by Elizabeth Stauffer, The Western Journal October 10, 2020
They are rare.
They may happen once in a lifetime or not at all. They’re God stories, moments of clarity — those occasions when an individual experiences a profound spiritual change. And suddenly, a long-held, deeply ingrained attitude or behavior vanishes and nothing is the same again.
Confederate Army Gen. Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, who earned the nickname “The Wizard of the Saddle” for his aggressive — and highly effective — exploits on the battlefield, and subsequently served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, underwent such a fundamental transformation.
Forrest was born in 1821 in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, the eldest son of a poor blacksmith and his wife. Upon the death of his father 16 years later, Forrest became the man of the house.
A born leader, he seemed to rise to a position of authority in whatever enterprise he was associated with.
Last month, writer David Cloud shared several anecdotes from Forrest’s early life that demonstrate the extremity of his personality.
When his deeply religious mother, whom he loved, was attacked by a cougar, “he got his gun and his hunting dogs, tracked down the beast, treed it, killed it, and cut off its ears to present to his mother as a trophy of revenge,” Cloud wrote in a heavily researched piece for Way of Life Literature, which publishes Bible Study material.
Cloud recounted that Forrest got his start in business with one of his uncles. When he was 24, four brothers “who were seeking payment for a debt” attacked his uncle.
Forrest “shot two of them with a gun and stabbed two with a knife, and only one survived,” he wrote.
According to Cloud, by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, Forrest had already become one of Tennessee’s richest men. He had earned his fortune through various business ventures, including the ownership of two cotton plantations and a thriving slave trading business.
Due to what Cloud called “his genius as a [cavalry] commander,” Forrest rose through the ranks rapidly. His audacity and his successes were legendary.
Cloud wrote that Forrest “killed 31 men during the war in hand-to-hand combat, had 30 horses shot out from under him, and was wounded four times. In one engagement, he fought four men at once and managed to escape. His brilliant tactics enabled him to defeat the larger Union forces repeatedly. General William Tecumseh Sherman named him ‘that devil Forrest’ and called for his death ‘even if it takes 10,000 men and bankrupts the Federal treasury.’
“His battlefield tactics have been studied in war colleges.”
A History.com biography of Forrest described the most heinous act that occurred under his command. Following their capture of a Union garrison during the Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864, Forrest’s men are alleged to have killed 200 soldiers after they had surrendered. A large number of them were black.
Cloud wrote that although “the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed in 1865 … it didn’t prosper until 1867” when it Forrest became its leader.
The KKK, presided over by its new grand wizard, was very active during the 1868 presidential election, and was ultimately responsible for many political assassinations.
“During the election campaign of 1868, there were 336 murders or attempted murders of blacks in Georgia alone to suppress Republican voting,” Cloud wrote.
According to Cloud, Forrest attended and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in New York City that year. His friend was the Democratic vice presidential nominee, and the party’s campaign slogan was: “Our Ticket, Our Motto, This Is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.”
The following year, “Forrest left the KKK … and tried unsuccessfully to disband it,” Cloud wrote.
However, it would still be another six years before he would accept Jesus Christ.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock,” Jesus says in the passage.
“But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
In a paper titled “When the Devil Got Saved: The Christian Conversion of Nathan Bedford Forrest,” (a summary of his long-form biography titled “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption”), biographer Shane Kaster wrote that following the sermon, Forrest spoke to the pastor.
He reportedly said: “Sir, your sermon has removed the last prop from under me. I am the fool that built on the sand; I am a poor miserable sinner.”
The pastor “told Forrest to go home and read and meditate on Psalm 51 and see where it led him,” Kaster wrote.
Psalm 51:1-3, reads: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”
Kaster wrote that the next night, Forrest knelt with the pastor and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior.
Shortly after his conversion, Forrest spoke before the Pole-Bearers Association, a black civil rights group.
“I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us,” he reportedly said. “When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.”
“Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.”
Following his speech, a young black girl reportedly presented him with a bouquet of flowers, and he responded by kissing her on the cheek.
Two years later, Forrest died at the age of 56, a changed man.
As Forrest lay dying, he reportedly told loved ones there was “not a cloud that separated him from his beloved Heavenly Father.”
This story demonstrates the power of Jesus to transform lives.
Skeptics may scoff at the notion that a divine power can intervene in an individual’s life and bring such radical change, but it is real. I have witnessed it.
And the good news is that anyone can tap this power. All we need to do is ask and believe.