“He is your friend who pushes you nearer to God.”
The year 2007 is an historic year here in Virginia. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and the 200th birthday of the greatest Christian soldier ever produced in America: Robert E. Lee. This year also marks special anniversaries of a number of lesser-known Virginia events: the 140th anniversary of the construction of Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University and the 140th anniversary of the founding of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond. Sixth Mount Zion was founded by the famous slave preacher, John Jasper, and was, at one time, the largest African-American church in the postbellum South.
It is often in these lesser-known historical events where God does some of His greatest work. Such is the case with a little-known Presbyterian elder who was born in November of 1807. As with Lee, 2007 marks John Blair Lyle’s 200th birthday. While most readers know of Robert E. Lee, I doubt many have ever heard of Lyle. But had it not been for Blair’s path providentially crossing that of Thomas J. Jackson’s, it is doubtful whether Lee and Jackson would have ever formed their “model partnership” and if anyone would have ever heard of the man who was to become “Stonewall.”
John Blair Lyle1 was a pillar of the Lexington Presbyterian Church. Born into a family with a rich Christian heritage,2 young John Lyle had been raised to love three things—the person of Jesus Christ, His church, and books. His pastor, William Spottswood White, noted that, “He was a great reader of books on practical divinity, and especially the word of God.”3 A bookseller by trade, the genial and hospitable bachelor was beloved by many in Lexington. Henry Boley, a man who would one day come to own Lyle’s bookstore, aptly described his predecessor: “He was a bachelor, a bookseller, a man of middle age, well connected, but with small fortune, who devoted nearly the whole of his leisure to the spiritual interests of his charge. He was constantly the friend of the afflicted, the restorer of the wayward, the counselor of the doubting, a true shepherd of the sheep and his inward Christian life was elevated as his outward was active.”4
From the Virginia Military Institute and Washington College students to some of the most prominent leaders in Virginia, all gathered daily at Lyle’s bookstore on Main Street to seek spiritual advice and to discuss the weighty issues of theology, current events, and politics. A chance visit to Lyle’s bookstore would often find an illustrious group of men gathered around the counter. Dr. William S. White (Lyle’s and Jackson’s pastor), Daniel Harvey Hill (future Confederate general), Francis Smith (Virginia Military Institute superintendent), John T. L. Preston (prominent local attorney, founder of VMI, and confidant of Jackson’s), John Letcher (Virginia’s governor during the Civil War5), and Virginia’s first superintendent of public education, William H. Ruffner6—all visited Lyle’s bookstore often and all were influenced, to one degree or another, by the earnest and wise but affable Lyle.
This eclectic assembly of prominent and esteemed Virginia gentlemen became close friends that one observer recalled as a “lively, inquisitive … close-knit group that loved a lilting song, a witty conversation.”7 Francis Smith once noted that among these visitors to Lyle’s establishment there “always existed the most pleasant and friendly relations.” Another customer referred to Lyle’s bookstore as “a sort of clubhouse in which assembled frequently the professional men of the town, the professors and officers of the College and Institute, and every genteel young man in the community.” As many of them met at Lyle’s bookstore—“iron sharpening iron”—in rich, vigorous conversation and debate, it is apparent God was preparing them, both intellectually and spiritually, for what lay just ahead in the next decade. Little did these men know that death and the gathering political storm would soon separate them and end their earthly fellowship. Yet the collective influence this small but select group of Christian men had on the history of Virginia is staggering to consider.
John Lyle was that type of unique man that God raises up from time to time whose influence, though obscure and unsung, is profound and lingering. His influence on Thomas Jackson was such that Jackson’s wife wrote: “The story of Major Jackson’s life in Lexington would be lacking in one important link of the chain without the mention of his dear and honored Christian friend, Mr. John B. Lyle, to whom he was more indebted for spiritual profit than to any one else except his pastor.”8
Lyle was not known for his business acumen. According to William Ruffner, his Uncle John was “too fond of society, too jovial, too philanthropic to care much for money, or to be an attentive business man. It made him happier to give than to make; and the size of his gifts was measured by his feelings, rather than by his ability.”9 Lyle’s nephew called his uncle’s establishment an “automatic bookstore”—Lyle often left the store unlocked and unattended while he went about the community doing the Lord’s work. He would simply leave a slate at the store “with a request lying on the counter to the effect that if anyone wanted anything in the store he could take it, provided he would make the proper entry on the slate.”
Lyle had a burning desire to see souls brought to Christ, and speaking to others about their spiritual needs came as natural to him as breathing. White saw Lyle’s winsome ways used by God in amazing ways:
He was especially faithful and successful in finding cases of religious concern. No man was freer from “fashionable religious cant,” or possessed less austerity. He could speak to any one on personal religion in a way so affable and gentle as to never give offense, and yet so pointed as to learn just what he wanted to know. I have reason to believe that he conversed and prayed with more young men when partially or deeply awakened than any man not in the ministry I ever knew, and with far more than many ministers did. Such cases he always reported to me, and many such he brought to my study. His habit was simply to bring them in and then retire, leaving me to discover their state of mind as best I could.10
Lyle’s innate gift for influencing the young men of the area was legendary. His Christian witness caused many of them to consider the destiny of their eternal souls and to seek Christ. This influence upon the young men of Lexington directly benefited Dr. White’s family:
“It was by him that I was first made acquainted with the case of General Jackson, and also that of two of my own sons. I have reason to regard him as, in a great degree, the spiritual father of these two sons, one of whom is now a preacher of the gospel and the other is in heaven.”11
Dr. White’s multi-generational vision and the positive impact his family had for the cause of Christ is quite remarkable, as Robert Hunter noted in his history of the Lexington Presbyterian Church:
Dr. Henry M. White, youngest son of the Reverend William S. White, held a long and notable pastorate at Winchester. His son, in turn, Hugh W. White, graduated from Washington and Lee (1889) and Union Theological Seminary, and entered the China mission field in 1894. During his fourth decade of service in the 1920’s, White feared that the Communist movement “if unchecked will undermine Christian civilization.” By the end of the 1980’s, it was Communism, not Christianity, that was beginning to crumble, due in no small measure to the spiritual labors of these dedicated missionaries to China.12
The influence and friendship of one man can have historic implications. As Dr. George Grant has written, “That is one of the great lessons of history. It is simply that in the providence of God, ordinary people are ultimately the ones who determine the outcome of human events.”13
The secret of Lyle’s success as a Christian, and the impact he had upon others, was his intimate relationship with Christ. “The true source of the divine life this good man led was his faith. His acceptance of every jot and tittle of the word of God, his reliance upon the scheme of salvation revealed in the gospel, were literally unqualified and unwavering. Neither the speculations of the fanciful nor the cavils of the skeptic weighed a feather with him. He habitually went from his closet to the prayer-meeting, the church, and even on visits to his friends.”14
Thus it was easy for this man to win the confidence of the cautious Thomas J. Jackson when Jackson arrived at Lexington in mid-August, 1851. Lyle lived at his bookstore in a furnished room at the rear of the building. This arrangement saved Lyle the additional expense of maintaining a home; money that he gave to his church and to those in need. The hotel where Jackson stayed in his early days at Lexington was across the street from Lyle’s bookstore. Jackson’s love of books drew him to Lyle, and Jackson “rarely passed a day without a visit to Mr. Lyle’s sanctum.”15 During these visits, the conversation often turned to religion and eternal truths. It did not take long for Jackson and Lyle to become devoted and intimate friends.
Lyle was instrumental in convincing Jackson of the power of prayer—a practice for which Jackson would become legendary. The two friends discussed the subject of prayer often, Lyle lending Jackson books on the subject. Maggie Preston once wrote that Lyle had,
“…put into Jackson’s hands a little volume illustrative of the power of prayer … It was the recorded experience of an humble English soldier, most of whose life had been passed in the army, and who, on retiring from service, devoted himself to the establishment of Sunday schools among the neglected purlieus [suburbs] of London, which in time grew up in Christian churches. This man’s experience of the power of prayer was of the most remarkable character, very similar to that of Franke’s, the originator of the famous Halle Orphan Schools. I allude to this book because of the peculiar manner in which it arrested Jackson’s mind; for so frequently did he afterwards revert to it, that it was evident its influence was far-reaching and lasting. Thus the simple act of the devout elder may have had a traceable bearing upon the brilliant successes and achievements of the Christian hero!”16
These achievements included Jackson’s gospel efforts on behalf of Lexington blacks, as well as his military feats. Jackson attributed his dramatic victories over astounding odds to the “divine blessings of God” in answer to prayer. Could it be that this joyful, obscure bibliophile living in the back room of a dusty bookstore, giving away much of his own substance was, at least in part, responsible for Jackson’s astounding battlefield successes? Could it be that this “little volume” was also one of the inspirations for Jackson’s famous black Sunday school?
On November 2, 1856, Lyle suffered a stroke that paralyzed him on his left side. He was taken to the house of his close friend, J. T. L. Preston with whom he would live for the remaining two years of his life. The day after his stroke, Jackson wrote to a relative that he believed Lyle “would soon bid farewell to this world.” Lyle improved somewhat over the following weeks, though he never regained his full health. This attack occurred during the time of the great revival of 1856. Given Lyle’s reputation for prayer and concern over spiritual matters, it is not unlikely that he carried such a burden of prayer during this “season of revival” that the load was more than his body could endure. Lyle’s condition began a second decline sometime in 1857, though Dr. White noted that, “his powers of speech were spared him until very near the end.” Even in declining health, Lyle’s mind and spirit remained strong. He retained the joy of his salvation and influenced others as White noted:
“His sick room was frequented by large numbers of warmly attached friends. His intercourse with such was characterized by what I must call a sanctified cheerfulness which made his room like a vestibule of heaven. Truly it was good to be there.”17
Finally, on July 20, 1858, “a final stroke removed him to a better world.” Major Preston was, at that time, acting superintendent of VMI and issued a special order praising Lyle’s constant support of the institute. Though Lyle “died as he lived, the fearless, faithful servant of God,” he also died a pauper. The sum total of his estate after all debts were paid was $40.92.18 Lyle did receive a decent burial, nonetheless. J. T. L. Preston donated space from his family plot in the Lexington Presbyterian Church cemetery19 and paid for his tombstone upon which is inscribed the following words: “He was the truest friend, the bravest man, and the best Christian ever known to him who erects this stone to his memory.”20
Henry Boley’s description of Lyle is perhaps the best epitaph: “Under a warm appeal, he would plunge his hand into his pantaloons pocket, which was his money—drawer, and bring out a handful of silver change and drop it in the collection basket. He died about the time he reached the bottom of his pocket. But while his chief book account was that of profit and loss, his moral record was rich in words and deeds … no better friend ever watched over the weak and erring. He was indifferent to money because of his greater regard for the salvation of men.”21 Lyle’s mortal remains sleep peacefully today, in a borrowed grave, next to his dear friend, J. T. L. Preston. Within a few steps also sleep many of those robust Christian gentlemen who frequented Lyle’s “automatic bookstore” for fellowship, debate, and a “lilting song.” Over Jackson’s dust, his life-size statue keeps a close guard over those with whom he shared so many hours of camaraderie: Dr. William S. White, Governor Letcher, VMI Superintendent Francis Smith, and Lyle’s nephew, William H. Ruffner, along with so many others whose names, though forgotten by history, are recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Jackson’s silent watch-care is aided by the land he so loved; as he once wrote his wife: “Here the mountains keep watch and guard around the home and the tombs of those who were dearest to me on earth.” Beneath the canopy of ancient oaks, in the centuries-old cemetery, these dead in Christ patiently await the resurrection. Their headstones, worn by the ravages of time, stand as silent sentinels to the truth that friendships, though temporal, have eternal consequences.
1. John Blair Lyle should not be confused with Lt. John Newton Lyle, of the 4th Virginia, CSA, who fought under Jackson’s command.
2. Lyle’s father was Captain William Lyle, a veteran of America’s War for Independence, trustee of Washington College, and elder in Timber Ridge (Presbyterian) Church. Lyle’s father also became one of the first High Sheriffs of Rockbridge County. The Lyles of Rockbridge County had emigrated from Ireland, and many of the clan became missionaries and pastors.
3. Rev. William S. White, D.D., Rev. William S. White, D.D., And His Times—An Autobiography (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication , 1891), 142.
4. Henry Boley, Lexington in Old Virginia (Lexington, VA: Liberty Hall Press, 1936), 96.
5. Letcher was, prior to Virginia’s vote for secession, a staunch Unionist, but Lincoln’s request for Virginia to supply troops “to subjugate the Southern States” was more than Virginia’s governor was willing to tolerate.
6. Ruffner was Lyle’s nephew. Ruffner is to be credited with starting the first black Presbyterian Sunday school in Lexington. From 1849–1851, he served as chaplain at the University of Virginia. Ruffner’s father, Dr. Henry Ruffner, was a Presbyterian clergyman and one time president of Washington College.
7. Roster Lyle, Jr., “John Blair of Lexington and His Automatic Bookstore” Virginia Cavalcade, Richmond, Autumn 1971, 23.
8. Mary Anna Jackson, Life and Letters of Stonewall Jackson—By His Wife (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1892 reprint), 79.
9. Lyle, 20.
10. White, 140.
11. Ibid. Captain Hugh A. White, the fifth son of Dr. White, was a member of the “Liberty Hall Volunteers” and part of the immortal Stonewall Brigade. Before the war, he co-labored in Jackson’s Sunday school class. He was killed at Second Manassas and, according to Jackson, “fell, sword in hand, gallantly cheering on his men.”
12. Robert Hunter, Lexington Presbyterian Church, 1789–1989 (Lexington, VA: Lexington Presbyterian Church, 1991), 133.
13. George Grant and Karen Grant, Letters Home (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1997), 45.
14. White, 142.
15. Lyle, 23.
16. Elizabeth Preston Allan, The Life and Letters of Margaret Junkin Preston (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), 81.
17. White, 142.
18. Lyle, 27.
19. Today, this cemetery is known as the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.
20. Lyle, 27.
21. Boley, 159.