“Can these bones live?”: History as Resurrection

“Can these bones live?”: History as Resurrection

Corey J. Markum

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.‘”

Ezekiel 37:1-3

Several years ago, I came across a statement I love and find particularly poignant for the Lenten season from the preacher and theologian E. M. Bounds: “All God’s plans have the mark of the cross on them, and all His plans have death to self in them.”1 Pithy and humbling, the line serves as a “WWJD” metric for whether my goals and intentions in any given situation express self-sacrificial love for God and neighbor.

It is also a statement that vexes me deeply as an historian. Edward McKendree Bounds was a lifelong clergyman for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS). In that capacity he served as a Confederate chaplain through significant portions of the American Civil War. Having spent years researching and writing a dissertation on MECS identity during the Civil War era, I find very little in the formation and trajectory of the MECS that screams “the mark of the cross” or “death to self.” Like other major evangelical faith communities of the mid-19th century South, the MECS was birthed in a context of proslavery ideology and overwhelmingly supported the Confederate war effort materially and spiritually. In other words, both as a denomination and in its wartime actions, the MECS institutionally represented the autonomy, preservation, and expansion of enslaving communities. 

At the same time, people are not institutions. As a Civil War historian, I remind students each semester that although the war was undoubtedly caused by slavery, soldiers fought because of a much broader range of motivations. As a religious historian, I have to remind myself the same principle applies. For every example of a sensationalist “fighting parson” my research uncovered, I found numerous MECS preachers who agonized over their role and involvement in the war. Many grappled, on the one hand, with the opportunity as chaplain to have a potential “congregation” of thousands to convert and exhort, and, on the other, with their fear of abandoning the home-front flock for which they had accepted pastoral charge. Some chose to forego sidearms, believing it biblically impermissible for men of God to kill, even in wartime. A few even sought or accepted commission as chaplains in the Union army, which MECS bishops allowed on the rationale of the “spirituality of the church.” 

In short, I do not know where Bounds falls on the spectrum. He was ostensibly antislavery, but pro-Confederate—a “reluctant rebel,” perhaps, but fully intentional in his agency and alignment. E. M. Bounds inescapably remains for me, then, a source of great tension: I deem his affiliations somewhere in the range of unfortunate to reprehensible, even while I find deep theological value and inspiration in some of his writings. He lives on in my historical consciousness as a continuous call to guard against error and myopia in how I align faith and action.

Yet, I write this devotional in the shadow of Easter Sunday, and I cannot help but reflect on the relationship of the historian’s craft to the concept of resurrection. Riffing off Ezekiel’s vision quoted above, historians often find themselves surrounded by “dry bones.” For the Christian scholar, it is an act of faith to give life and voice to those valleys of dry manuscripts and artifacts—to resurrect the experiences and lessons of people from the past. Ideally, practicing historical resurrection may also be redemptive. Although deceased historical subjects such as Bounds, for better or worse, cannot alter their actions, circumstances, or ideas—their resurrected narratives have the power to convey wisdom, warning, and humility to those with ears to hear.

“Can these bones live?” May we, as scholars and historians of faith, hold the gravity and the possibilities of that question ever closer to our hearts. May our humble efforts at sharing in the miracle of resurrection, by God’s grace, yield fruits of beauty and redemption, scholarship and teaching that bear the mark of the cross.

All praise to you, Lord Christ!

For it was your intention from creation’s dawn, not only to make all things, but to make all things right. When your works were despoiled and wrecked by sin and death, you undertook to save and to reclaim what you had first made good. You entered into this—our space and time—to act on our behalf.

You took on body, blood, and breath, that you, clothed in our condition, might move in sympathy to save and shelter us. For in the living temple of your flesh, perfect justice and perfect mercy were met and there—in the shedding of your blood—they were forever reconciled in love.

(Excerpted from “A Liturgy of Praise for Christ Who Conquered Death,” in Douglas McKelvey, Every Moment Holy, Vol. II: Death, Grief, and Hope [forthcoming, Rabbit Room Press])

Corey Markum is Assistant Professor of History at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee. He completed his Ph.D. at Auburn University, with emphasis in American religious history and the Civil War era. 


            [1] Edward M. Bounds, Satan: His Personality, Power and Overthrow (London: Fleming H. Revell, 1922), 56.