Stumbling on a Mystery in the Ransom Center

How a happenstance discovery in the Ransom Center led one researcher down a winding literary path.


This essay first appeared in the New York Times.

I was in the book stacks of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas when the title of an otherwise unassuming green volume, The New Gospel of Peace, caught my eye. I had been looking for an edition of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches to include in an exhibition tracing the King James Bible’s influence on literature and culture. Like many other major Civil War-era figures—Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe—Lincoln was beholden to the language and style of the King James Bible. But Lincoln would have to wait.

I opened to the title page. The book was attributed to “St. Benjamin” and the first gospel was dated July 1863. I skipped the preface and began reading, “In the days of Abraham, when there was war in the land of Unculpsalm, the people fought with weapons of iron, and with ships of iron.” I skimmed through the text, noting references to the “Kopur-hedds, “ “Jeph the Repudiator,” “the border of Masunandicsun.” It seemed that I had stumbled upon an account of the Civil War in the language of the King James Bible.

Sigler_Headshot_300dpiBack in my office, I began searching for more information about The New Gospel, but found surprisingly little. There were full-text and digitized versions online, but references in the secondary literature were few and far between.

I turned back to the text itself, seeking to decipher some of the references obscured both by time and by the author’s penchant for “archaic-cizing” proper nouns. It took me longer than I’d care to admit to realize that “Unculpsalm” was Uncle Sam, while the “Tshivulree” (Chivalry) and the “Ephephvees” (F.F.V.’s, or First Families of Virginia) were more immediately apparent. Reciting these terms out loud helped—though distilling “Quakers” from what now seems to be the very obvious reference, “Cooacres,” occupied a good deal of one morning.

References to New York politics and society fill The New Gospel of Peace, and it soon became clear that this was not merely the narrative history of the war that I had originally believed it to be. It was a satirical attack on the Copperheads, particularly those in New York City, who opposed the war, often supported the South and vilified abolitionists.

The anonymous author of The New Gospel ruthlessly ridiculed two-time New York mayor Fernando Wood, or “Phernandiwud” (whose walk was “slantindicular”), and the political machinery that he controlled. With a caustic nativism, the author lamented the undue influence of the Irish immigrants, or “Pahdees,” on the city’s politics. As I read, the warring factions of politicians, journalists and the gangs of New York (including the “Dedrabitz”) came to life. The King Jamesian prose was surprisingly effective at conveying the terror of the draft riots of July 1863.

Who could have written such a piece? This answer was easier to obtain; the library catalog entry for The New Gospel of Peace included the name of its author, Richard Grant White. White, perhaps best known as the father of the architect Stanford White, was a New Yorker, critic and Shakespearean, who contributed over 150 anonymous dispatches to the London newspaper The Spectator during the war and also compiled National Hymns: How They are Written and How They Are Not Written, A Lyric and National Study for the Times in 1861. He publicly denied authorship of The New Gospel, but it was soon an open secret that White had penned the satire, and his familiarity with Shakespeare likely accounted for his ease with the archaic idiom.

NGOP3_300dpiCountless New Gospel rebuttals appeared in the months and years after its publication: The Democratic Gospel of Peace According to St. Tammany, My Policy or The New Gospel of Peace, Revelations: A Companion to the ‘New Gospel of Peace’ According to Abraham (often mistakenly attributed to White) and Book of the Prophet Stephen, Son of Douglas. They all failed to capture the tone and language White used so effectively.

White’s use of the language of the King James Bible was fundamental to The New Gospel‘s success. His co-opting of a sacred text was not, however, without its critics. The British journalist George Augustus Sala’s assessment is typical: it “is full of shrewd satire, not unmixed with humour, albeit marred in its very form and diction by an audacious irreverence which approaches blasphemy. It is in truth, throughout, a parody of the sublime language in which the Scriptures are written.”

White deftly wove actual Bible verses and references throughout The New Gospel, particularly in his discussions of slavery. Though opposed to the institution, White perpetuated the racial essentialism of the period and, in all of the pamphlets, referred to people of African descent, both enslaved and free, as “Niggahs,” noting that this was the term used by the “men of Unculpsalm.” White repeatedly emphasized the immorality of Southern men fathering children with female slaves and then enslaving, beating and selling their own progeny for profit. In the first book of The New Gospel, a Southern slave owner justified this practice with language adapted from the King James Bible: “But these, are they not flesh of our flesh, and blood of our blood, and bone of our bone; and shall we not do what we will with our own?” In a society in which pro- and anti-slavery advocates did battle with verses of the King James translation, White’s usage seems particularly apt.

I had a better understanding of what exactly The New Gospel of Peace was, but a question remained. Did it have any impact? Was it widely read?

The “Publisher’s Advertisement” in the Ransom Center’s edition provided some of those answers. Our edition was a compilation of the four discrete pamphlets that had been published individually during and immediately after the war. The first volume of The New Gospel of Peace According to St. Benjamin was published July 27, 1863, bound in a striking crimson cover. “Book Second” appeared Oct. 24, 1863, “Book Third” on July 22, 1864, and “Book Fourth” on May 19, 1866. The four books were collected, edited and supplemented with notes for a complete edition published later in 1866.

In the preface to the collected edition, the author, presumably White, described the consumption of the initial pamphlet: “The first edition of one thousand copies was gradually and not slowly exhausted. One of three thousand followed much more rapidly; a third of ten thousand was taken up as soon as it could be printed; and thenceforward was a similar demand for it went on steadily for many months.”

NGOP1_300dpiIn 1863 Harper’s Weekly labeled the pamphlet, “one of the cleverest political squibs of the war” explaining that it was “a broad, popular, humorous burlesque upon the Copperhead faith and practice … and is one of the very few satires which address themselves to the universal public.” After the publication of the second book, Harper’s Weekly commented: “The second book of this most universally popular and effective political pamphlet of the war has just appeared … it is a remarkable fact in the history of our literature, that the first part was quietly issued, and apparently quietly ignored by the press, but gradually making itself known and felt; appeared upon every newspaper stand, and was intimately known to every circle in the country. The actual service it has wrought for the good cause is very great.” With the benefit of hindsight, a reviewer in Charles Scribner’s monthly, Hours at Home, recalled that the pamphlet was “hardly to be classed as literature,” but that “it was exceedingly clever and trenchant, it gained a wide popularity, and had a great effect on opinion.”

The final volume of The New Gospel appeared after the end of the war and in all probability had less influence on the national and local political scene. Nevertheless, it provides an engaging description of the concluding days of the war, including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis’s reported attempt to flee in women’s clothing:

25. And it came to pass that when Jeph lifted the garments
and ran, the Iangkies looking saw his feet and his legs running;
and they said one to another,

26. Behold now, and see: the garments are the garments of
a woman, but the feet are the feet of a man; neither doth a
woman when she raiseth her garments stride in this fashion with
her legs, but minceth her steps.

27. And they saw it was a man, and they pursued after. And
Jeph raised the garments higher, even unto the girding of his
loins that he might flee the faster, and they fluttered in the
wind behind him as he fled.

28. And the Iangkies outran him and overtook him; and
saw that it was Jeph the Repudiator who had boasted himself
that he was chief ruler over half the land of Unculpsalm. And
they sent him to Andrew whose surname was Jon-sing, and
Andrew cast him into prison.

The New Gospel ends, however, with a much darker vision. It is a prophecy revealed to St. Benjamin that portended a future of sectional division, corrupt politicians and the persistence of the racial conflict —“for I saw that the last state of that land was like unto the first.”

Danielle Brune Sigler is the associate director for research and programs at the Harry Ransom Center.

Photos from top: Danielle Brune Sigler; Richard Grant White; The New Gospel of Peace. All photos courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.


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