Glenn Robins’ book The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry and Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk (Mercer University Press, 2006) is a timely resource for Anglicans and Episcopalians in an era which has seen controversy and division over the church’s way forward. In particular, it may offer some helpful historical insight into the career and theological approach of one of the Western Hemisphere’s most famous Anglican leaders as he faced social, political and military challenges which re-shaped his world.
Robins delves into the background of Polk and his successful Scots-Irish family at length, describing their ties to the military and deep-rootedness in the Southern United States. The connections between the church, military and conservative culture of the region is a theme which runs throughout the book. And there could be no more fascinating figure to study than Polk, the son of a wealthy planter and Revolutionary War hero who excelled at West Point and chose to resign his military commission in order to attend theological seminary. As an Episcopalian priest Polk worked aggressively to spread his church throughout the western South in a deeply evangelical culture where Episcopalians had little presence. He was also a successful planter and owner of hundreds of African slaves. Robins’ describes Polk’s humane, Christian approach to race-relations on his plantations and his visionary drive to “integrate slaves into a socially conservative and paternalistic Episcopal culture.” Indeed, he “viewed Christianity as a means for transforming individual behavior and for creating a biracial social order.” Here is the primary controversy of Leonidas Polk’s life – his drive for “adapting Episcopalianism to the evangelical [Old] South.” Robins’ explores his greatest and most enduring project: “[Polk] turned his attention to the creation of a distinctly Episcopal university in the South. Indeed, Polk’s vision for the University of the South illustrated his dedication to denominational purity, but it also embodied the fundamental tenets of a religious and cultural-based Southern nationalism, which sought to preserve and defend the peculiar institution.”
Later, Polk attached himself early on with the Confederate cause, even taking up the sword to defend his homeland. His strong patriotism will surely speak to the Anglican soul as ours is a faith which has long been thusly associated. Though he fought on the losing side of several important battles, is rarely viewed as a brilliant commander and lost his life in a losing effort to save his country from invasion, “Polk’s symbolic portrayal of the military Christian knight, which celebrated specific notions of Southern as well as Episcopalian distinctiveness, was important to his native region as it sought to understand and assign meaning to the Civil War experience.”
Author Dr. Glenn Robins is Department Chair of History and Political Science at Georgia Southwestern State University. His book, The Bishop of the Old South was published by Mercer University Press and is available to order on Amazon.