Born in 1807 near Petersburg in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, Thomas Atkinson attended Yale College for one year and was graduated from Hampden-Sydney in 1825. After practicing law for eight years, Atkinson decided to enter the ministry in 1836. The following year he advanced into the priesthood, then served his first charge in Norfolk, Virginia. From 1843 to 1853 he served Episcopal churches in Baltimore, Maryland. During his years in Maryland, he had the chance to take positions in other states. Later he claimed that he did not become bishop of Indiana because he was not sufficiently opposed to slavery, and that he failed to become bishop of South Carolina because he was not strongly in favor of it.
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In 1853 Atkinson did accept the offer to head the Episcopal church in North Carolina, an invitation extended by a strongly divided diocesan convention. The church was at that time weakened and dispirited, dealt a “severe and mortifying blow” by the defection of Bishop Levi Ives to the Catholic Church. Once installed, Bishop Atkinson brought to the church moderate and enlightened leadership. Throughout his tenure, he took a special interest in the welfare of blacks. Before the war he preached to slaves on plantations, including those of the Burgwyn, Collins, Devereux, Hairston, and Battle families. In 1866 he placed the operation of black Episcopal churches fully in the hands of black clergymen. Two years later he led the move to establish the school in Raleigh that eventually became St. Augustine’s College.
Joseph Blount Cheshire Jr. called Bishop Atkinson “the greatest man I have ever known.” His temperament and bearing were well suited to a clergyman. In the war’s closing days, he moved his family from Wilmington to Wadesboro for safety’s sake. Yet, this was right in the path of Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops, one of whom held a pistol to the bishop’s head while his house was ransacked. Later he explained that the incident helped him to be sympathetic with the suffering of others.
Like Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance, Bishop Atkinson opposed secession until Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s call for Southern troops. By October 1861 he was organizing the Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America. Four years later he played a key role in reunification of the church North and South. One of only two Southern delegates to attend the General Convention in Philadelphia in October 1865, he successfully argued for prompt action toward unity without retribution. Following years of declining health, Bishop Atkinson died in Wilmington on January 4, 1881, and was buried beneath the chapel of St. James Church.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I (1979), 62-63—sketch by Larry Edward Tise
Henry C. Clay, “Sermon Commemorative of the Late Thomas Atkinson” (1881)
Joseph Blount Cheshire, “Bishop Atkinson and the Church in the Confederacy” (1909)
Marshall Delancey Haywood, Lives of the Bishops of North Carolina (1910)
Hugh T. Lefler, “Thomas Atkinson, Third Bishop of North Carolina,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church (December 1948), 422-434
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984)