The plaques on the walls of Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., commemorate famous Americans who at one time called the Episcopal parish their own: George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
As a church historian, I believe the vestry’s recent decision to remove the memorials — as well as their forebears’ decision to put them up in the first place — disregards the true purpose of Christians’ commemoration of the dead.
From the very start of the Christian faith, believers have remembered the “great cloud of witnesses” who came before them. During the third century, the church in North Africa regularly commemorated early martyrs on the anniversary of their death — the origin of saints’ days.
Whether honored through holidays or monuments, the church still recognized the complexity of the human situation and never expected perfection from these early saints. Scripture and church history provided plenty of evidence of their shortcomings: Paul’s thorn in his flesh, Peter’s denial of Christ, Augustine’s lust, Thomas Aquinas’ borderline gluttony, Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic tendencies, John Calvin’s use of capital punishment, and John Wesley’s failed marriage.
All had a past, but their past was not the point.
Over the history of the church, Christians have sought to commemorate notable believers for the ways their lives pointed to their faith and emulated Christ, while still acknowledging their sin and historical context.
Christ Church was founded in 1773 and installed its Washington and Lee plaques around the patriotic push among the elite during the American centenary about a hundred years later. The plaques mark where both leaders sat in the sanctuary, as well as where Lee was confirmed. The memorials name Washington and Lee, without detailing their Christian commitments — the very reason churches throughout the centuries have commemorated the dead in the first place.
Both Washington and Lee were committed Episcopalians, though they differed in their approach to religion. Washington’s faith was generally reflected the rationalist approach of the Virginia gentry of the 18th century. He wasn’t a deist, but historians do not have any record of him receiving communion.
Lee, on the other hand, had experienced a religious transformation midlife, and his faith ultimately drove him to work for reconciliation efforts after the Civil War both in the nation and in the church. It is true both men were complicit in the slave trade that marked the colonial and antebellum periods of American history, and that shouldn’t be ignored. Both Washington and Lee were sinners, after all.
Washington, Lee, and church leaders who placed the plaques in the sanctuary to commemorate the two all knew of their own sinfulness. They prayed in the words of their own prayer book, “We have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep, and there is no health in us.” They also heard from that same historic liturgy that God “pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeigningly believe.”
Yet, just as the decision to add the plaques focused on Washington and Lee’s patriotism, the deliberation over removing them has focused on political correctness. In conversations driven by cultural forces, no one is treating these men as sinners saved by grace.
What matters most for Christians is these men share in the same baptism that is still performed in that parish church. The waters of baptism are not temporal; these waters unite Washington, Lee, and all Christians everywhere — regardless of fame, race, social status or any other distinction — across time and space. These people are all family, even if they’re not being treated as such presently.
If Christ Church was to commemorate their most notable members, Washington and Lee, it should be for their Christian faith and not for their national accomplishments. Outside interests — including political and social movements, both then and now — should not determine the practices of a Christian community. Over a century later, Christ Church still hasn’t learned this lesson.
Ryan Nicholas Danker is the assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and author of “Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism.”