The Origins Of The Bible Belt

The emergence of the Bible Belt is one of the most puzzling features of American Christianity.40 The original heartlands of Protestantism were in the greater New England area, especially Massachusetts. It was here that Congregationalism and Presbyterianism took root and quickly became the most significant and dynamic forms of Protestant self-expression in the region. The southern colonies tended to be dominated by a socially conservative and quietist Anglicanism, which lent tacit support to the hierarchical social structures that dominated their plantations and social life throughout much of the eighteenth century. The plantation aristocracy enjoyed their hunting, shooting, dueling, dancing, drinking, and gambling and tolerated Anglicanism precisely because it tolerated them. Religious commitment was low: only one in ten southerners attended church in 1776. Yet the great era of Protestant expansion and consolidation that opened up in the nineteenth century was centered in the Midwest and the South, not the original Northeast. Why?

The reasons for this development cast an interesting light on the remarkable ability of some forms of Protestantism to adapt to new situations and challenges. In her analysis of the emergence of the Bible Belt, Christine Heyrman shows that evangelical Protestants virtually reinvented their religion, setting aside any of its aspects that might alienate southern culture. By adapting to the realities of the South, evangelical Baptists and Methodists laid down the foundations of the Bible Belt. The task of adaptation and modification took over two generations. Ministers such as John Taylor, Stith Mead, and Freeborn Garrettson were able to build bridges to different cultural groups—young people, slaves, women, and, perhaps most difficult of all, white males—to defuse initial anxiety and hostility against evangelicals. Over the period 1770 to 1830, egalitarian forms of evangelicalism eventually managed to establish deep roots in southern culture, despite the tensions this created with the middle-aged white gentry.

Yet this adaptation created a form of Protestantism that stood at some distance from the forms found in the Northeast. This divergence was more than purely denominational. (In 1830 the Northeast was dominated by Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the South by Baptists and Methodists.) The new religion made its appeal primarily to individuals, focusing on the transformation of their personal lives rather than of society as a whole.41 These characteristics appear to have persisted in the religious individualism of contemporary southern religious approaches to the reading of the Bible and the understanding of the nature of salvation.

Yet the term "Bible Belt" reflects something deeper than denominational or theological distinctions. Those observers of southern religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who coined the phrase used it primarily to denote the remarkable religious homogeneity of the region. Once the hiatus of the Civil War had passed, allowing the South to regain religious and social stability, it became clear that southern religion had crystallized into predominantly conservative forms of Protestantism and was relatively unaffected by the social and intellectual challenges that Protestantism faced in the North, especially in urban centers.

If any religious group has an especial association with the distinctive Protestantism of this region, it is the Southern Baptist Convention, founded in Augusta, Georgia, in May 1845.42 Up to that point, Baptist congregations in the South had operated without feeling the need for any national or regional structure, and they never thought of themselves as belonging to a "denomination." Yet there was a growing recognition that such a centralized denomination would be more efficient, more powerful, and capable of achieving greater influence. Anxious not to compromise the autonomy of local Baptist congregations, the Convention adopted a Congregationalist model of church governance: the decision of a local church in a matter of doctrine, discipline, or church order could not be overturned by any superior body, since there was no body that had authority over the local church. This principle, which was vigorously upheld by the second president of the Convention, R. B. C. Howell, during the period 1851 to 1858, is essential to any understanding of the subsequent dynamics of Southern Baptist life.

Yet the upsurge in religious interest in the South was not limited to white Americans. Black Protestantism was already a significant force in the antebellum era, even though restrictions were placed upon it—for example, worship had to be supervised by whites.43 In Columbus, Mississippi, 80 percent of the antebellum Baptist church membership was black. In Georgia at this time, 35 to 40 percent of Baptist church members were black. The end of the Civil War brought about emancipation, and with it new possibilities for Protestantism.

With the ending of the Civil War, black Protestant churches underwent new growth—this time, under black leadership, unrestricted by white supervisors. Baptist churches quickly became core institutions of newfound black freedom, with their own styles of worship and preaching.44 One legacy of the past was the lack of education among members of such congregations, so preachers often seemed more concerned with heightening their congregation's sense of God's love and presence than with educating them in the fundamentals of faith. Many inequities remained in the South, where blacks found themselves largely excluded from the traditional, predominantly white denominations. Yet the foundation was being laid for significant future developments.

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