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Man of Arms, Man of Faith

James I. Robertson Jr. wrote one of the best and most exhaustive biographies of Thomas J. Jackson available. In it, he summarized Jackson’s life as being a balance of two callings, as a man of arms and a man of faith in God. Many people have readily recognized Jackson’s military genius, especially his “master of two of the greatest elements for victory in war–surprise and envelopment. . . .” Fewer, however, are willing to acknowledge the role of faith in his life, preferring (if they mention it at all) to belittle it as a perceived eccentricity.

But Dr. Moses Hoge, a contemporary of Jackson, declared, “To attempt to portray the life of Jackson while leaving out the religious element, would be like undertaking to describe Switzerland without making mention of the Alps.”

Jackson left the military after the Mexican War and entered a career in education at Virginia Military Institute. But he proved to be only a mediocre teacher. Perhaps his greatest deficiency in that career was that he knew only one way of teaching. If a student didn’t understand something, Jackson simply repeated his original explanation. He did not know to vary his teaching methods to suit the students’ individual learning styles. Consequently, his teaching was less than stellar, and he became the brunt of student jokes. His expertise was in military leadership.

But the real strength of Jackson’s life was his religious faith, which permeated every aspect of his life, including the military aspects. It was not something that he reserved only for Sunday worship services or tacked on only when he faced difficulties and dangers. He did not treat God and faith as a spare tire, reserved only for emergency use; it was an integral part of his daily life. His self-disciplined and consistent practice of daily Bible reading, meditation, and prayer was as much a part of his routine as was his disciplined study of the elements on the battlefield and of artillery.

The practice of prayer he did not reserve for merely saying a perfunctory blessing before his meals. He engaged in it throughout the day. For example, he prayed for his students before they entered his classroom. He prayed over his lesson preparations. He breathed an ejaculatory petition before mailing any letter and again before opening one he had received. And he prayed before and during his battle planning. Even unreligious fellow generals, such as Richard S. Ewell, knew that they would not get answers to their questions about his plan of battle until after Jackson had bathed the matter in prayer. (Incidentally, Ewell later came to a saving knowledge of Christ as a result of the testimony of Jackson’s life.)

Because Jackson’s faith was a normal and permanent part of every day and every action, he could trust God to keep and preserve and empower him for every action he was to undertake. And that faith gave him great confidence, not in himself or his own abilities but in God Himself. Consequently, he seemed fearless, even in the face of mortal dangers on the battlefield.

It was in such circumstances on the field at Manassas that he was given the nickname that remains associated with his name to this day: “Stonewall.” When someone questioned how he could be so fearless in combat, he replied that his faith in God’s providence was so fixed that he felt as safe on the battlefield as he did at home in his own bed. Even when it came time to die, he was calm and confident in his God’s wise providence. In that confidence (a word that means, incidentally, “with faith”), he “cross[ed] over and rest[ed] in the shade of the trees” of eternity.

May God grant us the ability to express and live such faith in God.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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