A Virginia Military Institute physics professor was walking to church one Sunday morning with a friend. The friend knew that the professor, Major Thomas Jackson, had received a letter from his fiancée in North Carolina the previous evening. He asked Jackson, “Major, surely you have read your letter?”
Jackson replied by tapping the pocket of his coat and saying, “Assuredly not.”
The astonished friend exclaimed, “What obstinacy! Don’t you know that your curiosity to learn its contents will distract your attention from divine worship far more than if you had read it?”
Jackson answered sincerely, “No. I shall make the most faithful effort I can to govern my thoughts and guard them from unnecessary distraction; and as I do this from a sense of duty, I expect the divine blessing upon it.” With this statement of purpose, Jackson entered the house of God to worship the Lord with the congregation. He later testified that his spiritual enjoyment of the singing and preaching were especially great on that Lord’s Day.
On Monday morning, he unsealed the letter from his fiancée and read its contents with great delight, satisfied that he had done his duty on the Sabbath Day in focusing his delight upon the things of God.
This small glimpse into Jackson’s honoring the Sabbath was not an isolated event in his life. Everyone who knew Thomas Jonathan Jackson regarded him as a man who firmly kept the Lord’s Day set apart to the service of God. Some of Jackson’s Christian friends did not share the strictness of his convictions, and some even criticized him for these decisions. For example, the man would not mail a letter that he calculated would be in transit on Sunday. In fact, Jackson often spoke against “Sabbath mails,” as they were called, and petitioned officials that Sunday mails be ceased.
Jackson would permit no secular conversation, even in the private confines of his home. If someone brought up a matter of politics or business on the Lord’s Day, Jackson would say with a kindly smile, “We will talk about that tomorrow.” He kept his standards firmly and consistently in his own home, without ever imposing his own views upon others.
Jackson organized and led a Sunday School class for the slaves of the neighboring farms around Lexington, Virginia, where he lived and worked. Sundays were busy for him, but he always delighted in doing the Lord’s work on the Lord’s Day.
Many of Jackson’s closest friends considered him a fanatic in other areas besides Sabbath observance. He never drank a glass of water without prayer. He refused to pick an apple from another man’s tree without permission. He would not sit down at a desk out of a belief that it was not good for his digestion. Instead, Jackson would stand while studying. He did not read his textbooks by candlelight, believing that it was not good for his eyes. Instead, he would gaze at a blank wall while mentally reviewing his lessons for the following day, rigorously concentrating his full attention in the mental effort.
But those who smiled behind his back and whispered about his strange ways would be glad that they knew him. “Stonewall Jackson” one day became a household name throughout the South as well as the North. On a dozen battlefields during the American Civil War, now General Jackson sought the blessing of the Lord of Hosts as a commander himself. He achieved remarkable victories while gaining a reputation as a tactical battlefield genius that endures to this day. The Shenandoah Valley Campaign is still studied in modern military academies as a specimen of the amazing performance of a smaller army against overwhelming odds.
Yet, in the midst of all his military battles, he never forgot the Lord’s Day or the service of God’s house. On the evening after acquiring his nickname “Stonewall” for his brave stand at the First Battle of Manassas, in his tent Jackson wrote a letter to his pastor. With the letter he enclosed a check for the Sunday School class that he dearly loved. He did not mention in his missive his own heroic actions on that day.
General Jackson did his best to avoid battle on the Lord’s Day. However, he also recognized that Joshua and his men marched seven days around Jericho. Thus, Jackson did march and fight on a Sunday when he believed that the good of his country demanded it. But most Sundays found the general attending a field meeting where a chaplain or an invited minister of the Gospel would preach to the assembled troops. Under God’s blessing and encouraged by General Jackson and other like-minded Christian officers, a mighty revival swept through General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the middle years of the war. Hundreds came to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Jackson was severely wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863, his wife and daughter were summoned to be near him. The wound required his left arm be amputated; afterward, Jackson showed signs of recovery. But pneumonia set in while in his weakened condition, and Jackson gradually began losing strength. He was comforted by his wife, Mary Anna, who would sing his favorite hymns to him or read aloud passages from Scripture. His young daughter, Julia, was a delight for him, bringing him joy as she would sit upon his bed.
Jackson’s final day on earth was Sunday, May 10, 1863. On that morning, Jackson’s wife broke the news to him that the doctors thought that he would die that very day. Jackson resigned himself to God’s will saying, “I have always wanted to die on a Sunday.” One of the last topics of conversation with his wife was the blessing and beauty of the Lord’s Day.
General Stonewall Jackson’s final words gave hope and peace to his grieving wife, as he testified of the eternal rest in the presence of the Lord Jesus that awaits the people of God: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”