Leonidas Polk was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1806, the son and grandson of Revolutionary War heroes. His family was of Presbyterian Scots-Irish descent and had become successful in the plantation economy of the colonial South. His cousin, James K. Polk, later became President of the United States.
In his late teens, Leonidas received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was a good student, especially in mathematics, but had numerous problems with discipline and with regulations. However, he was greatly impressed by the sermons of Episcopal priest Charles P. McIlvain who served as the chaplain of West Point. Cadet Polk became McIlvain’s first convert at the Academy when he openly professed the Christian faith and, by extension, joined the Episcopal Church.
After graduating from West Point, Leonidas received special permission to resign his new commission in the United States Army in order to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary where he was ordained as an Episcopal priest.
The Protestant Episcopal Church was a new force on the frontier of the South and there were major divisions between the High Church “Anglo-Catholics” and the Low Church Evangelicals. Theologically, High Church priests tended to be Arminian while Low Church ministers favored Calvinism. Leonidas Polk was an Episcopal centrist—he liked the ritual and the historic significance of the High Church but believed in an evangelical and Calvinist approach to theology with its emphasis on the omnipotence and sovereignty of God and the natural depravity of man.
Chosen to be an associate priest at Monumental Church in Richmond, Virginia, Leonidas preached his first sermon on John 3:16. A year earlier, in 1830, he married Frances Ann Devereaux—she was a descendant of the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards and a member of one of the most important families in North Carolina. Eventually, the couple moved to Tennessee where Leonidas purchased land and established a plantation with an Episcopal chapel on the property.
In 1834, Bishop James Otey of Tennessee appointed Leonidas rector of St. Peter’s Church in Columbia, Tennessee. At that time there were only 117 Episcopalians in the entire state. The spirit of evangelism in the Southern frontier was largely in the hands of the Missionary Baptists and the “Shouting” Methodists. Otey and Leonidas Polk struggled mightily to improve the standing of the Episcopal Church on the frontier and greatly increased the number of mission churches.
Leonidas Polk, in 1838, was elected Missionary Bishop of the Southwest by the General Convention. He now had the responsibility of building a strong Episcopal presence in Arkansas, Mississippi, coastal Alabama, Louisiana, the Indian Territory, and the Republic of Texas. Bishop Polk soon visited all of these locations and was especially intrigued by the possibilities in Texas. In 1840, he carried out a second missionary journey to southwest Arkansas, northwest Louisiana, and east Texas where he noted the dire need for priests and more missionaries.
In 1841, Leonidas was named Bishop of Louisiana by the church’s General Convention and immediately began to concentrate on his new diocese. He regarded the state as a challenge and commented that “there is no portion of the whole country so destitute…as Louisiana.”
However, in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1841, where Bishop Polk later established Trinity Episcopal Church, he saw the potential for growth and stated that the French-speaking Catholic population lived “lightly by their religion” which made them possible Episcopal converts. Louisiana, at this time, had a total of 238 Episcopalians with four parishes and six priests.
Bishop Polk declared that his purpose in Louisiana was to unite individuals in the Body of Christ. He invited Episcopalians to be “one mind…one body, one heart” and he preached the gospel of “Christ crucified”—the sacrifice of God for the salvation of Man. Also, as Glenn Robbins has stated, “Polk demonstrated a desire to build a biracial Christian community in the South….Polk promoted the plantation chapel system in both Tennessee and Louisiana.” The famous stained-glass window in Trinity Church in Natchitoches depicts the Bishop’s acceptance of all races as part of the Christian world and, specifically, as part of the Body of Christ.
Recognizing the need for bodily sustenance, Bishop Polk established Leighton Plantation in Lafourche Parish which soon became, though only temporarily, an economic success. He frequently traveled between the Lafourche District and New Orleans where he administered the diocese from Christ Cathedral, the city’s first Protestant church which had, by vote of its founding members in 1805, become Episcopalian.
In the years that followed, Bishop Leonidas Polk personified the crusading evangelical spirit of the Episcopal Church in Louisiana. During his tenure as bishop, the number of communicants grew from 238 to 1,859 and the number of churches from four to thirty-three. He ordained sixteen deacons and nineteen priests. Among the churches personally established or consecrated by Bishop Polk were St. John’s in Thibodaux, Christ Church in Napoleonville, St. Mary’s in Franklin, the Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, the Church of the Ascension in Donaldsonville, the Church of the Holy Communion in Plaquemine, the Church of the Epiphany in Opelousas, St. James’s Church in Alexandria, and, of course, Trinity in Natchitoches. The Protestant Episcopal Church had become a force to be reckoned with in Louisiana where it represented a substantial part of the planter class and the urban professionals.
The bishop strongly believed in the Jeffersonian doctrine of states’ rights and in the essence of the South as a distinct cultural entity. He opposed the growth of Northern-directed Federal power just as he opposed the theological doctrines of the New England Transcendentalists and their predecessors, the dictatorial Puritans. Fearing that Southern Episcopalians would be undermined by an influx of Northern priests, Bishop Polk, with the assistance of numerous other Southern bishops and priests, established the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee in 1860 as a college and seminary where Southern priests could be educated and ordained. As the founder of the university, he regarded it as “a home for all the arts and sciences and of literary culture in the Southern states.” (Tragically, Sewanee is today far from being such a Southern institution.)
In November, 1860, Abraham Lincoln, the regional candidate of the North was elected president with 39% of the popular vote. Fearing that the rights of the states would be destroyed by the Federal government, the states of the South began to secede from the Federal Union. Louisiana seceded on January 26, 1861 with the enthusiastic support of Bishop Polk. In his homily at Christ Cathedral, he declared that secession was fully justified and indicated that, henceforth, the Book of Common Prayer would be altered to eliminate prayers for the President and Congress of the United States and that, instead, prayers would be offered for the Governor and the Legislature of Louisiana.
The new Confederate States of America came into being in February, 1861. The War Between the States began in April and, shortly thereafter, Bishop Polk visited Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, the Confederate capital. President Davis, mindful of Bishop Polk’s military education, offered him the rank of major general in the Confederate Army. Bishop Polk accepted, believing it was the best way to serve his country—the Confederacy. He resigned as Bishop of Louisiana and took command of Confederate forces in western Tennessee.
In the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, he defeated Union troops under U.S. Grant and, later in 1861, moved his forces into Kentucky to prevent a Union take-over there. He was promoted to lieutenant general and placed in command of a corps in the Confederate Army of Tennessee. He led troops at the bloody battles of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, and Chickamauga. However, his most outstanding contribution to the Army of Tennessee was his calm ability to inspire confidence and religious belief. Led by General Polk, a religious revival swept the army. Polk personally baptized Generals Joseph E. Johnston, John Bell Hood, and Braxton Bragg, as well as hundreds of others, into the Christian faith and the Episcopal Church.
The “Great Revival” in the Confederate armies had a profound impact on the men in gray and butternut. Fully one-half of the 46th Georgia Infantry sought baptism or confirmation and numbers were similar in many other Confederate regiments. Dr. John Brinsfield has written, “…in Gist’s Brigade, soldiers built chapels for the daily worship services in their camps….Chaplain John J.D. Renfroe of the 10th Alabama Infantry described mass meetings outside with logs, rails, and rocks to serve as seats. By one account, fourteen miles of such revival services were taking place in the Army of Tennessee while they were bivouacked in Georgia in 1864.”
In a General Order issued late in 1863, General Polk declared, “Our cause is not less the cause of truth, of honor, and of God, now, than it was the day we first took up arms against the barbarous horde of fanatics and of Puritan…infidels who have for three years sought to despoil us of our political rights, rob us of our property, destroy our social life, and overturn and crush our altars.” For the General, and for his men, the war was a holy crusade; and, as time ran out, the courageous but outnumbered, starving, and ragged soldiers of the South were comforted by the Holy Spirit.
In spite of Polk’s contribution to the salvation of General Braxton Bragg’s soul through baptism, he was highly critical of Bragg’s performance as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Bragg reciprocated with condemnations of Polk’s military abilities, especially at Chickamauga where it was said he had allowed the Union troops time to prepare their defenses. The feud between Bragg and Polk led to Polk’s transfer to Mississippi until he was again needed in the Army of Tennessee, now commanded by the excellent General Joseph E. Johnston, to help oppose Union General William T. Sherman’s brutal advance toward Atlanta.
In June, 1864, at Pine Mountain, Georgia, Sherman ordered Yankee artillerymen to deliberately target a group of Confederate officers, which included General Polk. A shell struck Polk killing him instantly. The Confederate Army was grief-stricken by the loss of the “Fighting Bishop” and one devastated soldier left a note for the Union General Sherman nailed to a tree saying bluntly, “you Yankee sons of bitches have killed our old General Polk!” Sam Watkins, a private in the 1st Tennessee Infantry later wrote that “Bishop Polk was ever a favorite with the army and when any position was to be held…and Bishop Polk was there, we knew all would be well.”
In 1869, Mary Bigby immortalized the General’s passing with her poem, “Death of Polk”:
No richer harvest Death hath reaped
In all the southern gleaning
No braver blood than his that flowed
With Eucharistic meaning….
All o’er the land a Lent of tears
Shall Salem’s daughters keep;
Her sons look on with stony eyes
For Vengeance must not weep!
An impressive funeral service was held for General Polk at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Augusta, Georgia, following flower-covered memorial services in Atlanta. Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia officiated at the funeral and declared that Leonidas Polk was no less a martyr than were Stephen and James. He then turned, and facing the North and all those that region contained, shouted, “In the presence of this, my murdered brother, I summon you to meet us at the judgement seat of Christ!” Seventy-nine years later, Leonidas Polk’s body was moved from Georgia and reinterred in the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana’s Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans. The “Fighting Bishop”, a man who restored or implanted faith in the hearts of thousands of Southerners, lies there today largely ignored by his increasingly “modernistic” denomination.