Onward, Christian Soldiers: Exploring Civil War America in the Keller Library’s Collections

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Drawing on a collection of rare pamphlets from mid-19th-century America, the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library at The General Theological Seminary has opened an exhibit running through October 15, 2015 that offers a glimpse into the political and theological debates surrounding abolitionism and sectional conflict. “Onward, Christian Soldiers: Exploring Civil War America in the Keller Library’s Collections” marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the rebellion and celebrates the recent election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, as the first African-American Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.

The show is guest-curated by Charles Calhoun, a historian and biographer who put together last spring’s much-visited exhibit, “Thomas Cromwell and the English Bible.”

“This show doesn’t have the visual impact of the Tudor-era books – most of the printing is ‘quick and dirty’ – but it offers a fascinating glimpse into the pamphlet war that raged in antebellum America,” Calhoun said.

“We found a range of other material – from Confederate prayer books to a pocket-size guide of infantry tactics – that wonderfully evokes a war in which both armies, as Lincoln noted, thought God was on their side.”

The heart of the exhibit, he added, is the display of a small sample of the Library’s collection of sermons and tracts debating whether slavery was an offense to Christian morals or a divinely sanctioned “positive good.”

“It’s a debate,” Calhoun said, “that reminds us that slavery was the root cause of the war – and that race remains the central issue in American history.”

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Many of the pamphlets were part of a collection, bound in more than 1,200 volumes, which was donated the library in the mid-20th century by the Diocese of Maryland. They range from the 1790s through the 1880s, Calhoun said, and are a rich and largely untapped resource for the social, political, theological, and ecclesiastical life of the time, as seen from a border-state Episcopalian point-of-view.

The Keller Library is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. A majority of the pamphlets are individually catalogued and searchable online.