Leonidas Polk and episcopal identity: An evangelical experiment in the mid-nineteenth century South

Glenn M. Robins

Abstract

Leonidas Polk influenced in a substantial way the identity of his denomination and in a manner of speaking served as the archetype of Southern Episcopalianism. In this context, the term Southern Episcopalianism does not relate to a narrowly construed theological school or faction. Instead, the designation represents the type of Episcopalianism that could not only survive but flourish in the antebellum South. What characterized Southern evangelical culture in Polk's day was the numerical success and democratic appeal of the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations and the presence of a significant African-American population in the region. Therefore, the purpose of this project will be to demonstrate how Leonidas Polk attempted to adapt Episcopalianism to the evangelical South and to integrate the denomination into the mainstream of Southern religion. Polk's emotional conversion, his emphasis on preaching the gospel and converting sinners, and his providential worldview reflected the typical experiences and characteristics of evangelicals. Moreover, his martial heritage, his aristocratic bearing, and his patriarchal outlook were well suited to a Southern evangelical culture. In addition, as a bishop and large slaveholder, Polk commanded the confidence of the religious and plantation communities and thereby influenced discussions about the peculiar institution. The Civil War did not prevent Polk from continuing his mission, and his actions during the sectional crisis were aggressive attempts to make Episcopalianism relevant to the social and political concerns of the South. As the bishop general, Polk embodied the complementary nature of Southern Episcopalianism and Confederate identity, and within the army he symbolized Southern notions of honor and courage. Even in death, Polk became part of Southern explanations of the Old South, the Civil War, and Christian honor, and Lost Cause enthusiasts developed a positive image of Polk because he validated their claims that slaveholders were not immoral and that slavery was part of a sacred trust from God. Ultimately, Polk's life, ministry, and ideological interests explain the ways in which he envisioned Episcopalians shaping both the religious and cultural mind of the Southern slave society.