After reading R. David Cox’s outstanding new biography, The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, which examines Lee’s entire life with special attention to the role of the religious beliefs and practices of Lee and those around him, here’s what I think:
- Lee was a man of profound Christian faith. His trust in God’s providence and goodness grew greater and stronger throughout his life.
- Lee was a man a man of uncommon virtue. His Christian beliefs and practice were primary ingredients in the formation of his character, but Lee also seemed to absorb and integrate the best attributes of the culture of which he was a part, especially a devotion to duty, honor, and the dignity of others.
- No matter how good a person is, he is a product of, and to some degree a prisoner of, his culture.
- Character, virtue, and faith do not render us immune from believing lies. Lee, like many of his white American contemporaries, both Northern and Southern, believed that African-Americans were inherently inferior to whites.
- A godly Christian can make a decision that he firmly believes is the right, most ethical decision, only to discover later that his decision has placed him at cross-purposes with God’s overarching will. Lee was initially opposed to secession, and he believed that slavery was an evil that eventually should and would come to end. (Although he never offered a plan for how it should have been ended.). Nevertheless, when Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission and accepted command in the Confederate Army, he, like many of his fellow Southerners, believed he was making the best moral choice possible given the circumstances.
- Lee, like the overwhelming majority of his fellow Christians in the North and South—and for that matter, his fellow believers throughout Christian history—does not seem to have pondered very deeply the possibility that it might be against God’s will to continue to send tens of thousands of men to slaughter and be slaughtered even as Confederate defeat became increasingly likely. One of the criteria for a just war is a reasonable probability of success.
- What set Lee apart from many of his fellow Confederates was what he discerned regarding God’s will in the defeat of the Confederacy, a subject that Cox explores in detail. Soon after the end of the war, Lee met a friend, Marsena Patrick, who was a Union general. During an hour-long conversation, Lee reportedly said, “Patrick the only question on which we ever differed has been settled, and the Lord has decided against me.” At about the same time in 1865, Lee wrote to a friend:
“God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply & his chastening hand is not yet stayed….How great must be our sins and unrelenting our obduracy….We have only to submit to his gracious will and pray for his healing mercy.”
- This understanding of the South’s defeat as a judgment of God did not leave Lee despondent. Instead, it formed the foundation upon which Lee embarked on the most admirable and noble mission of his life. From 1865 until his death in 1870, Lee led Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) located in the small town of Lexington in western Virginia. Not only did Lee save the college from closing its doors, he set the example of leading young men to embrace their identity as Americans and promoting reconciliation with the North. He continued to espouse unity even as his disappointment grew that Reconstruction was unfolding in a harsher way than what had been initially planned by Lincoln and initiated by Grant at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. True to his Christian beliefs, Lee wanted the college to educate the young men under his charge, not only in a wide variety of practical and classical subjects, but also as followers of Christ: “I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian.”