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Augusta church to move Polk memorial, when and where TBD

Augusta church to move Polk memorial, when and where TBD

Image: The original memorial to Confederate General and Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk, located at St. Paul’s Augusta. The replica memorial is on the left side of the wall behind the altar. The memorial reads

In the memory of the Right Reverend
LEONIDAS POLK, D. D.,
Missionary Bishop of the South-West,
First Bishop of LOUISIANA and
Lieut-General in the Army of the
CONFEDERATE STATES,
Born April 10th, 1806,
Fell at Pine Mtn., Ga., June 14th, 1864.
Behold my witness is in Heaven
and my record is on High.
—Job. 16:19


The vestry of St. Paul’s Augusta voted in November to relocate the memorial to Leonidas Polk, the Confederate General and Bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana. Located behind the altar, no date or location has been set for where within the church buildings the memorial will be relocated. The senior warden in December reported the vestry had considered a proposal to move the memorial to the narthex.

This is a developing story to which I was alerted following our story on the Polk bust at Sewanee. The only news story I am aware of appeared June 11th on Augusta CBS affiliate.

Historic St. Paul’s was established in 1750. In 2020 average Sunday attendance was 275.

The decision to move the Polk memorial caused a split in the church and has had financial fallout. And dissension over the move also triggered the early resignation of the rector (priest-in-charge), George Muir, citing behavior within the congregation that was “unhealthy and systemic”. His associate, John Jenkins, called the response of some acts of “genteel violence”.

As reported in the 2020 Annual Report there were 175 pledges in 2020. Pledge income received totaled $725,771. For 2021 there were, as of January 2021, 137 pledges totaling $616, 401.

The church’s tour brochure describes the memorial:

The altar rail and marble plaque on the wall to the left of the altar are memorials to Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana, and one of the founders of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He was a friend of Jefferson Davis at West Point, and laid aside his work in the church to become a General in the Confederate Army. He was killed near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, in 1864, and was interred in the crypt under the altar at Saint Paul’s during a State Funeral. In 1945 his remains were removed to Christ Cathedral in New Orleans.

In fact, Polk was buried in the churchyard. After the church burned in 1916 it was rebuilt  [was damaged in an 1886 earthquake] and the nave was extended over his grave.

And he owned hundreds of slaves and was an outspoken proponent of the South’s culture and institutions. Along with many other mediocre Confederate officers, he has a U.S. military base named after him.

A timeline regarding removal/relocation 

St. Paul’s has detailed its journey surrounding deliberations on the Polk memorial in some detail on its website. Most of the St. Paul’s-specific links below come from its website.

May 25th: George Floyd is killed by an officer of the Minneapolis police. That now former officer, Derek Chauvin, is currently on trial for the murder of Mr. Floyd.

June 11th: Rector George Muir writes to the congregation asking it to consider removal of the Polk memorial. (Technically, Muir was priest-in-charge.) From the rector’s letter:

These past weeks have caused many in our community, in our nation and in our world to be drawn to something better. The racial disparity in our systems, in our culture, is real and so many of the little things we fail to notice help keep it in place. For me and for others, one such little thing is the Leonidas Polk memorial. Living through the last several weeks I have been forced to realize that there are seen and unseen stumbling blocks for people of color that sustain a narrative of inequality. I believe that if Saint Paul’s is truly going to be the gathering place, the place of prayer and witness for our community, that we must remove things that get in the way.

About the same time, Muir had a flag display at the back of the sanctuary removed.

About the flags: “Across the balcony are some of the flags which have flown over Georgia in its history, including period flags of Spain and France, the British Flag of 1737 – 1783, the Liberty flag, American 13 star flag, Bonnie Blue flag [used as a national Confederate flag], Stainless Banner of the Confederacy [the battle flag on a field of white—this flag was removed earlier], 1865 Stars and Stripes, the present Georgia state flag [which is modeled on the Confederate Stars and Bars], and the American flag.”

The flags first went on display in 1971 after the Augusta riots. The riots were triggered after a disabled teen, Charles Oatman, was tortured and killed in his jail cell—the sheriff’s department falsely claimed he died as a result of falling from his bunk.

June 19th: Senior warden Ashley Wright writes to the congregation. As it happens, the congregation was in the very early stages of a rector search. From the senior warden’s letter:

…[A] Search Committee has been authorized by Bishop Logue, and I expect an announcement regarding that soon.

Our rector is leading us in the discussions that have arisen in the country over the past weeks and as the elected representatives of the congregation, the vestry is responding to and reflecting on the request to relocate the Bishop Leonidas Polk cenotaph ( noun; a sepulchral monument erected in memory of a deceased person whose body is buried elsewhere). The history committee has been able to provide some information about Bishop Polk, which includes that he was not a member of our church and is no longer buried here (all rumors to the contrary aside). The current monument to Bishop Polk is a replica given by his son and daughter-in-law after the 1916 fire.

When the Vestry began the listening sessions, we heard that many of you came to this church because of its history and physical beauty. We assume that everyone who came to a listening session did so for the future of the Church. The Vestry, who has the responsibility for the property of the Church, plans to work with the History and the Building and Grounds Committees to develop a deliberate and prayerful response to the request to relocate the monument. We would appreciate your prayers during this time.

September 16: From the working group of the vestry,

Polk was never a parishioner of Saint Paul’s and there is no evidence he ever attended a service at Saint Paul’s Church, though Polk’s funeral was held at Saint Paul’s in 1864 – in the church building that existed prior to the current building. Polk’s funeral was held at Saint Paul’s because railroads were destroyed at the time and therefore his remains could not be transported to his home state of Louisiana. However, in 1945 he and his wife’s remains were both moved to Louisiana and reinterred there.

Our working group has not been discussing the merits of Polk himself – whether, on balance, he led a good life or did great things worthy of a monument – so much as whether we, as a congregation, ought to continue the historical narrative of Polk’s legacy by maintaining a plaque adjacent to the altar. Polk’s funeral address and scholarly accounts make it clear that Polk’s legacy has been used as a symbol of the romanticized view of the Confederacy during the post-Reconstruction era and onward. What we are discussing is whether continuing this narrative would do a grave disservice to all of the wonderful things our parish is doing in and around the community.

We at Saint Paul’s are blessed to occupy and serve as caretakers of a historic building. But we, the people of Saint Paul’s, are the church, not the building itself. We are commanded to love thy neighbor as thyself. In light of this, we are considering moving the plaque from the altar and placing it in a more appropriate location.

There is additional significance to the choice of St. Paul’s for Polk’s funeral. It was the location of the first General Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States in November 1862. And, PECCSA’s second and final General Council to dissolve itself in 1865. Polk was the first to withdraw his diocese from PECUSA, and an initiator of the formation of PECCSA. The convener of both General Councils, Georgia’s bishop Stephen Elliott, gave the eulogy at Polk’s funeral. From that eulogy, as printed in the funeral service at Polk’s burial,

And now, ye Christians of the North, and especially ye priests and bishops of the Church who have lent yourselves to the fanning of the fury of this unjust and cruel war, do I this day, in the presence of the body of this my murdered brother, summon you to meet us at the judgment-seat of Christ–that awful bar where your brute force shall avail you nothing; where the multitudes whom you have followed to do evil shall not shield you from an angry God; where the vain excuses with which you have varnished your sin shall be scattered before the bright beams of eternal truth and righteousness. I summon you to that bar in the name of that sacred liberty which you have trampled under foot; in the name of the glorious constitution which you have destroyed; in the name of our holy religion which you have profaned; in the name of the temples of God which you have desecrated; in the name of a thousand martyred saints whose blood you have wantonly spilled; in the name of our Christian women whom you have violated; in the name of our slaves whom you have seduced and then consigned to misery; and there I leave justice and vengeance to God. The blood of your brethren crieth unto God from the earth, and it will not cry in vain. It has entered into the ears of the Lord God of Sabaoth, and will be returned upon you in blood a thousand-fold. May God have mercy upon you in that day of solemn justice and fearful retribution!

December 18th: Senior warden Ashley Wright writes to the congregation,

Last month, the Vestry voted to move the Bishop Leonidas Polk cenotaph to a different position within the church buildings. This month, the Vestry considered a proposal to relocate it to the east side of the Narthex. The Vestry plans for more detailed information about the proposal to be communicated to the congregation soon in anticipation of a vote with regards to the same in January. Additionally, we are planning for the annual meeting, where we will consider the financial situation of the church as well as select new Vestry members. We know that some members of the congregation feel strongly about the move, and we respect everyone’s opinions. The Vestry spent considerable time and effort in addressing the proposed relocation. We understand that this comes at a time when we are physically disconnected from our beautiful church and unable to gather in familiar ways. Our daily lives have changed so much this year.

January 21st: The Rev. Muir announces his resignation several months earlier than planned. He wrote to the congregation,

The last seven months have taken more out of me than I first realized.

As I have seen the disagreement over the Polk monument unfold I have experienced patterns of behavior at Saint Paul’s that I and others believe are unhealthy and systemic. I have named these to your Vestry and our Bishop. This process has taken its toll on me, my family and the parish.

All of this has led me to know that it is time for me to step down as your Priest-in-Charge and I will do so effective February 1, 2021.

Emphasis added.

Later in January: The senior warden, Ashley Wright, in a blog post to the congregation announces a process to address conflict around the Polk memorial. And a four-month pause (or less) on decision-making about its relocation.

The Vestry unanimously voted to avail ourselves of diocesan resources to address the Parish conflict surrounding the Polk cenotaph. The Revs. Becky Rowell (Associate Rector, Christ Church St. Simons Island) and Melanie Lemburg (Rector, St. Thomas Savannah) work with churches on transforming conflict by determining the sources of the conflict and developing best methods for moving forward. …

Their work will begin next week with interviews of a cross-section of the Parish identified by the Parish. …. Their report to the Vestry and Parish following the interviews will reflect comments with no attribution to any one individual. They will work with the Vestry and interim Rector to develop a plan for moving forward in anticipation of the call of a new Rector. The cost is anticipated to be approximately $5,000.

The Revs. Rowell and Lemburg recommend that moving the cenotaph be paused until the listening sessions are completed and a report made to the Parish. It is anticipated that the interviews and subsequent report can be completed in 120 days or less. Work will then recommence on a proper placement of the memorial.

January 10 and 31, Annual Reports

From the Rector’s Report:

In the midst of [adjusting to the pandemic] we continued our conversations about race and reconciliation. In mid-June I shared with the Parish my hope that the monument of Leonidas Polk would be moved to a place where it could be understood in its context. Your Vestry, at my request, undertook a time of listening and learning and eventually voted to move the monument.

With the loss of River Room revenue and a loss of pledge revenue, the challenges the Parish faces are sizable. Your Vestry has done yeoman’s service in working through this as best they are able.

In mid-January I made the decision to step down as priest-in-charge….

From the Wardens’ Report

Nonetheless, our Church is at cross-roads: we prepare for the call of a new rector, yet we remain divided. We have 11 new pledges as we move forward into 2021, yet we have a decrease in overall pledges and financial support which impacts the operation of the Church.

From the Assistant to the Rector’s Report, The Rev. John W. A. Jenkins:

I write this reflection upon the past year having also just informed the Parish that my five-and-a-half-year tenure in ministry here will soon conclude.

[I]t has been personally painful to witness genteel violence inflicted on the Parish as the particular response by some to the Vestry’s decision to move and contextualize the cenotaph to Leonidas Polk. How Christians disagree matters infinitely more than whether we disagree. While particular behaviors related to the cenotaph are problematic, to be sure, the urgent and salient question is whether this has in fact, as Fr. Muir opined, revealed a contemporary iteration of a deep pattern of systemic conflict in this Parish. If so, then this bad news is actually good news because as the late James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Emphasis and link added.

Jenkins is quoted by ENS in a November 2019 article on a workshop on Confederate symbols in churches.

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Bob Nelson

I eagerly await the report from the listening sessions.

Kurt T Hill

Good! It’s about time that they stopped honoring this traitor!

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