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Civil War Series

Stonewall's Sunday School

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Originally aired on August 16, 1996 - In part 103 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson tells us why the formation of a Sunday School class in the autumn of 1855 by Major Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was both unique and unbelievable.

#103 – Stonewall’s Sunday School (The Stained-Glass Window)

Many incidents associated with the Civil War are considered unbelievable. This is one of them.

In the autumn of 1855, Major Thomas J. Jackson of the Virginia Military Institute faculty organized a Sunday school class at the Lexington Presbyterian Church. It was anything but an ordinary course in Bible study. Meetings were held for an hour on Sunday afternoon. Major Jackson was the principal teacher. The “students” were local slaves and freedmen.

The Virginia code of that day permitted blacks to gather in daylight for religious services, but the statues forbade whites from teaching slaves to read and write about any subject. Jackson was therefore on the perimeter of the law by leading a Bible service on Sunday afternoons.

Yet lead them Jackson did. The class, for black males and females of all ages, opened with the singing of the first stanzas of Amazing Grace. It was Jackson’s favorite hymn; but being tone-deaf, he did not know why. Included in the hour-long service were Bible readings, prayers, and instructions from the Presbyterian children’s catechism. The Sunday meetings closed with the singing of the remaining choruses of Amazing Grace.

By 1861, over 100 Lexington-area slaves were regularly attending the Sunday school. Jackson knew each one personally. The Major had to leave the class that spring because of the explosion of civil war. He quickly gained on the field of battle the nickname “Stonewall”, and he became (next to Robert Lee) the most esteemed Confederate general in the field. Jackson never returned to his Sunday school. In May, 1863, Jackson was mortally wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville. His dying words were: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Yet Jackson’s faith and his teachings did not die with him.

Two of his slave students married early in the war. Lylburn Downing and his wife Ellen had a son, born the day after Jackson died. They never let young Lylburn Liggins Downing forget what a spiritual inspiration “Marse Major” (as they called Jackson) had been in both of their lives. In the 1870s, the son attended the Sunday class begun by Jackson. Downing matured, completed theological training, and accepted the position of minister at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke.

In the course of Downing’s forty-two years as pastor of that congregation, it became necessary to replace the window behind the chancel. Reverend downing designed the new stained-glass memorial that dominated the sanctuary. It depicted an army camp, a wide stream of water, and a clump of woods. At the bottom, downing placed the words: “In memory of Stonewall Jackson. Let us cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”

Lylburn Downing died in 1937. In 1959, fire destroyed the Fifth Avenue Church. The flames and smoke heavily damaged the window. That did not stop the black congregation from restoring the memorial and proudly installing it above the altar at its new church on Roanoke’s Patton Avenue. The chancel window is still there, as it has been for 90 years.

Not all wounds of the Civil War are healed. Race relations in this country still need improvement. A charlatan will occasionally criticize his neighbor’s lawn while ignoring his own unkempt yard. A few people with more opinion than knowledge declare that American history in the 19th Century bequeathed to us little or nothing.

One Southern congregation will tell you differently. Some Sunday morning, go to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. There, in a Southern town, you will see black worshippers praising God as sunlight streams through a stained-glass window dedicated to the memory of a Confederate general.

Such a sight continues to give hope for the future of this land.