(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Bishop’s Mantle is a coming-of-age novel in which the main character, Hilary Laurens, is tested by a variety of circumstances; it is also a novel that reflects a particular time and place in American history. At the beginning of the novel, Hilary, a minister in his early thirties, must face the death of his grandfather, who has been Hilary’s sole support since his mother and father died. His grandfather was a nationally known bishop of the Episcopal church whose guidance over the years and his insight, recorded in a bound scrapbook, are the “mantle” protecting and guiding Hilary. The young minister will often turn to that scrapbook in his first professional appointment as priest to the prestigious St. Matthews, a high Episcopal church in an unnamed eastern city.

As he assumes his role of priest to this community, Hilary is attempting to win Lex, a beautiful young woman whom he loves passionately. Although Hilary is certain how he feels, Lex worries that becoming the minister’s wife may not suit her fun-loving nature. Her uncertainty about marriage to a minister and her desire not to be tied down contrast with Hilary’s certainty in his choice not only of Lex but also of vocation. His ardor for Lex and his alternating delight and despair over their relationship help to show his human, vulnerable side.

The bulk of the novel details Hilary’s encounters with various situations and personalities. Of importance are the minor characters who play an evolving role in assisting or becoming an obstacle to the new priest. By showing Hilary reacting to these characters, Agnes Sligh Turnbull gives insight into his personality. His instinctive compassion is evident in how he consoles Morris, the black servant of his grandfather, the bishop. Sensing how lost the elderly man feels and how uncertain he is about future employment, Hilary announces that he cannot do without Morris in his new parish and asks him to come with him to the new city. At the new parish, Hilary must deal with a different kind of character, the prickly church sexton Hastings, who, during his forty years at St. Matthews, had become the bulwark of the previous pastor. Showing acumen beyond his years, Hilary asks for Hastings’s...

(The entire section is 914 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hart, James D. “Platitudes of Piety: Religion and the Popular Modern Novel.” American Quarterly 6, no. 4 (Winter, 1954): 311-322. An overview of how religious subjects are treated in popular novels, focusing on Hilary’s human dilemmas.

Morey, Ann-Janine. “Blaming Women for the Sexually Abusive Male Pastor.” Christian Century 105, no. 28 (October 5, 1988): 866-869. A study that details the dynamics of the relationship of Hilary and his wife, as well as discussion of the fictionalized portrayal of ministers’ wives by Turnbull and others.

Paige, Judith. “St. Matthew’s.” Review of The Bishop’s Mantle. The New York Times, October 26, 1947, p. 24. A favorable review that stresses the importance of character development of the main characters and also notes the “wonderful” minor characters.

Turnbull, Agnes Sligh. Dear Me, Leaves from the Diary of Agnes Sligh Turnbull. New York: Macmillan, 1941. Turnbull’s diary provides a glimpse into her life and the woman behind the novels.