National Cathedral faces calls to remove windows with Confederate generals

By Adelle M. Banks
Posted Oct 28, 2016

[Religion News Service] After quietly removing panes bearing the Confederate flag from its stained-glass windows, leaders of the Washington National Cathedral are now wondering what to do about remaining images of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

“How can you justify having those windows in a house of God?” challenged Riley Temple, a former board member of the Washington National Cathedral’s foundation.

Andrew Goldkuhle of Goldkuhle Studios in Hanover, Virginia., inspects and replaces stained glass images of the Confederate battle flag at Washington National Cathedral. Photo: Danielle Thomas/ Washington National Cathedral

Andrew Goldkuhle of Goldkuhle Studios in Hanover, Virginia., inspects and replaces stained glass images of the Confederate battle flag at Washington National Cathedral. Photo: Danielle Thomas/ Washington National Cathedral

Temple was one of several audience members who spoke on Wednesday (Oct. 26) during a series of discussions the cathedral is holding on racial justice. Also present was a scholar of Civil War history and an expert from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The stained-glass window debate comes at a time of soul-searching in America over the legacy of slavery and renewed calls to purge public places of the Confederate flag that is for many a symbol of oppression.

The windows honoring the Confederate generals were added in 1953 with the support of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that sought to honor the memory of veterans who fought for the South.

Under the Robert E. Lee window there is language etched in stone that calls him “a Christian soldier without fear and without reproach.” And under Jackson, it says he “walked humbly before his Creator whose word was his guide.”

Cathy Ball, who attends another Episcopal church in Washington, said the windows should stay.

“Our history in the United States, in America, is a history of oppression through the very beginning, the oppression of native peoples, the oppression of enslaved peoples, the oppression of immigrants,” she said.

“If we erase every trace of that terrible history, what would we have left?”

The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at the cathedral, said she hopes the leaders will avoid the “easy route” of a take-them-down or leave-them-up decision.

“I really want to do the hard work of becoming a different kind of community, and pointing a way to how we can become that,” said Douglas, also a religion professor at Goucher College.

Nadine Wedderburn, an associate professor at Empire State College in Schenectady, N.Y., who has studied forgiveness and race relations, said discussions like the cathedral’s can be beneficial.

“People can get to air their view, share their different side of the story, as it were, and begin to get at the heart of what separates and divides us,” she said. “That is one step further towards the progress of healing and reconciliation.”


Comments (23)

  1. Elizabeth Gwin says:

    Please don’t. They are part of our history.

    1. The Rev. Donna Scott says:

      I agree . we need to own our shadow side and claim our historical legacies and deal with each other better, not use surrogates from the past as substitutes.


    History is interpretation, but it should also seek, in a cathedral, reconciling truth. Are there panes to counterbalance these two remaining ones, and can a wider story be told about injustice in US history, and the loss of lives due to slavery and the civil war? I think you can do this. Maybe ask your neighbours at Wash DC’s African American Museum for guidance in telling stories of endurance and faith.

  3. Wm Thomas Martin says:

    It would be a mistake to remove these windows from the Cathedral for they tell a story that belongs to us as a people and a nation. We are our past as well as our future, we belong to Adam as much as we belong to Christ, and to let go of the historical memory of our original sin(s) as a nation would be a terrible mistake. We must remember who we were so that we may continue to grow in grace.

  4. Ronald L. Reed says:

    Slippery Slope: What would the deep criterion be? Fighting for the Confederacy, supporting slavery, racism? If it were the latter, how many images would really have to be removed? How much of our ecclesiastical and civil historic reality and our need to be confronted with it would disappear in order to be by some standard, to be the new “proper,” called politically correct.

  5. Malcolm Andrew Johnston says:

    The remaining windows — those honoring Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson — should be kept in place. The last thing we should do is to wash away history that we have come to regret. As a house of God Washington National Cathedral must reflect our sins as a nation as well as our good deeds. Honesty is more important than political correctness.

  6. Riley Temple says:

    The National Cathedral is not a “public square” — a place to learn about and to debate history – especially the secular history that is unrelated to its ecclesiastical functions. It is a Church, that proclaims itself to be a house of worship for all people. The windows honor two men, neither of whom was known for his religious devotion or good spiritual deeds, who fought to preserve the American system of chattel slavery. Their fight to maintain slavery is precisely and solely why they are honored in that Cathedral. Is it appropriate for the National Cathedral to honor that? The only plausible purpose in having the windows is if the Cathedral would use the windows as means of exploring the sin of slavery, and its deplorable legacy in this country and in the Church. There are many ways to do so. But again, this is not the place. Simply proclaming that the windows are “our history” of the Civil War is insufficient. The windows tell a story — and that story is to celebrate slavery.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Riley, I’m not sure on what basis you assert that either Lee and Jackson were not “known for his religious devotion or good spiritual deeds” but you cannot be more wrong. Many, many books of scholarly quality prove the entire opposite. If Lee was such the vagrant then we should wonder why President Lincoln initially offered him command of the Army being raised to occupy the South. The single issue of slavery has been taught so simplistically as to believe that there was the virtuous North and bigoted South. No serious student of the culture and times will support that view. If you take your views to their natural conclusion then you must remove the cathedral’s statue of Lincoln for his fond use of the “N word” and claim that he would not free a single slave if it meant saving the Union. Read the fine print of the Emancipation Proclamation. Haul George Washington away on the same truck. Don’t overlook chipping out the tomb of Woodrow Wilson because it was he that re-segregated many federal agencies – and was well known for very racist views. While busy at that please start tearing the Cathedral itself down because a close examination will show that the money that built it came from some notable people with less-than-pure hearts and motives. I go into this further with comments below. As you can tell, I do not hold to the simplistic views of pure Union virtue combatting a diseased and bigoted South during the 1860s.

  7. Peggy Thompson says:

    These men chose to fight on the side of the south for more reasons then upholding slavery. I have read of Lee’s struggle on choosing where to give allegiance. Often times in life we are called to make choices that are not always easy or clear. In the end we are called to love and be reconciled with our enemy. I think the window should stay as a part of our history, and on going discussion of race, forgiveness, and our need to choose carefully what we support, and to acknowledge that the right path is not always easy or clear, and that sometimes we make bad choices with seemingly good intentions.

  8. Donald Heacock says:

    Sadly The Daughters did not include Leonides Polk Bishop, General. He took a mini ball at Bald Mountain Georgia. Fort Polk is named for him. I worship in a chapel he blessed in 1859. He was a General because he was a West Point. We are all people of our age. I am certain future generations will see our blindNess and wonder how could we.

  9. Paige Smith says:


  10. Linda Webb says:

    Yes the Windows should stay. It a part of history no matter what you think.

  11. Doug Desper says:

    The game of today is to dissect the past with supposedly wiser eyes and purer hearts. But is that so? Think on it. Ever since the first African slave was owned by a free black man in Virginia in the 1600s there were people of good will that wanted slavery/involuntary servitude to end naturally instead of collapsing the economy. The people of the 1600 – 1800s were intertwined with a system of survival dependent on indentured servants and then slaves. The two main reasons that Southerners (and some Northerners) opposed the sudden end to slavery was that it would collapse the economy overnight, throwing the continent into chaos and secondly that a federal army would march through communities to enforce that policy. After the Revolution to the Civil War the federal government stood an army only to defend the nation against foreign invasion. Local militias were the norm in communities. For a federal army to be enlarged to enforce such a policy meant fielding poorly trained recruits with the armed authority to take over communities. Those two reasons sent many Southerners into the fields to stop such a usurpation of rights. Many of those who opposed the instant end to slavery did not own slaves, but they didn’t want bayonets at their back. President Lincoln offered Robert E. Lee the command of such an army but Lee refused after much anguish by stating “Never has a President of the United States sent an army to invade his own country.” Lee joined those who weighed two difficult losing prospects: watch an Army take control of communities and enforce a policy that would cripple millions or resist it. Resist he did. Not because he and so many others were in love with slavery, but because impetuous overreach of the federal government was much worse. Lee would voluntarily free his inherited slaves long before General Grant was moved to do so. Now look at us today. Are we so much purer? We have similar choices to make among losing prospects. Our whole life depends on the misery of others. Our Smart Phone batteries require children to mine in unsafe caves. Our clothing is often made in overseas sweatshops. Just so we won’t pay more at stores the help phone-lines of many businesses are staffed overseas with people making subsistence wages. An examination of such realities shows that we rely on the misery of others to live. People in Lee’s day had terrible choices to make with losing prospects in each one to weigh. Let’s end the “better than” game and start living in our time – and answering up for our own choices. That should keep us occupied for many years. The window? Keep Lee. He saw tyranny and opposed it and set the example of compassion by freeing slaves to his ruination and kneeling by a former slave to take Holy Communion. Keep Jackson. He broke the law by teaching the slaves that he owned how to read, thus showing his neighbors that there has to be new thinking. How are we treating the slaves that we are so dependent on?

  12. Steven Catanich says:

    The windows should stay. We cannot and should not try to wash away the evidence of our country’s transgression of slavery, and the fact that parts of the Episcopal Church benefitted from it. Rather, we should document these stories asd use themm to educate ourselves and those who come after. As the saying goes, those who do not understand history are bound to repeat it.

  13. F William Thewalt says:

    I recall that the USSR, China and other oppressive regimes frequently attempt to re-write history. I would hope that political correctness would not put us in that circumstance. It is our history and we own it, like it or not. The National Cathedral should not become a place which denies our history.

  14. Terry Francis says:

    I could not agree more with the comments already made. Construction of the cathedral was begun in the early 1900’s with the foundation stone being laid in 1907. I am sure most if not all of the white workers involved in its construction had bigoted views of people of color. Do we now apply the wrecking ball to the cathedral because it was built by such people? History clearly states that Lee took command of the Confederate army not because he approved of slavery, (he didn’t) but because his first and foremost allegiance was to his home state of Virginia. Lincoln clearly believed the black man was inferior to the white man and even suggested that blacks should consider leaving the country and start their own colony elsewhere because in his mind blacks and whites were simply too incompatible to live and work together. Do we now remove the statue of Lincoln from the bay that was dedicated to him? Where does if end?

  15. Terry Francis says:

    Sorry – where does IT end

  16. Danielle A. Gaherty says:

    I think the idea of erasing a part of our history and the National Cathedral’s place in that history is not what Episcopalians are about and certainly not what Jesus was about. He did not ignore the past but used it to build up a new way of thinking and a new way to relate to God. If we remove the shameful segments of our history, we have no chance of recognizing when we repeat it.

  17. David Veal says:

    You’d better remove the statute of George Washington too. He owned slaves and defended slavery.
    And what about the biggest racist of all, Woodrow Wilson? Perhaps we should ignore his efforts at peace-making that well might have prevented World War II, dig him up, and desecrate his grave…the racist pig! Lee and Jackson did not see themselves as defending slavery. They were defending their homes and lands and people from a ruthless and violent invasion. Initially, the invasion was for one purpose, as President Lincoln said, “To preserve the Union.” In other words, to impose by violence, a foreign government upon the people and states that had legally left the Union.

  18. Louis Stanley Schoen says:

    My late wife told me that, growing up in Arkansas, she was taught, around 1950, that the South was the only part of the USA that was ever occupied by a foreign power. So, does the church need to honor the memory of leaders who drew the USA into a massive, destructive civil war?

    Whether Lee & Jackson are retained or not, perhaps those windows that used to display Confederate flags could now own up to the fact that the Episcopal Church made some sinful mistakes , including teaching people that slavery was justified.

  19. The Rev'd Robert A. Moore says:

    I really cannot add much to the debate about retaining the said windows. Robert E. Lee was an active Christian and Episcopalian with the parish church in his town of Lexington, VA bearing his name as their dedication. Please do not let them become the object of continuing controversy. There is enough about in the USA as it is.

  20. The Reverend Jasper Green Pennington says:

    The reformers quickly become the deformers! They always have in history. Look at the English Reformation, Henry VIII, the present ISIS. Our history as Americans may not always be agreeable but it is our history and to try to eradicate it (as Indian names) belittles our humanity.

  21. Jalane Schmidt says:

    We as a nation (and those of us who are members of Christian churches) definitely need to face (not forget) our collective painful, sinful history. But it is possible to remember the Civil War in other ways than with stained glass windows which laud defenders of a white supremacist republic. How about a window depicting slaves, and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (black Union soldiers) in the foreground, marching, trampling a Confederate flag underfoot? With that stanza from “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “As he died to make men holy, let us fight to make men free.” (If an image of Lee is to be maintained, he could be depicted surrendering to General Grant.)

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