Leaders at a Virginia church formerly attended by Confederate general Robert E. Lee have decided the congregation will no longer bear his name.
The decision came after two years of intense debate and discussion within the small church community. The church held retreats and anonymous surveys to help members consider the issue. It hired a conflict resolution consultant. Some leaders resigned from their posts to protest inaction on the measure, while other members decided to leave the parish altogether.
Rev. Tom Crittenden, the church rector, said that the violent and deadly white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August is what tipped the scale.
“Charlottesville seems to have moved us to this point,” Crittenden told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Not that we have a different view of Lee historically in our church, but we have appreciation for our need to move on.”
The general was a military man who inherited slaves through his wealthy wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee. He kept black men and women in bondage at the Arlington House in Virginia for at least five years, before freeing them in 1862. One former slave testified that Lee brutally punished slaves who tried to escape.
During the Civil War, Lee rose through the ranks to become the general in chief of the Confederate Army. When the war ended, the former general moved to Lexington to help run Washington College, which is now known as Washington and Lee University.
He also began attending Grace Episcopal Church and reportedly helped revitalized the struggling congregation. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he became the church senior warden and stayed in that leadership post until he died in 1870.
The church was renamed to honor Lee in 1903.
But since 2015, the church’s name has been a source of tension for congregants. Members began to question it after the Charleston church shooting, when white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine black worshippers inside a South Carolina church.
Members who wanted to preserve the name believed Lee would abhor white supremacy, anti-Semitism and similar movements. They viewed Lee as a reconciler after the Civil War.
The debate in the church took place against a nationwide debate over whether to rename Confederate memorials. Some see the monuments as a part of the nation’s heritage and history, while others say that they celebrate America’s racist past.
Lee himself was opposed to the idea of constructing Confederate monuments, believing it was not wise to “keep open the sores of war.” After his death however, his name became a symbol of Southern pride and “The Lost Cause” narrative, which reimagines the Civil War as a fight for the constitution, rather than a fight about slavery.
In a statement issued last month, the church’s vestry board members wrote: “Lee was widely admired in both the North and the South as a man of virtue and honor and as among the leading reconcilers of our fractured land. We do not honor Lee as a Confederate. Nor do we subscribe to neo-Confederate ideas in honoring him. We honor Lee as one of our own parishioners, a devout man who led our parish through difficult years in post-Civil-War Virginia.”
Monday’s vote was applauded by vestry board member Doug Cumming, who told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that people in the church community have been hurt and are feeling exhausted by the debate.
“He was the senior warden of our church, we’re proud of that, it’s part of our history, but we’re not going to put that on a sign out on the street because it’s misunderstood,” Cumming said.