Why Did Stonewall Jackson Join the Presbyterian Church?

Yesterday I briefly referenced the latest issue of the VMHB which contains a wonderful essay on Stonewall Jackson by Christopher R. Lawton.  I finished reading the essay this morning and it has left me with a great deal to think about.  Lawton provides both a gendered and generational analysis of the evolution of Jackson’s public and private life between his admission to West Point and his arrival in Lexington, Virginia.  Along the way Lawton challenges the analytical frameworks of Wilbur J. Cash and Bertram Wyatt-Brown who imagine white Southern men as yearning to live the life of the slaveholding elite and practicing a set of values revolving around a strict code of honor.

Central to this recent historiography is that the myth of the emotionally-driven antebellum southerner must be replaced with a new sense that many southern men were far closer to the stereotype of the rational northerner than to the honor and violence models of Cash and Wyatt-Brown.  An account of Thomas Jackson’s carefully plotted ascension into privileged white manhood is thus far less radical than it might initially seem.  Jackson was not an exception among white, middle-class southern men, but rather a fairly typical model.  His strategic development of self was directed by the belief that the role of “gentlemen,” to which he and so many of his contemporaries aspired, was not a preexisting condition but a position that one created in the act of playing the part. (p. 9)

This emphasis on performatives, according to Lawton, was shaped by Jackson’s careful reading of popular texts such as Parson Weems’s biography of Washington and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, his training at West Point which emphasized the importance of putting into practice moral precepts that would bring about a “Gentlemen of manners, of politeness & of education,” and in his generation’s reverence for the Founding Fathers.  Finally, there were the countless books of maxims that Jackson carefully studied – the most famous being, “You may be whatever you resolve to be” which was pulled verbatim from the Rev. Joel Hawes’s Letters to Young Men on the Formation of Character &c.  Jackson utilized these resources as a means to becoming a soldier, citizen, and gentlemen.  What I like about this article is that it implicitly challenges the assumption that Jackson’s life is impenetrable; we see the same thing when it comes to R.E. Lee.  Somehow in the process of turning these men into gods we distance ourselves from their humanity and desires.  Such is the case when it comes to Jackson and religion.

Our tendency is to interpret Jackson as an island unto himself as if his religious outlook were disconnected from other aspects of his life.  Rarely is this true in our own lives.  We come to religion/spirituality for various reasons and sometimes leave it for other reasons.  More often than not the particular form that our religious and moral convictions take are influenced by a host of public and private factors.  One of the more interesting sections of this article is Lawton’s analysis of Jackson’s decision to join the Presbyterian Church shortly after arriving in Lexington.  Lawton situates Jackson’s arrival in Lexington in 1852 at the end of his analysis:

VMI and the town of Lexington would bring him toward the end of his journey.  Settling there would provide him with the opportunities necessary to fulfill the expectations laid before him at West Point.  He had been educated.  He had been a soldier.  He had learned his manners.  VMI and Lexington would allow him to proceed into the final stages required of him by the civic-republican tradition. They would allow him the opportunity to employ all he had learned and all he had made of himself so that he might become a true citizen and, in so doing, a true gentlemen. (p. 27)

Lawton argues that Jackson’s conversion can be best understood as an extension of his ambition to become accepted as a gentlemen in Lexington’s social scene.  Though some may disagree, Lawton contends that Jackson was not much influenced by faith as a child and only came to take it seriously while in Mexico.  Jackson would have been aware of
VMI Superintendent, Col. Francis Smith’s belief that “Parents want Christian teachers, that they may be sure their sons receive a pure morality.”  He was also influenced by D.H. Hill who was granted a position at Washington College based, in part, on his affiliation with the Presbyterian Church.  Finally, there was the group of men that Jackson was introduced to at John Blair Lyle’s bookstore, including J.T.L Preston, Rev. George Junkin, Dr. .M. Taylor, the Rev. R.J. Taylor and finally future governor of Virginia, John Letcher — all of whom were members of the Presbyterian Church and prominent members of the community.  Of course, Jackson’s relationship with Junkin is well known.

According to Lawton, it was at this point that Jackson was “willing to go one step further and leave behind his Episcopal leanings in order to be civically and socially linked.”  No doubt, some readers will find this last claim to be troubling as it challenges our popular image of Jackson (and most other Lost Cause figures) as coming to religion through some sort of divine inspiration.  I for one do not necessarily doubt that this is what happened with Jackson, but since I have no access to the internal workings of his mind (heart, soul or whatever you want to call it) I can’t say for certain.  Lawton is also careful not to dismiss the sincerity of Jackson’s religious convictions or the way they shaped the rest of his life, although he admits that its influence is “impossible to pinpoint.”

However, within an examination of his civic journey, it is reasonable to conclude that his decision to join the Lexington Presbyterian Church had an effect on nearly every aspect of his life in that town.  Becoming a member of that most prominent and influential church gave him a highly beneficial credential in becoming an established gentlemen of the town. (p. 29)

Again, I highly recommend reading the article and let’s hope that Lawton will have even more to say about Jackson in his dissertation and future publications.  And just in case you think that this guy is just another one of those arm-chair toting/revisionist scholars it should be noted that this article was written while the author served as the John and Barbara Nau Graduate Fellow at the Stonewall Jackson Foundation in Lexington.  In other words, he wrote it in Jackson’s parlor room.

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1 comment… add one
  • Robert Moore Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:51

    I agree Kevin. I think there are too many out there who attempt to interpret a 19th century mindset through a 21st century mind. It’s material all worth expanding (greatly) on in a dissertation.

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