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The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry and Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk.

The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry and Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk. By Glenn Robins. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2006. xii + 245 pp. $35.00 cloth.

Pervasive evangelicalism has long been a common description of religious life in the Old South. Many scholars have argued that this form of Christianity held the region in "cultural captivity" and thereby defined (and constrained) the southern worldview. More recently, however, historians have been chipping away at this captivity thesis to demonstrate a surprising complexity within the region's religious culture. Whereas earlier studies emphasized the influence of evangelicals (most often Baptists and Methodists), newer works have emphasized heterogeneity and found a place for Judaism and Catholicism. Glenn Robins also takes aim at the captivity historiography with his new study of Leonidas Polk, arguing that Episcopalians have also shaped the region's past.

Polk, an Episcopal bishop turned Confederate general, has hardly been neglected by the historical profession. Many scholars have been drawn to his ecclesiastical and martial careers. Even so, Robins demonstrates that previous studies have not properly assessed the significance of the "Fighting Bishop." Polk's effort "to adapt Episcopalianism to the evangelical culture of the mid-nineteenth century South" (219) was his seminal contribution because he helped make the denomination relevant beyond its elite but numerically small laity.

Robins's book is organized into six chapters that focus on the different stages in Polk's life. Polk hailed from a planter family in North Carolina and, as his Spartan name suggests, was groomed to lead a military life. Ironically, it was at West Point where Polk first felt called to the ministry after a powerful conversion experience. Chaplain Charles McIlvaine later reminisced that Polk helped lead a cadet revival after he requested to be baptized in the academy chapel. Robins argues that Episcopalians, notably McIlvaine, heavily influenced the chaplaincy at West Point and that the academy "endorsed, to a certain degree, the notion that Episcopal faith was conducive to the academy's ideals of duty, loyalty, honor, and courage" (31).

Robins's evidence for Polk's influence on the religious culture of the South mostly lies in his episcopacy as bishop of Louisiana. Displaying a surprising Episcopalian impulse for reform, Polk encouraged missionary outreach to New Orleans sailors through St. Peter's Seaman's Bethel. St. Peter's was eventually elevated to parish status and maintained a policy of reserved pews for sailors. By encouraging the wealthy and the working class to worship together, Polk ensured that "two diverse elements of Southern society, the miscreant Jack Tar and the genteel cavalier, shared the same religious space" (72). Polk's efforts to reform the working-class population combined social conservatism with evangelical principles and thereby helped make the numerically small Episcopal Church a significant force in the Old South.

Because the Episcopal Church did not experience a North-South schism until after secession (the national Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches split well before the Civil War), Robins believes that scholars have overlooked the church's influence on sectional identity. With Polk as an outspoken leader, the church emerged as a bulwark of Southern nationalism with the formation of the University of the South in 1857. Deeply interested in educational reform, Polk believed that Southern options for higher education were badly lacking. Furthermore, Northern schools threatened to brush Southern men with the taint of abolitionism.

Polk's decision to leave the episcopacy for Confederate military service was consistent with his career-long efforts to comport the church to regional mores and "embodied the complimentary nature between Southern Episcopalianism and Confederate identity" (150). While Robins does not go into Polk's war record in any great detail (other historians have written exhaustively on the subject), he does offer interesting analysis of memorializations of Polk's military career in the book's final chapter. Partly the result of his controversial military record, Polk never reached the Lost Cause status of a Stonewall Jackson, the preeminent Southern Christian soldier. Thanks to the efforts of the Louisiana chapter of the United Confederate Veterans, who endorsed textbooks with a favorable interpretation of Polk, the legacy of the "Fighting Bishop" contributed to the myth of Southern moral superiority.

While Robins is correct to point out that the Episcopal Church deserves to be included in studies of Southern religion, Episcopalians have not entirely been neglected by previous scholars. For example, Charles Reagan Wilson's iconic Baptized in Blood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980) devoted almost an entire chapter to the University of the South. Nevertheless, Robins has written an accessible work that correctly assesses the significance of an important religious figure not only in Southern history, but in U.S. history as well.

Lee L. Willis III

University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point
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Author:Willis, Lee L, III
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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