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.
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