By Woody Register, Professor of History and Director, Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation
Back in November, on a drizzly, blustery Saturday morning, an architect and three historians from Sewanee – John Runkle, Jody Allen, Ben King, and I – drove two hours west to a place near Columbia, Tennessee, to visit the church at the Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk’s Ashwood plantation. Polk’s neoclassical mansion house burned in the 1870s, but St. John’s Church, completed in 1842, endures.
The church is all the more impressive because the large towered brick structure (said to hold 500 persons) appears to be set in the middle of agricultural fields, as if it had been teleported there. There is no surrounding town or village, no neighborhood or community to which it appears to belong. A hundred or more yards from its front door is busy rural Highway 243; down the road a bit a BP station. Three to six miles away are Mount Pleasant and Columbia, which would have been the nearest significant towns in the 1840s.
Isolated as it is today, and as mystifying as the setting may be to casual passersby, St. John’s location made perfect sense when it was consecrated in 1842. It had reason, purpose, and function: to serve the Polk families and the hundreds of persons they held as slaves on their four plantations. The church is an invaluable relic of antebellum America and a revealing artifact of that period’s slaveholding order. Today the church is maintained by the St. John’s Association, a group of local people who lovingly and devotedly see to its upkeep. Anyone who cares about the Episcopal Church and its part in the history of this region should be grateful for their labors.
We four from Sewanee had journeyed there because of our interest in slavery’s importance to the founding of the University of the South between 1856 and 1861. Three of us are involved in the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. I teach U.S. history at Sewanee and direct the Project. Jody Allen, an assistant professor of history at William & Mary and director of that university’s study of its history with slavery, taught classes on African American history last year at Sewanee; she remains an advisor to the Project. Ben King, professor of church history at the School of Theology, has been supporting the Project by researching the university’s campaigns to raise money in England after the Civil War. Joining us was John Runkle, a professionally trained architect and former director of St. Mary’s Sewanee: The Ayres Center for Spiritual Development. He and Ben are Episcopal priests.
Leonidas Polk brought us there that day. Polk, whom most histories identify as the church’s “builder,” was the most influential of the three Episcopal bishops who led the movement for the University of the South. More important, we knew that, from start to finish, the church had been built entirely by his slaves. All of us thought that St. John’s had something to teach us — about Polk as a priest, bishop, and slaveholder; about those he enslaved; and about the church itself. We also wondered if this church would tell us something about the founding and mission of the university.
St. John’s was not a regular Episcopal church, but a “plantation chapel.” It arose on this remote spot to realize Leonidas Polk’s dream of an upliftingly beautiful place of worship, where an Episcopal priest could minister to the members of the four Polk families – the church was built at the junction of his and his three brothers’ plantations in Maury County – and the 200-plus persons they held in bondage. Maury County in 1840 had 17,900 free (white) residents and 11,000 slaves. With 111 enslaved at Ashwood, Leonidas Polk was an Episcopal priest and the county’s largest slaveholder.
Expensive plantation chapels like St. John’s were uncommon in their day. In the wake of the evangelical revivalism that swept the United States in the antebellum period, growing numbers of slaveholders across the spectrum of Protestant denominations became concerned for the religious instruction of their slaves. However, even the most pious usually were satisfied simply to set aside a shady tree or barn for Sunday services.
Rare as they were, actual plantation chapels were especially favored by Episcopalians. As historian Blake Touchstone has written, Episcopal planters may have been more inclined to imagine themselves “as country gentry or English squires” lording over their landed estates rather than as aggressive businessmen invested in global and modern commodities markets. The Gothic style, the expensive construction, and the beauty of St. John’s spoke to the social, political, and economic prestige and power the Polks claimed for themselves after moving from North Carolina to set up their massive plantations in Middle Tennessee in the 1830s.
But Leonidas Polk’s ambitions transcended Ashwood and Middle Tennessee. Evangelized while a cadet at West Point, he was emerging by 1840 as a leading force in the religious movement to persuade masters to evangelize the enslaved masses in the South. Polk pursued this calling with extraordinary energy once he was named in 1842 the Episcopal Bishop of the Southwest, which included Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas.
Ashwood’s church is a lasting monument to the early stages of Polk’s spiritual mission not only to evangelize the enslaved but also to demonstrate that slavery was a Christian institution — his God’s chosen instrument for bringing the benighted slaves into the light of the Gospel. The ministry at St. John’s would deliver souls to Christ and proof to slavery’s growing legions of critics that holding black persons in bondage was neither a sin nor a contradiction of American principles of liberty and equality. Bishop Polk told his faithful that a master assured his salvation by trying to provide for that of his slaves. Slaveholders were the special instruments for advancing the kingdom of God.
The vision of planters, their families, and their “servants” worshipping together deeply moved Polk and the other Episcopal church leaders who founded the University of the South: Bishop of Georgia Stephen Elliott and Bishop of Tennessee James Hervey Otey. William Mercer Green, their counterpart in Mississippi and a founding trustee of the university, was among the most eloquent advocates of the Episcopal Church’s special mission to slaves. He implored planters to fulfill their paternalistic duty to attend to the souls of their slaves. In 1851, he joyfully reported to his diocese what he had witnessed when he preached at the plantation chapel of George S. Yerger the year before:
On the forenoon of [March] 20th, I preached to a full house of blacks, together with the whites of the family. Never did I address a more interested or apparently more devout congregation. I baptized one colored adult, and confirmed three. It was a beautiful sight thus to see the master worshipping in the midst of his slaves, and showing, by the attention bestowed upon them, that he felt his responsibility for their spiritual welfare.
Green was the namesake of the popular scenic overlook in Sewanee known as Green’s View. His service to the university continued after the Civil War when he became its fourth chancellor. (George S. Yerger, by the way, also was a founding trustee of the university.)
But preaching to, catechizing, and baptizing their enslaved property promised to do more than assure slaveholders of their piety and fend off the condemnations levied by slavery’s critics. Slaveholders believed what most powerful persons at the time believed — that the religiously instructed were more pliant and obedient, less likely to rebel against their condition at the bottom of the social order. In other words, religion was a mechanism of the planters’ top-down social control.
This mixture of spiritual and temporal motivations marked the evangelical missions to the slave population. Planters, historian Blake Touchstone observes, had diverse reasons “for promulgating Christianity” to their slaves. “It is virtually impossible to dissect the Christian conscience and delineate where altruism left off and self-interest began.”
Bishop Green himself described the worldly and heavenly rewards of preaching to the enslaved. He assured skeptical planters that bringing true religion to them “will make them orderly and obedient upon principle, and not from fear alone. Let the experiment be fairly tried, and I am sure that the happiest results will flow out of it, both to the master and the slave.”
We learned during our visit to St. John’s that the church does not, on its own, tell this complicated history of entwined paternalistic benevolence and violence, of spiritual freedom and bodily enslavement, of altruistic concern and materialistic self-interest.
If anything, St. John’s Church today makes that history harder to imagine. That is partly the effect of its pastoral setting – nestled in a bower of trees and shrubs, set back from a busy highway, sheltering a cemetery of weathered monuments to generations of Polks and other prominent families. The scene seems to beckon visitors to travel back to a better and more gracious time, simpler, less hurried and modern.
There are other, more official and monumental encouragements to this nostalgic misunderstanding of the church’s historical origins in a civilization based on bondage. The first thing we encountered that November day was an official plaque that the Tennessee Historical Commission set on Highway 243 at the gate to St. John’s. The story it tells is striking both for what it omits and for what it reports.
It begins, “Consecrated Sept. 4, 1842, by James Hervey Otey, first Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee.” That passage links the origins of the church to the founding, fifteen years later, of the University of the South. The two bishops, Otey and his longtime friend Polk, along with Georgia’s Bishop Stephen Elliott, were the most important figures in launching the “southern university.”
The plaque continues, “this church was built by Leonidas Polk, then Missionary Bishop of Southwest and his three brothers, George, Lucius, and Rufus,” whose father had given them the 5,000-plus acres of prime Tennessee land. (Otey is buried in St. John’s churchyard cemetery.)
But who really built St. John’s church? Whose labor, ingenuity, and spirit did it signify then – and does it signify today? The church may have realized the imperial vision of the missionary slaveholding bishop, but in the truest sense of the word, it was not Leonidas or the other Polks who built it.
“We all put in hands to make brick, put them up, do the carpentry, plastering, etc., etc.,” Polk wrote to his mother in 1839.
“Hands” were slaves.
Between 1839 and 1842 the enslaved at Leonidas Polk’s plantation labored to build the church in the time when they were not planting, tending, or harvesting the cotton and other crops grown there. They cleared the six acres set aside for the structure; they dug the clay, designed and fired the bricks, and then laid them to fashion the church’s walls.
They cut the surrounding timber, including massive trees they milled into lumber and crafted into more than twenty rows of heavy pews still in use today. The walls themselves are tall, thick, and sound; they have needed steadying only once, with steel rods, in the 1870s.
Within the walls are set three tall Gothic windows on either side of the building, divided by mullions into sheets of glass diamonds. The casings of the windows are not rectangular cut-outs, but tapered to form a slanted enclosure embowering the windows. The stacks of surrounding bricks that form the opening are not uniformly and rectangularly shaped, but customized, sometimes trapezoidal, to meet the geometric and structural demands of the fitted opening.
John Runkle, speaking as an architect, explained that the work that went into the church and its architectural features was not basic or elementary, but sophisticated and difficult. It reflected the experience, ingenuity, and skill of artisans who, though enslaved, were masters at their craft and resourceful in devising ways to enhance its structural integrity and architectural appeal. There is both function and beauty here, engineering and aesthetics.
Who deserves the credit for the church? Who solved the problems of conception and execution? Whose ideas of material function and spiritual uplift did it contain and express? Who should be credited for its 175 years (and counting) of relative steadfastness?
Polk himself once explained the potential greatness of Southern civilization in this way: Because of slavery, he said, “we have that division of classes which makes one a laboring and the other a dominant class — one a working and the other a thinking and governing class.”
The Tennessee Historical Commission plaque adopts that division of physical and mental labor by giving all the credit to the Polks; their names are the only ones preserved in the official record. They built the church.
An older plaque, placed on the church in 1947 by the Diocese of Tennessee and the St. John’s Association, says much the same.
The plaque installed in 1947.
Something similar has happened in most published histories about the church. As recently as 1970, the most scholarly accounts have made note of the slave labor that went into the construction, but the story has remained one principally of the Polks, and brother Leonidas in particular, as creators, marginalizing the contributions of the slaves whose hands and heads actually built the church.
Moreover, they have emphasized the ways in which the church’s history confirmed the brothers as benevolent masters and the reciprocal gratitude and loyalty of those they ministered to and held in bondage. Slavery was wrong, they say, but as practiced by the Polks, the church is evidence that in this case, slavery was less wrong than it could have been. In such accounts – and much as they did in the antebellum period – the enslaved continue to serve the Polks.
A fuller and truer account of the church’s origins, designs, construction, and purposes would not eliminate the Polks, or even marginalize them. Instead, it would situate them in relation to the enslaved and slavery at the center of the story of the church and seek to imagine how those whose hands, eyes, and minds fashioned it understood what they were doing.
Few records and no names remain to document those who worked three years in building the church, but the evidence is everywhere at St. John’s to disclose what they accomplished. Did they see the church building and what happened within it as belonging (like them) to the Polks? Or did they see it in any way as their church? Did they recognize and understand that they, more than anyone else, made it possible – and not just the building itself, but also the fiction of master and slaves joined, as a family, in the sight of God?
Surely they understood that, no matter how heartfelt, the Polks’ benevolence was one of the ways of holding them in chains. This church, to me, captures precisely what historian Lucia Stanton has called “the coils and contradictions of slavery” that entangled bound and free alike.
The custodians of the church, the St. John’s Association, who maintain its upkeep, safeguard the property, and hold Whitsunday services there each spring, have sought to modify the building’s story and to honor the contributions of the enslaved. There are at least thirty-six enslaved persons buried in the cemetery – fourteen of them named. Using ground penetrating radar technology, they discovered the unmarked and unnamed graves in a separate section of the cemetery.
In 2015 the St. John’s Association and the Diocese of Tennessee designated the unmarked graves with simple stone blocks bearing a cross. They also installed a memorial in the area: “To the memory of the enslaved persons, known and unknown, interred here and nearby who were communicants of St. John’s Church. The church stands as a lasting testament to their labor, talents, and artisanship.”
This tablet is an important corrective to the plaques on the state highway and face of the church, but it is not immediately visible. A visitor must stumble upon it, behind the church at the rear of the cemetery, far from the highway.
Welcome though it is, I propose that even more needs to be understood and more directly communicated about this church and the people who built it. A new historical plaque on the highway, with the authority of the state commission, would foreground the histories of the enslaved. It would recognize them as who cleared the forest and fabricated the pews and devised how to build a church that would last. It would recognize that, as slaves, they gathered in that church under the watchful eyes of men and women who cared for their souls but claimed the irresistible power to own their bodies.
I also offer this proposition to consider and explore. This brick church – its origins, purposes, and uses – suggests a prototype for what would coalesce fifteen years later as the plan for a “southern university.” That institution would accomplish on a grand scale what Leonidas Polk aimed to do with St. John’s at the conjunction of the Polk estates. Under the direction of the Episcopal Church in the slaveholding states, the university would train a native ministry to spread the Gospel to the free and enslaved alike, through the instrument of a Christian master class who would fulfill God’s designated mission for the American South. “The world is trying hard to persuade us that a slaveholding people cannot be a people of high moral and intellectual culture,” Polk and his fellow bishop Elliott wrote in 1859. The University of the South would demonstrate the error of this position. The university would serve and protect a slaveholding society – and all, bound and free alike, would be uplifted by its good works.
For generations we have honored Polk, Otey, and Elliott for founding the University of the South. We often hear that they and the hundreds of wealthy, slaveholding Southerners they enlisted in what they regarded as the high spiritual and material purposes of their cause built the university. They laid its cornerstone.
A short visit to St. John’s Church, especially on a gray and damp November day that deepens and enriches the reds, tans, and browns of its sturdy brick walls and tower, reminds us that we need to look more closely and deeply into the history of the University of the South to behold and give due recognition to all of those whose labor, intelligence, skill, and sacrifice laid the cornerstone of its foundation.
The following materials were used in the production of this blog:
On the history of the church itself, see George W. Polk, “St. John’s Church: Maury County, Tenn.,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 7, no. 3 (October, 1921): 147-53; Trezevant Player Yeatman, Jr., “St. John’s – A Plantation Church of the Old South,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 10, no. 4 (December, 1951): 334-43; Jill K. Garrett, Tennessee Historical Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Spring 1970): 3-23. A more critical view of Leonidas Polk as church-builder and slaveholder is Richard D. Betterly, “St. John’s Episcopal Churchyard: Material Culture and Antebellum Class Distinction,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 88-99.
On plantation chapels, see Blake Touchstone, “Planters and Slave Religion in the Deep South,” in Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740-1870, ed. John B. Boles (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1988), 99-126.
For the quotation of “coils and contradictions of slavery,” see Lucia Stanton, “The Other End of the Telescope: Jefferson through the Eyes of His Slaves,” William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 1 (January 2000), 139-52.
For the quotation of “The world is trying hard to persuade us that a slaveholding people cannot be a people of high moral and intellectual culture,” see Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, Address of the Commissioners for Raising the Endowment of The University of the South (New Orleans: B. M. Norman, 1859).