Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Ezekiel Polk, Methodists and an epitaph

This post has nothing in particular to do with Lucas County other than the fact that "Chariton" was first named "Polk," in honor of the recently deceased 11th U.S. president James K. Polk (1795-1849), back in the fall of 1849. James was old Ezekiel's grandson.

That didn't last long, however, and within days the altogether more interesting name of "Chariton" had been substituted. Iowa still has Polk County, however, organized like Lucas in 1846 during the James K. Polk presidency, as well as Polk City. So the family name remains.

The presidential grandfather (1747-1824) was a native of Pennsylvania who lived in the Carolinas before settling permanently in southwest Kentucky, now Hardeman County, about 1801. He was a veteran of the Revolution, a man of considerable wealth and, like his son, Samuel, and grandson, the presidential James, an owner and exploiter of slaves.

He also was an ardent Jeffersonian Democrat (as opposed to Federalist, the other major party of the day), and --- like Jefferson --- a deist who, some suggest, shifted to outright atheism as he progressed in years.

Whatever the case, he left behind in his own handwriting when he died in 1824 the text of the epitaph that he wanted inscribed on whatever monument was erected to mark his grave in the Polk family cemetery at Bolivar, the Hardeman county seat. Eventually it was carved into the slab of marble that covers his burial place.

I first came across the text of the epitaph in J. Frazer Smith's 1941 White Pillars: Early Life and Architecture of the Lower Mississippi Valley Country, a book I've had for more than 40 years. It amused me than --- and it still does:

Here lies the dust of old E.P.
One instance of mortality;
Pennsylvania born, Car'lina bred,
In Tennessee died on his bed.
His youthful days he spent in pleasure,
His latter days in gath'ring treasure;
From superstition liv'd quite free 
And practiced strict morality.
To holy cheats was never willing
To give one solitary shilling.
He can foresee, and in foreseeing 
He equals most of men in being
That church and state will join their pow'r
And mis'ry on this country show'r.
And Methodists with their camp bawling,
Will be the cause of this down falling.
 An era not destined to see,
It waits for poor posterity.
First fruits and tithes are odious things
And so are Bishops, Priests and Kings.

As it turns out, old E.P. was remarkably prescient, although if this were being inscribed today one would find it necessary to substitute another denomination for "Methodist" as those followers of Wesleyan tradition don't engage in much "camp bawling" these days.

Some years later --- when E.P.'s grandson was seeking the presidency --- lines implicating Methodists in national downfall were chiseled out. They still were missing in 1940, when J. Frazer published, but have since been restored.

The Methodists did, however, extract a bit of revenge. James K. Polk was not a religious man either and didn't join any church. But upon his death bed, he was called to coversion by a Methodist preacher and, thereby, propelled somewhat unexpectedly into Methodist heaven. Ezekiel, presumably, saw and wheeled in his grave.

The tombstone photos, added by Tom Childers, are taken from Ezekiel's Find a Grave memorial.

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