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Prayer Warriors: Virginia Military Institute and the Legacy of Francis H. Smith

By Rick Williams
November 01, 2003
"There is no part of my life that I look back upon with
more real pleasure than the cadets' prayer meetings."
Major-General Francis H. Smith, LL.D. - First Superintendent of VMI1 "Whether [the cadets] agree with the prayers or not, they are exposed to these prayers and they, in fact, are encouraged in a heavy-handed fashion in this religious exercise."
Steve Benen, spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of church and State.2

Virginia Military Institute has, since its founding, enjoyed a reputation for being one of the most outstanding military schools in the United States. So well revered was this reputation, especially in Virginia, that it was common knowledge that a graduate of VMI had a ticket to just about any career he desired. I said, "was." Though the school's academic standards and military atmosphere are still worthy of admiration, it's not the school it was just ten years ago.

Geldings
Over the past decade, the school has come under increasing fire — and this time it's not from Union soldiers, though I would argue it is from their spiritual heirs. But that's another article. First the feminist groups, along with George Bush the elder's justice department, successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to force VMI to enroll women in 1996. Now that VMI has been neutered and feminized, the ACLU has turned its guns on VMI's "non-sectarian" mealtime prayers. The whole dispute began when two students were "offended" by the blessing over supper. The prayer mentions God, but not Jesus Christ. VMI lost the challenge before Judge Norman K. Moon of the U. S. District Court, Western District of Virginia, then appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which dutifully refused to hear the case and left the lower court's ruling to stand — we've heard it all before, haven't we? Of course, Virginia's Attorney General Jerry Kilgore promises to fight this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Frankly, I doubt there's much hope there, but it is Kilgore's duty and my prayers (which, I guess, are still legal) are with him. So, in recent years, arguably one of the best schools in the nation has had two of its most prominent and long-standing traditions tossed out like rotten garbage. In with girls, out with God. As C.S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man: "We castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful."

It is indeed a very sad thing to observe a once great culture crumble — one institution at a time. It would almost seem more merciful if it just all happened overnight. Slow death is painful.

The great school that once produced men of the caliber of George Patton and George Marshall has lost much of its uniqueness. As Bob Munno, 42, a New York businessman and 1981 VMI graduate so appropriately asked, "Why would anybody go there now?"3 Good question. The question is akin to one I hear many Christians asking themselves today � "Why even try to save the culture?" Another good question. And we have a good answer — the witness and testimony of Scripture gives us hope, not to mention the commandments of God.

"It is history that teaches us to hope," Robert E. Lee once wrote. The history of the church and the gospel throughout the ages is one of constant struggle: evil vs. good, dark vs. light, Christ vs. Satan. As with much going on in our culture today, it is always instructive to look at history and see how and when certain practices and traditions originated. Knowing history will better equip us to defend and apply our faith to every aspect of our lives. The history of the church and its epic struggle will give us hope. The story of VMI is but a microcosm of this conflict and represents an excellent case study of how Christians have forgotten their heritage.

Our courts, along with most present day historians, are revolutionary in nature. They are rewriting our history in order to discredit and defame Christianity and the wisdom of our Fathers. It is our duty to combat this with historical truth in order to combat evil and win the hearts of others. Christ embodies truth (Jn. 14:6) and despite what we may think or see, we know the truth will eventually triumph. So what of the spiritual history of VMI? More specifically, what, if any, association has this Spartan military school had with Christianity, and what can we learn from this grossly modernized institution?

Grand Beginnings
Although the mealtime prayer was not officially instituted until the 1950s, VMI's spiritual moorings were well established at its founding. John Thomas Lewis Preston, a brother-in-law and close confidante of Stonewall Jackson, was the primary impetus for the founding of VMI in 1839. It was Preston who named the school and who served as the school's first teacher of languages.4 Preston was a prominent attorney and businessman in Lexington. He was also a committed Christian and fellow churchman of Jackson's.5 Preston served as the Sunday school superintendent of the Lexington Presbyterian church, and it was Preston who helped Jackson undertake the Confederate General's now famous Sunday school for blacks in 1855. The idea for VMI was born in the heart of a believer. Moreover, VMI's first superintendent, Frances Henney Smith, conducted daily Bible studies in his office and introduced the tradition of handing out Bibles to each graduating cadet; a tradition that continues to this day. (That practice is probably on the ACLU's radar as well.) Smith would often inscribe the following words in these Bibles: "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."6 Smith was a devout Episcopalian believer and was also instrumental in founding the church where Robert E. Lee served as vestryman. Smith would serve VMI for fifty years as superintendent, and his influence is still felt today. While it is true that VMI was not founded specifically as a Christian school, it is important to remember that Christianity was so much a part of American culture in the 19th century that certain duties and responsibilities regarding Christianity were assumed, especially when it came to the moral conduct of the young:

"There is no part of the duty of the superintendent which weighs so heavily upon his mind and heart," Smith wrote in the 1859 annual report, "as that connected with the control… of the moral conduct of those committed to his charge."7 Smith took his duty seriously, instituting the tradition of mandatory (unless excused by parents) church attendance on the Sabbath:

By the regulations of the Virginia Military Institute, it was enjoined that "Duties appropriate for the Sabbath, including attendance on Divine service, which shall be imperative, shall be prescribed by the Superintendent, and each cadet shall be required to conform thereto." 8

Smith was of the opinion that VMI was an extension of the home and that:

… [T]he school stood in loco parentis, and must enjoin all those duties for the Sabbath, which, in a well-regulated Christian home might properly be required by the parent…. Thus the foundation was laid for systematic religious instruction, under the authority and sanction of law; and upon this foundation without varying the slightest particular, the cadets have been trained year by year, and class by class, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. 9

It is worth noting that U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon, who ruled against VMI, used the word "indoctrination," i.e., "brainwashing," when referring to the simple mealtime prayers. That term is in stark contrast to the word "instruction" used by Smith, which further exposes our courts' contempt for Christian influences.

In the early 1840s, Smith, along with Major Preston, instituted "Bible recitations" every Sunday, along with organized prayer meetings for the cadets. These meetings were conducted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, "and sometimes on Sunday" in Smith's office. Smith's dedication to these prayer meetings and the principles of Christian education bore much fruit over the years as Smith indicated: "Great good was done to the young Christian by strengthening the sense of his duty to God. Others were brought into the meeting, and some of these made a profession of religion." There were also at least five "seasons of revival" at VMI. Smith makes particular note of the revival that occurred in 1869, writing that, "… some eighty cadets made a profession of religion." Smith writes further of the fruits of the prayer meetings: "Through the influence of these meetings nearly 250 cadets have been brought into the church, some of whom entered the ministry, and have made useful members of Gospel ministry."10

Though some of the local staunch Presbyterians opposed Smith's "proselytizing," Smith noted that the meetings were "purely voluntary, and in no respect compulsory." Many local citizens supported the efforts, including Mrs. Robert E. Lee, who sent gospel tracts for distribution among the cadets.11 Parents, too, were appreciative of Smith's efforts as some of Smith's correspondence indicates he kept them informed of their sons' spiritual progress. One letter in particular poignantly illustrates Smith's sincerity in reaching the cadets with the gospel:

A most wonderful work of divine grace is in progress at this time among our young men. Among those under conviction is your son. He has been regularly attending our prayer meetings of late, and I have an appointment with him…on the momentous question, "what shall I do to be saved?"12

Current Cultural Trends
As readers of this journal know, history unerringly shows that Christianity produces a higher caliber institution and culture. Since its founding, VMI has been able to produce the "citizen soldier" committed to "duty, honor, country" because of the rich Christian heritage that God blessed it with. This is the story behind the attack upon VMI. It is an attack upon Christianity, though most involved are not even aware of the shadowy forces at work here (Eph. 6:12). Of course, VMI is, and has always been, a state supported institution and most would argue that is the problem. Since the courts now worship the inviolable (though unknown to our nation's founders) legal creed of "separation of church and state," any fight to establish any "official" Christian influence in a state supported institution of any kind is sadly, but predictably, a lost cause. The courageous Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama is just the latest example of how entrenched this ideology has become. Even I was shocked at how quickly "conservative" Christians, commentators, and others who claim to believe in "original intent," sanctimoniously spouted off about the "rule of law" and left Judge Moore twisting in the wind as they ran off to the next Republican fund-raiser.

One of the reasons this sad state of affairs has come about is because of the general naiveté of professing Christians. I dare say that 90% of those reading this piece were not aware of the extent of VMI's Christian heritage. The truth has always been there, but its being distorted, covered up, hidden. I grew up and now live only a half-hour from the VMI campus, so I've had a keen interest in what has happened to the school since the radical left targeted it for "modernization." I've read dozens of editorials and news articles about the court challenge to prayer, many from conservative Christian writers. But I've yet to see one writer mention this aspect of VMI's history and the stalwart Christians that were instrumental in its founding. Is it any wonder we continue to lose these battles? We Christians must know our history. Only by arming ourselves with the truth of the gospel and the truth of our nation's Christian heritage, can we hope to influence the culture in any meaningful way. For it is history that teaches us to hope.

Notes

1. Francis H. Smith, History of the Virginia Military Institute (Lynchburg: J.P. Bell Company, 1912), p. 257.

2. Jason Pierce, "Court Rules No Prayer at Supper for Military Cadets," www.aclj.org, January 25, 2002.

3. Chris Kahn, "VMI Alumni Upset About Prayer Ruling," Richmond-Times Dispatch, January, 26, 2002.

4. Henry A. Wise, Drawing Out the Man - The VMI Story (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), p. 11.

5. Preston also fought with Jackson for the Confederacy.

6. Edwin L. Dooley, "Gilt Buttons and the Collegiate Way." Virginia Cavalcade, Summer issue, 1986, 34.

7. Dooley, p. 33.

8. Smith, p. 83.

9. Ibid.

10. Smith, p. 256.

11. Ibid., p. 258.

12. VMI Archives: Letter (March 1, 1856) from VMI's Superintendent Francis H. Smith to the mother of Cadet John J. Smith, in which he discusses Cadet Smith's religious awakening.


Topics: American History, Culture , Education

Rick Williams

Rick Williams is a businessman, writer, and publisher (VirginiaGentleman.com). He is the author of The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen, published by Pelican Publishing (ISBN 9781589803107) and co-authored Christian Business Legends published by the Business Reform Foundation (BusinessReform.com). He does not advocate secession but he would like to be left alone.

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