Lenten Reflections on a Confederate General

. Posted in Pastor's Blog

I imagine all of us are familiar with the controversy swirling in our area over the renaming of Memphis parks that previously honored (or at least commemorated) those who fought on the side of the confederacy during the Civil War. One of these parks near the UT medical district was named for the confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. At the heart of the park is the statue of General Forrest mounted on his trusty steed with the confident look of a man watching his troops about to claim victory over the enemy.

As an article in Sunday’s The Commercial Appeal observed, students of history are still not sure about many of the facts of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life. But this they do know: he was a slave trader in Memphis before the war, a brilliant military tactician during the war, and one of the founding members of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Oh, and something else…in his later years, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Cumberland Presbyterian.

Also, according to one historian, in his later years Forrest mellowed some. He may even have had a change of heart. As one contributor to the CA article noted, “Forrest disavowed the Klan’s racial hatred and actually advocated for ‘social as well as political advancement for blacks.’”

Even so, the Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Memphis park celebrates the earlier incarnation of the man—the former slave trader who fought (albeit brilliantly) to maintain the practice of buying, selling, and owning human beings. Certainly he was shaped by his times, as, in one way or another, we all are. But the Nathan Bedford Forrest that is most remembered, and that the Ku Klux Klan celebrates to this day, is one whose legacy should not be celebrated in this or any other community.

That said, I am intrigued by evidence that Forrest did have a change of heart as the result of a conversion experience near the time he came into the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. During this season of Lent, in which repentance and renewal in the way of Jesus is the focus, we are reminded that our earlier incarnations don’t have to be the last word. We are not bound to the mistakes and sins of our pasts. There is grace and the Spirit inviting us on a new adventure of faith no matter what our age.

Many of us will recall another former slave trader named John Newton who had a major course correction in the middle of his life, inspiring the words we often sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.”

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