Monthly Archives: February 2022

Where Did “Historical Criticism” of the Bible Come From? (Part Two)

Baruch Spinoza is often thought of as the father of the modern world. But in the 17th century, he was not alone in bringing in ideas that would take advantage of the confusion in post-Reformation Europe, and challenging traditional Christian ideas about the Bible. As we explore how the rise of “historical criticism” developed, we can consider the stories of Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes, and how they tie in with Spinoza’s story.

…. This is the third in a series of blog posts examining the “historical criticism” of the Bible. “Part one” of the history behind “historical criticism” can be found here. Now we look at “part two” of the history behind “historical criticism”…..


Spinoza’s Intellectual Compatriots: Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes

Jeffrey Morrow, author of Three Skeptics and the Bible: La Peyrère, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the Reception of Modern Biblical Criticism, highlights the stories of French philosopher Isaac La Peyrère and English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who influenced Baruch Spinoza, in promoting skepticism about the Bible.

Isaac La Peyrère, like Spinoza, had a “conversos” background, with Jewish family roots. La Peyrère grew up in France as a Protestant, but felt forced to convert to Roman Catholicism towards the end of his life, once he published some of his views on the Bible. La Peyrère was deeply interested in the question of where the “Indians”, the native Americans in the New World, actually came from, as it was not obvious from the Bible as to where such people originated.

Many thinkers during the colonial era, up through the 19th century, tried to figure out the origins of America’s native peoples. Most famously, Joseph Smith popularized the speculative hypothesis that the Native Americans were the descendants of the “Lost Ten Tribes,” who disappeared after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as described in the Bible. Smith’s “Book of Mormon” continues to enamor people today, though few 21st century anthropologists find any evidence to support the claims presented in the Book of Mormon. Still, it is a fascinating question.

How did Native Americans get to the Americas in the first place? La Peyrère proposed a solution that he believed was consistent with Scriptural teaching that could explain the origin of Native Americans, in his book Prae-Adamitae. Much of La Peyrère’s thesis fits within an orthodox view of the Bible. However, La Peyrère went onto explore more radical ideas about the Bible that would influence Spinoza, and stimulate all sorts of speculations, primarily that Moses had nothing to do with the writing of the Pentateuch. This is what got La Peyrère into trouble.

La Peyrère had been influenced by the Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, who just a few years prior to Prae-Adamitae published his Leviathan. Hobbes had lived his mid-adult life during the intense conflict of the English Civil War, between Puritans like Oliver Cromwell and Roman Catholic sympathizers like King Charles I. Hobbes argued in Leviathan that a strong centralized government was required to prevent civil war, particularly when the participants in the civil conflict were motivated by contrasting theological perspectives. Thomas Hobbes believed that theological dogmatism should always be tempered by a commitment to reason. This appealed to La Peyrère, who had such a family history, where the nature of one’s theological commitments were suspect. It is easy to see how La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes therefore became intellectual companions to Baruch Spinoza.

Among conservative evangelical scholars today, the more extreme conclusions about the Bible made by Baruch Spinoza, and his philosophical friends, are largely rejected. However, some insights made by Spinoza, and his followers, have been incorporated into a more nuanced description of how the Bible came together. A number of evangelical Bible scholars today adopt what might be called variations on the “supplementary hypothesis,” which contends that the substantial core of literary material in the Pentateuch can be traced back to Moses, but that later editors of the text made certain changes in order to keep the material “up to date.” Such changes were made over several centuries until the Pentateuch’s placement in the Old Testament canon became fixed, in the manner that we now have it.

For a classic example, noted by Bible scholar Claude Mariottini, Genesis 14:14 makes a reference to the city of “Dan,” in northern Israel, the place where Abram (Abraham) rescued his nephew, Lot. The problem here is that the name for this city, “Dan,” did not exist during this time period, and the son of Jacob named “Dan” had not yet been born. Furthermore, Moses as an author certainly would not have known anything about the city of “Dan,” as he died before crossing the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. The city of “Dan” would only become settled by the descendants of Dan, during the conquest of the Promised Land described in the Book of Joshua. While scholars continue to debate the specifics of a solution, it is generally agreed that probably some later editor changed the original name of this area to “Dan,” which reflected a more recent understanding of the city’s location. In this sense, it could be understood that the text of Genesis was kept “up to date” by a later editor, as place names often changed names somewhat frequently over the centuries, as people moved around due to displacement by wars, etc.

One central idea behind historical criticism, articulated so controversially by Baruch Spinoza, is that we should analyze the Bible just like we would analyze any other ancient book. There is a sense in which Spinoza’s approach is to be welcomed, but yet there is another sense in which this approach falls flat. Like many of the great ancient books, the Bible is truly a great work of human literature, and historical criticism has done much to enhance our appreciation and understanding of the historical context of the Bible as literature. However, most ancient books lack a claim to being divine revelation, whereas the uniqueness of the Bible is founded upon the idea that it is the inspired Word of God. The tendency among certain advocates of historical criticism to divorce the human, literary aspects of the Scriptural text from the claim of divine inspiration is a bad habit of mind, that has had far reaching consequences over the recent centuries.

Historical Criticism: A Tool for Deconstruction … Or Reconstruction, for Christian Faith?

A much repeated story these days is that for some, who grow up in a Christian community, the personal discovery of the “historical criticism” of the Bible leads to a deconstruction of Christian faith. Walter Lippmann, a 20th century journalist and political theorist, famously stated that it is the “acids of modernity” that corrode traditional faith. For some this corrosion results in a form of “progressive Christianity” that hangs onto Christian faith, but only by a slim thread of substance. For others, it leads to agnosticism, if not outright atheism. But is such corrosion the only trajectory of such deconstruction? Or can it instead lead to a type of reconstruction of faith, placed on better footing?

Steven Nadler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in his A Book Forged in Hell, that was partially reviewed in a previous blog post, makes much of Spinoza’s intention to find a more “scientific” approach to the Bible, that supersedes the theological wrangling of different dogmatic commitments to the Bible. In 17th century Europe, where theological disputes often boiled over into heated political disputes, that even led to violence, Spinoza argued that a more rational approach to the Bible, based on “scientific” principles, would lead to peace between those who held different views of the Bible.

Spinoza despised superstition, assigned both traditional Judaism and Christianity into that category, and ironically argued that a belief in miracles was actually counter to the true knowledge of God. For Spinoza, the value of Scripture comes from its ability to move people to treat others with justice and charity, as would any other piece of great literature. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, of the Bible as a source for encouraging good moral behavior, that Spinoza would ascribe the notion of “divine” to the Bible. Spinoza’s views, radical for the 17th century, have become the assumed foundation for a secular worldview, in the 21st century, where science is often viewed as the only reliable, objective means for human thought and ethics.

The problem with this narrative is that it assumes that pure objectivity, when it comes to historical criticism, is rationally attainable. Professional historians are quick to say they deal more in the realm of historical probabilities, rather than historical certainties. Though a noble aim, the quest for certainty, in using the scientific tools of historical criticism, even for interpreting the Bible, does not result in the type of certainty that many would like.

Furthermore, the claim of the Bible itself, is not that it is a collection of morally inspiring thoughts derived from merely human authors. Rather, the Bible itself claims to be the inspired Word of God, surely written by humans, but not merely human, being divinely originated as well.  However, if one follows the path of Spinoza that Steven Nadler admiringly portrays, that inherently corrosive terminus of deconstruction is all but guaranteed. Like pulling on the loose threads of a sweater, as one’s faith begins to unravel, some might try to salvage some of those loose threads, whereas others will simply toss the whole mess of sweater remains in the garbage. Is there yet not another path?

Towards the Reconstruction of Christian Faith

Jeffrey Morrow, the author of Three Skeptics and the Bible, was raised culturally Jewish, then became a Protestant evangelical, and then ultimately entered the Roman Catholic Church, and who is now a theologian at Seton Hall University. In Three Skeptics and the Bible, Morrow challenges the narrative that true objectivity, when it comes to historical criticism, is possible. Contemporary historical criticism rightly has explored the reception history of the Bible, as the message of the Bible has been received by different communities across the ages in very different ways. Nevertheless, Morrow argues that the discipline of historical criticism itself has had its own reception history, particularly since its genesis in the thought of Baruch Spinoza and his 17th century philosophical friends.

Morrow’s thesis is that the original development of historical criticism, pioneered by Spinoza, is rooted in the historical context of the 17th century, political church-state debate. The questions that Spinoza faced when reading the Bible were not new to him. People had been wrestling with such questions for centuries. What was new with Spinoza was his desire to take the control of Biblical interpretation out of the hands of spiritual authorities and place it in the hands of the political authorities of the state. In Spinoza’s historical context of living in the pluralism of 17th century Dutch society, this meant that every spiritual authority, whether it be Jewish, Protestant or Roman Catholic, would come under the secular authority of the state.

Did Baruch Spinoza really understand the drawn-out consequences of his own thesis? One specific critique of historical criticism, in its most skeptical form, is that in the effort to read the Bible like any piece of ancient literature, the tendency to set aside the claim that God had a hand in authoring the Bible, robs the text of its underlying unity. We all know that the Bible was written by dozens of authors, across many centuries, in many different specific historical and literary contexts. But what keeps the Bible together as a whole is buttressed by the claim that God is ultimately the divine author throughout, working through the human authors, in order to give us a coherent, unified text. Without that sense of an underlying unity, the tendency among some scholars is to divide the Scriptures into multiple, disparate parts, thus cutting away the coherency of the text, that has been maintained by Jewish and Christian readers for centuries.

Furthermore, this Scriptural text was meant to be read, studied, prayed through, and sung in community. The Bible was not meant to be merely a book. Rather, it was meant to be an invitation to experience the deep mysteries of life, within the context of corporate worship. Spinoza, prompted by La Peyrère and Hobbes, turned the Bible into a mere book, to be dissected.

This does not mean we should simply gloss over the diversity in the Scriptural text as being inconsequential. For example, why is it that certain parts of the Pentateuch exclusively use the name “Yahweh” (singular) for God, while other parts only use the name “Elohim” (plural) for God? Does the Old Testament embrace some concept of a “divine council”? Some Christians unfortunately take a Wizard of Oz, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” approach to such questions. Instead the tools provided by historical criticism can help us to make better sense of what the text is trying to tell us. The probing challenges offered by Baruch Spinoza and his followers, properly framed, without going to extremes, can actually help us.

As a Roman Catholic, Jeffrey Morrow comes down on the Protestant Reformers, contending that the trend away from more allegorical readings of the Bible, and a concern for a more literal approach to Scripture, inevitably led to the skepticism of La Peyrère, Hobbes, and Spinoza. This critique is difficult for a Protestant evangelical like me to hear, but it is still worth hearing. Morrow values the sacramental aspect of interacting with the Bible, something that many of my fellow Protestants tend to be weaker on than our Roman Catholic friends.

The main lesson offered by Morrow in his Three Skeptics and the Bible is that while historical criticism, properly understood, can indeed inform our understanding of the Bible, it nevertheless can not completely supersede the bias of the scholar. When we only look to scholars for the answers to our theological questions, divorced from a local Christian community, it can easily distort our vision of faith. Therefore, if left unchecked, such biases can lead to certain habits of mind that can cloud our understanding of the Bible, as it was meant to be understood by God. Instead, Christians need to be a part of a healthy local church, where people can wrestle with their questions about the Bible, in an atmosphere of worship, love, support, and understanding.

Historical criticism of the Bible has certain benefits, but it also has certain limitations. If we begin our study of the Bible with a certain radical skepticism of thought, that sets off any claim to divine inspiration to the side, then it is very difficult to get back to a genuinely historically orthodox perspective of the Christian faith. It often leads to a deconstruction of Christian faith. On the other hand, if we approach the text of Scripture with more of a trust in God’s ability to communicate through Scripture, and instead apply skepticism towards our own ability to understand the text, then it is more likely that this will lead to a reconstruction of faith, gaining a greater sense of confidence that God is truly speaking to us, through His Word in Scripture.

In our next blog post in this series, coming out in a week or so, we will look at a short case study (shorter than this current blog post), examining how the assumptions brought to the Scriptural text will make a difference when applying historical criticism. Stay tuned.

Where Did “Historical Criticism” of the Bible Come From? (Part One)

In the previous blog post in this series, we considered a useful definition of “historical criticism” of the Bible. Put succinctly, historical criticism seeks to understand the origins of ancient texts in order to better get at the world “behind the text.” As the most read book ever written, the Bible qualifies as one of the most studied book, in the field of historical criticism.

But what are the roots of historical criticism, when it comes to the Bible? Where did historical criticism come from? Or to put it another way, what are the habits of mind, associated with historical criticism, that can influence how even Christians today read the Bible, and where did these habits originate?

In this second blog post from this series (the first one is here), we look at the first of two books that explore the history behind “historical criticism,” as seen through the lives of a group of 17th century European philosophers. “Part two” will come out about a week from now. Stick around.


Historical Criticism on the “Historical Criticism” Movement

Several books that I have recently read examines the question above in detail, by applying historical criticism to the development of historical criticism itself, by looking at the some of leading early figures of the movement, namely Isaac La Peyrère, Thomas Hobbes, and especially Baruch Spinoza. Steven Nadler, the author of A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, tells us the story of Baruch Spinoza’s most controversial 17th century book, that really kick started the whole historical criticism movement.

Baruch Spinoza grew up in the Spanish Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Western Europe had been engulfed in a series of religious wars, commonly known as the Thirty Years War, where nearly 1 out of 4 (or 5) Europeans died, prior to the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, as Roman Catholics and Protestants fought against one another for control of various parts of Europe. The conflagration pretty much ended the medieval social order established by the Holy Roman Empire, resulting in the development of various city-states and regional governments, each one declaring adherence to one form of Roman Catholic or Protestant confession, or another.

Spinoza’s family had been “conversos,” Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity on the Iberian peninsula. However, such “conversos” were often viewed with suspicion by more established Christians, as to whether they were truly converted. When Spinoza’s family left to go to Amsterdam, to take advantage of the growing religious diversity there in the Netherlands, they were hoping to re-establish their roots in the Jewish faith. However, at age 23, Baruch Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, for expressing theological views at the time that did not agree with the local rabbis. Spinoza had been raised to take over the family import business, but he was able to release himself from these obligations in order to dedicate himself fully to the task of doing philosophy.

He had been left in relative obscurity, until the publication of his Theologico-Political Treatise, in 1670. In his various writings, Spinoza argued that the hotly contested theological conflicts of the day could not be resolved by spiritual authorities alone. Rather, Spinoza argued for a type of “scientific” enterprise that would seek to resolve the conflicts between Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews on how to interpret the Bible. But the development of his ideas led critics to conclude that Spinoza had become an atheist, and that his book(s) should be banned.

Spinoza the Controversialist

The most well known controversial claim made by Spinoza had to do with the authorship of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Like most pious Jews (and Christians) of the time, he was taught in synagogue to believe that Moses wrote everything we find in those five books. Spinoza did note, however, some problems with that entire teaching. But he certainly was not the first to do so.

For example, at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the last chapter describes the death of Moses. Scholars for centuries had concluded that Moses simply could not have written about his death, prior to dying himself. The most common solution to this was to suggest that it was Joshua who added in the part about Moses’ death, at a later point in time.

The 4th century Bible translator of the Latin Vulgate, Jerome, living well over a thousand years before Spinoza, believed that Ezra, the scribal priest living after the Babylonian Exile of the Jews, in the 5th c. BCE, either “edited” or “restored” the first five Books of Moses, nearer to the form we now have them.

However, what made Spinoza so controversial is that he proposed a far more radical solution to some of the problems found in the Pentateuch. Instead of suggesting that certain parts of the Pentateuch were added in later or edited, by another scribe, Spinoza concluded that very little, if anything, in those five books could be attributed to Moses in the first place. In other words, much of what we read in the Pentateuch was written perhaps centuries after Moses even lived.

But that was just the start for Spinoza. Spinoza went onto say that the Bible was not literally the Word of God, that divine providence and Scriptural prophecy did not work the way most Jews and Christians thought it did, and that the miracles found in the Bible never happened. For most Jews and Christians alike, Spinoza’s views were scandalous. One particular critic of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise called it “a book forged in hell by the devil himself.”

It would be several centuries before Julius Wellhausen would teach his students about the “documentary hypothesis,” but the ground work for such radical views about the Bible had been laid by Spinoza. Today, such views about the Bible remain standard teaching among the vast majority of departments of religion in secular (and sometimes even in some Christian) universities.

The World After Baruch Spinoza

The 21st century West lives in the shadow of Baruch Spinoza. Some historians speak of the world before Spinoza as “the Age of Faith.” After Spinoza, they say the world entered “the Age of Reason.” What will future historians think of the 21st century remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the impact of Spinoza’s ideas in the wake of the Thirty Years War, and the bitter strife between Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers, continues to be felt today.

I will have more to say about Spinoza, and Steven Nadler’s analysis of Spinoza’s writings and life, in “part two” of the history behind “historical criticism” coming soon. Plus, I will also include a brief look at Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes, two other 17th century philosophers who stimulated the thought of Baruch Spinoza, in reshaping the world we live in today. Stay tuned.

What is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible?

Today we begin a first in a series of occasional posts, looking at the “historical criticism” of the Bible, the good and the bad of modern thinking habits about Scripture…..

A decade or so ago, some popular news magazines would publish eye-catching cover articles around Christmas and Easter, featuring scholars who would challenge traditional Christian doctrines, like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. Now, in the age of social media, we are bombarded on our cell phones with stories almost all of the time, that tell us that everything we once knew about the Bible is completely wrong.

The intellectual force behind this skepticism has a track record over the last few centuries. It all comes from the rise of “historical criticism” of the Bible. Historical criticism is generally associated with what is taught in nearly every university department of religion today.  Ironically however, very few churches, even evangelical ones, talk about it. But with the advent of the Internet, where your typical Sunday sermon can be fact checked in less than a minute with a Google search, the fruits of historical criticism scholarship become readily available to anyone having a SmartPhone in their pocket.

The development of “historical criticism” of the Bible has shifted the way Christians, and the culture at large, has viewed the Bible, in both positive and negative ways. What is “historical criticism” all about?

Defining “Historical Criticism” of the Bible

Yet what exactly is historical criticism of the Bible? Historical criticism seeks to understand the origins of ancient texts in order to better get at the world “behind the text.” Some refer to historical criticism as higher criticism,” or the “historical critical method,” terms which broadly speaking are synonymous. Some conservative evangelical responses to historical criticism are completely in the negative, as historical criticism is often associated with denying the accuracy of the Bible and rejecting the supernatural character of the Scriptures. But the story with historical criticism is really more complicated than that.

As Baptist New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner writes in an essay for the CSB Apologetics Study Bible, “Has Historical Criticism Proved the Bible False?,” the rise of historical criticism “has also benefitted the church.” The Christian faith is historically rooted, so we need not fear historical research into the origins of the Bible. For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeological and literary research into the Ancient Near East, and the study of the Greco-Roman world has given us invaluable information that helps us to better appreciate the historical context in which the Bible was written (read Dr. Schreiner’s full essay here).

Historical criticism has also helped to correct some wrong assumptions about how the Bible works. Many Christians have wrongly assumed that the New Testament was somehow mystically downloaded into the brains of New Testament writers in some “special ‘Holy Ghost’ language,” which was then transcribed onto papyrus. The following may sound like a caricature, but it is not too far from how many church-going people think about biblical inspiration:

It is as though the divine inspiration of the Bible means that the Apostle Paul would somehow fall into a trance when he wrote his letters, to find that his hand was moving with pen, without his control, only to wake up later from his trance, and then wonder out loud, “Maybe I should read what I just wrote!”

While this type of “divine dictation” thinking about so-called “biblical inspiration,” or “divine download,” as Dr. Michael Heiser describes it, might appeal to science-fiction lovers, etc., it is really more reflective of a New Age Movement view of the Bible, as opposed to a truly Christian view of biblical inspiration. To our benefit, historical criticism has “demonstrated that the NT was written in the common Greek of the day,” says Dr. Schreiner, using styles of literary genre that were relevant to that time period.

Biblical inspiration really means that instead of overriding the mental faculties of the Scriptural author, God used the personalities and thought processes of folks like the Apostle Paul to reveal divinely authoritative truth, and historical criticism has helped to confirm this. Furthermore, according to Dr. Schreiner, careful research has given us more accurate English translations of the Bible as newer manuscripts discoveries have brought us closer and closer to the original text of the New Testament.

Some call this particular quest for more accurate Bible translations “lower criticism” of the Bible. This quest uses the basic tools of historical criticism, and the advances we have in this field partly explains why we keep seeing new English translations of the Bible popping up on the book market, every few years or so.

Nevertheless, historical criticism has also sadly introduced certain habits of mind that have caused many to lose confidence in the veracity of Holy Scripture. Despite the above benefits noted by Dr. Schreiner, historical criticism has at times introduced certain ideas that have “threatened the faith of evangelical believers” over the last few centuries.

For example, 19th century German scholar Julius Wellhausen popularized the so-called “documentary hypothesis,” that challenges the traditional idea that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, by claiming that the Pentateuch was actually derived from at least four different sources, that were later assembled together by some unknown editor, after the Babylonian Exile, centuries after Moses even lived. Now, almost two centuries later, Wellhausen’s ideas continue to have an enormous influence on today’s scholarship. However, these ideas also have been met with a healthy amount of criticism, as new insights challenge old assumptions.

As Schreiner describes it, “the ‘assured results’ of scholarship in one generation are often vigorously challenged by the next.” So, while the debate among scholars concerning historical criticism continues, the existence of the debate itself continues to have a broader impact on both the culture at large and the church in particular, by implanting certain habits of mind that can distort how we read the Bible. What are these habits of mind, associated with historical criticism, that can influence how even Christians today read the Bible, and where did these habits originally come from?

I will save the answer to that question for the next blog post in this series. In this series, I will be reviewing some books that fill out the story of “historical criticism,” offering ways where misguided historical critical methodologies have led people astray in their approach to the Bible, as well as examples of how historical criticism can actually help people better appreciate the Bible. Along the way, I will include some in-depth case studies that show where a not-so-critical approach to historical criticism (pun intended) can sometimes get people into trouble, without needing to.

Stay tuned. I will post the next installment in about a week or so.


Other posts in this series:

Saving a Forgotten Black Baptist Cemetery in Williamsburg, Virginia

Here is a story that just made national headlines, about my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Christianity Today magazine reported this week about “Black Baptists Discover Lost Cemetery in Virginia.” When I was in high school, my school bus would pass by a cemetery everyday. This cemetery just seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There was no church building nearby. No other buildings. No houses. So, I always wondered what the story was about this place. No one on my school bus, a bunch of mostly white teenagers, knew anything about it either.

As it turns out, this particular cemetery was associated with an old black Baptist church, part of a community called Magruder, a few miles out of Williamsburg, near the current Interstate highway (I-64).

Magruder no longer exists.

Before the Civil War, several large plantations encompassed the area, along with a few small parcels of land owned by free African Americans. After the Civil War, slaves freed from these plantations stayed in the area and built these neighborhoods, all part of the Magruder community. The Oak Grove Baptist Church was founded there in 1887, when parishioners decided that walking a full three miles to attend Sunday services, at the First Baptist Church, in the Williamsburg town, was too inconvenient.

In 1941, as the United States entered World War II, the Navy eyed the property as the perfect place to build a Seabees training base for 26,000 officers and men, known as Camp Peary, which later became a CIA training facility. The African American families were forced to move, and the church buildings abandoned, leaving the cemetery behind. Many of those former Magruder residents settled in the community of Grove, on the other side of Williamsburg. A group from the Oak Grove Baptist Church moved to the area of Waller Mill, not too far from Camp Peary, and the large cemetery. But they had to vacate that property (again) when the new city reservoir was built.

During the time that the church was at Waller Mill, they acquired another parcel of land for another small cemetery. This small cemetery is the lost cemetery described in the Christianity Today article. Over the years, that church community has dwindled, and the site of that small cemetery was lost. In 2021, the lost cemetery was finally rediscovered. The Christianity Today article cites a William & Mary historian, Hannah Rosen, as saying that there might be over 1,000 lost African American cemeteries like this all over the country, most of them probably in a sad state of decay.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about the Confederate military general and educator Robert E. Lee. Controversy about various R.E. Lee statues and memorials have swirled around us for the past few years. But it is important to note that monuments to African American history are fairly rare. The remarkable thing about these Black church cemeteries is that they are mostly built with stone, which will make them more easily preserved, while they also serve as a powerful witness to how the Gospel has sustained these African American communities over the decades, despite being overshadowed by the history of racism in America. Making an investment in them is making an investment in preserving history.

A local television station tells part of the story about preserving the larger cemetery, that I passed by everyday on the bus to my old high school.

Robert E. Lee: Symbol of Christian Reconciliation or Symbol of Hatred?

When I attended Washington and Lee University (W&L) in the 1980’s, I was drawn to the school’s sense of tradition, civility and honor. But I was only a few months into my freshman year at W&L, before I wondered if I had made a mistake in going to college there. I had walked passed by a fraternity one Saturday night, when they were celebrating an annual tradition of having a Confederate ball.

W&L was all-male back then, one of only five all-male colleges remaining in the United States (now we are down to only two all-male schools, Hampden-Sydney and Wabash College). The men of this fraternity had all rented Confederate military uniforms, and their dates wore elegant dresses, with hoop skirts, as they danced the night away. But when I later saw a few of my African American friends on campus (of which there were few at W&L to begin with), I realized that my friends might have felt a bit out of place at this school. They surely would not have fit in at that fraternity Confederate ball, as every fraternity man and respective date were strictly white caucasians.

I had already applied as a transfer student to a different school, when I stumbled upon some essays about the life of W&L’s second namesake, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army general, who after the Civil War, essentially saved the struggling college from extinction. I read that the defeated Confederate leader did not support a type of guerrilla warfare that many of his fellow Confederates had advocated. Instead, upon surrender to General Grant at Appomattox, Lee turned his attention towards healing the rift between North and South. By promoting a concept of the “Christian gentleman,” it was through Lee’s presidency at W&L that the education of Southern men was seen as a way of seeking reconciliation after a bitter military conflict.

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia was removed in September, 2021. The power of symbols exercises tremendous influence over the human psyche: Some see the statue removal as an attempt to erase history, or more so, a desecration. Others see it as a liberation from a lie that has perpetuated a legacy of racism. But who really was Robert E. Lee, anyway?

R. David Cox’ The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, which I reviewed a few years ago on Veracity, tells the story of a man conflicted by the ethics of slavery and yet loyal to his native Virginia. He had strong misgivings regarding the slavery system, but nevertheless supported the system, through his dedication to his Virginia homeland. There is no doubt that Robert E. Lee was a complicated figure.  In the end, Lee saw the military defeat of the South as divine judgment against him, and therefore his service as an educator at W&L after the war stemmed from his Christian convictions.

It was the image of Lee “the Educator and Reconciler” and not Lee “the Southern Military Hero” that helped to inspire me to turn down the offer to transfer to a different college, and then finish my 4-years at W&L. Fast forward to the early part of the third decade of the 21st century, and the popular opinion regarding Lee’s legacy has shifted dramatically.

After the defeat of the Civil War, and before his death in 1870, Lee rejected any notion that he should be memorialized and statues set up depicting him as a great Southern military leader. Rather, attention should be focused on bringing the United States back together, and accepting the dissolution of the slavery system as the will of God.

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, was unveiled in 1890 (credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, the myth of the “Lost Cause” had firmly taken hold in the imagination of Southern folklore, and statues of Lee had popped up all over the South, a deliberate attempt to recall the “glory days” of the Antebellum South. The most prominent statue, in my mind, was the 60-foot tall depiction of Lee on his famed horse “Traveller,” in the midst of a traffic circle along Richmond, Virginia’s historic Monument Avenue. The refashioning of Lee’s image was complete by then, as even Traveller was transformed from a moderate sized breed to a stronger, more muscular-looking thoroughbred. Needless to say, not everyone has been impressed with the symbolism represented by the Lee statues.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020, protests turned their attention in Virginia to that Lee statue on Monument Avenue. After quite a bit of legal back and forth, the statue was finally removed from the top of its pedestal on September 8, 2021. As the statue was lifted off of its perch, cheering crowds sang “Nah-nah-nah-nah nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey, goodbye!!

So, how does one go about remembering someone who did not want to be remembered in the way he has been most often remembered?

People gather at the Robert E. Lee Monument on June 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. After 2020 protests graffitied the monument, a Richmond Circuit Court Judge ruled to extend an injunction preventing the Virginia governor from removing a historic statue. The injunction was later rescinded, and the statue was removed by Governor Northam nearly 15 months later, September 2021 (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)


The Quest for the Historical Robert E. Lee

During the 20th century, most biography readers looked to Douglas Southall Freeman’s multi-volume, 1934-1935 Pulitzer Prize winning R.E. Lee: A Biography. Freeman was a great admirer of Lee, who seemed to imbibe the “Lost Cause Narrative” that tended to elevate Lee to an almost semi-divine status. So, by the time controversy over another Robert E. Lee military statue in August, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into violence, a revisionist re-evaluation of Lee’s legacy was long overdue.

The often cited essay at The Atlantic, by journalist Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” published just weeks before the Charlottesville protests captivated the nation, is representative of this revisionist picture of the famed Confederate general. The subtitle for Serwer’s essay, “The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed,” pretty much sums up the disdain for Lee’s memory, as the honored military hero for the Confederacy.

A more fair and accurate portrait lies somewhere between Freeman’s distorted hagiography and Serwer’s campaign to dismantle any remaining virtue in Lee’s reputation. But where does one go to find a such a nuanced biography? Thankfully, former Gettysburg College and current Princeton University historian Allen Guelzo has set his sights on demystifying the matter with his expansive 2021 R. E. Lee: A LifeAllen Guelzo is an evangelical Christian, along with being a well-regard historian. Guelzo manages to bring out dimensions of Lee’s character and life that humanizes Lee in ways that others have not always done so.

Guelzo’s portrait of Robert E. Lee is framed around Robert’s attempt to distance himself from the shadow left by his revolutionary war hero father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee. “Light Horse” Harry was known to the general public to be a decorated military leader, serving under the Continental Army of General George Washington. But by the time Robert E. Lee was born, Harry Lee’s reputation had sunk. Robert’s father became known as a “swindler,” a man who speculated on various means of getting wealthy, encouraging others to join him, only to have such efforts fail, and force the family into debt.

When Robert E. Lee was only two-years old, his father was thrown into debtors prison. Robert’s father spent most of Robert’s young life trying to escape creditors. Robert hardly even got to know his father, as his father died while Robert E. Lee was still a child. Robert E. Lee endeavored to be everything that his father was not, except for the fact that Robert E. Lee chose to make life in the military a career. It took 50 years before Robert E. Lee made any effort to visit his father’s grave, and when he finally did so, he made little mention of his father’s grave to other members of the family.

Robert E. Lee refused alcohol, became exceedingly frugal with money, and determined to live a life of responsibility and duty. He vowed not to make the same mistakes his father did, and not leave his own children in the type of desperation that Harry Lee left him in. This characteristic of Robert E. Lee helped to shape some of the most significant decisions in his life, that would eventually impact the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.

Partly through the influence of his mother, Robert E. Lee sought to honor the reputation of his father’s militarily most distinguished supporter, George Washington, even to the point of marrying into the Washington family, by marrying Mary Custis, a descendant of Washington. Lee made top honors at West Point, and served the U.S. Army as an engineer for decades, before coming into his own as a trusted supporter of General Winfield Scott, during the U.S.-Mexican War. Winfield Scott essentially became the father Robert E. Lee never had.

The death of Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law precipitated a crisis, that led to perhaps the most morally damaging act in Lee’s life. The father-in-law,  George Washington Parke Custis, a step-grandson to George Washington, had himself inherited a considerable amount of property, mainly associated with a large estate plantation at Arlington, Virginia. The late Custis had decided in his will to follow the example of his step-grandfather, and release all of the slaves that he employed within five years after his death. In addition, Custis left his daughter (Lee’s wife) and grandchildren significant property, but bypassed his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, while still assigning Lee to be the late Custis’ executor. Lee effectively took this as a vote of “no confidence” by his father-in-law, though Lee would indirectly benefit. However, the situation was made awkward since a most successful transfer of the estate to other members of Lee’s family was contingent on the remaining years of service to be provided by the soon-to-be-released slaves of Custis. Still clinging to the desire not to leave his children in a financial distressing situation as his father had done for him, this put pressure on Lee to try to make more efficient use of those slaves, prior to their manumission.

In various letters, Robert E. Lee had made his opinion known, that while he viewed the slavery system to be a moral “evil,” he was not a supporter of urgent abolitionism, instead hoping that a process of gradual emancipation would eventually wind down the slavery system. When several of Custis’ slaves decided to try to escape the plantation, before the five years specified in the Custis’ will had expired, the slaves were caught, and in a fit of anger, Lee ordered that they be whipped for their premature release from slavery service, in order to teach them “a good lesson.” Lee’s otherwise steady, measured, moral disposition had cracked. It was apparent that Lee’s hopes for gradual emancipation would not necessarily be sped up by any intentional action on his part.

Robert E. Lee statue being removed from a New Orleans monument in May, 2017 (credit: Scott Threlkeld/ AP)


Choosing Sides: Why Did Lee Defend the Confederacy?

However, the most significant decision that Lee faced in his life, was driven by a complex set of factors. Upon the eve of the Civil War, Lee had faithfully served for decades in the United States Army, and he seemed to be the best candidate to assume command of the Union army, under President Lincoln’s direction. Lee’s fatherly mentor, the retiring General Winfield Scott, personally asked Robert E. Lee to consider the offer, on April 17, 1861. Yet in the conversation that Scott had with Lee, Scott held the opinion that a Civil War could be averted.

Even though many states in South had seceded from the Union, Lee’s home state of Virginia remain undecided at the time. Lee was hopeful that perhaps Virginia could foster some type of middle position between the radical Southern states, like South Carolina, and the Northern slave-free states, for negotiating some type of mediating solution between the extremes.

At the same time, Lee was concerned about his duty to his family, and his responsibility towards the Arlington estate, just across the Potomac River from Washington. Lee believed that the family property was endangered by both sides, as Arlington held a high ground position, which would have been perfect for Confederate artillery to overlook the federal capital. Likewise, the Union side also recognized the strategic importance of the family property as well. Nevertheless, the family property was legally in Virginia, and he felt a certain obligation to defend his native state. Lee’s initial response to Scott included this, “General, the property belonging to my children, all they possess, lies in Virginia. They will be ruined if they do not go with their state. I cannot raise my hand against my children.”

It was this sense of duty towards Virginia and primarily his family, and his desire to get out from underneath the shadow of his father, that pushed him towards supporting Virginia, and declining Scott’s offer to lead the Union Army, three days afterwards on April 20. Lee’s middle-of-the-road, Southern view, that wished that slavery as an institution would simply go away over time, did not have a significant role in Lee’s decision.

In summary, Lee’s views on summary were complicated and contradictory. He disliked the institution of slavery, but he did nothing to try to end it himself. Instead, he opted to take up a different offer to eventually command the Army of Northern Virginia. Interestingly, Lee kept the provision specified in his father-in-law’s will and released the remaining Custis slaves, in 1862, while the Civil War was well underway.

Nevertheless, once the die was cast, the effects of that decision bore consequences that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Lee’s plan for “winning” the war were straight-forward. If he could lead the Confederate Virginia army to shatter northern confidence, it could have led to some type of peaceful settlement between the North and the South. That was the best Lee could hope for, as he knew well that the North had more resources at their disposal than the South. The plan almost worked. However, defeats at places like Antietam and eventually Gettysburg shattered Lee’s plan, at the cost of many lives. Serious mistakes were made, included the loss of Lee’s orders before the Battle of Antietam, and an overly ambitious attempt to smash the Federals with Pickett’s charge doomed the Gettysburg campaign. Lee may have even considered a third attempt to humiliate the North, had it not been for Grant’s final campaign that eventually led to the capture of Richmond.

It is fascinating to consider what was going on in Lee’s mind, in the waning days of the Confederacy, when Grant was slowly tightening the grip around Lee’s army in Petersburg. Lee was desperate, and desperately short on men. So he petitioned the Confederate government to conscript, not just white Southerners, who been already been drafted into the Army of Northern Virginia, but African American slaves as well. Lee was quite firm in insisting that those conscripted slaves be given their emancipation, following the conclusion of their military service. This was certainly not well received by Southern slaveholders, who overwhelming rejected Lee’s request. Nevertheless, this one particular act suggests on the one hand, that Lee continued to have certain misgivings about the slavery institution, foreseeing its ultimate demise, while continuing to fight to preserve that very system.

The Lee I have come to appreciate, that of being the President of my Alma Mater, Washington and Lee University, following the Civil War is given a critical yet fair appraisal by Allen Guelzo. Like many if not most white American men of his day, both in the South as well as the North, Lee did not think very highly of the aptitude of most African Africans. Lee can not avoid the stain of racism. But you would be hard pressed to find exceptions to that, in the mid 19th century.

In Lee’s favor, as President of the then “Washington College,” he discouraged actions taken by Southern whites that would denigrate former slaves, even to the point of expelling white students who engaged in such behavior. Many white voices in the South probably would have preferred continuing on with guerilla war effort to resist the North, in the name of defending the Confederacy, but Lee’s wise judgment at Appomattox Courthouse, to cease hostilities, and move towards reconciliation prevailed. But Lee did not go out of his way to lift up the African American. Nevertheless, it can be genuinely said that Lee wished to put the tragedy of the Civil War behind him and refocus on the rebuilding of a United States, encouraging the students of the college to purse the life of being “Christian gentlemen.”

One looks back on Allen Guelzo’s R. E. Lee: A Life and sees a rather complex man, who sought to do what he believed was his duty, first and foremost for his family, who had a rather complicated relationship with slavery. Revisionists will often depict him as a defender of racial slavery, and traditional defenders of Lee will portray him as being a principled defender of states rights. Neither view is truly accurate. Both judgments are overstated and overly simplified, and thus they distort what should properly be remembered of the historical Robert E. Lee.

Lee’s motive of defending his children’s inheritance at Arlington, thus seeking to reverse the dishonorable legacy left to him by his absentee father, as the prime motivation for him joining the Southern cause, as argued by Allen Guelzo, stands out as a convincing and neglected aspect of Lee’s life. This does not diminish the fact that Lee was at least in some sense a traitor to the Union, and it’s army that he faithfully served for decades. But it does illustrate how one’s family history can deeply impact one’s moral decision making ability.

Furthermore, Guelzo portrays Lee as more of a cultural Christian, than a truly evangelical one, more so than I had originally imagined. A good case can still be made, even from Guelzo’s book, that Lee eventually took his faith more seriously, while he assumed the great responsibility for leading the Confederate military effort. His self-acknowledgment that God had used the Confederate loss to judge and chastise Lee should not be underestimated.

I would agree with the review of the book offered by biblical scholar Mark Ward, that R. E. Lee: A Life can help one see more clearly the faults of Lee, while still appreciating his many virtues. As the history of racism in America continues to have an impact on the Christian church, and the broader culture, R. E. Lee: A Life offers an important look into that history. Many books on Lee focus on his accomplishments as a military field leader, but R. E. Lee: A Life explores much more than that. Complicated he was …. Robert E. Lee has been branded as a traitor, who lacked a better sense of moral clarity regarding race and slavery, but still was enough of a Christian gentleman, who sought to serve and honor his family, out of a profound sense of duty, all at the same time. This type of balanced look at a person is sorely needed in our day and age.



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