General Lee’s Favorite Books
In this electronic age, it may well be that a good library is the last thing expected of a person. For years the doomsayers have been prophesying the demise of the book as a learning tool. Let the prognosticators say what they will, but I don’t think the book is a dinosaur any more than I think writers are going to stop writing. It is ironic that at the height of the computer’s popularity, more people than ever are buying and reading books. With all of its flaws and shortcomings, the codex is here to stay.
One of my favorite Americans—if not my very favorite—was Robert Edward Lee of Virginia, my adopted home. He was a great general, college administrator, father, and husband. But greatest of all, he was a humble follower of Christ and a devoted Christian. And it cannot be doubted that one of the most conspicuous aspects of his Christianity was his absorption with what we might call the literature of God. Nor can it be doubted that of all the massive literature Lee read, three books in particular had the most impact on him. In order of priority they were the Holy Bible (the King James Version, of course), the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and the Church Hymnal.
Lee preferred the Bible to any other book. In a letter to Markie, the young cousin of his wife Mary, he said there was enough in it “to satisfy the most ardent thirst for knowledge; to open the way to true wisdom; and to teach the only road to salvation and eternal happiness.” Lee’s pocket Bible was his constant companion in times of peace and war. It had accompanied him since he was a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and was on his bedstand during his final illness in Lexington. Its pages were worn out from constant reading, its passages underlined for emphasis. Perhaps more than any other book he loved the Old Testament Book of Job, which he quoted often. As for the Psalms, his favorites were the 23rd, the 91st, and the 120th, the latter of which is quoted here.
Psalm 120, A Prayer for Deliverance from Slanderers
A Song of Ascents.
5 Woe is
me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
Lee once remarked that the Scriptures were “sufficient to satisfy all human desires.” One day several English ladies sent him a copy of the Bible as a gift. In his letter of thanks Lee called it “a book in comparison with which all others in my eyes are of minor importance; and which in my perplexities and distresses has never failed to give me light and strength.” During the war he promoted Bible distribution among the troops in order to extend “the inestimable knowledge of the priceless truths of the Bible,” and after the war he accepted the presidency of the Rockbridge Bible Society in a continued effort to spread God’s Word. The Bible was nothing less than his textbook for daily living and the principal means for shaping his beliefs.
Next to the Bible, Lee’s most treasured possession was the Book of Common Prayer—the official Church of England prayer book and one of the major works of literature. It contained a lectionary to aid in systematic reading of the Bible, Epistle and Gospel selections for each day of the week, and the Psalms so arranged that they could be read in their entirety every thirty days. Appended to it were The Articles of Religion, The Catechism, and the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. It also contained suitable prayers for both private and public use—a prayer “In Time of War and Tumult,” one “For Peace and Deliverance from Our Enemies,” another “For a Sick Person,” even one “For Fair Weather.” One can only imagine their constant use by the general. Lee began each day with private devotions, and when the family gathered there were readings from the Bible and the prayer book. He constantly sought strength and wisdom from a Source much higher than himself.
Finally, Lee was attracted to the great hymns of the faith. Corporate worship both sustained and comforted him during the long days of war. One historian has noted that while others were singing the words lustily during corporate worship, Lee would pray them. His favorite hymns included “O For a Closer Walk with God,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers,” but “How Firm a Foundation” unquestionably headed the list. The congregation at Saint Paul’s Church in Richmond made it a habit of singing it whenever Lee was present, and it was sung at his funeral in the Washington College Chapel in Lexington. I can never read the words of this magnificent hymn without thinking of Lee:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
In every condition, in sickness, in health;
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
When through the deep waters I call thee to
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall
Even down to old age all My people shall
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
For me, Lee’s life is a constant reminder and challenge that God’s work must always be done by God’s people in God’s way. It is not by might nor by power but by His Spirit. We American Christians easily succumb to the deception that we can do the work of God with the same energy by which we operate our civic clubs and community programs. God’s work takes another kind of power. Fancy recipes and delectable tidbits from man abound, but only the Bread of Life can satisfy the need. That is the lesson of General Lee.
What made Lee different from most of us was that he was saturated with biblical truth and expressed his faith in God through constant prayer. To be sure, he was a man intensely human, frail and fallible, but he lived in the presence of the Lord. He attempted great things for God and expected great things from God. He had made a total committal of all he was and had and was looking unto Jesus for everything. He did not merely believe the bank was trustworthy, he made the deposit. He did not consent to the dependability of the bridge, he crossed over. He did not merely assent to the sturdiness of the foundation, he built his life upon it.
Today we need more men like General Lee who are not only depositories of grace and truth but also dispensers, householders, stewards of the manifold grace of God. We must keep the deposit, yea, we must invest it to the glory of God.
June 13, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.