22 May 2008

Jackson's Journey

Christopher Lawton's The Pilgrim's Progress - Thomas J. Jackson's Journey Toward Citizenship, which appears in the current issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, presents what is ostensibly a new take on Stonewall Jackson's Christian faith and his struggle to become a "citizen and a gentleman."

The abstract for the piece describes it this way:

“In this article the author argues that applying the methodologies of gender and cultural studies to the prewar life of Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson provides a new and exceptionally fruitful path of inquiry into the biography of one of the Confederacy's most iconic heroes. Conversely, approaching these modern fields of study by way of such a prominent figure allows for an enriched version of what masculinity studies can do.” (Emphasis mine.)


Lawton follows the predictable path of many moderns in trying to psycho-analyze Jackson in the faddish terms and perspectives of 21st century social historians.

Mr. Lawton’s use of terms like “acting-out” and “psycho-social” (when discussing Stonewall Jackson and "masculinity") would seem more suited, in my opinion, coming from Dr. Phil than from a journal like the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. But that is not what I’m going to address here. Rather, I wanted to address Mr. Lawton’s error regarding the genesis of Jackson’s Christian faith.

Mr. Lawton repeats a myth about Jackson that has been thoroughly refuted; most notably by James I. Robertson, Jr. in his definitive biography of Jackson.

Mr. Lawton writes:

Jackson seems not to have been much influenced by religion as a child, only began to consider it seriously in Mexico, and had finally elected to be baptized in an Episcopal Church in New York in 1849.” (Page 28) No discussion or proof is given for the conclusion that Jackson’s childhood was not much influenced by religion.”

Actually, quite the opposite is true. Jackson was, in fact, very much influenced by religion in his youth. One of Jackson’s early biographers, *Roy Bird Cook observed:

“No student of the life of Jackson can fail to note his constant interest in his spiritual and his physical well-being. Earliest records show an ever-present feeling of a divine leadership which continued to be uppermost in his thoughts and through his entire life. When a boy at the mill, he was influenced by the Baptist faith. Just over the hill from his home was Broad Run Baptist church . . . to the south, in nearby Weston, the Methodists predominated the religious activities of the day. The Jackson family seems to have participated in the affairs of both churches.”

Moreover, Jackson was exposed to sound Bible preaching when he attended Harmony Methodist Church. The church was in what is today, Weston, West Virginia and had been organized in 1829. Reverend John Mitchell pastored the church and his daughter once remarked, “Thomas Jackson, a shy, unobtrusive boy, sat with unabated interest in the long sermon, having walked three miles in order to attend.”

Interestingly, it is likely that Jackson’s early attraction to Christianity was further aroused by the slaves in his own household and those of nearby relatives as well as by slaves that lived in his community. Cook noted that “the religious inclinations of Jackson were accentuated by the intense interest in the subject manifested by some of the slaves in the household.”

In addition, Jackson’s boyhood chum, future Union General (and future Baptist Preacher), Joseph Lightburn, greatly influenced Jackson’s interest in Christianity; suggesting to Jackson that slaves should be taught to read “so they could read the Bible.” Jackson would later state that “he thought so too.” Robertson further notes:

“. . . the lad’s search for knowledge, plus a natural curiosity, produced inquisitive probes into religion. He began reading the Bible with genuine interest. Joe Lightburn added exegesis for passages that Jackson could not understand. The Lightburns encouraged this newfound interest by inviting Jackson to attend Broad Run Baptist Church on a regular basis.”

There are numerous other historical sources and accounts which make it clear Jackson was interested in religion and the Christian virtues of honesty, purity, and “manliness” as a boy and long before he arrived in Mexico as an army officer.

Though the piece is not my cup of tea, it is interesting in some respects. Not being one who embraces faddish trends in the study of history (or anything else for that matter), the article is nonetheless instructive as to how some modern social historians look at 19th century Christians.

*Though Cook was an "amateur" historian, his research and book on Stonewall Jackson's early life and family is still highly regarded.

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