Confederate symbols workshop guides priests in confronting past by reexamining it truthfully

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 14, 2019
Sewanee workshop

Participants in the workshop on Confederate symbols visit All Saints’ Chapel at Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Photo: Sewanee

[Episcopal News Service] When the Rev. Hannah Hooker traveled last week to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, she brought along her thoughts of a specific stained-glass window back home in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she serves as associate rector of Christ Episcopal Church. The window depicts Bishop Leonidas Polk preaching at the church’s dedication in 1839.

It’s not a conspicuous window – located to one side of the nave, overlooking a breezeway where little light reaches its panes. Only after a longtime parishioner pointed it out did Hooker examine it closely and consider what Polk’s legacy means for her congregation at a time when The Episcopal Church has called on its dioceses and congregations to research and tell the full stories of their historic complicity with slavery, segregation and other systems of racial oppression.

Polk, as missionary bishop to the Southwest and later bishop of Louisiana, was a key figure in the founding of Sewanee by Episcopal dioceses in 1857, but he died before the opening of the university, killed in battle during the Civil War while serving as a general for the Confederacy. Today, he has become a problematic figure in the churchwide reexamination of Confederate symbols and memorials in worship spaces.

“I sort of am of the opinion that all churches, whether they have Confederate symbols or history, have the opportunity to investigate their own history and sort of own whatever grossness is in their past,” Hooker told Episcopal News Service by phone this week after returning from a three-day Sewanee workshop on those topics.

Hooker and 10 other priests attended the university’s inaugural Confederate Symbols and Episcopal Churches Workshop Nov. 5-7. Each priest came from a Southern parish with historical connections to the Confederacy. Some of the priests lead worship services in churches where Confederate symbols are present. Their congregations generally have not yet engaged in full-throated discussions of those symbols’ meanings.

At Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher, North Carolina, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee are two of the Southern historical figures remembered in stone monuments, more than a dozen in all, arranged in a roadside display outside the church. The rector, the Rev. J. Clarkson, attended the Sewanee workshop on Confederate symbols and described the monuments at his church as “a little bit unusual.”

“Figuring out what the church might want to do with them at this point is … a more complicated discussion,” Clarkson said in an interview with ENS.

The Rev. Rusty McCown brought to the workshop a different example from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, Tennessee, where he is rector. In the parish hall of the 200-year-old church hangs a portrait honoring a prominent early parishioner, but a darker part of the man’s past is hardly acknowledged – that he was a major slaveholder.

“I’m kind of a belief we shouldn’t have any portraits at all,” McCown said, though no changes have been discussed yet at his church. He attended the Sewanee workshop looking for guidance in how to approach such conversations in a congregation where some parishioners may be resistant to change.

He said he came away from the experience better equipped to lead the planning of his congregation’s upcoming 200th anniversary commemorations, knowing that it is important for a church to “own the history and remember that history, but at the same time, how do we go forward with this?”

The Sewanee workshop was a pilot program developed by two seminary graduates, the Rev. Hannah Pommersheim and the Rev. Kellan Day, through the university’s six-year Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. The research project, named for late history professor Houston Bryan Roberson, aims to tell the fuller story of the university’s founding and first 100 years within social and economic systems built upon racial injustice.

This initial workshop received a $5,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and was only open to Episcopal clergy who are dealing with Confederate symbols at their churches. The workshop’s three parts examined the theological underpinnings of Confederate symbols in worship spaces, provided context for understanding art and symbols and steered participants toward best practices for local action.

Pommersheim and Day, working with Sewanee history professor Woody Register, will review feedback from participants and consider future options, such as offering the in-person workshop for a broader pool of ordained and lay Episcopalians or hosting it online. Another option would be to develop a curriculum that dioceses and congregations can follow on their own.

“These conversations, we want them to be happening in more churches. We want folks to have tools to have these conversations,” Pommersheim told ENS.

The 11 priests who participated in last week’s workshop weren’t expected to return to their congregations and immediately start removing objects connected to the Confederacy, Pommersheim said, though congregations might decide to take such steps after changing and deepening how they engage with their history. “Something actually changing was the goal.”

The Sewanee seminary was among the Episcopal institutions that reassessed their own Confederate symbols in the wake of a deadly August 2017 standoff in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacist groups and counterprotesters, who converged in the city amid a legal dispute over its Confederate statutes.

In September 2017, Sewanee relocated a monument honoring Edmund Kirby-Smith, a 19th-century professor who previously served as a Confederate general, though even before Charlottesville, the debate over Confederate symbols had divided the campus community. Some of the contention centered around how best to represent Polk’s role in the founding of the university without glorifying his Confederate service.

Another focal point for debate has been All Saints’ Chapel. Confederate battle flags were removed from the chapel years ago, but just last year, remaining references to the Confederacy in the chapel’s stained-glass windows generated renewed scrutiny. The university responded in October 2018 by removing a pane from the window that had featured the seal of the Confederacy.

Participants in last week’s workshop on Confederate symbols visited All Saints’ Chapel, turning it into a classroom for lessons on the meaning of art and the assessment of art theologically. Sewanee art professor Shelley MacLaren led one of those discussions. Another session, on best practices for congregations, was led by the Rev. Molly Bosscher, who spent four years as associate rector at Richmond, Virginia’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, once known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy.

The Rev. Jamie Osborne led a session on the theological underpinnings of Confederate symbols in churches. Such symbols are given added spiritual importance when placed in a church, elevating them to “a higher level, a God level” alongside the baptismal font and altar.

Osborne brought to the workshop his own experience in Montgomery, Alabama, where he serves as associate rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church. The St. John’s vestry decided in February to remove a plaque and pew that had been known as the “Jefferson Davis pew” because church leaders determined its connection to the Confederate president was tenuous at best and its 1925 dedication had been steeped in racism.

“The removal of the plaque and the pew is good for the long-term future of the church,” Osborne told ENS. “But there’s also the deeper conversation of ‘How was it that pew and plaque got there?’”

Polk plaque

This plaque honoring Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal bishop and Confederate general, was displayed in Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio, until its removal in 2018. Photo: Sarah Hartwig/Christ Church Cathedral

Those conversations are happening at Episcopal congregations in all regions of the United States, not just the South. Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio, removed its own plaque honoring Polk in 2018. More recently, in Boston, the historic Old North Church held a forum in October to discuss its historic links to slavery, acknowledging that slave traders were among the prominent early members who helped pay for the 1740 steeple.

Reexamining centuries-old history goes beyond what certain Episcopal congregations might do about the Confederate symbols on church grounds. It’s about racial reconciliation, said the Rev. John Jenkins, associate rector at St. Paul’s Church in Augusta, Georgia.

“If you have an older church, your church is a Confederate symbol. It’s a symbol of the whole economic system,” Jenkins told ENS after participating in the Sewanee workshop.

Polk’s funeral was held at St. Paul’s in 1864, and the “fighting bishop” once was entombed on the grounds, Jenkins said. A monument honoring Polk takes up space in the sanctuary, as does a flag display that includes a Confederate banner that was known as the Bonnie Blue.

Jenkins participated this year in the Justice Pilgrimage organized by the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Diocese of Atlanta, and he hopes to mine that experience and the recent Sewanee workshop to help his congregation decide on next steps.

“We need to take responsibility for learning our history and confronting it truthfully,” he said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at