Robert E. Lee: The Believer

In the Year of Our Lord 2021, it is fashionable for American Christians to despise the antebellum South. Many Christian leaders, Evangelical and otherwise, have defended or even applauded the destruction of Confederate statues by mobs. In 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention repudiated the Confederate battle flag.[1] In September of 2020, J.D. Greear, President of the SBC, said the denomination should remove the word “Southern” from its name because of its association with slavery.[2] This onslaught has not spared Confederate General-in-Chief Robert Edward Lee. He has been condemned vehemently and repeatedly by pagans and Christians alike. Statues of Lee dotted major cities across the South and have been among the most high-profile targets for the statue-smashers of 2020 and 2021. It was not always so. For over a century-and-a-half, Lee was considered a model Christian by admirers both North and South. Lee was praised by Presidents and featured on postage stamps. States named schools and roads after him. One man, at least, built much of his literary career on his biography of Lee.[3] Media portrayals always presented him as a man of deep faith and high integrity, and Christian media was no exception to that rule. Neither were Christian institutions. When I was a boy, Mama had me listen to Focus on the Family’s audio drama series Adventures in Odyssey. There was a two-part episode about Abraham Lincoln and what a great guy he was. Lee made a cameo appearance and was praised as a great man. During my time as an undergraduate, in late 2016 or early 2017, my school’s student government association held a weekend retreat at a YMCA facility; the dormitory in which we resided had been named Lee Hall until 2014, and a portrait of the General from his time as President of Washington College still hung in the dorm’s main entrance hall, along with a plaque explaining Lee’s Christian character and excellence as an educator. Given all the controversy, many Christians, especially Southerners, find themselves asking whether or not Robert E. Lee was ever worthy of the praise and admiration he received.

A relatively common criticism I have heard of Lee is that he violated the Apostle Paul’s command in Romans 13 by engaging in rebellion and treason against the United States. The simple response to this criticism is that Lee was neither a rebel nor a traitor because secession was neither rebellion nor treason. So far as the war goes, the only sin of which Lee was guilty was defending his home, family, and people from foreign invasion. Such was his own view at the beginning of the war.[4] Such was his own view after the war.[5] He told his men so during the war.[6] He told his men so after the war.[7] The facts bear him out. Secession was a constitutionally protected right from the beginning of the Union, as any honest examination of the historical record makes patently obvious.

Now that the ludicrous treason charge has been dispensed with, let us turn to something substantive: a study of Lee’s faith and character. To understand whether or not Robert E. Lee possessed the character of a Christian, we must first define the character of a Christian. A Christian is someone who has repented his (or her) sins, and believed in Christ Jesus, who is the Risen Son of the Living God, as his (or her) personal saviour, and has thus been redeemed by Grace, through Faith in the finished work of Christ.[8] Obedience to God is a result of salvation, not the means of salvation, and is undertaken out of love for our Saviour.[9] Per the Holy Scriptures, Christians should possess and demonstrate love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.[10] We are to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.[11] We are to do unto others as we would have others do unto us, demonstrating love and respect for all human beings as bearers of the Imago Dei.[12] We are to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ.[13] We are to honour and obey our fathers and mothers.[14] We are to raise up our children in the way they should go, so that when they are old, they do not depart from it.[15] We are to be brave, humble, and honest.[16] We are to be good stewards of the blessings God has given us.[17] We are to do our best in all things, dedicating our work to God, honouring and glorifying Him in all we put our hands to, serving and loving others in the process; the chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.[18] We are to love our enemies and pray for them.[19] We are to be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.[20]  We are to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ.[21] Did the character of Robert E. Lee measure up to that standard?

Lee professed his faith in Christ almost constantly, both publicly and privately. For example, in February of 1864, a group of clergymen visited Lee’s headquarters to ask him to ensure that the troops had ample time for worship and reflection on Sundays. At the conclusion of their interview, the Reverend B. Tucker Lacy stopped and told the General that the chaplains of the army were deeply concerned for his welfare and some of their most earnest prayers were made in his behalf. Tears sprang into Lee’s eyes as he replied: “Please thank them for that, sir — I warmly appreciate it. And I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation, and need all of the prayers they can offer for me.”[22] On a different occasion, Lee made a similar remark to the Reverend Dr. T.V. Moore.[23] In the summer of 1864, despite being ill and thoroughly occupied with keeping U.S. Grant at bay, Lee took the time to write a note to the Reverend J. William Jones, thanking him for his prayers in Lee’s behalf.[24] No Confederate general (with the possible exception of Stonewall Jackson) was as interested in promoting the progress of Christian revival in the Army of Northern Virginia as was Robert E. Lee. Lacy and his comrades had not visited Lee in vain. The day after their interview, Lee issued General Order No. 15, which commanded officers to schedule inspections at such times as would not interfere with the soldiers’ ability to attend religious services, and included a specific injunction to “prohibit anything that may tend to disturb or interrupt religious exercises.”.[25] Lee had issued similar orders as early as July of 1862.[26] The General gave out prayer-books to the troops, having traded his old one for a dozen new ones.[27] In the post-war years, as President of Washington College, Lee laboured diligently to evangelize his students. He abolished compulsory chapel attendance because “As a general principle you should not force young men to do their duty, but let them do it voluntarily, and thereby develop their characters.”[28] Chapel attendance was always high. Lee also made a list of students according to their different denominations and gave the list to the town clergyman of that denomination, along with a letter asking the respective reverend to look after the students’ spiritual lives.[29]

Lee’s devout faith brought with it a profound humility. After the war, during a visit to Colonel J.T.L. Preston’s home, appealed to Lee to accept the position of President of the Rockbridge County Bible Society, whose purpose was to replenish the county’s supply of Bibles, which had been stripped to meet the army’s needs during the war. He told Lee how much the General’s name would help the cause and was in the middle of making his plea when he was called out of the room, leaving Lee there with his wife. Lee turned to her and said: “Ah, my dear madam, I feel myself such a poor sinner in the sight of God that I cannot consent to be set up as a Christian example to anyone.”[30]

Throughout his life, Lee thanked God, placed his hope in God, and invoked God’s protection for his family, his soldiers, and his people.  At the beginning of the war, he wrote to his sister Anne, and concluded his letter with: “May God guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you everlasting blessings.”[31] After the Seven Days Battles, Lee issued General Orders No. 75, in which he thanked “the Giver of all victory for the success with which He has blessed our arms.”[32] In December of 1862, he wrote to his wife, Mary: “I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, and that our only hope is in God.”[33] In his farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee wrote: “I earnestly pray that a Merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection.”[34] In a letter to Mrs. Lee dated 4 August, 1861, Robert lamented the awful contrast he saw between the beautiful mountain countryside of Western Virginia and the pitiful spectacle of soldiers plagued by measles, typhoid, and various other maladies: “What a glorious world Almighty God has given us. How thankless and ungrateful we are, and how we labour to mar his gifts.”[35] Two of Lee’s April, 1861 letters to his wife conclude with prayers for God’s protection of her and their people; in his first three letters of May, he counsels Mrs. Lee that they must be “resigned to God’s will.” His letter of 11 May concludes: “May He guard and keep you all is my constant prayer.”[36]

Lee was a good son. His father was absent for most of Robert’s childhood, having had to flee creditors. His mother, Anne, took charge of the family and raised them very carefully to ensure they would not repeat the mistakes of their father. Profligacy was forbidden, frugality a virtue.[37] His mother’s teaching stuck. Lee was habitually and scrupulously frugal, both with his own funds and those of the army.[38] Over time, Anne’s health declined. Lee spent much of his boyhood nursing his ill mother.[39] So indispensable was he to her that when he left home to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Anne lamented: “How can I live without Robert? He is both son and daughter to me.”[40] After the war, Lee received a multitude of offers which amounted to endorsement deals and sinecures. Companies (some of dubious integrity) offered him tens of thousands of dollars just for the use of his name.[41] Despite having suffered terrible financial losses due to the war’s devastation, Lee refused them all, explaining himself thus: “Sirs, my name is the heritage of my parents. It is all I have, and it is not for sale.”

Lee valued self-control. He is among the very few West Point cadets to  graduate without incurring a single demerit, that is, without once violating the Point’s strict code of conduct.[42] He once told a general who lost his temper: “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.”[43] Indeed, Lee’s control over his temper was so great that many authors and contemporaries seem to have the gotten the impression that he had no temper at all. In actuality, he did, and when it finally flared up, it burned white-hot. As an army commander, Lee was often harassed by seekers of privileges and emoluments. One day some fellow came whining to headquarters wanting a promotion he hadn’t earned or demanding some special treatment he thought he was due. Lee dealt with him, sent him away, came out of his tent, and addressed Colonel Charles Venable (whose job it was to keep such people out of the General’s presence): “Colonel, why did you allow that man to come in here and make me show my temper?”[44] When Lee’s anger burned, it was usually justified. The General once complained of the vacillations of the Confederate Congress: “I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving.”[45] As early as 1863, Lee was criticizing the harm Congress did to his army, both by refusing to promote officers to fill the places of the slain, and by passing laws to keep men with the right connections from having to risk their necks in battle.[46] When Lee misdirected his anger, he made it right.[47] He once incorrectly ridiculed a scout for discussing confidential matters with his staff; when he learned of his mistake, Lee immediately did all in his power to set the matter right.[48]

Lee valued the Bible highly. He called it “the Book of Books,” and, in his letter accepting the Presidency of the Rockbridge County Bible society, wrote of the “inestimable knowledge of the priceless truths of the Bible.”[49] Elsewhere he wrote: “I prefer the Bible to any other book.  There is enough in that to satisfy the most ardent thirst for knowledge: to open the way to true wisdom and to teach the only road to salvation and eternal happiness.  It is not above human comprehension and is sufficient to satisfy all its desires…The Bible is a book in comparison with which all others in my eyes are of minor importance, and which in all my perplexities and distresses has never failed to give me light and strength.”[50]

After the war, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, most of whom he had never met, wrote from all across the South to petition for Lee’s help or advice. Impoverished mothers sought employment for their children, crippled soldiers asked for aid, and veterans of units he had never commanded sought his counsel. When a friend told him she hoped he didn’t feel obliged to reply to all of them, Lee’s answer was the very embodiment of patience, kindness, and compassion: “I certainly do! Think of these poor people! It is a great deal of trouble for them to write; why should I not be willing to take the trouble to answer them? And as that is all I can give most of them, I give it ungrudgingly.”[51] One correspondent from Georgia wrote to inform Lee that she had named her son after the General, and asked him to send a letter of advice to the little boy. Lee did so, and included this injunction: “Above all things, learn at once to worship your Creator and to do His will as revealed in His Holy Book.”[52]

Lee’s faith was simple and practical. After the war, he met a friend in Lexington, Virginia who bitterly complained that she couldn’t find any of the special foods suitable for consumption during Lent. Lee told her: “I would not trouble myself so much about special dishes; I suppose if we try to abstain from special sins that is all that will be expected of us.”[53] Similarly he remarked on a different occasion: “The best way for most of us is to fast from our sins and to eat what is good for us.”[54] When one of the ministers who preached at chapel got into the habit of running late and delaying classes, Lee said to a friend: “Would it be wrong for me to suggest that he confine his morning prayers to us poor sinners at the college, and pray for the Turks, the Jews, the Chinese, and the other heathen some other time?”[55]

The General pursued excellence in all his professional efforts; this was his duty to God, his family, his people, and his neighbour. He did his absolute utmost, then left the matter in God’s hands. As he told a Prussian military observer: “I plan and work with all my might to bring the troops to the right place at the right time to deliver the blow; with that I have done my duty. As soon as I order the troops forward for battle, I place the fate of my army in God’s hands.”[56]

Lee demonstrated his faith to the end of his life. His final public act was the attendance of a vestry meeting where, among other things, the problem of the rector’s salary was discussed, and a collection taken up among the vestrymen to increase the pastor’s pay. After each man had donated, the amount gathered was added up and compared to the amount needed; they were $55 short. Despite having already contributed generously, Lee said: “I will give that sum.”[57] He then returned home to supper, sat down at the table, suffered what appears to have been a stroke, and passed away two weeks later.[58]

On the day the General died, Mrs. Lee wrote to her cousin Mary Meade: “so humble he was as a Christian that he said not long ago to me he wished he felt sure of his acceptance. I said all who love & trust the Savior need not fear. He did not reply but a more upright & conscientious Christian never lived.”[59] As a broken-hearted widow mourning her husband, Mrs. Lee may perhaps have been biased. Then again, who knows a man better than his beloved bride?

Christians are supposed to behave in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, to try and emulate Him as well as they can. Lee knew this. After his death, the following note was found among his personal papers, written in his own handwriting:

“The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”[60]

That is an eloquent description of the concept of noblesse oblige. It is also something more.

Let’s consider 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”[61]

Simply put, those verses give us a list of God’s attributes, a description of His character.Looking at Lee’s definition, it becomes plain that a gentleman is a man who seeks to model his behavior and character after the character of God. In the words of Lee’s best biographer:

“Over his movements as a soldier he hesitated often, but over his acts as a man, never. There was but one question ever: What was his duty as a Christian and a gentleman? That he answered by the sure criterion of right and wrong, and, having answered, acted. Everywhere the two obligations went together; he never sought to expiate as a Christian for what he ahead failed to do as a gentleman, or to atone as a gentleman for what he had neglected as a Christian. He could not have conceived of a Christian who was not a gentleman.”[62]

After the war, Lee attended a service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, which was integrated at the time.[63] When it came time to take communion, a black gentleman got up first and walked down to the chancel rail to receive communion. The white congregants were taken aback; even the priest wasn’t quite sure what to do. Then, General Robert E. Lee rose, calmly walked down the aisle, and knelt at the black man’s side. The rest of the congregation followed him.[64] Tradition has it that Lee told the man: “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”


[1]https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/southern-baptist-lava-lamps.html

[2]https://thehill.com/homenews/news/516480-southern-baptist-convention-leaders-dropping-southern-from-name-over-slavery

[3]Freeman, Douglas Southall. R.E. Lee: A Biography, 4 Volumes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934). All R.E. Lee citations refer to the online transcription of the first edition which can be found for free at the following link: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/People/Robert_E_Lee/FREREL/home.html

[4]Lee to the Virginia Convention, 23 April 1861. https://secession.richmond.edu/documents/index.html?id=pb.4.380 See also Lee’s letter to Winfield Scott, 20 April 1861, in The Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee, ed. R.E. Lee, Jr., (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1904), 24-25.

[5]Lee to Lord Acton, 16 December 1866. https://leefamilyarchive.org/9-family-papers/832-robert-e-lee-to-sir-john-acton-1866-december-16

[6]https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/005/0192  

[7]Jones, J. William. Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1875), 142. The year was 1868; Lee told Wade Hampton: “I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonour. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.”

[8]Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 1:16-17, John 14, John 20, Romans 5, Romans 8:31-39. All Biblical citations in this article refer to the New King James Version, which can be found in its entirety for free at the following link: https://www.biblegateway.com/

[9]John 10:27-28, John 14:15-31, Romans 10:1-13, 1 John 1:9.

[10]Galatians 5:22-23.

[11]Luke 10:27, Mark 12:30-31.

[12]Luke 6:31, Matthew 7:12.

[13]Matthew 28:19.

[14]Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-2.

[15]Proverbs 22:6.

[16]Deuteronomy 31:6, Psalm 27:14, Psalm 31:24, Joshua 1:9, Psalm 25:9, Colossians 3:12, Ephesians 4:2, James 4:6-10, Micah 6:8, Luke 14:11, Proverbs 10:9, Proverbs 11:3, Proverbs 12:22, Proverbs 19:1, Proverbs 20:7, Proverbs 28:6, Philippians 4:8.

[17]Matthew 25:14-30.

[18]Colossians 3:23, I Corinthians 10:31, Psalm 73:25-26. See also the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer One.

[19]Matthew 5:44.

[20]Matthew 10:16.

[21]Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23.

[22]Jones, J. William. Christ in the Camp, or Religion in Lee’s Army. (Richmond, VA: B.F. Johnson & Co., 1888), 49-50.

[23]Ibid., 51-52.

[24]Ibid., 52.

[25]Ibid., 50.

[26]Ibid., 49.

[27]Ibid., 53. The bookseller who made the trade must have thought himself amply compensated. Lee had carried the prayer book in question since the Mexican War. Each of the prayer books he gave away were inscribed simply: “Presented to —- by R.E. Lee.”

[28]Crocker, H.W. Robert E. Lee on Leadership (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 174.

[29]Ibid. There were four churches in Lexington at the time. Reverend (and former General) W.N. Pendleton was the Episcopal Rector, Rev. Dr. J. William Jones for the Baptists, Dr. Samuel Rogers for the Methodists, and Rev. John Pratt for the Presbyterians. See Franklin L. Riley, General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1922), 62.

[30]Preston, Margaret J. “Lee After the War.” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, 38 (May-Oct. 1889), 275.

[31]Lee Jr., Recollections and Letters, 26.

[32]https://archive.org/details/generalorders75conf/page/n1/mode/2up For a few more examples of Lee’s thanksgiving to God in orders, see Jones, Christ in the Camp, 53-59.

[33]Lee, Fitzhugh. General Lee: A Biography of Robert E. Lee, (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1894), 234-235.

[34]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume IV, 154-155. For a photo of an original copy bearing Lee’s signature, see: https://www.robertelee.org/p/general-order-no.html

[35]Lee Jr., Recollections and Letters, 38-39.

[36]Ibid., 29-30.

[37]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume I, 23.

[38]Ibid., 86-139, Volume IV, 386-394. For Lee’s superintendence of a project to change the course of the Mississippi River to save St. Louis, Missouri, see op. cit., 140-158, 170-183.

[39]Ibid., 18-47, 86-98.

[40]Packard, Joseph. Recollections of a Long Life (Washington, D.C.: B.S. Adams, 1902), 158.

[41]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume IV, 394.

[42]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume I, 81-83.

[43]Jones, Personal Reminiscences of Lee, 170.

[44]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume III, 243.

[45]Crocker, Lee on Leadership, 155.

[46]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume II, 481-482.

[47]Ibid., Volume III, 142, footnote 56.

[48]Ibid., 178-179.

[49]Williams, Richard G. The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2005), 35, 116.

[50]https://hbu.edu/museums/dunham-bible-museum/tour-of-the-museum/past-exhibits/they-read-the-same-bible/ and Freeman, R.E. Lee, IV., 298, footnote 119.

[51]Preston, “Lee After the War,” Century Illustrated, 275.

[52]Jones, Personal Reminiscences, 411.

[53]Lee Jr., Recollections and Letters, 317. The emphasis is original.

[54]Riley, Franklin L. General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1922), 110.

[55]Jones, Personal Reminiscences, 426.

[56]Scheibert, Justus, Der Bürgerkrieg in den Nordamerikanischen Staaten, (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Son, 1874), 39.

[57]Jones, Personal Reminiscences, 432.

[58]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume IV, 487-492, and Crocker, Lee on Leadership, 183.

[59]https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/America/United_States/Virginia/_Texts/VMHB/35/1/Funeral_of_Mrs_Custis_and_Death_of_Lee*.html#death_of_Lee

[60]Jones, Personal Reminiscences of Lee, 163.

[61]This is the singular NIV exception to the NKJV rule.

[62]Freeman, R. E. Lee Volume IV, 503.

[63]Southern segregation was a product of reconstruction, not of the Antebellum South. See The Strange Career of Jim Crow Woodward, C. Vann. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[64]Crocker, Lee on Leadership, 197. For the General’s genial and respectful treatment of a former slave who left his former mistress to find work elsewhere, see Margaret J. Preston, “Lee After the War.” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, 38 (May-Oct. 1889), 272.

About Earl Starbuck

A native of East Tennessee, Earl Starbuck is an independent historian and a descendant of soldiers on both sides of The Late Unpleasantness and of Governor John Sevier. His father, who was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, taught him to love history and the South. Starbuck holds a BA in History and Political Science from Carson-Newman University and an MA in History from Liberty University. He has no connection to the coffee company. More from Earl Starbuck

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