The events during the “Alt-Right” rally of August, 2017, in nearby Charlottesville, are nothing but horrific and tragic. White supremacy reared its ugly head, and it surely needs to be condemned by anyone who claims to follow Jesus.
But what are we to make of the memory of Robert E. Lee, the chief, military figurehead of the Confederacy? The monument in Baltimore that was taken down last night, ascribed Lee to be a “Christian.” So, the controversy over how we should best remember the Confederacy, with their monuments, like that of Lee, is crucial, as I have written before, and it matters to people of faith.
R. David Cox, is a professor of history at Southern Virginia University, and he has written a quite helpful (and timely) book, The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee. Cox researched a treasure trove of Lee’s letters, to construct a narrative as to how Lee understood his Christian faith. A couple of examples reveal a lot of Lee’s complex relationship with God.
A Brief Overview of Robert E. Lee’s Spiritual Journey
Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry Lee, suffered a severe injury, dying when Robert was only 11 years old. Henry Lee had been a decorated officer in George Washington’s Continental Army, during the American Revolution, and was otherwise known as “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Henry (Harry) Lee was a child of the Enlightenment. He embraced a form of Unitarianism, as his faith.
Robert’s mother, Ann Lee, had grown up in Charles City County, Virginia, at Shirley Plantation. Unlike Robert’s father, Ann had become a devout Episcopalian, a Christian with a vibrant evangelical faith. Her husband had branded Ann as an “enthusiast.”
Young Robert E. Lee, though raised in the Episcopal Church, sought to distance himself from the theological and spiritual tension in his home. Like many Southern aristocrats of his generation, Robert mainly sought prestige and honor, and when he grew up, he served in the U.S. Army. In his mid-20’s he fell in love with Mary Custis, also from the Virginia aristocracy stock. But during their courtship, Mary experienced her own evangelical awakening. It seemed as though Robert E. Lee was unable to avoid the influence of evangelical faith in his life.
Mary Custis soon had her doubts about Robert, wondering if her prospective husband was ever really a Christian. Yet Robert persisted, and the two were eventually married.
Robert remained very quiet about his relationship with God, at least in the early years of marriage and family life. His conversion to Christ was evidently slow and prodding. He was not even confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church until he was age 46. This was anything but a dramatic, instantaneous conversion. Like any Christian, conscious of their sin, Lee’s sanctification was incomplete.
So, it does not surprise me that there were elements in Lee’s character, that were not entirely transformed by the Holy Spirit, later in life. As the writers of the The Atlantic magazine have reported, as late as 1859, Lee had overseen the whipping of several runaway slaves, who were caught and returned to Lee in Arlington.
By the eve of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee’s theological outlook was one that struck some midway point between his father’s Unitarianism and his mother’s and wife’s evangelical faith. Lee emphasized the providence of God, primarily in a general sense, in his ambivalence towards slavery. On one hand, he viewed slavery as a moral evil. On the other hand, he believed that God, in His providential care, would eventually resolve the problem.
Likewise, when Lee was offered the command of the forces of the Union army, to put down the Southern rebellion, he stated that he would gladly liberate “the enslaved,” in order to have peace. On the other hand, he could not bring himself to strike a sword against his native Virginia. So, he declined the offer to lead the Northern army, and took a commission with Confederate forces.
It appears that it was his experience in the Civil War that eventually crystalized his vision of Christian faith, bringing him front and center before his Creator and Redeemer. When it became evident that the South had lost the war, Robert E. Lee saw this, once again, as the hand of providence. But this time, God’s providence was not simply general in nature. It was also personal, as he saw this judgment as being against himself, too. To a captured Union officer, whom Lee had known before the war, Lee said, “Patrick, the only question on which we ever differed, has been settled, and the Lord had decided against me” (p. 198).
From a letter written to the rector of a church in Petersburg, where Lee worshipped during the last months of the war:
- “God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply and his chastening hand is not yet stayed… How great must be our sins and how unrelenting our obduracy… We have only to submit to his gracious will and pray for his healing mercy… Now that the South is willing to have peace, I hope it may be accorded on a permanent basis; that the afflictions and interests of the country may be united and not a forced and hollow truce formed, to be broken at the first convenient opportunity. To this end all good men should labour.” (p. 198).
Lee’s conduct after the war, for me, exemplifies him more as a Christian leader, than anything else in his life. He could have run for public office, written memoirs to establish his name, or anything else that might have secured his reputation as the greatest military leader of the Confederacy.
Instead, Lee took the opportunity to try to revitalize the run-down Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia. There, Lee would spend the remaining years of his life, educating young men in what it meant to be “Southern gentlemen,” encouraging them not to revel in a “lost cause.” Rather, he sought to establish a school whereby the next generation would promote healing and reconciliation. It is still difficult to consider Lee’s ambivalent beliefs about slavery, but certainly, as military defeat became inevitable, Lee gained moral clarity that he did not have before.
In the days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he had encouraged his soldiers:
- “The Confederacy has failed… As Christian men, … we must consider only the effect which our actions will have upon the country at large.… there is time to plant crops and begin to repair the ravages of war. That is what I must now try to bring about.”
In my mind, this is the description of a man, who understood his sin, and sought to commend himself to the mercy of God, pursuing a path of peace and reconciliation.
Making Sense of What Happened in Charlottesville
What makes this all the more poignant about the 2017 Charlottesville protests, is that this is not the portrait of Robert E. Lee that the “alt-right” demonstrators were trying to display. As I understand it, James Alex Fields, the young 20-year old man, who drove his car into a crowd, killing one person, and injuring others, grew up in a father-less home. His disabled mother sought to raise her son, despite the anti-social struggles this young person had in making something of his life. Through his anger, he wrapped himself up in extreme white identity politics.
What a contrast this is with the vision of Robert E. Lee, after the war! Lee sought to take young men like this, model for them what it would be like, to live as a Christian, to try to work towards peace and reconciliation. It is recalled that Robert E. Lee, at what is now Washington and Lee University, abolished the mandatory requirement to attend Chapel services at the school. However, Chapel services still went on, and students still attended those services on a regular basis, knowing that Robert E. Lee would be there, too.
I can understand why so many people now want to see statues of Robert E. Lee removed from so many public places. The hurt caused by the continued legacy of racism runs very, very deep. We need to tell the stories of those who suffered under the Southern regime of racial slavery, a regime that often invoked the Bible as a type of defense, for this sin. At the same time, I hope for a way to rehabilitate the memory of Robert E. Lee, that promotes healing, instead of firing up anger.
Perhaps, instead of having statues of Lee, with his sword, in full military regalia, mounted on his horse, Traveler, we should have something different. Perhaps, our monuments of Lee should show him as a civilian educator, with young men, encouraging them to follow the path of Jesus.
Erasing the memory of Lee may seem like a solution, but sadly it will not lead to society’s healing. Instead, we will do far better by recalling a morally chastened Lee, who called his fellow Southerners to mournful and heartfelt repentance.
The following lecture by R. David Cox was recorded at the Virginia Historical Society, June, 2017.
August 20th, 2017 at 3:16 pm
Important matters to reflect on.
August 21st, 2017 at 5:00 pm
A very heady comment posted at the request of David the Older…
Are Veracity readers the best or what? 🙂
Paul Tournier, Swiss psychiatrist of Christian devotion, in his book Le personage et la personne (translated into English as The Meaning of Persons) writes in Chapter 3 entitled The Contradictory Being, “We are all seething with contradictions; …”. This is certainly true of myself—a life of too many contradictions, inconsistencies, and disharmonies. In my many years of commitment to the historic, orthodox, biblical Christian faith I have got, by the grace of God, a number of things right, but unfortunately I have known moral failures for which I alone bear full responsibility—there being no appeal to context or circumstance to absolve or even diminish my culpability. I read R. David Cox, former vicar/rector of R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, in his recent book A Religious Biography of Robert E. Lee, as revealing the ambiguity and complexity of Lee as a person and personage—revealing that Lee was a man of contradictions,” those contradictions including a firm commitment to the Christian faith of the Bible yet moral failure in the area of the buying, selling, family-severing, and captivity of those created in the image of God, justified via a labyrinthine and tortuous hermeneutical approach to Sacred Text (see for example James Oliver Buswell III, Slavery, Segregation, and Scripture, Eerdmans, 1964). We see the contradiction when Lee wrote in a letter to his wife that “slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country,” but went on to say, “I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” This latter part expresses a human self-confidence that I find difficult to understand or justify in light of the life and teaching of Jesus.
How to understand the entirety of Lee’s life and character is beyond my competence, perhaps beyond anyone’s save for God. As Kant taught, it is no easy task to know “the thing [or person] in itself.” Tournier I believe has it right when he says in his chapter “Who Am I?”, “There exists for every man, even within himself, something of an impenetrable mystery.” Nonetheless, Robert E. Lee alone and without appeal to context or circumstance must bear responsibility before God for his life (as I must for my life)—the appeal to context so often employed in interpretation of text or of a life lived is often a thinly veiled embrace of moral relativism, but I doubt that God, who is absolute, will have any of that.
Interestingly, to my knowledge all the monuments to Lee have been put up without his permission and post-mortum. When invited to Gettysburg in 1869 to consider memorials at that battle site, Lee declined to attend, writing:
The last sentence is particularly interesting: “… to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” In this regard it is interesting to note Lee’s great, great grandson’s comments reported recently:
And then there is the white racist aftermath of slavery from the end of the Civil War to World War II, that has been disturbingly documented by Douglas A. Blackmon, a Southern-born and Southern-educated American writer and journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, in his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. And let it be known that racism was and is not confined to the South as documented by Davison M. Douglas in his 2005 book Jim Crow Moves North.
The removal of all Civil War monuments from public squares to museums of historical purpose will in no way erase the history of slavery and the Civil War and all that is entailed therein. This history is permanently enshrined in the tens of thousands of books and scholarly papers produced by American historians with no end in sight to such efforts.
I cannot help but think of the words of John Woolman, an 18th century minister of extraordinary spiritual commitment and devotion to the Lord, with regard to the abominations of slavery in America amongst his own community of Quakers and elsewhere as well. He wrote in his revered Journal:
The fourteenth of the fifth month, 1757:
… The Prospect of a Road lying open to the same Degeneracy [as ancient Israel oft fell into], in some Parts of this newly-settled Land of America, in Respect to our Conduct toward the Negroes, deeply bowed my Mind in this Journey; and, though, to briefly relate how these People are treated is no agreeable Work; yet, after often reading over the Notes I made as I travelled, I find my Mind engaged to preserve them. Many of the white People in those Provinces take little or no Care of Negro Marriages; and, when Negroes marry after their own Way, some make so little Account of those Marriages, that, with Views of outward Interest, they often part Men from their Wives by selling them far asunder; which is common when Estates are sold by Executors at Vendue. Many, whose Labour is heavy, being followed, at their Business in the Field, by a Man with a Whip, hired for that Purpose, have, in common, little else allowed but one Peck of Indian Corn and some Salt for one Week, with a few Potatoes; the Potatoes they commonly raise by their Labour on the first Day of the Week. The Correction, ensuing on their Disobedience to Overseers, or Slothfulness in Business, is often very severe, and sometimes desperate. The Men and Women have many Times scarce Clothes enough to hide their Nakedness, and Boys and Girls, ten and twelve Years old, are often quite naked amongst their Master’s Children: Some of our Society, and some of the Society called New-Lights, use some Endeavours to instruct those they have in reading; but, in common, this is not only neglected, but disapproved. These are the People by whose Labour the other Inhabitants are in a great Measure supported, and many of them in the Luxuries of Life: These are the People who have made no Agreement to serve us, and who have not forfeited their Liberty that we know of: These are Souls for whom Christ died, and, for our Conduct toward them, we must answer before him who is no Respecter of Persons.
“Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.” (Romans 14:19)
August 30th, 2017 at 11:31 pm
Here is the story about the church I attended, for several years, named after Robert E. Lee. My friends in college used to joke that the church should really be called, “Saint Bob’s.” It is not as funny anymore, but I am divided over this:
December 22nd, 2017 at 1:11 pm
I just finished reading R. David Cox’s The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee. It is a scholarly work, but it makes for fascinating reading about a very complex character, a man who took a controversial stand, trusting in God’s providence, but who eventually learned that he had taken that stand in error.
May 3rd, 2019 at 10:34 pm
May 2019 Update: