Review: The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

Gracjan Kraszewski

Gracjan Kraszewski is a Lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Gracjan Kraszewski, "Review: The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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R. David Cox. The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017. 336 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7482-5.

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Producing a new work about someone like Robert E. Lee is a formidable task. The details of the man’s life have been so thoroughly discussed that one’s immediate reaction is, <em>What is there left to say? </em>All of which makes R. David Cox’s accomplishment the more noteworthy. Not only is this a good book, meticulously researched and elegantly written, far more impressively (and importantly), it sheds new light on an eminent historical personality.

Cox’s aim is straightforward: “…to understand what Lee believed, what were the roots of his belief, how his faith developed from these roots, how he expressed it in the context of his family and the churches he attended, and perhaps most significantly, why he made some of his most crucial decisions” (xvi). Cox then adds a key sentence. “It also seeks to trace Lee’s religious growth, the process of transformation central to his church’s understanding of the spiritual life” (xvi).

This is a book about a spiritual <em>longue durée</em> and an evolution. As such, Cox begins in search for the wellspring of Lee’s faith. He finds it in a curious and often contradictory mix of Enlightenment rationality, Virginian Anglicanism, and Second Great Awakening evangelicalism, underpinned by a near-stoical sense of duty. While these factors all contributed to Lee’s spiritual formation, they did not combine in equal measure. For Lee, Anglicanism was a natural birthright. “Until the Revolution and beyond,” Cox writes, “to be a Lee was to be an Anglican” (11). But while Lee held to this confession throughout his life, in his youth he seemed to take readily to his father’s beliefs. Henry Lee was a Deist who viewed religion primarily as the means to a well-lived life. Rather than entertaining questions of salvation and damnation, religion worked best as a vehicle towards temporal virtue.

Following an illustrious career at West Point, Lee pursued Mary Custis’s hand in marriage. In his future wife, Lee found a religious viewpoint closely aligned to his mother’s: evangelical, emotional, and rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Whereas Lee’s Englightened Anglicanism placed heavy stress on earthly codes of honor and gentlemanly conduct, his wife and mother’s faith was decidedly focused on the hereafter. While Cox argues that Lee would eventually combine “the two religious strands that Henry and Ann Lee exemplified: the one from his father that prized reason, virtue, and duty; the other from his mother that emphasized personal faith,” it is clear that for a large portion of Lee’s youth, and into his thirties and forties, he leaned much more in the direction of his father’s religiosity (31).

Cox repeatedly acknowledges this, highlighting Mary’s frustrations with Robert showing “no disposition to join in her enthusiasm,” writing that Lee “avoided the spiritual flames that inspired his mother,” and, plainly, “if Robert was not concered for his soul, Mary was” (61, 73, 77). Yet, Lee also “attended the Episcopal Church with his brood when he could” (73). Cox claims that Lee “reflected an older version of Anglicanism that emphasized reasoned religion [and] that reacted against orthodox dogmatism,” and that a good summation of his spiritual journey is transformation, “a classic pattern in Anglican spirituality” (64, 72). This transformation lead to Easter Sunday, 1855, when Lee, then Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, was confirmed in the Episcopal Church and beame a communicant (108).

At this point, nearing the outbreak of the Civil War, Cox makes some of his most astute observations. Lee, having defined the early portions of his spiritual journey in an amalgam of Episcopalianism and Enlightenment rationalism, would over the course of the next ten years, 1855–1865, focus on one idea in particular: the Providence of God. In an almost Calvinistic belief in God’s radical sovereignty, Lee began to express assurance that everything was ordered and guided by God. His response to a surprise victory over Union forces when expecting defeat—“God in His all wise Providence willed otherwise”—was typical of the wartime Lee; one can literally catalogue hundreds of such repsonses, almost verbatim, to events occurring between 1861 and 1865 (193).

This Lee, Confederate General Lee, will undoubtedly command significant attention as the War is, after all, the foundation of his legacy. Thanks to Cox, we now have a clear picture of the religious ideas and motivations exerting influence upon Lee during this critical period of his life, none greater than the assurance of God’s complete control over human action (in a similar fashion, it should be noted, to the providential outlooks of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Abraham Lincoln).

Cox’s conclusion to the book, a reflection on the post-war Lee who, following four decades of military service, accepted the presidency at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia (later renamed Washington &amp; Lee) is a strong demonstration of his thesis that Lee was a man of deep Christian faith whose belief was forged by a lifelong growth. During his presidency, Lee attended chapel services on a daily basis (218). And the man who once was cool to the overt expressions of religiosity wrote that the college president should be a man of “true piety…thoroughly imbued with the Heavenly principles of the blessed Gospel of Christ” whose primary mission was “the conversion of all students from sin to the religion of Christ…” (215).

Cox has written a good and very important book. In addition to the above, he also covers Lee’s views on slavery, gives plentiful information on other religious influences in Lee’s early years (in particular the Episcopal minister William Meade), and amply discusses Lee’s war record, in particular the “two great decisions” of his life concerning secession and postbellum America (161–175, 197–210). This book is sure to have wide appeal. The intersection of religion and war is currently—thanks to the work of such scholars as Drew Gilpin Faust, Mark Noll, and Harry Stout, among others— an important topic within Civil War historiography. The influence of John Boles, Nathan Hatch, and Christine Heyrman in the field of American religion (especially related to Evangelical Protestantism, the “Bible Belt,” and the Second Great Awakening) remains strong and so both Civil War scholars and scholars of American religion will find that Cox has added much to the conversation started by these luminaries. It goes without saying that members of religious studies departments will find this work useful, but, it can be said with equal assurance that this book will have wide appeal outside academe thanks to the nuanced portrait Cox has drawn of a man whose specter continues to haunt the American South and, truly, American history writ large.