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The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

R. David Cox

The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, by R. David Cox. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, xxi + 336 pages, $26.00, paper.

To say that this religious biography of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee is timely is an understatement. At the same time, to say that anything said about Lee is an understatement is potentially inflammatory. During the controversy surrounding monuments to Confederate leaders during the summer of 2017, Adam Serwer, a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, debunked the myth that Lee was “a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.”[1] Serwer says little about Lee’s faith but the general’s racism is sufficient to disqualify any claim that the Virginian was a good Christian. Not only was the Confederate officer a bad strategist, according to Serwer, but “White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions.”[2]

R. David Cox’s biography was in the works well before debates about Confederate monuments reopened public debates about the Civil War and the South’s aims in secession. Even so, his book will provide plenty of assistance to those still partial to the Lee “myth” as well as lots of evidence for revilers like Serwer. Cox does not sugar coat even as he handles his subject with empathy. The Lee of this biography is fully human with all the virtues and vices that go with the species.

Born on January 19, 1807, son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Robert was a native of Stratford Hall, Virginia. An appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point set the course of Lee’s life. In 1829 he graduated from the Academy and served for seventeen years in the Corps of Engineers, chiefly responsible for securing the young nation’s coastal defenses. Lee’s first active combat duty was in the Mexican-American War, in which his service was sufficiently distinguished to merit the rank of colonel. After that war, Lee took a post at West Point as superintendent (1852–1855) and from there joined the cavalry, a post that required him to lead the effort in 1859 to subdue John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, according to Cox, recalled that Brown’s insurrection “should have opened our eyes to the machinations of the . . . fanatical abolitionists” (162). Lee himself did not comment on the politics of the growing sectional crisis. He did believe that “secession would bode catastrophe” (163). Lee’s ambivalence about the Confederacy would not last.  In the same week that he declined President Lincoln’s offer to serve as head of the Union’s army, Lee accepted a position as general of Virginia’s army. Cox adds that Lee may be the “only soldier in history to be offered the command of two opposing armies” in the same week (170). The Virginian’s strategy during the war of taking the offense north proved surprisingly successful until Gettysburg in 1863 when Confederate soldiers lost in the most remembered battle of the war. Lee was, as all school children know, the Confederate general to accept the terms of surrender at Appomattox from Ulysses S. Grant. Soon after the war, Lee presided over Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, an institution that he helped to rebuild after the war’s devastation until 1870 when he died.

Cox’s biography is the latest entry in the Eerdmans’s Library of Religious Biography series, a forum that invites more exploration of Lee’s spiritual life than other historians have produced. In Cox’s able hands, Lee is neither an enthusiast who wore his piety on his sleeve nor a nominal Anglican who went through the motions of acceptable Christianity. The general grew up in an Anglican home that reflected the father’s enlightened understanding of Christianity and the mother’s evangelical experience. Lee himself was not obviously devout in the ways recommended by evangelicals who denounced polite Christianity. He attended church dutifully but did not seek confirmation until he was forty-six years old. When signs of High Church Anglicanism surfaced during the 1840s, an associate reported Lee as declaring, “Beware of Pussyism (sic)! Pussyism (sic) is always bad, and may lead to unchristian feeling; therefore beware of Pussyism (sic)” (85). Whether Lee understood the theological subtleties of the Oxford Movement or simply wanted to avoid ecclesiastical controversy is unclear. When he oversaw West Point and a Presbyterian pastor took over duties as chaplain, Lee reassured a cadet’s worried Episcopalian father that the services avoided “doctrinal questions” in favor of inculcating “principles of piety & morality” (106). Incidents like these, scattered throughout the book, underscore Cox’s general assessment:

Lee was not a religious thinker. He never formally studied theology, much less attended seminary. He was not a preacher, though he heard many a sermon and often commented on them and those who preached them. He was not a theologian but a soldier. His beliefs were far more practical than speculative. (xvi)

Cox departs from this evaluation, however, when discussing the doctrine of providence which informed the very practical and yet speculative nature of assigning meaning to combat, defeat, and death. At the heart of Lee’s Christian outlook was a trust in God’s control of all things. In what Cox describes as a summary of Lee’s theology, the general confessed that “I feel always as safe in the wilderness as in the crowded city” because “I know in whose powerful hands I am & in them rely.” According to Cox, this was no fatalism or stoicism for Lee added that “Providence requires us to use the means he has put under our control.” Reliance on God’s providence did not encourage idleness but work for truth and justice “in this wicked world” (129). This outlook informed Lee’s understanding of the South’s defeat. The region had “actively offended the Almighty” who “afflict(s) us most deeply” (198). Whatever Lee caught from services, reciting the prayer book and reflecting on God’s ways, his faith sustained hope and perseverance throughout his pilgrimage. 

For those incapable of forgiving the South, Cox’s biography will provide another occasion for offense. Those readers may simply write off Lee’s Christian beliefs as mere justification for his views on race and politics. Those who still harbor some attraction for the “Lost Cause” will likely receive Cox’s book as a vindication at least of Lee’s admirable character. For everyone else, Cox’s book provides a welcome study of Lee’s piety in the context of Virginia Episcopalianism. This biography will not bring back the monuments of Lee, but it does restore some of the luster so recently denied to Americans who fought for the Confederacy.

Endnotes

[1] Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic (June 4, 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/.

[2] Ibid.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, February 2018.

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