Here’s my July column for the award-winning @HollandSentinel:
With all of the interest right now in taking down monuments and statues in public spaces, I want to speak up for one, which has had an outsized impact on my life.
First, though, I should explain that I have no problem with taking down monuments and statues honoring Civil War figures. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, and Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate Armies, led an armed rebellion against the United States, in defense of slavery, that resulted in 620,000 American casualties. (For comparison, World War II resulted in a little more than 405,000 American casualties.)
Davis and Lee would have been hung as traitors after Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, but Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant decided that allowing them (and their armies) to go home was a better long-term choice for the country. Honoring Davis and Lee with monuments and statues, however, is nothing less than an attempt to rewrite history. I have no time for traitors to our country and don’t want to look at statues which honor them.
Monuments and statues that honor Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington are more problematic. Jefferson and Washington were slaveowners who knew at some level that owning slaves was wrong. Jackson and Roosevelt were racists, no doubt, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by Jackson, led to the forced relocation of around 60,000 Native Americans, one of the most shameful acts in American history, now remembered (mainly by Native Americans) as the “Trail of Tears.”
I don’t have an easy answer to the problem of monuments and statues which honor these men, but I believe that the conversation is an important one for our country to have, if we can find a way to have it.
The monument that has had an impact on my life was more of a plaque than a statue. Outside the dining hall where I enjoyed three meals each day during my seminary years were four plaques honoring classmates who gave their lives in service to their ordination vows. No one called them martyrs, but that’s what they were. Each time we passed these plaques we were reminded that one day our call to ministry might require something similar from us.
When Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” he was thinking of someone like Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who is honored on one of those four plaques. Lovejoy was a Presbyterian pastor, journalist, newspaper editor, and abolitionist. I took particular interest in him because I was a writer and at one point had considered a career in journalism. (I must have decided that a career as a pastor would be more financially lucrative.)
Lovejoy graduated from Princeton Seminary and was ordained in 1833. As far as I know, he never served a church as pastor. His call was to the printed word. After ordination, he became a newspaper editor in St. Louis. He wrote editorials critical of the Catholic Church, liquor, and tobacco, but it was his editorials about slavery that drew the attention of most readers. Slave owning was legal in Missouri at the time, and slave owners were convinced that they would be economically disadvantaged if slavery were abolished.
Lovejoy’s printing presses were destroyed on several occasions, but he refused to change his views. After the third riot, Lovejoy resigned his position and moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, nominally a free state, where he continued to write about his anti-slavery views. In 1837 a white mob once again destroyed his printing press, but this time they dragged him to the street and shot him five times, killing him. This was after he reminded them that he was a hardworking and God-fearing citizen who had broken no laws. Presbyterians in Alton were so fearful of the pro-slavery mob that they buried Lovejoy in an unmarked grave, and no memorial service was held.
I have thought often about Lovejoy over the years. I wondered mainly if I used my position, privilege, and authority to speak out on behalf of those in this country who couldn’t speak for themselves. The truth is, I was no Elijah Parish Lovejoy. One of the regrets of my life has been that I was often too timid and fearful when I should have been bold and fearless.
Monuments and statues can serve an important purpose. They can remind us about what we admire most and what we should aspire to be.