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Religion In The Lives Of The American Presidents

A series of lectures organized and compiled by the Forum Class, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, Washington DC, in 1976. Full text online


James K. Polk

James K. Polk

He was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, on November 2, 1795. When young, the family moved westward into Tennessee.  The family followed the Presbyterian faith, but young Polk was not baptized as a baby because of his father's unwillingness to make a "confession of faith."

He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he found a rigorous Presbyterian indoctrination.

He studied law and entered politics. He became a U.S. Representative in 1825, and later served as Speaker of the House. Somewhat later, he became the Governor of Tennessee. He was a friend of Andrew Jackson.

Polk became a "dark horse" candidate for President as a Democrat in 1344, and was elected on the slogan, "Fifty-four forty or fight." He was a hard worker as President, and kept a detailed diary. The Naval Academy was established in 1845. The Mexican War was fought, giving us the Southwest area and all of California, by conquest and purchase.

The Oregon Question was settled by the Northwest Treaty with England in 1846, making the boundary between the United States and Canada at the 49th Parallel, giving the United States the area north of California.  He died at Nashville, Tennessee, on June 15, 1849, and was buried there.

In 1824, Polk married Sarah Childress, as devout a Presbyterian as was his mother. They purchased a pew in the Presbyterian church, and Polk accompanied her to its services regularly. In August 1833, he attended a Methodist camp meeting, where the preacher was twenty-six year-old John B. McFerrin, later Methodist Bishop of Tennessee. McFerrin whipped up such a pitch of fervor, as to win six thousand converts in a year in the Tennessee region. (Fuller and Green, p.83) 

The lasting impression of that experience is seen in Polk’s White House diary. "Sunday, 2nd November, 1845. Attended the Methodist church (called the Foundry Church today), in company with my private secretary, James Knox Walker. It was an inclement day, ; there being rain from an early hour in the morning; and Mrs. Polk and the ladies of my household did not attend church today. Mrs. Polk being a member of the Presbyterian Church, I generally attend that church with her, though my opinions and predilections are in favor of the Methodist Church." It was his birthday, and the text of the sermon "awakened the reflection that I had lived fifty years, and that before fifty years more would expire, I would be sleeping with the generations which have gone before me; I thought of the vanity of this world's (honors; how little they would profit me half a century hence, and that it was time for me to be putting my house in order." (Fuller and Green, pp. 83-84).

One day in 1846, a senator came urging the President to stop the westward trek of the Mormons from Illinois. Polk showed himself as keen a defender of religious liberty, as any of his predecessors, and "informed him that as President of the United States, I possessed no power to prevent or check their emigration; that the right of emigration or expatriation was one which any citizen possessed. " I told him that I could not interfere with them on the ground of their religious faith, however absurd it might be considered to be; that if I could interfere with the Mormons, I could with the Baptists, or any other religious sect; and that by the Constitution any citizen had a right to adopt his own religious faith." (Fuller and Green, p.84)

Sarah Polk followed strict Presbyterian teachings. The White House observed the Sabbath strictly. Polk declined to do any business of state on a Sunday, unless it were crucial. He noted, once, after their return from church, that the French minister called. "As it is contrary to our fixed rule to receive company on the Sabbath the servant was directed to ask him to excuse us." (Fuller and Green, p. 85)

On his fifty- third birthday, November 2., 1848, he wrote in his diary, "In four months I shall retire from public life forever... I have been highly honored by my fellow-men and have filled the highest station on earth, but I will soon go the way of all earth. I pray God to prepare me to meet the great event." (Fuller and Green, p. 85)

March 4, 1849, was a Sunday, causing the inauguration of Taylor to be held on Monday, the 5th. The Polks went to the Presbyterian church (First Presbyterian) as usual, and afterward many members pressed good-byes upon them. He noted, 'We had attended worship regularly and with few exceptions almost every Sabbath during the term of my Presidency, and the congregation today seemed to realize, that in all probability we should never worship with them again." (Fuller and Green, p. 86)

The Polks made a long, round-about trip back to their home in Tennessee. Polk died in Nashville, four months after completing his term of office. On June 9, 1849, less than a week before his death, he was baptized and received into the Methodist Church by the same Reverend John McFerrin, whose preaching had so moved him in 1833. (Fuller and Green, p. 86)

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Updated: 6-3-2016