The Bishop's Mantle Summary
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 advice, consequently winning him over. Mrs. Reed, another memorable character, catches Hilary swearing and discerns that he may be a high Episcopal priest, but he is, indeed, a man.
Hilary’s first services as a priest are memorable; his gift as a speaker is remarkable. However, Hilary is not content with success within St. Matthews; he looks beyond the church property and the regular, moneyed parishioners to the tenements and cheap apartments around the church and to the poor who live there. He is conscious of others not being served by the church: young intellectuals from the university and young professionals. The vestrymen who hired him and “held great corporations in the hollow of their hands” are pleased with his effectiveness as a preacher but hesitant concerning his desire to share the beauty of St. Matthews with the poor. Senior Warden Henry Alvord, in particular, wants to keep things as they are, serving only the “right kind” of people: the wealthy who pay a suitable sum of money to rent their pews.
As Hilary begins to learn his way around his new church, he encounters a variety of situations. His tremendous effectiveness as a preacher attracts the lonely widow Diana Downes; she is no temptation to Hilary, who is completely in love with Lex, but she is a danger to his reputation. A situation for which he did not plan was Lex’s attitude toward her position. The antithesis of the stereotypical minister’s wife, the vivacious Lex plans a cocktail party, eager to show her large group of socialite friends her new home, the rectory, and to display her handsome new husband, the priest.
So engrossed is Hilary in implementing his plans for the parish, he “gives scant attention to the seething problems beyond the sea.” However, the “growing black cloud of war” becomes more intrusive and finally a reality to Hilary when his brother Dick volunteers to drive an ambulance in Europe, and some of the young male parishioners go to Canada to enlist.
As the war escalates in Europe, Hilary’s personal wars come to a head. He learns that Alvord not only owns the tenements close to the church but also two brothels. Having a senior warden, a pillar of the church, engaged in this type of commercially profitable activity is abhorrent to Hilary; his efforts to make Alvord divest himself of these “immoral” sources of income come to naught. True to his sense of what is right, Hilary calls a meeting of the vestry and announces that he must resign if Alvord continues on the board. Awakened by their priest’s social consciousness, the vestrymen support him. At home, Lex, unhappy with her quiet lifestyle, gets drunk and blurts out a hurtful truth to the assistant pastor’s wife. Hilary cannot forgive her.
The climax of the novel begins with the death of Hilary’s brother and the crisis of faith Hilary suffers. As he works through his grief and finds a deeper faith, he matures. He forgives Lex. After hearing the radio broadcast announcing the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hilary resolves to continue to serve as a priest but, again, to a wider community as a chaplain in the war.
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.