A Man, a Soldier, a Christian

Stonewall JacksonNot too long ago I had the opportunity to prepare a few short biographical addresses on various Christians. For one of these addresses I spoke on John & Betty Stam. For another one I spoke of the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. I’m sure many of you are familiar with his life, but let me tell the story again…

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We’ll start the story near the end, on July 21, 1861. It was on this day that nearly 61,000 men fought in what was the first major battle of the American Civil War. Over the previous years the United States had fractured and split with many southern states seceding from the union to form the Confederate States of America. America had become two nations, the Federals or the Union in the north and the Confederates or the Rebels in the south. And these nations were at war, state fighting state, sometimes even brother fighting brother. It split a country, it split churches, it split families. On July 21 these two nations met on the plains outside a small Virginia town called Manassas.

On that afternoon a battle raged. Already thousands of men had fallen. The Federal forces pushed hard against the Confederate army until it looked as if the line might break and the battle would be lost. One of the Southern Generals, General Bee, had already seen his forces fight a long and devastating battle. He had seen many of his men die or leave the battle terribly wounded. Though he tried to rally the men who remained, they were tired and terrified and he just couldn’t convince them to follow him. He spurred his horse and rode over to Thomas Jackson who commanded the brigade next to his. Pulling to a stop near the general he called out “General, they are beating us back!” Jackson’s reply was short and calm, “Then we will give them the bayonet.” Jackson’s confidence inspired Bee. Galloping back to his troops he called to them “Look! There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!” Inspired by Jackson’s stand, Bee led his troops in a charge and was killed in the effort.

But the Confederates won the battle that day, though between the two armies nearly 5,000 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. On that day a legend was born, the legend of General “Stonewall” Jackson. The man who had stood fearlessly like a stone wall in the middle of the battle would quickly become one of the most famous generals in American history and establish himself as one of the greatest military minds of all-time. But there was far more to Jackson than his military ability. He was also a man who loved God and sought to honor him in every part of his life.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this story.

Thomas Jackson, or Tom as he was called, was born on January 21, 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia, one of four children. Two years after he was born, Jackson’s sister Elizabeth, who was six years old, died of typhoid fever and, just days later, his father died as well. Suddenly his mother, Julia, was a 28-year old widow with three young children to care for. This must have been terrifying for her, to be alone at 28 with three little children. She worked hard and survived on her own for four years, but then married a new husband. I guess she had gotten a bit desperate because this was a man who really had no love for his step-children. With the new father came many financial difficulties and shortly after the wedding the family was forced to send the children away. Tom’s older brother was sent to one home, Tom and his younger sister Laura to another. He would be forever shaped by memories of his mother weeping and screaming with her arms outstretched as Thomas was led away from his family. Three months later Thomas rushed back to be with his mother who was very, very sick. She had just given birth to a baby and was not able to recover. Within days she died too.

And just like that, at the age of 7, Thomas Jackson was an orphan who had witnessed the deaths of his sister, his mother and his father. He had been sent away from home and forced to live with an uncle who, though he cared for him, did not represent a father figure and who extended no affection. Only a few years later Thomas would also lose his brother to tuberculosis. His younger years are almost pure tragedy.

Through these years Thomas lived with his uncle in a little place called Jackson’s Mills, in Virginia (or today in West Virginia). He was a quiet boy, a pensive one, who loved to read and loved to think. His uncle built him a small raft and he would often paddle across the river in front of his home. There, in the woods near the river bank, he built himself a small lean-to, a place of solitude and refuge. It was a place he could go to be by himself—to just be himself. He would go there to read or just to think. It was his favorite place in all the world, there on the other side of the river.

In these years he found a best friend in Joe Lightburn. Joe was just a little younger than Tom and a lot like him—enthralled by books and drawn to playing war games. Joe was also a Christian and later in life he would become a Baptist pastor. Joe did something very important—he introduced Tom to the Bible and spent many hours discussing the Christian faith with his friend. It was here that Tom first heard the gospel. Joe’s family often had Tom come with them to their church and it was in this time that he began to close each day with a time of prayer, in this time that he became interested in religion. Tom and Joe remained close friends until the Civil War began and they each became generals, one for the North, one for the South.

It was in this context that Jackson developed a trait that would mark the rest of his life—determination. And this is the first lesson I’ve drawn from Jackson—the importance of determination, of being very serious about life. He determined that he could be whatever he would resolve to be. He was determined to rise above his circumstances and to make something of himself. Yet this would be difficult for a poor orphan boy. He was drawn to military life, and he applied and was eventually accepted at the United States Military Academy at West Point—at that time the country’s foremost engineering school. His limited education had left him far behind his classmates, but through four years of all-out, determined effort, he not only passed but began to excel, eventually placing 17th out of 59 graduates. His classmates believed that if he had one more year of studies, he would have been first. Very little came easy to Jackson. Throughout his life he had to work very, very hard to succeed and to excel. And yet by God’s grace and by sheer determination, he did so, getting better and better at just about everything he put his mind to.

Now here he is, at age 22, an officer in the United States army. He was largely alone in the world, though he and his younger sister Laura remained close and wrote to one another very often. In this year, 1846, America went to war with Mexico and Jackson was given a command. In a pitched battle, he emerged the hero and his name became known in military circles—his military career was off to a good start. But that wasn’t the most important thing about Mexico. His commanding officer at this time was a committed Christian. He recognized a kind of budding faith in Jackson, or an interest in spiritual matters, and encouraged him to begin a systematic study of the Bible. Jackson, with his usual deliberateness, did just that. For a time he found himself drawn to the Roman Catholic Church, the dominant church in Mexico, but after meeting with the Archbishop of Mexico, and after studying his Bible, came to believe that Catholicism was not consistent with Scripture.

And it was here, I think, that Jackson became truly committed to the faith. He studied his Bible with great dedication, he prayed regularly and it was here that he decided on a rule he would never violate: he would not write or read or mail a letter on Sunday. Instead, he would seek to keep Sunday set apart as the Lord’s Day. Later on, even as he fought wars, he would seek to avoid all fighting and all work on Sunday. As soon as he returned home from Mexico, he got baptized to publicly profess his faith.

When the war ended in 1851, Jackson returned home from Mexico and, realizing that he had few opportunities for advancement in the army, applied for a position as a teacher at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He was accepted and lived in Lexington for ten years. These Lexington years were the most joyous and most painful of his life. In a sense these were the only years of his adult life. So if we are going to talk about Jackson in a context other than his being a general, it is here that we’ll see who he really was.

First he was a teacher and probably the worst teacher in the history of the school. He was the kind of teacher who could do little more than memorize the facts and then regurgitate those facts to his students. If they had questions he would just recite the facts again from memory. If they asked again, he would often punish them. Yet Jackson remained a teacher for ten years, teaching natural and experimental philosophy (which today would include things like physics, astronomy, optics and other sciences). His students and colleagues developed a real love for him and a real respect. No one was more loyal and no one more serious.

Very shortly after he moved to the town, Jackson became a member of Lexington Presbyterian church which was pastored by William White, a man who would become a very important spiritual influence on him. This was the first time he had ever been a member of a local church. A friend from this time said “The striking characteristic of his mind [became] his profound reverence for divine … authority. I never knew any one whose reverence for [God] was so all pervading, who felt so completely his entire dependence upon God.” Another friend said that Jackson’s faith was “as simple as a child’s in taking the word of God as his guide, and unhesitatingly accepting all therein revealed.” He decided that he wanted his Christian life to be marked by a love for God and a sense of God’s love for him in return. He resolved never to “violate the known will of God.” Think about that. He determined that he would never do anything that went against what God commanded and, with his usual determination, sought to do just that. Jackson was a guy who had a temper and this was something he fought against. Yet during the Civil War there are only a handful of known instances of him ever losing his temper. Even amidst all of the stress and strain of war, he did his absolute utmost to maintain his godly character and to fight against sin. Very few of his friends could identify any serious sin in his life. Little wonder that he was soon chosen to be a deacon.

Jackson bought a family Bible at this time and two passages became favorites, perhaps obvious favorites for a man who suffered so much—Revelation 21:4 which speaks of God wiping away the years of those who weep and Romans 8:28—”We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.”

One story I love from this time, these years of growth, is Jackson’s attempt to pray publicly. He was afraid to pray in public but understood that it was his duty to do so. He said to his pastor, “If you think it is my duty, call on me whenever you think proper. My personal comfort is not to be consulted in the matter.” Two weeks later he was called upon to pray and did a terrible job of it, finding himself completely tongue-tied and embarrassed and saying a lot of nothing. He did so badly that the pastor wasn’t going to ask him again. But Jackson asked his pastor to continue to ask him to pray and even by his second attempt he did better. Soon he became very good at it and became one of the leaders at the prayer meetings. After that he always enjoyed public prayer. He was also very afraid of public speaking. So what did he do? He joined a debate society and forced himself to learn to excel in this as well.

It was through this church that he helped found a Sunday school for blacks—both slave and free. He called it his “colored Sunday school.” At this time it was against the laws of Virginia to teach slaves, especially to teach them to read. But he did so anyway. (he once did this as a kid and the slave forged a pass and ran away) He knew that he answered to a higher authority. He wanted everyone to be able to read and understand the Bible and was eager to teach blacks to read so they could meet God through the Scriptures. And so he helped them learn to read and he helped them learn the Bible. At times there were over 100 people attending this Sunday school and it was one of the great joys of his life. Even during the war he would write his pastor to ask how the school was doing and how the students were growing. A couple of churches still exist today that were started by people who were saved through this ministry.

At this point I should say a word about Thomas Jackson and slavery. I will do that when I pick this up tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s not get completely carried away with the question of whether or not Jackson was a Christian based solely on his view of slavery (which is exactly what happened when reviewed a biography of Jackson).