By Hunter Wallace
In the course of writing my speech on what makes Southerners a separate and distinct people, I realized that there are some aspects of the South that I wanted to explore in greater detail.
I’m much more familiar with some subjects than others. Foremost among these, it seemed to me that the South’s religious heritage was an area in which I needed to add some greater depth. As racial identity has faded since the 1960s, religion has become more important in sustaining a separate and distinct Southern cultural identity.
Samuel S. Hill’s The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Religion seemed like a good place to start. A few years ago, I bought a previous volume in this series on Agriculture & Industry. That book which was edited by James C. Cobb was very resourceful and I regret that I posted all that material from it on Confederate Renaissance and didn’t save it here.
Anyway, I was less impressed with this volume. The bibliography is fantastic and makes a used copy of this book worth the price of buying it on Amazon. Unfortunately, the book is weighed down with dozens of useless entries on marginal subjects like “Asian Religion,” “Islam,” “New Age Religion,” and “Spirituality.” There are also entries for individuals like Brooks Hays, James McBride Dabbs, and Thomas Merton who were included for no other reason than their appeal to liberal political sensibilities.
I found the introductory essay to be quite thought provoking. The South is the only place in all of Christendom that is dominated by evangelical Protestantism. Compared to the North and West, the South is relatively homogeneous. By 1860, 3/4ths of Southern Christians were Baptists or Methodists. During the Confederacy, the South’s leading Protestant denominations broke away from their Northern coreligionists to form the Southern Baptist Convention, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. By and large, the Southern churches supported the Confederate war effort and sustained Southern Nationalism.
This was also true of religious minorities like Jews and Catholics. We’ve already seen how Southern Jews conformed to slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. The same is true of Southern Catholics who justified slavery, supported secession, the Confederate war effort, opposed Reconstruction, instituted their own form of Jim Crow in parochial schools, and opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike the North, the Catholic Church in the South “entered a period of relative stability” after the War Between the States and “slipped into a respectable obscurity in the region until the 1960s.” Southern Catholic writers like Allen Tate, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy would later echo some of the same conservative themes as their Protestant counterparts in condemning rootless, American individualism, industrialism, and abstract liberalism, while praising the traditional South’s organic, communal social order.
During the early 20th century, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism arrived in the South. The former came from Great Britain via the Northern states while the latter radiated outward from Los Angeles. There are no statistics available on Dispensationalists, but their estimated numbers range from 5 million to 20 million nationwide. As for Pentecostals, they presently range from 3 percent of the population in Louisiana (the low) to 7 percent of the population in Kentucky (the high). I was surprised to learn Pentecostals are 7 percent of the population of Oregon. Their numbers are a bit higher in the South than the national average, but Pentecostals are a minority within the evangelical fold. Worldwide, there are now almost half a billion Pentecostals, which makes them second only to Roman Catholics within Christendom.
Charles Reagan Wilson has a great overview of the South’s religious landscape. A condensed version would be that Anglicanism was the established religion in all the Southern colonies. Presbyterians and other religious minorities settled the backcountry. After the American Revolution, Anglicanism was disestablished, and evangelical Christianity – mostly Baptists and Methodists – swept across the frontier and became the dominant religious force in the South after the Great Revival of 1787 to 1805. Thereafter, the evangelical Protestant core of the South has dominated a Catholic periphery in Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana.
The biggest failing of this book is easily the lack of discussion of the “Nones.” 19 percent of Southerners are unaffiliated with any religion: 2 percent are atheists, 3 percent are agnostics, and 14 percent are “nothing in particular.” It seems like a waste of space to have such a full discussions of “Islam” or “New Age Religion” or Jains and Sikhs in the South when there are three times as many “Nones” as Pentecostals. There are fewer “Nones” in the South than in the Northeast, Midwest, or the West, but nationwide “Nones” are now almost a quarter of the American population.
I’m going to acquire some of the sources cited in this book to learn more about Pentecostals, Christian Zionists/Dispensationalists, and megachurches. These are the subjects which seem to attract the most attention although they seem to be a lot more Sunbelt than Southern. We will also take a look at when, why, and how the Southern churches rejected their traditional racial values.