The Origin of the Baptist Religion in the South.

[Dear Cecil:]

You go to almost anywhere in the U.S., and you find a variety of different religions. You go to Milwaukee, for example, and you find Roman Catholics, Prebyterians, Epicopalians, etc. You go to Massachusetts, and you find much the same. I could go on and on. The only thing is, you go anywhere in the South (okay, except Louisiana), and almost everyone is a Baptist.

How did this happen? I mean, obviously at some point in history, there was a concerted effort to make it this way. But how and when? And were the authorities in the South complicit in any way? (And if they were, what about the right to be free from compulsion, in religious matters at least?)

[Jim B.]

Now, there, that was meant for Cecil Adams, if he takes on my question. As for the rest of you, what is the answer to my question/s?


Yes, the Baptists are strong in the South, but there are plenty of Presbyterians and Methodists too.

The North won the coin flip.

Basically, and I’m oversimplifying here, it was due to missionaries from Rhode Island (which was a colony dominated by the Baptists, Roger Williams and all that), and Baptists fleeing the rest of New England, which actively persecuted them, because the southern colonies had a reputation for more religious freedom.

Your claim in the OP is incorrect:

New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island are just as heavily Catholic (and Utah is just as heavily Mormon) as Alabama and South Carolina are Baptist. California, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey are just as heavily Catholic as the rest of the southern states are Baptist. You know, before you make a claim like the one in the OP, it’s probably a good idea to look up the relevant statistics. They’re easy to find.

Yes, but the states you mentioned are that way because of the ethnic groups that colonized them (of course Utah was colonized by Mormons–but generally that rule still applies). The Baptist religion has no one ethnic group associated with it (and I know I am generalizing when I say that). Plus, you have to admit, even inspite of whatever the statistics may show, the Baptist religion has an undeniable hold on the South for some reason.

That’s “oversimplifying” in the same way that northern Canada is a little bit cold. While it’s certainly true that some early Baptist movement into the South, and the spread of the denomination in that region, had its origins in New England intolerance, that did not predetermine the subsequent direction of denominational history in the South.

Far more important, i think, were the two Great Awakening of American history (the first in the 1730s-1750s, and the especially the second in the period from the 1790s to the 1830s), in which evangelical revivalist denominations like the Methodists and the Baptists gained many converts, often at the expense of older, more established churches churches like the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. Some of the biggest and most famous camp meetings and revivals occurred in the decades after the Revolution in what were then frontier societies like Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Baptists were an important presence in this phenomenon.

Another really important aspect of the rise of southern Baptism was the split between southern and northern Baptists in the middle of the nineteenth century over the issue of slavery. Southerners increasing felt in the 1830s and 1840s that the interests of northern Baptists were dominating the denomination’s General Convention, and this feeling was exacerbated by the fact that the Convention refused to appoint slave owners to serve as missionaries. This led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention and, like many religious organizations in American history, the SBC served both religious and socio-political and cultural purposes, becoming in many ways a key institution of southern identity and community in the period after the Civil War.

Also, after the war lots of newly-freed slaves developed an interest in Baptist notions of democratic church governance and local autonomy, along with a style of worship and preaching that eschewed formalism and elaborate ritual. Large numbers of African Americans formed their own Baptist churches in the South.

The Methodists also split over slavery at pretty much exactly the same time as the Baptists did (1845), but southern Methodists were not as large and powerful a group in the period after the Civil War, and also were, in many cases, less committed to expressions of southern cultural identification as time went on. By the late 1930s, the northern and southern Methodists all came back together under a single umbrella, while the Southern Baptist Conference retained both its name and, to a considerable extent, a specifically southern identity.

My point is that you didn’t make any attempt to look up statistics before you posted the OP. You had a vague feeling about something and decided to post about it even though it was easy to look up the statistics relevant to that feeling. It just slows things down when you post a question that says “Why is X true?” when X is not true. It’s useful to refine your question before you post it.

You know, if everyone was required to do thorough research before posting any question to GD, there would be A LOT fewer questions. Some posters would say that is good, some posters would say that is bad.

That is why I post fewer questions on this board than pop into my head. The likelihood of someone criticizing my stupid ignorant question leads me to just not ask. Some posters would say that is good, some posters would say that is bad.

I think there’s a difference between “why” questions and factual questions. If the OP had posted “Is it true that Baptists are more common in the South…” or something like that, no one would complain, even though the information is freely available. My beef is when people post “Why is [my random prejudice or preconception] true?” when they haven’t bothered to check if it is true. That, to me, indicates lazy and sloppy thinking (in general - I don’t mean that as a slam against this thread in particular). Check your premises before formulating theories.

The story I heard, which I’m sure is apocryphal but fun in certain social situations, was that Baptism is the only denomination in which you could be ordained to preach without being able to read the bible. As the old joke goes, “Methodists are Baptists who can read.”

Well, there’s some truth to that. Baptists are strictly congregational in governance, meaning that there are no denomination-wide standards of doctrine or ordination. (At least theoretically, it’s a little more complicated than that, especially wrt doctrine.) Any Baptist congregation can ordain anyone they like. Even today, they are one of a few mainstream denominations that allow someone to be ordained without an accredited master’s degree (though my understanding is that your career options are rather limited without one–larger and more urban congregations, at least, still require one).

Congregationalists, as their name implies, were the same, but they were heavily based in New England, where there wasn’t a shortage of educated pastors like in the rural south. Today, the Congregationalists have merged with several other former denominations to become part of the liberal (and mostly urban) United Church of Christ. They still have a strong preference, IME, for a well-educated clergy, although I’m pretty sure a congregation could ordain a slice of cheese if they wanted to.

The next line of the joke, BTW is that Presbyterians are Methodists with shoes. :slight_smile:

If we make people scared to ask dumb questions, we leave them in ignorance. Ask all prejudiced questions, my friends! Otherwise, we can never debunk them!

But the OP’s question is more than that. It piles assumption on top of unwarranted assumption: Why is the South so overwhelmingly one variety of Christianity? Was there a concerted effort? Were the state governments behind it? How could they be allowed to establish a religion? If they burned non-Baptist heretics at the stake, wasn’t that cruel and unusual punishment?

The answer is easy. Climate. Baptist believe in immersion baptism. Prior to development of indoor baptistries inside the church, this was most frequently done outside in a nearby lake or pond. The south allowed for more frequent year round baptisms and conversions. Also the growth of the Baptist denomination flourished with outdoor tent revivals. These were also more commonly done in areas where there were warmer temps.

In the OP’s defense, he claims he originally wrote the question for Cecil. Piling on unwarranted assumptions seems to be a good way of attracting Cecil’s attention, since it gives him more to chew on: he can focus on correcting one or more of the assumptions instead of or as well as addressing the main question, and can more easily fill out a full column.

We mortals, however, seem to deal better with more focussed and well-organized questions.

ETA: Omar, I never thought of that! You’re right, it is an easy answer. It’s amazing how the obvious ones don’t occur to us. Good job!

Obvious, and yet also so trite and simplistic that it leaves out 200 years of important historical developments.

It *could *be that the issue of immersion mitigated somewhat against the rise of Baptism in northern regions (i doubt it), but that still doesn’t explain why Baptism became so prevalent in the south, unless your argument is that people adopted the religion just so they could get a cooling dip in the river. Methodism was also boosted considerable by outdoor revivals and itinerant preachers.

In short, a reductionist argument about climate is ridiculous.

Oh, I don’t think it’s THE answer, or even a major factor necessarily, but I do think it’s worth mentioning. Methodists adopted the camp meeting revival as well, though they had slightly less success with it, partly because they placed less emphasis on the conversion experience and more on establishing an organized church within the hierarchy of class leaders, circuit riders and bishops.

In any event, it’s very clear that camp meetings were key to the spread of both Baptist and Methodist churches, and it makes perfect sense that this spread would take place more rapidly and completely in places where camp meetings could be held year round than in the cold northern climate.

But the person who brought it up did posit it as THE answer. Which is precisely why i said that it was absurdly reductionist and simplistic.