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date: 17 July 2024

Race, Culture, and Religion in the American Southfree

Race, Culture, and Religion in the American Southfree

  • Paul HarveyPaul HarveyUniversity of Colorado, Colorado Springs


The South still commonly appears as the land of the Bible Belt, of evangelical Protestant hegemony. Despite the rapidly increasing immigration from all parts of the world to the region, there is still justification for such a view. To study religion in the South, then, is to examine the influence of a dominant evangelical culture that has shaped the region’s social mores, religious minorities (including Catholicism, Judaism, and non-Christian immigrant religions), cultural forms, charged racial interactions, and political practices. In no other widely dispersed region, save for the Mormon regions of the Rocky Mountain West, does one family of religious belief and expression hold such sway over so many people and throughout such a large area. The biracial nature of evangelicalism in the South, as well, lends it a distinctive history and culture that alternately puzzles, repulses, and fascinates outsiders.

The South may be the Bible Belt, but, like Joseph’s coat, it is a belt of many colors, embroidered with a rich stitching together of words, sounds, and images from the inexhaustible resource of the scriptures. The rigid Bible Belt conservatism associated with the common understanding of religion in the South contrasts dramatically with the sheer creative explosiveness of southern religious cultural expression. Indeed, southern religious influences lay at the heart of much of 20th-century American popular culture. And it contrasts with a rapidly changing contemporary South in which Buddhist retreat centers and Ganesha temples are taking their place alongside Baptist and Methodist churches.


  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion in America
  • Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology of Religion

Historical and Historiographical Background

For two hundred years before it grew into a region dominated by a conservative form of Protestantism, the South was a place where diverse religious traditions from around the world met, sometimes in coexistence and sometimes in conflict. No one could have guessed where history was headed. No one could have known who would end up as the political or religious victor in a multipolar world where Natives and non-English Europeans possessed advantageous geographic control. No one foresaw the way in which the religious cosmologies and practices of early Anglo-American evangelicals would eventually meld into an evangelical enthusiasm. And finally, none but a few religious visionaries would have understood this relatively unpopulated, deeply troubled region as the eventual base for a vast Anglo-American empire that would stretch from Virginia through Texas by the antebellum era. Americans later pronounced divine plans and interventions in this entire process. Historians have provided their own parallel vocabulary of “Bible Belt” and “evangelical empire.” But contemporaries who lived through the first two hundred years of southern history since the advent of European settlers understood the fortuitous, accidental nature of history.

Most of the scholarship on religion in the South since the 1960s has endeavored to explain how and why southern evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries have so radically transformed the South’s religiosity from Anglican ritualism and backwoods indifference to an emotional evangelicalism. The story these scholars tell is complex and, in some measures, contested. It is intimately bound up with the rise of a slaveholding republic, the national Second Great Awakening, the coming of “civilization” to the rustic southern backcountry and newly opening states of the Deep South, the innovative methods (such as circuit-riding preachers and mass-produced pamphlet literature) employed by the newly rising evangelical denominations, and the concerted (and partially successful) effort to evangelize among enslaved people.

In the late 18th century, as evangelical revivalism spread through the region, a brief moment of opportunity for a biracial religious order seemed to present itself. Some ministers declared slavery to be a sin, freed their own slaves, and advocated lifting restrictions on black men who wished to preach the gospel in public. But this moment was illusory. It quickly became evident that whites valued the blossoming of their evangelical institutions and would make the necessary moral accommodations to align southern religious institutions with slave owning. As Virginians and Marylanders had established as early as the 1660s, freedom from the bondage of sin did not equal freedom from human bondage. Despite the presence of the occasional odd anti-slavery southern divine, white southern Christians erected a wall of separation between the realms of spiritual and temporal equality. By the 1830s, especially after Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831, white evangelicals who previously had questioned slavery were defending it as a divinely sanctioned social order. By the 1850s such a view reigned as a virtually unchallenged orthodoxy among white southern evangelicals, be they elite divines or folk exhorters.

Most southern congregations in the antebellum era often claimed a substantial membership of enslaved African Americans. With the enslaved members sitting in segregated parts of the building, presiding ministers solemnly recounted biblical injunctions to obey the masters. This kowtowing by ministers to the slave-owning class was obvious to slaves in attendance. In these white-run antebellum churches, blacks participated to a larger degree than historians once understood. White ministers tutored black protégés for missionary work, on occasion even setting these ministers free. Black members were considered part of churches, even if only their first names might be recorded on the roll book.

Enslaved Christians in the antebellum South fashioned a religious culture which synthesized Euro-American Christian beliefs and African expressive styles into a unique, sustaining form of Christianity. This faith took shape partly under the suspicious eyes of watchful but devout whites, but, more importantly, it developed in the sacred spaces the slaves created for themselves in private worship. Sometimes noticed (and often ridiculed) by whites, slave religion found its fullest expression in the brush arbors and secret places where enslaved Christians could express religious faith in the way they chose. In these private gatherings, the deepest desires for freedom found expression among people otherwise compelled to dissemble before old master.

The Civil War proved the great dividing line in southern religious institutional history. After the war, independent churches and denominational organizations sprung up quickly in black communities, including thousands of small local congregations and major national organizations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention. Only a decade after the war, hardly any black parishioners still worshipped in the historically white southern churches. Through the last part of the 19th century black church membership grew rapidly. By the 1906 religious census, the National Baptist Convention claimed more than two million communicants, or over 61 percent of black churchgoers. Altogether, church membership among African Americans rose from 2.6 million to 3.6 million from 1890 to 1906. The church was widely acknowledged to be at the center of African American social and cultural life, and it remained so through the era of segregation and, much later, the civil rights movement.

Redemption and Religion after the Civil War

During and after the Civil War, white evangelicals entered the public arena as never before. The term Redemption, used by historians to describe the end of Reconstruction in the mid-1870s, assumed an especially powerful meaning for white southern believers. Redemption signified individual salvation as well as deliverance from “cursed rulers.” As would be the case a century later during the civil rights movement, white Democratic politicians during Reconstruction employed an evangelical language of sin and redemption combined with measures of political organization and extralegal violence. When some African American men exercised rights of political citizenship, it appeared to white conservatives as an overturning of a divinely ordered hierarchy. White southern Christians viewed their Redemptionist activity as essentially religious, an extension of the cosmic struggle between order and disorder, civilization and barbarism, white and black.

Despite a period of sharp postwar decline due to southern defeat and even more so because of the mass withdrawal of African Americans from the major religious institutions of the region, white evangelical churches reestablished themselves after the war. They still faced some of their old competitors and enemies, such as the honor culture of the Old South that prized masculine assertiveness, as well as the poverty and isolation that gripped so much of the region. Nevertheless, evangelicals largely captured the culture of the region. They overcame some of their earlier suspicion of the use of state power and governmental authority and seized on progressive initiatives to improve public life through education, sanitation, and prohibition. Indeed, despite their reputation for stalwart conservatism, southern evangelicals in fact led the progressive movement in the early 20th century. Good roads, better schools, improved sanitation, elimination of alcohol, and the proper ordering of the races through “modern” mechanisms such as urban segregation, they realized, aided their desire to “uplift” their people.

Churches in Cultural Captivity?

The dominant understanding of evangelicalism in the South since the Civil War, the so-called cultural captivity thesis, explains how southern Christians were “captive” to southern culture. In its simplest formulation, the thesis runs like this: compelled to choose between Christ and culture, southerners chose culture. For example, white religious institutions and practices in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries reflected and reinforced racism. Slumbering in a reactionary form of evangelicalism, southern whites faltered before the moral challenges posed to them, from abolitionism through Reconstruction and later the civil rights movement.

There are obvious and important truths here. Writing in the midst of the civil rights revolution, scholars could not help but see cultural captivity when stiff-necked deacons and ushers stood cross-armed at church house doors, defending segregation now and segregation forever. More recently, scholars of the civil rights era have pointed out the fact that prominent black ministers avoided association with the movement, with some clearly complicit in the oppressive system. In this sense, the cultural captivity thesis damns both white and black churches.

Yet the dominant classes rarely have espoused theologies of equality. More commonly, they adopt theologies that sanctify inequality. The white southern theology of class, blood, and sex was premised on God-ordained inequality. It was an unstable foundation in the context of American liberal democracy, but one common in human history. White southern religious ideas of the social order of the races, moreover, could be intellectually grounded in a conservative vision of the role of hierarchy in preserving order and staving off anarchy. These notions were not merely hypocritical cant intended to void the clear biblical message, for particular biblical passages clearly explained why spiritual equality does not (and must not) imply temporal equality. Post–Civil War southern theologians responded to defeat in the Civil War by emphasizing human weakness, fallibility, and dependence on God. For many white southern theologians, defeat in the Civil War also shored up orthodoxies of race and place. The Negro—as a beast, a burden, or a brother—was there to be dealt with by whites, who were the actors in the racial drama. After the Civil War, by using the term Redemption, white southerners expressed a deeply religious understanding of the tumultuous political events of the 1870s.

In the 20th-century South, however, constructing a theological defense of segregation was more complicated. After World War II, the American creed required white southern theologians to mouth the words that all men were created equal. To justify the state-mandated inequality of segregation, they resorted to constitutional arguments (“interposition”), appeals to tradition, and outright demagoguery. They dug up references to “render unto Caesar” and formulated obscurantist renderings of Old Testament passages such as the Son of Ham mythologies (the story from Genesis 9:18–27 when Noah condemns the “sons of Ham” to servitude).

Religion, Rights, and Resistance

If white southern theology generally sanctified southern hierarchies, evangelical belief and practice also at times subtly undermined the dominant order. Churches as institutions were conservative, but progressive Christians drew different lessons from the Bible than regional religious leaders often understood. The actions of individual churchmen and women outstripped the cautious defensiveness that often marked the public stance of the religious institutions. While religious institutions were resistant to change, many religious folk devoted themselves to social change precisely because they perceived God as the author of it.

At no time was this more apparent than during the great social revolution of 20th-century American history: the civil rights movement. Although drawing in multiple influences both secular and religious, the freedom struggle was sustained through the religious vision of the ordinary black (and a few white) southerners who made up its rank and file, braved harassment and intimidation, and transformed the consciousness and conscience of the country.

African American Protestantism empowered the most important social struggle in 20th-century American history, one that fundamentally redefined citizenship for disfranchised peoples. Civil rights leaders employed multiple arguments, many of them involving constitutional protections. But beneath that ran the powerful stream of black Protestant ideas (translated sometimes through Gandhian and Catholic Worker notions of civil disobedience and active resistance) that moved southern folk and pushed forward a leadership that otherwise remained cautious and circumspect. For many ordinary southerners, nothing else besides a religious vision of redeeming the South sufficed for the sacrifices required by the struggle.

During the mid-20th century, religious segregationists peopled the white churches of the region, but they were difficult to organize into concerted action. More so than ministers, many of whom were relatively silent during the civil rights crises, or who attempted to use the language of “moderation” to paper over differences, white laymen in the South articulated, defended, and enforced what amounted to a folk theology of segregation. It was more pervasive among southern laymen and laywomen and among ministers outside the denominational hierarchy than in the circles of denominational leadership. This sanctification of segregation was important in making the white South so obsessed with purity and concerned with defending (in the words of scholar Jane Dailey) the sacred triad of sex, segregation, and the sacred. Only a proper ordering of the races would maintain white southern purity against defilement—the sexual metaphors behind the race politics were obvious and restated endlessly.

Into the Post–Civil Rights Era

In the 1980s and 1990s, the longer-range effect of the civil rights movement appeared paradoxical. On the one hand, African Americans entered southern social institutions in numbers and in an unself-conscious way that stunned many older southern people, white and black, who remembered the drama of the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s firsthand. Southern churches mostly remained separated by race, but in other areas of social life pluralism came to the once solid South. Indeed, by the late 1990s it was becoming apparent that immigration from Mexico, Central and South America, and Asia was dramatically changing particular biracial southern patterns. On the other hand, in much of the South, especially the rural areas where the biracial pattern still remained evident, white and black people remained quite separate, and the extent of black poverty rivaled that of the worst areas of the country. Many problems formerly seen as “northern,” such as gangs and drugs, infiltrated southern communities in places such as the Mississippi Delta, where the civil rights movement never made a serious dent on the disheartening statistics of black poverty. In short, “national” patterns of race relations, including increasing racial segregation of housing (a distinct change from the historic southern pattern of closely mingling and sometimes intersecting white and black residential areas, in part due to the economy of domestic service on which white households depended), became part of the “Southern way of life.”

The “Southern” trend in religion, too, mirrored the national scene, as black and white evangelicals were “divided by faith.” The common thread of evangelicalism running through the southern tradition could not mask the very different social interpretations given to faith by black and white church communities. In particular, the evangelical individualism that was such a deep part of southern white religious history prevented many good-hearted white southerners from seeing what their black brethren knew very well, that the deep racial and structural divide in American life would not be broken down by “changing hearts” or other nostrums dear to the hearts of evangelicals. Like the first Reconstruction, then, the civil rights movement, sometimes called the second Reconstruction, is an unfinished revolution—nowhere more so than in southern religion.

Southern evangelicalism has never been as removed from engagement in this world’s affairs as its adherents (and many historians since) typically have claimed. Such remains the case today, when the activist impulse has migrated rightward and lodged itself firmly in the hands of a (mostly) white evangelical leadership. Since the 1960s, social activism in southern religion largely has passed from the civil rights coalition, whose primary focus was racial justice in the South, to the religious right, seen in the rise of figures such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed. Learning from the techniques of the civil rights movement, the contemporary religious-political right has deployed the language of social righteousness. In this case, though, social activism has been used not so much to pull a backward region forward as to reclaim a lost heritage of a once supposedly “Christian America.”

By the 1970s, many white southern believers accommodated themselves with remarkable ease to the demise of white supremacy as fundamentally constitutive of their society. Thus, in the recent controversies within southern church organizations, race has been one of the very few items on the agenda not in dispute. Today’s conservatives, for the most part, have repudiated the white supremacist views of their predecessors. Since the 1960s the standard biblical arguments against racial equality have become relics, embarrassments from a bygone age. But their philosophical premises have not. Indeed, they have found their way rather easily into the contemporary religious conservative stance on gender. For religious conservatives generally, patriarchy has supplanted race as the defining first principle of God-ordained inequality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the self-described “conservative resurgence” inside the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. The civil rights struggle re-formed southern denominations, splitting them along the lines of conservatives, moderates, and liberals that typically form cross-denominational alliances.

Religions of the Region

Protestant evangelicalism has obviously been the dominant religion of the region since the rise of the Bible Belt in the 19th century and the expanding southern religious empires (especially that of the Southern Baptist Convention) in the 20th century. At the same time, the dominance of evangelicalism is not quite as simple as portrayed in the term Bible Belt. Southern evangelicals have dominated their region religiously, and they still do to a large extent; they have heavily influenced their region politically, and they still do in some areas; and yet they have never felt completely secure in their cultural reign in the region, and they have less reason now than ever before to feel such confidence.

The South’s own self–image of being at ease in Zion has been shaken in recent years. Indeed, the very term southern identity itself has been called into question. What does it mean to call a region an evangelical belt when, according to the 2000 census data, 40 percent of those surveyed were either uncounted or unaffiliated with any church? The closest competitor to the category of “unaffiliated or uncounted” for the South was “Baptist,” with 19 percent of the total regional population identified as adherents (a category more expansive than that of “members”). The category “Historically Black Protestant” registered at 12 percent. The only other group coming in at a figure of over 10 percent were the Catholics.

Statistics can tell many stories, of course. If the numbers crunched above show an evangelical belt that is, at best, holding its own, other tales from the tables suggest a different conclusion. In a poll conducted in 1998, 20 percent of southerners indicated they attended church services more than once a week, a rate more than double that for non–Southerners. More Southerners (almost 42 percent, in comparison to 33 percent for those outside the region) agreed with the statement that religion was “extremely important” in their lives. Six of ten southerners said they accepted the account of creation in Genesis over Darwin. A large proportion of the “unchurched” in the region still believes in God and afterlife. The predominance of southern preachers on the airwaves provides the kind of oral soundtrack that many Americans associate with conservative Protestant Christianity more generally. In other words, even if 40 percent of southerners are uncounted or unaffiliated, many register as believers if counted by other measures.

Tilt the prism another way, and yet another perspective emerges. Since the 1970s, religious diversity in the South has intensified. The increasing pluralism of the South’s population has brought in substantial Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish populations to the urban South. In 1999, more than one in five affiliated with some faith outside of Protestantism. Latinos and Asians now make up almost 14 percent of Southerners. A total of 14 percent of Texas residents and 17 percent of Floridians were born outside the United States. In North Carolina, Latinos and Asians constituted less than 2 percent of the population in 1990, but that figure rose dramatically in the subsequent decade. In North Carolina alone, the 77,000 Latinos counted in 1990 grew to 377,000 ten years later. Durham County’s Hispanic population rose by over 700 percent in 1990s, and Durham is now a “majority-minority” city: 48 percent white, 39 percent African American, 8 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian. While the “distinctive South” still survives, the demographic distinctiveness of the South is in decline, in large part because of the influx of Latinos and Asians.

Even that story must be complicated and studied in specific subregions, for immigration patterns are intense in very particular areas and nonexistent in others. Hispanics gravitate toward specific locales where work awaits them—for example, in the carpet factories in and around Dalton, Georgia, the gigantic hog farms of North Carolina, and the migrant labor crop-picking camps in the Southeast. Asians may be found largely in growing metropolitan urban areas—Atlanta, Charlotte, the Research Triangle, Richmond and northern Virginia, and Nashville. Thus, the South may be colored with a dominant background of white and black Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals along with a sprinkling of other groups in particular areas. There is still a decided Bible Belt where white and black evangelicals predominate in numbers akin to Mormons in Utah, and that belt stretches across several states and millions of religious adherents. Evangelicals still represent “religion” in terms of interaction with public culture. Even this interaction of religion and public life appears likely to change, however, as (for example) Hispanic Catholics and Pentecostals make their voices heard, and highly educated Asians in the university and medical communities grow more assertive in public expression of their Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Sikh, or other faiths.

The South, then, is the most solidly evangelical region of the country, and the South’s evangelicals are the most conservative in terms of voting patterns, views of biblical authority, and attitudes toward significant social issues. Ironically, it is those evangelicals who feel, as a recent book title puts it, “uneasy in Babylon,” as they see a formerly almost monolithically evangelical culture gradually slipping from them.

Sermon, Song, and Supernaturalism

More than any other region of the country, the South has been defined by its close identification with evangelical styles of religious expressions, and its intense relationship with scriptural texts, one simultaneously literalist (hence the association of southern religion with fundamentalism), visionary, and musically creative. The rigid Bible Belt conservatism associated with the common understanding of religion in the South contrasts dramatically with the sheer creative explosiveness of southern religious cultural expression. Indeed, it is southern religion that was at the heart of much of 20th-century American culture.

If the image of southern evangelicalism seems dominated by spare and plain meeting houses, fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone sermons, and repressive behavioral restrictions, the southern artistic imagination nevertheless has been infused with rich biblical imagery that has exploded in word, sound, and the visual arts. This is evidenced in the rich literary tradition of figures such as Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Alice Walker, and Walker Percy; in the musical sounds of shape-note singing, the black spirituals, and white and black gospel; in the oratorical artistry of countless chanted sermons and well-known evangelists such as Billy Graham; and it is also wonderfully expressed by the visionary art works of figures such as Howard Finster.

Religion in the South has deeply influenced American life less through theology, ritual, or formal structures than through cultural forms. Southern sermonic and oratorical forms reverberated through the majestic cadences of Martin Luther King Jr., and American revivalism took a distinctively modern form through southern barnstorming preachers such as Billy Sunday and, later in the century, Billy Graham. More recently, this has been reinforced by the prevalence of southern preachers on the airwaves, including Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, the comical figures of Jim and Tammy Bakker and their Christian theme park in South Carolina, and Jimmy Swaggart, nationally known Louisiana Pentecostal and first cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis, who carried the energy and fire of Pentecostalism into his music. (Pentecostalism was a movement that embraced the complete capture of the soul by the “Holy Ghost,” as evidenced by behaviors such as speaking in tongues). The migration of black Americans from the South to the rest of the country through much of the 20th century, moreover, ensured that African American sermonic forms that developed over two centuries in the South would spread and become known in national politics through the likes of Jesse Jackson, a native of South Carolina.

More than anyplace else, in music the religious South deeply imprinted and shaped American life. In black spirituals, Americans learned of the deep theology and culture of the nation’s most despised and oppressed people. Through black and white variants of gospel music and in the rhythmic intensity that black and white Pentecostals carried forward through the 20th century, Americans recaptured a deep soulfulness and spiritual dance and listened avidly to thinly veiled secularized versions of those forms in the popular music of the post–World War II era. In many ways, southern religious expressive forms, with their deep intermixing of white and black forms and styles, became America’s cultural sensibility.

Racial segregation in post–Civil War southern religion was normal. But in liminal spaces—in novelty acts, revivals, and the creation of new religious and musical traditions—the bars of race came down, if only temporarily. White and black southern religious folk cultures drew from common evangelical beliefs and attitudes and swapped musical and oratorical styles and forms. On occasion, they shared liminal moments of religious transcendence, before moving back into a Jim Crow world where color defined and limited everything.

The development of southern religious music, and its immense impact on national popular culture, provides a perfect example. From the early intermingling of Protestant hymns and African styles in spirituals to the mixing of white and black country and gospel sounds on radio dials, two streams of musical religious culture flowed beside each other, never merging but often intersecting. As rural southerners made their treks from countryside to town in the early 20th century, and as many of them found their way to northern cities later in the century, they carried their churches with them, marking them for the derision of their urban neighbors. Later in the 20th century, however, Pentecostalism became one of the fastest growing religious groupings in America, confounding a generation of interpreters who condemned it as the opiate of the dispossessed. These primitives instead provided much of the soundtrack and expressive forms that reshaped American cultural styles later in the 20th century.

Holiness/Pentecostalism provided fertile ground for musical interchange among white and black southerners, just as the great camp meetings of the early 19th century provided a similar forum for cultural interchange. Guitars, tambourines, and other rhythmical instruments, once seen as musical accompaniments for the devil, found their way into black Pentecostal churches in the early 20th century. C. H. Mason’s Church of God in Christ congregations immediately adopted them. White Pentecostals soon picked them up, and the two shared hymns and holy dancing. White and black Pentecostal musical styles remained distinct, but they intersected at many points. Both employed rhythmical accompaniments, enthusiastic hollers, and holy dancing. Holiness and Pentecostal preachers and singers were among the most culturally innovative and entrepreneurial of 20th-century plain folk southerners. Black and white Pentecostals seized on the opportunities provided by mass media to spread their message. Many of the black gospel pioneers came out of the Baptist and Methodist churches, but the influence of Holiness/Pentecostal performance styles broke through the stranglehold of “respectable” music that had defined urban bourgeois black services. Black gospel during these years developed its own tradition, its favorite touring quartets and choirs and first star soloists (such as Mahalia Jackson), and its own fierce internal competitions among publishing outfits, composers, and traveling singing groups. In gospel, then, the steams of southern religious music, white and black, flowed alongside one another, sometimes exchanging tunes and lyrics and styles, while remaining distinct. Radio became their most effective medium, for it reached out-of-the-way places where many parishioners lived.

Cultural Subregions

Southern evangelical culture also varied greatly by subregion—between city and country, the Southeast and Southwest, Virginia and Texas, Florida and Kentucky, the Appalachian Mountains and the Lowcountry, the piney woods and the Black Belt, the Dust Bowl and the Florida swamplands. Where historians have (until recently) generalized about the regional religion, scholars from other disciplines, especially folklore, musicology, and religious studies, have brought their expertise into the study of practices that exist on the margins of dominant evangelicalism. Pioneered by Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1997), scholars have addressed subjects such as ring shouts, conjure rituals, chanted sermonizing, and blues hollers. In such activities, students of religious culture have discovered a rich tradition of black expressive culture underneath the smothering rhetoric of “uplift” pervading black church organizations.

The blues were one medium for older African-derived spiritualities driven underground by the assimilationist tendencies of late-19th-century black religious leaders. The power of folk traditions as both internally cohesive and destructive forces in southern black communities also is evident in the practice of conjure, or “black magic,” The practice of conjure, a form of healing and counter-harming that drew from both Christian and African-based religious elements, was primarily the province of poor southern blacks who were its primary practitioners (although whites formed a substantial clientele base). Fears of unseen powers—signified by specially concocted mixtures of roots, plants, and bags—compelled frequent recourse to conjure men. Belief in conjure—or at least a willingness to suspend disbelief—pervaded much of the Deep South. Many southern believers, black and white, engaged in a Pascalian wager, trusting in their Christianity but also keeping one foot in the world of spirits invoked by conjurers and narrated in popular tales. It was self–evident wisdom to place some stock in both.

The parallel among whites may be found most strongly in the Appalachian Mountains, where a variety of distinctive subregional religious traditions, with considerable folk and supernatural roots of their own, lived on in the face of the rise to respectability of the southern denominations. Religious worship and theology in the Appalachian Mountains derive from a mixture of Scots-Irish “sacramental revivalism,” German Pietism, colonial Baptist revival culture, and the anti-missions impulse in the southern backcountry. All of these came together after the camp meetings of the early 19th century (centered in the Upcountry South, particularly in Cane Ridge in Kentucky) to form what later became “mountain religion.” In the antebellum era, as the benevolent empire began its march through America’s religious heartland, religious folk in the Upcountry South took a determined stand against the increasingly Arminian theology of standard American evangelicalism. They remained true to their doctrines of waiting with a “sweet hope” for the action of the Spirit. Later in the 19th century, Protestant denominations began extensive home missions work in the mountains, disparaging the vital religiosity of the people while ignoring the tradition of native preaching.

Catholicism, Judaism, and Asian Religions in the South

Historically, the South has been distinctive for its overwhelming predominance of a biracial culture, with relatively few “white ethnics” or other groups to muddy the mix. It has also been distinctive for the remarkable strength, resilience, and durability of evangelical Protestantism in the region, far exceeding that of any other region in the country. Until recently, Catholics have been concentrated primarily in particular subregions (Louisiana and Texas, in particular), Jews have never made it even to 1 percent of the population base, Latinos were scarce outside of Texas, and Asians represented the tiniest minority of all. As a result, scholars have been able to speak of a “solid South” in religion, one that has room for High Church Christianity for the elite and for Catholics in particular regions, but one that is fundamentally defined by Southern Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and (more recently) Pentecostals. This is a far remove from the United States as a whole, where (for example) Catholics form the single largest religious grouping, while in the South Catholics (at least outside of Louisiana) have always struggled for legitimacy and recognition.

Thus, in looking at “minority” religions in the South (which includes Catholicism, Judaism, Asian religions, and Islam), one faces first their near invisibility in the region, at least until quite recently. This does not mean they were nonexistent. In a few particular cases, such as New Orleans and surrounding regions of Louisiana, Catholics were actually predominant, and evangelical Protestants were the relative upstarts. But even in Louisiana, once traveling far enough northward Baptists and Methodists displaced Catholics. The same holds true for Florida, where the relative anomaly of southern Florida gives way to a more familiar white and black evangelical Protestant scene in the northern half of the state and particularly in the Florida Panhandle.

One may start the discussion of minority religions in the South, and the diversification of southern religion itself, with the Catholics. Over 15 percent of Southerners polled in 1999 claimed a Catholic identity. As one may expect, the majority still consists of historical Louisiana Catholics, Mexican Americans in Texas, and Cuban Americans in Florida. But Catholicism has found its way into the Deep South as well, and increasingly it mixes in unobtrusively with the familiar landscape of evangelical Protestant churches. Immigration accounts for part of this; more significant, however, is migration, as national firms draw in increasing numbers of workers from other parts of the country. In particular urban regions—Atlanta, Charlotte, the North Carolina Research Triangle, and even in the evangelical Vatican of Nashville—Catholics have assumed a regularized presence in the southern landscape, such that to be southern and Catholic no longer seems the anomaly that it was in the past.

Black Catholics, too, have grown out of their Louisiana base and have found homes elsewhere. Historically, the Catholic Church in the South tried to promote itself among black southerners as one church that did not discriminate, one that welcomed all. As black Catholics well knew, this was partly a sham. Parochial schools in the South, including New Orleans, were segregated through the late 19th century, and many Catholic churches increasingly took to segregating pews during services or even to requiring blacks to stand at the back and receive Holy Communion last when whites filled up all the pew spaces. Despite the heroic efforts of some priests and the attempts by Catholics to avoid the segregated church model of the Protestants, Catholics increasingly fit into a southern mold as well.

Jews have an intriguing relationship as well with the history of religions in the South. Jews established a significant presence early in southern history—significant not in terms of numbers, but in terms of occupying important and respected spots in the region’s economic and cultural elite (including in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate cabinet). Jews held a respected spot, too, in the cultural imaginary of southern evangelical Protestants, since Jews were, after all, descended from Abraham and Moses and David. Thus, biblical literalists had to give them respect, even if they knew nothing in particular of what Judaism was actually about. Thus, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the South was relatively free of overt anti-Semitism. This changed dramatically in the early 20th century with the brutally tragic lynching of Leo Frank, the pencil factory owner falsely accused of murdering a young teenage girl, Mary Phagan, who worked in Frank’s establishment.

Later in the 20th century, Jewish southerners, including many well-known department store owners and merchants in cities such as Birmingham, Memphis, and Atlanta, had a complicated relationship with the civil rights struggle. Many were supportive of the black freedom struggle, both privately and publicly. A few were well-known segregationists. Others were privately supportive but joined southern moderates in urging caution and gradualism—earning one rabbi a spot of infamy on the list of religious “moderates” famously skewered by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Some Jewish leaders—notably Rabbi Perry Nussbaum in Mississippi—saw their synagogues and houses bombed for their presumed identification with elements sympathetic to black civil rights. Since the civil rights era, Jews have joined Catholics as increasingly “blended in” to the southern religious landscape, especially in the largest urban areas and in university communities.

Finally, some mention should be made of the recent demographic explosion of Asian religions in the South. In the 2000 census, immigrants to the South numbered just over eight million people. Comparing census data from 1960 and 2000, one sees a quadrupling of the South’s foreign-born population. The largest percentage of these consists of Latino immigrants, especially to Texas and Florida; but they have increasingly been joined by Asian immigrants to southern cities. By 2000, for example, the city of Atlanta included some 10,000 Buddhists, 12,000 Hindus, and 30,000 Muslims. Nearly 25,000 Vietnamese had taken up residence in Louisiana, and close to 50,000 Asian Indians (mostly of Hindu or Sikh faiths) in Georgia. In North Carolina, nearly 115,000 Asians had taken up residence in the state by the 2000 census, and evidence of their impact could be seen in Hindu statutes, Thai temples, Cambodian wats, and Vietnamese Catholic shrines that were popping up even in the most unexpected parts of the southern landscape. Perhaps because they are still a relatively small percentage of the population yet, or perhaps because they have filled vital niches in the southern economy, Asian immigrants to the South have experienced surprisingly little of the harassment that traditionally greets newer foreign-born groups. It is too soon to say, however, how Asian religions will change the southern religious landscape. Most probably, they will become part of the landscape, noticed by those looking for evidence of their presence and likely unnoticed by the millions of Baptists and Methodists driving to their church parking lots.

Studies of southern religion make up a vital part of American religious history. The distorting influence of racial segregation is being dissolved as scholars attempt culturally complex histories of southern religious cultures. The overemphasis on the homogeneity of evangelical Protestantism in the region is giving way to an appreciation of diversity and complexity within the regional religious traditions.

Important questions and avenues of scholarship remain. The discovery of southern Jewish history goes on apace. Meanwhile, the diversification of the contemporary South brings religious pluralism to the region. Thomas Tweed’s study of a Cuban Catholic shrine in Miami is one of the first of what will be many more works on non-Protestant religious expressions in the recent South. Since much of this concerns contemporary groups, anthropologists and sociologists have been the pioneers of this work. Important questions remain in understanding religion in the present-day South. The new South, symbolized by rising mega-regions such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, stems in part from the successes of local leaders in attracting corporate enterprises to their region. Can southern religion remain “distinctive” in such settings? Is “Sunbelt Religion” a species different from “southern religion,” given that the religion of the Sunbelt is attracting business enterprise while the religion of the South historically has provided spiritual comfort to those in relative poverty?


In the 1920s, H. L. Mencken slammed the South as “a cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodism, snake-charmers, phony real-estate operators, and syphilitic evangelists.” In the 1930s, John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town underscored how southern churches reinforced the caste system of the region.1 In his 1941 classic Mind of the South, Wilbur J. Cash said that there was no mind of the South but only a temperament torn between a “hell-of-a-fellow” sociability and a primitive religious fundamentalism.2 In recent years, however, the South has undergone a renaissance. With it has come a revitalized scholarship, largely freed of older defensiveness and denominational hagiography, on the one hand, and academic iconoclasm, on the other. In the 1960s and 1970s, an initial burst of interest in southern religious history, spurred on by both the civil rights movement and the resistance to it, established the field, and in recent years the online Journal of Southern Religion continues to give the field a vital presence.3

Any discussion of southern religion must begin with the landmark works of Samuel S. Hill Jr., whose 1967 Southern Churches in Crisis and subsequent books, including The South and the North in American Religion (1980), have defined the field.4 Focusing almost exclusively on whites, Southern Churches in Crisis defined the archetypal “culture-religion” of southern Christianity, one more experiential and emotional, less doctrinal and intellectual than religion outside the region. Southern orthodoxy, according to Hill, sees individual conversion (rather than social reform or any larger purpose) as the central role of religious institutions—an argument later dubbed the “conversionist paradigm.” Southern believers historically have seen their own region as a Zion, set apart from the secularizing currents of the rest of the country, and thus more pure, more godly.

The irony, of course, is that it was New England, not the South, that was the Bible Belt of early America. The South, by contrast, was known for deism among intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson, High Church Anglicanism among white planters, rabble-rousing in the backcountry among Scots-Irish folk famously indifferent or hostile to organized religion of any kind, enslaved people whose religious views appeared to whites to be largely inscrutable and unknowable, and Native Americans in dozens of religious groupings varying by geography and tribal groupings.

Works by scholars such as Samuel S. Hill Jr., John Boles, and Donald Mathews ushered in an era of serious historical inquiry that continues today.5 Meanwhile, the burgeoning field of slavery studies produced classics in the study of antebellum southern religion, most notably Eugene D. Genovese’s provocative Roll, Jordan, Roll (1973) and Albert J. Raboteau’s synthetic Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (1978).6 Most recently, Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt,7 focusing on the early days of southern evangelicals and their accommodation to the moral reality of a patriarchal slave society, shows how much can still be gleaned from rereading the sources with a fresh set of questions.

If religion in the Old South has become a mature field, scholarship on the era since the Civil War is still, relatively speaking, in its adolescence. As a result, many of the works discussed here date from the last decade. Questions remain as to whether studies in post–Civil War southern religion will add detail to, or fundamentally change, dominant paradigms for understanding southern history. For example, women’s historians seeking to understand social reform in the South repeatedly have discovered religion at the center of it. In the process they have added significantly to the body of literature on southern religion, even though many of the studies are about other topics. Some important areas, such as the history of southern Pentecostalism, cry out for more research. Hardly any substantial scholarship exists on some key figures, such as Charles Harrison Mason, founder of the Memphis-based black Pentecostal Church of God in Christ. Some topics (such as Appalachian mountain religious expression) have drawn the attention of anthropologists but not often of historians. The area also lacks a general study that serves as the equivalent of Donald Mathews’s Religion in the Old South. However, the impact of a new generation of scholarship and the recent establishment of the Journal of Southern Religion will provide an agenda for the scholarly future.

Primary Sources

Much of the material that can be used for primary research in the field of southern religious history is starting to come online, and in the case of audio materials is available in CD form. For an outstanding collection of primary writings from the 18th century to the late 20th century, including slave narratives and memoirs, denominational histories, reminiscences, didactic and polemical material, hymn books, programs, and church records, the best place to start is Documenting the American South.8 One subsection of the Documenting the American South collection, titled “The Church in the Southern Black Community,” includes a treasure trove of primary source material for southern African American religious history, and it also includes a “guide to the religious content of the WPA Slave Narratives.” Much excellent material is available digitized from the Duke University Library and Special Collections, including oral histories collected as part of the “Remembering Jim Crow” project, as well as a vast array of African American history materials gathered in the John Hope Franklin Research Center.9 Highly recommended also is the best denominational library and archive in the country, the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.10 Besides containing as expansive a record of Southern Baptists as may be imagined, the archive also has collected a significant body of materials from the colonial and early national era, and has microfilmed nearly every known record of black Baptist church history. Another invaluable collection is the American Missionary Association Records held at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans; in particular, this is the starting point for understanding religion and education in the post–Civil War South.11

Recent published documentary history collections are providing easy-to-access and invaluable forays into primary source research. One of the most notable is Vincent Harding’s The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., an ongoing series published by the University of California Press since 1992.12 Other highly recommended anthologies include Milton Sernett’s African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, and a volume of essays that nonetheless can be mined extensively for primary source references: Cornel West and Eddie Glaude’s African American Religious Thought: An Anthology.13 The best place to start for Catholic history in the South is American Catholics and Slavery, edited by Kenneth J. Zanca.14 For colonial Virginia, the historian Edward L. Bond has compiled a rich set of sources in Spreading the Gospel in Colonial Virginia.15

So much of southern religion has been captured in sound, most especially in music. Recent compact disc collections of formerly rare and inaccessible recordings have opened up this part of southern religious history to nearly any researcher. The best starting point is the six-CD collection Goodbye Babylon (Dust-to-Digital Records, Atlanta, Georgia, 2003), a sampler of nearly every kind of southern religious music recorded earlier in the 20th century. The field recordings, mostly gathered in the American South, of Alan Lomax have been compiled in a number of different CD sets, but a vast holding of them gathered from 1942 forward have been placed online on the Association for Cultural Equity website.16

Further Reading

  • Bond, Edward. Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001.
  • Chappell, David. Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Clarke, Erskine. Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Crown, Carol. Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
  • Dupont, Carolyn Renee. Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
  • Frey, Sylvia, and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Harvey, Paul. Freedom’s Coming: Religious Cultures and the Making of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Heyrman, Christine. Southern Cross: The Origins of the Bible Belt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
  • Hill, Samuel S. Southern Churches in Crisis. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.
  • Irons, Charles. The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • Martin, Joel. Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
  • McLoughlin, William, Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789–1839. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.
  • Norman, Corrie E., and Don S. Aremtrout, eds. Religion in the Contemporary South: Changes, Continuities, Contexts. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.
  • Pasquier, Michael. French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789–1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Stowell, Daniel. Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863–1877. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Schweiger, Beth Barton, and Donald Mathews, eds. Religion in the South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • White, O. Kendall, and Daryl White, eds. Religion in the Contemporary South: Diversity, Community, and Identity. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
  • Wilson, Charles. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. University of Georgia Press, 1980.


  • 1. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, 2d ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1957).

  • 2. W. J. Cash, Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941).

  • 3. Journal of Southern Religion (1998–).

  • 4. Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967); Samuel S. Hill, The South and the North in American Religion (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980).

  • 5. John Boles and Donald Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

  • 6. Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974); Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

  • 7. Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Origins of the Bible Belt (New York: Knopf, 1997).

  • 8. Documenting the American South.

  • 9. John Hope Franklin Research Center.

  • 10. Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.

  • 11. American Missionary Association Records.

  • 12. Vincent Harding, Clayborne Carson, Peter Holloran, et al., eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., 6 vols. (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992–2014).

  • 13. Milton Sernett, ed., African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); and Cornel West and Eddie Glaude, eds., African American Religious Thought: An Anthology (Westminster, KY: John Knox Press, 2003).

  • 14. Kenneth J. Zanca, ed., American Catholics and Slavery, 1789–1866 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994).

  • 15. Edward L. Bond, ed., Spreading the Gospel in Colonial Virginia: Sermons and Devotional Writings (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004).

  • 16. Association for Cultural Equity.