- The Washington Times - Friday, December 9, 2005

In 1841, two teenage boys, Thaddeus Moore and his companion, Tom, watched a slave funeral with curiosity and, one said later, a sense of sadness as the coffin was carried to the grave.

Although neither boy knew the person about to be buried, young Tom seemed particularly saddened by what he saw — not just by the mournful procession, but by the plight of the black race. Moore would later write in his journal that Tom “seemed to be sorry for the race.”

“They should be free and have a chance,” Tom had said. Tom also told Thaddeus that his close friend Joe Lightburn had once said that the slaves “should be taught to read so they could read the Bible.” Tom said he thought so, too. Thaddeus replied that he would be well-advised “not to make such views known.”

These boys’ lives, connected during their youth, would diverge in later years. Thaddeus Moore died in Clarksburg, Va. (West Virginia today) in 1859.

Joe Lightburn would, like young Tom, answer his country’s call for service during the Civil War. However, the two would choose different loyalties. Lightburn would fight for the Union and, after the war, become a Baptist pastor. Tom would not survive the war, but his name would become immortal. He was Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Mysterious names

Lightburn and Jackson shared not only military careers, but also a passion for reaching others with the Gospel. While Lightburn’s ministry would not begin until after Appomattox, Jackson’s most important ministry took place during the six years leading up to the war.

It is a strange paradox — Lightburn fought for the Union, survived the war and later ministered to a white congregation; Jackson fought for the Confederacy, did not survive the war, but ministered primarily to blacks.

Jackson’s belief that blacks should be taught to read so they could read the Bible would come to full fruition in 1855, 150 years ago this year. He began a “Colored Sabbath-school” in the fall of 1855 in Lexington, Va.

Concerned over the lack of opportunities for Lexington blacks to receive religious instruction, Jackson had discussed his plans with Margaret “Maggie” Junkin. Junkin was Jackson’s sister-in-law by his first marriage, to Elinor “Ellie” Junkin, and the daughter of a prominent Presbyterian clergyman. Ellie had died, along with their stillborn son, the previous year.

As Jackson was one of the founding members of the Rockbridge Bible Society and a member of its Board of Managers, he took on the responsibility of fundraising for the printing of Gospel literature. On one occasion, Jackson brought in an unusually generous amount of offerings. In addition to the regular contributors, he had penciled in additional names at the bottom of his solicitation list.

When fellow society members inquired about the added names, Jackson replied: “They are the militia. … I deemed it best to go beyond the limits of our own church.” However, most of the additional names were of free blacks in Lexington.

Children of God

Some historians have noted that it was during his work with the Bible Society that Jackson first became aware of the need to reach slaves and the free blacks in and around the peaceful Shenandoah Valley community of Lexington.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian theologian and author of an 1866 Jackson biography, would write of Jackson’s efforts among “the free blacks of the quarters, all of whom he had visited in their humble dwellings, and encouraged to give a pittance of their earnings to print Bibles.”

Jackson “argued that the giving of them would elevate their self-respect, and enhance their own interest in the Holy Book; and that they being indebted to it as well as others, should be taught to help in diffusing it.”

Noteworthy is Dabney’s statement that Jackson wanted blacks to “elevate their self-respect” — exactly the opposite of the stereotype of the Southern white slave owner. Jackson did not want blacks to think less of themselves, but rather more of themselves as children of God. He did not look down upon them as unable or unworthy to give and participate in the advancement of the Gospel.

This is one of the reasons mutual respect between Jackson and local blacks grew out of this relationship — despite the evils and contradictions of slavery. He expected from them what others did not. Furthermore, he believed what many other whites at that time did not believe — that blacks were capable of greater things. That attitude garnered further respect.

Door to door

One can picture the devout and zealous Presbyterian deacon knocking respectfully but confidently at the door of a free black’s shanty, hat in hand, perhaps becoming a little doubtful about soliciting funds from such impoverished members of society. After noticing the poor condition of the humble home, Jackson may have considered turning and walking away before anyone answered the door.

Imagine Jackson describing the work of the Bible Society to blacks who probably were illiterate: the publication of tracts and books for Sabbath schools and education for Christian ministry. He would be seeking donations for reading materials from those who themselves could not read.

Jackson may have been reminded of his own orphaned childhood, void of any real educational opportunities, which once prompted him to write a relative, “My mother and father died when I was very young, and I had to work for my living and education both.”

Perhaps as he made out his report, writing each name and the amount donated, he was impressed with the need to reach these blacks with the Gospel, teaching them to read so that they, too, could benefit from the blessings of the printed word, as his youthful friend, Joe Lightburn, had suggested.

Breaking the law

Jackson, on the first day of class, emphasized the need for responsibility and faithfulness, telling his pupils that their masters “are not going to make you come to the school” and that “they can’t make Christians of you unless you are willing to be taught yourselves.”

Jackson then instructed those willing to commit to faithful attendance to come forward and give him their names. Immediately they came, “men and women, gray-headed, some of them, half-grown girls and boys, and toddling children, began to proclaim their names,” according to Dabney.

By the end of the first 45-minute session, there were 50 names on Jackson’s roll. During the six years Jackson taught or oversaw the black Sunday school, the class grew in attendance, with often 70 or 80 members present.

Jackson’s class was not without controversy. While most in the community were supportive of his efforts, he was once approached by local court officials and threatened with prosecution for conducting “an unlawful assembly.”

At that time in Virginia, it was illegal to teach blacks to read. The law read in part, “Every assemblage of negroes for the purpose of instruction in reading or writing, or in the night time for any purpose, shall be an unlawful assembly.”

Breaking this law carried a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $100 fine. Jackson was incensed. His Scots-Irish blood boiled with righteous indignation. Jackson, the Presbyterian deacon, Virginia Military Institute professor, local bank board member and pillar of the Lexington community, squared off with his accusers and replied tartly to one, “Sir, if you were, as you should be, a Christian man, you would not think or say so.”

With those words, Jackson turned on his heel and went home. He later reconciled with his primary accuser. The man offered his apologies to Jackson, and nothing ever came of the legal threat. It is interesting to note, however, that Jackson was so committed to this ministry that he would risk his reputation and standing in the community.

His legacy

As already stated, local blacks came to admire Jackson for his commitment and often expressed their admiration. On one such occasion, during Union Gen. David Hunter’s occupation of Lexington and after Jackson’s death, someone had come by cover of night to Jackson’s grave. There he had placed a small Confederate flag “with a familiar hymn pinned to it.”

Upon inquiry, a Lexington woman discovered that it had been placed by one of Jackson’s young black male students. The hymn attached to the flag was “a stanza of a favorite hymn which Jackson had taught him.” There were other tokens of admiration and memorials by blacks in the years following Jackson’s death.

Jackson’s legacy — and that of his students — continues. Several black churches were formed because of some degree of influence from Jackson’s class and pupils. Margaret Junkin would later write that “young men went abroad from the school for further instruction, and became preachers to their own people.”

Maggie Junkin, with whom Jackson first consulted about this unique ministry, would eventually marry professor John Thomas Lewis Preston, founder of Virginia Military Institute. The Prestons would take over the operation of the class after Jackson’s death and continue the school until 1887, when its operation was no longer deemed necessary.

After the Sunday school ceased operation, Mrs. Preston wrote that Jackson’s work with his students was “a grander work, in the eyes of God … than when, at the head of his enthusiastic army, he was making a name which has echoed over the world.”

Richard G. Williams Jr. writes from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and is a frequent contributor to this page. He is the author of “The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen” (Pelican 2005) and has just completed a manuscript about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school class.

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