Celebrating the Christian Legacy of Robert E. Lee
2 Tim. 2:3 – “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
One writer called General Lee, “The portrait of a soldier.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote of Lee, “His noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.” His minister told him, “If you are as good a soldier of the cross as you are of the Army, Christ will have a great worker in His Church.” President Theodore Roosevelt described General Robert E. Lee as, “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.”
General Lee was born January 19, 1807 in Stratford, Virginia, and died October 12, 1870 in Lexington. He was a son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. He married the granddaughter of President George Washington. He graduated 2nd in his class at West Point, and has the distinction of being the only student to ever graduate without a demerit. When a Colonel stationed in Washington, DC, he was sent to put down a rebellion led by the radical abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, South Carolina seceded and was quickly followed by 6 more deep southern states: Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. At the behest of President Lincoln, Lee’s former commanding officer, General Winfield Scott, asked Colonel Robert E. Lee to take command of the United States Army to put down “the rebellion” in the South. He declined and instead offered his services to the newly formed Confederacy. The primary issue at stake for Lee was States’ Rights, not slavery. (As a matter of fact, Lee freed his slaves during the war, but General U.S. Grant, who fought the war to supposedly free the slaves did not free his until after the war was over: he lived in Maryland, a slave state that was not subject to the “Emancipation Proclamation.” It only applied to Southern states.)
After the war, Lee applied to be reinstated as a U.S. citizen, but his paperwork was “lost” by a federal bureaucrat and was not “found” until over one hundred years after his death. His citizenship was finally reinstated by President Gerald Ford in 1974.
General Lee never felt hatred for his enemies, and exhorted the South to forgive and go on. He said, “Abandon your animosities, and make your sons Americans.”
His last words, when he knew his time was short, were, ”Strike my tent; call for Hill.” (General A.P. Hill). The hymn sung at his modest funeral was, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word.”
1. General Lee was a God-fearing Man.
2 Samuel 23:3 says: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.”
General Lee feared God. He was a man of faith and prayer. One of his numerous General Orders he issued in 1862 read, “Habitually all duties except those of inspection will be suspended during Sunday, to afford the troops rest and to enable them to attend religious services.”
On one occasion when he issued one of these orders an Army chaplain wrote, “The work of grace among the troops widened and deepened and went gloriously on until there had been thousands of professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour.”
John Cooke said, “He had lived, as he died, with this supreme trust in an overruling and merciful Providence; and this sentiment, pervading his whole being, was the origin of that august [majestic] calmness with which he greeted the most crushing disasters of his military career. His faith and humble trust sustained him after the war, when the woes of the South well nigh broke his great spirit; and he calmly expired, as a weary child falls, asleep, knowing that its father is near.”
Lee had learned through personal hardship and tragedy to possess an unrelenting faith in the sovereign counsel of God, both in personal and national matters. Upon hearing of the death of his 23-year-old daughter, Annie, and unable to attend her funeral, he insisted that these words be carved on her tombstone, “Perfect and true are all His ways, Whom Heaven adores and earth obeys.”
Like Job of old in the Bible, he trusted in God no matter the situation or heartache. He did not get angry with God, but entrusted his life and circumstances with God.
2. General Lee was a Regenerate Man.
The Bible teaches that we must be saved and born again through faith and trust in Christ and His shed blood on the Cross of Calvary. Salvation is by grace, not by works of righteousness which we have done. (Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8,9; John 3:7)
General Lee was a saved, born-again, Christian man and everyone knew and respected him for it. He wrote to his chaplains who informed him of their prayers for him that he thanked them and needed all of the prayers they could offer in his behalf. And then he said: “I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”
Lee considered himself a sinner who had been saved, not by church attendance or by good works or by any other human endeavor, but solely by the grace of God and the blood of Christ. In his Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Rev. J. William Jones, who was Lee’s chaplain at Washington College, wrote, “If I ever came in contact with a sincere, devout Christian – one who, seeing himself to be a sinner, trusted alone in the merits of Christ, who humbly tried to walk the path of duty, ‘looking unto Jesus’ as the author and finisher of his faith, and whose piety constantly exhibited itself in his daily life – that man was General R. E. Lee.”
3. General Lee was a Bible-Believing Man.
The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “ALL scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: THAT the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
General Lee accepted all of the Bible without claiming to understand all of it.
He once remarked to Chaplain William Jones, “There are things in the Old Book which I may not be able to explain, but I fully accept it as the infallible Word of God, and receive its teachings as inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
He was a constant reader and a diligent student of the Bible.
He obeyed the command of 2 Timothy 2:15 to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God…” He believed what the Bible said in Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the that readeth the words” of God. He practiced what it spoke of in Psalm 1:2, and he meditated upon the Scriptures.
Those who knew him well said, “Even in the midst of his most active campaigns he made time to read a portion of God’s word every day.”
He was actively engaged in promoting the Word of God (KJV).
The Bible says in Psalm 68:11 – “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.” General Lee was in that company. He paid for and bought Bibles and was actively engaged in distributing the word of God to the world.
During the War, he helped to provide Bibles and prayer-books to the men at his own expense.
After the War, he was offered and accepted the presidency of the Rockbridge Bible Society in Lexington, VA (where he taught at the Washington College and served as its President). The primary objective of the Bible Society under his leadership, according to his own words, was to place a Bible in every home in the South. He admonished folks to “read the Bible, read the Bible.”
4. General Lee Was a Humble Man.
The Bible says in Philippians 2:5-8 – “LET this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: WHO, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: BUT made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: AND being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Jesus was a servant who ministered to others.
General Lee had this mindset. He was a lowly-minded man of humility. He said, “What do you care about rank? I would serve under a corporal if necessary!”
His ambition in life was to the best Christian he could be. Lee said, “My chief concern is to try to be a humble, earnest Christian…”
John Cooke, in his Life of General Robert E. Lee, wrote, “The crowning grace of this man, who was thus not only great but good, was the humility and trust in God, which lay at the foundation of his character.”
The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “COME unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.TAKE my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. FOR my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
General Lee was a meek man who was willing to learn from the Lord through the lessons of life, “We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.”
He believed that “no human power can avail us without the blessing of God.”
For what it is worth, I like this quote from the General, “All I ever wanted was a Virginia farm, no end of cream and fresh butter and fried chicken-not one fried chicken, or two, but unlimited fried chicken.”
5. General Lee was a Churchman.
General Lee was an Episcopalian by denomination – but a saved, Bible-believing member of that church in the South of his day. (I seriously doubt he would be one today!)
“General Lee was a most active promoter of the interests of his church, and of the cause of Christ in the community; and all of the pastors felt that they had in him a warm friend.”
“He was a most regular attendant upon all the services of his own church.” Gen. Lee took heed to Hebrews 10:25 – “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
“His pew was immediately in front of the chancel, his seat in the chapel was the second from the pulpit, and he always seemed to prefer a seat near the preacher’s stand. He always devoutly knelt during prayer, and his attitude during the entire service was that of an interested listener or a reverential participant.” While at Washington College, his seat in the chapel was never empty when services were being held.
His habit was to attend church wherever he was stationed. He would stop along the roadside to join his troops in prayer services. Once he was came upon a group of soldiers kneeling in prayer on the eve of a battle. He rode up, dismounted from his horse, Traveller, uncovered his head, and knelt in reverence to engage in prayer with them and their chaplain.
“He was a most liberal contributor to his church.” Gen. Lee was a giver. Not only did he tithe of his income, but It was not unusual for him to ask how much the balance was for a certain need of the church and then give the amount needed to make up for the lack of funds.
6. General Lee was an Evangelistic Man.
He was concerned for the souls of his soldiers & students. He had the heart of the Apostle Paul for those under his command and care (Rom. 10:1): “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.”
“General Lee always took the deepest interest in the work of his chaplains and the spiritual welfare of his men.” He attended the Chaplains’ meetings and a faithful chaplain always had a friend at HQ’s in General Lee. While General of the Army, Lee supported his chaplains and urged them to preach the Gospel to his soldiers. He encouraged them to distribute Gospel tracts to the men under his command and try to win them to Christ.
After the war, he became President and instructor at Washington College (later renamed Washington & Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He told one of the local pastors, “I shall be disappointed, sir; I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men become real Christians; and I wish you and others of your sacred profession to do all you can to accomplish this.” He said to another, “I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian.”
Chaplain William Jones, the “Fighting Parson,” the author of Religion in Lee’s Army, preached at the college, and afterwards General Lee told him, “I wish, sir, to thank you for your address; it was just what we needed. Our great want is a revival which shall bring these young men to Christ.”
Before he died, he said to one of the professors of the college, “Oh, doctor! If only I could know that all the young men in the college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire.”
7. General Lee was a Sanctified Man.
The Bible commands God’s people to be clean-living people. We are told to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Cor. 7:1)
General Lee was a man of high moral character. He strove to live an exemplary life. He did his best to live a holy life, one pleasing to God. He lived according to 2 Timothy 2:19 – “Let everyone that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.”
General Lee did not smoke, drink, curse or indulge in crude humor. Once, a soldier asked if there were any ladies present before he started to tell a dirty, off-color joke. Lee said, “There are no ladies present, but one gentleman is.” Needless to say, the joke was never told.
He said, “I think it better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity.” He practiced what Jesus and the Apostles taught, and was willing to suffer for doing right rather than to do wrong and avoid criticism and scorn.
As President and instructor at Washington College, he said, “We have only one rule here – to act like a gentleman at all times.”
When it came to honest dealings he remarked, “The trite saying that honesty is the best policy has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.” He believed what the Bible said about lying and liars, about honesty and integrity. With him it was a conviction, not a policy or preference. He believed that God judged men for their actions here and in eternity and he lived in view of that truth.
As a lasting tribute to a man of sterling Christian character and Southern patriotism, War-era Georgia Senator Benjamin Harvey Hill gave us these words in his address before the Southern Historical Society on February 18, 1874, just four years after Lee’s death:
When the future historian shall come to survey the character of Lee, he will find it rising like a huge mountain above the undulating plain of humanity, and he must lift his eyes high toward heaven to catch its summit. He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition, a Frederick without his tyranny, a Napoleon without his selfishness, and a Washington without his reward. He was obedient to authority as a servant, and loyal in authority as a true king. He was gentle as a woman in life; modest and pure as a virgin in thought; watchful as a Roman vital in duty; submissive to law as Socrates, and grand in battle as Achilles!
General Robert E. Lee was a Christian man, and not ashamed of his Savior or the Bible.
[Editor’s Note: This was first published on the website of Solid Rock Baptist Church, by Pastor David Martin. Martin also used some material by Pastor James Melton. Headings have been changed by Pulpit & Pen. Republished by permission]