful felt-covered Bible with gold bossing that African Americans in Baltimore pooled their money to buy for Lincoln to thank him for the Emancipation Proclamation. On one hand, there is a New Testament printed in the Confederacy that curator Norm Conrad says is a rare find, because so many Southern soldiers wore their copies out on the battlefield; on the other hand, there is Julia Ward Howe’s handwritten first draft of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Through the exhibit, a soulful solo violin echoes, playing the line she wrote on that page during the war: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free/While God is marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah!”