The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

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

The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee offers an analysis of the religious beliefs and experiences of the Confederate General. Lee is typically studied as a military figure, and conventional wisdom holds that his religious views are relatively unimportant in any historical assessment of him. Cox argues that one cannot understand Lee without reckoning with the crucial role that that religion played in his life. Simply put, Lee was an Episcopalian, but the strength of Cox’s book lies in his fleshing out what that meant in Lee’s family. Cox carefully describes Episcopalian life in general and as it was practiced by Lee’s parents, his wife, and Lee himself. Lee’s wife and mother were “evangelical” Episcopalians while his father held to a more deistic faith. Cox is careful to describe both traditions within the Episcopalian church and makes sure that his readers do not confuse modern evangelicalism with that practiced by Lee and his contemporaries. Lee himself seems to have moved from the deism of his father into a more “evangelical” faith after the death of his mother-in-law which affected him greatly. Cox, an Episcopalian priest, is at his best when he describes the Episcopalian world of 19th century Virginia. He avoids the trap of trying to pigeonhole Lee into one of today’s religious categories and instead examines Lee’s religious life within its context.

In describing Lee’s pilgrimage from the faith of his father to the faith of his wife and her family, Cox proceeds to make the case that his political and professional decisions need to be understood in the context of that faith transformation. According to Cox, Lee’s evolving perception of providence helped him to make his decision to seek reconciliation after the war. Most biographers view Lee as a stoic and emphasize his early education which included a heavy dose of Greek and Roman philosophy, but Cox focuses on the influence of the bishops and priests who pastored Lee as well as the religious materials his family would have used in private worship. Cox may overemphasize the role that Lee’s church experience played in his professional life (and it is debatable whether Lee fully embraced the evangelical convictions of his wife). But just as surely other biographers have neglected this aspect of Lee.

In spite of these strengths, there are some glaring weaknesses in the book. First, the book does not address the role that religion played in Lee’s views on slavery. If Bishop Meade’s sermons on providence played a role in how Lee viewed his own role in military and political affairs, then surely those sermons also affected Lee’s perception of slavery and his treatment of slaves. What were the priests and bishops who pastored Lee saying about slavery in their sermons? Cox provides little beyond a few statements from Lee’s pastors that owners should treat their “servants” justly and provide for their spiritual welfare.

One of the more controversial episodes from Lee’s life concerns the treatment of the slaves belonging to his wife’s family. Lee had relatively little interaction with his own slaves because his own family had largely been bankrupted by his irresponsible father. However, he was named executor of his father-in-law’s estate and thus had responsibility for dozens of slaves included in that estate. Custis’s will included large provisions for family members as well as provisions for the emancipation of his slaves. Lee chose to prioritize the family legacies over emancipation and attempted to extract more productive labor out of the slaves by hiring them out and demanding more work. Cox emphasizes benign aspects of slavery in the Lee household such as his wife’s instruction of slaves in defiance of Virginia law and Lee’s care for one of his aging slaves. It certainly is fair to mention such acts of kindness that Lee claimed to have performed for his slaves, but Cox did not provide complete analysis of the darker aspects Lee’s experiences as a slave-owner.

Closely related to the issue of slavery is the issue of racism. It is one thing to justify the institution of slavery from the Bible. After all, the Bible assumes the existence of slavery, does not explicitly call for the abolition of slavery and instructs slaves to be obedient. It is another thing to justify racism and white supremacy. Cox is content to give Lee a pass by saying he was “a man of his times.” But this explanation only begs important questions. Why were most white men in 19th century America racist? Were they racist in spite of their professed religion? Did their religion encourage racism? Or was Lee’s Episcopalian faith just silent on the question and we must look to other sources for his racism? Cox leaves these questions unanswered.

For Cox, the religious views of Lee can be most clearly seen in his acceptance of defeat and his willingness to accept reconstruction. For many, Lee became a patriotic and moral hero by declining to lead his army into asymmetrical/guerilla warfare after his defeat to Grant. Instead, Lee led a quiet life as the president of a small college and did his best to reunite the country. Cox seems to accept this interpretation and does not mention an important caveat: Lee accepted reconstruction but only on terms of white supremacy.

Finally, Cox hardly mentions the largest theological controversy of Lee’s time, the formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861 and its reintegration into the Episcopal Church in the United States at the conclusion of the war. Cox takes pains to portray Lee as a very dedicated and involved churchman and yet does not discuss at all his role in this temporary denominational split. Lee was at best very hesitantly reconstructed. How did he feel about the reconstruction of his church? This omission is especially odd given the precarious situation many priests found themselves in, being arrested for refusing to offer prayers for the civic leaders of the reunited nation. Lee as an elected and active member of his church’s vestry would have been involved in these issues of reunion.

Ever since the Charleston shootings in 2015, local governments in the old confederacy have struggled with how to interpret their history especially as it relates to the confederate battle flag, monuments, and government buildings named for confederate leaders. For some, these relics from history are testimonies to a certain vision of federalism. They are testimonies of military genius, sacrifice, and honor. For others these symbols are about honoring and preserving a legacy of slavery and white supremacy. It would be too much to ask a book about the religious life of one confederate general to try to resolve that tension. However, for the book to address it in so brief a manner is a missed opportunity. As a book describing the religious life of Virginia Episcopalians, this is an excellent read. For a closer look at Lee’s personal views I would recommend Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters. For a more complete picture on Lee’s views on reconstruction, readers should consult Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War.

Michael Farrell
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando