Church Where Robert E. Lee Served After the Civil War Wrestles With Whether it Should Remove his Name from the Church Sign

R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Va.
R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Va.

Police shootings. Charleston church killings. The public resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. As recent years engulfed America in intense debate about race, the genteel Gothic stone parish in little Lexington, Va., quietly debated its name. Could “R.E. Lee Memorial Church” commemorate the postwar fence-mender who had led their church and city out of destitution? Or could it only conjure the wicked institution of slavery for which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee fought?

In the past two years, church leadership held retreats about it. An anonymous survey was held. Thousands of dollars were paid to reconciliation experts trained in pacifism. A 15-page report was written. Decades-old friendships in the small community were strained. Parishioners left for other churches.

“I firmly believe that Lee was an admirable man of faith, with flaws like the rest of us,” one man told the congregation after a contentious 2015 vote. “This name-change issue has surfaced a deeper issue..now is not the time to postpone dealing with our divisions,” said another.

But still, it felt as though decisions could be put off about the name and legacy of Lee, who spent his final five years leading the struggling church, and whose final public act was personally covering the salary of its pastor.

Then came Charlottesville.

Less than two weeks after a deadly white-supremacist rally, leaders of R.E. Lee found themselves back at the table Monday night, with some again pressing the issue of a name change. While the church has been divided in the past over the issue, Charlottesville has pushed more members and some in leadership to conclude that, no matter what good Lee did in Lexington a century ago, white supremacists have taken ownership of his reputation and made him their symbol. The bishop has made clear that the name is a distraction from sharing the gospel and is heading to Lexington in the next week or two to push the issue. A petition to change the name has nearly 6,000 signatures.

“It makes me sad. What I’m saddest about is that people don’t know our American history. [Lee has] come to represent one piece of who he was. And I think our church is named for a different piece of who he was,” said Elizabeth Harralson, a member for 41 years who changed her mind in favor of a name change after the Charlottesville violence and rhetoric that has followed. “We can’t provide any leadership or contribution to the conversation until the name of the church is changed.”

Yet as Confederate monuments and statues around the country have been coming down — including some in the middle of the night to avoid violence and protests — church leaders in Lexington decided Monday that they were still too divided, with several of the 13 vestry members opposed to a change. One came in his military uniform straight from a Virginia Military Academy ceremony and swore the issue was American disrespect of service members. Another threatened to resign if there wasn’t a promise to continue the name-change conversation (and did Tuesday morning).

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SOURCE: Michelle Boorstein 
The Washington Post