Racial Issue Shakes “Bible Belt” Churches
IN THE early nineteenth century, churches of the same religious organization were to be found in both the North and the South. Black slavery, too, appeared in both sections of the country. But Negro slavery did not work out well in the North, where there was more concentration on commerce, manufacturing and westward expansion. In the South, however, where the cotton crop was the base of the economy, slavery provided cheap labor.
As the two sections of the country divided politically over the slavery question, they also separated religiously. Churches in the North condemned slavery as ‘unholy,’ while those in the South called it ‘holy.’ Southern religionists sought isolated Scripture texts to try to support the propriety of enforced black slavery. In 1844 the Methodist Church in the North and in the South split over the black slavery issue; the Baptists did the same a year later. Then, in 1862, the year the Civil War broke out, the Presbyterians divided right down the political Mason-Dixon line.
Churches of the South even involved themselves in the slavery business, according to E. M. Poteat, Jr., minister of the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He says: “Not only did Christian men hold slaves for the Glory of God, churches themselves frequently advanced the Kingdom of heaven by letting out for hire slaves who had become chattel property of the House of God.”
Negro slavery thus became firmly rooted in the South. It should not be forgotten, however, that, had black slavery been economically successful in the North, where it had earlier existed, churches there, no doubt, would have supported it as passionately as did their southern counterparts.
Post-Civil War Racial Bias
After the South lay in defeat at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, her clergymen, nevertheless, clung to what was uniquely their own—“Bible Belt” Protestantism. “If we cannot gain our political, let us establish at least our mental independence,” a Methodist preacher in Mississippi insisted at the end of the Confederacy. The publication Southern White Protestantism in the Twentieth Century by K. K. Bailey says: “Southern leaders were convinced that the white religion of the South was of a purer form than that of the same denomination in the North.”
Slaves may have been legally freed after the Civil War, but the Negro remained socially ostracized. Extremists in the South upheld white supremacy! Even Methodist and Baptist preachers were enlisted into the dreaded Ku Klux Klan to harass emancipated Negroes. Most of the black population in the South was shackled with poverty and illiteracy for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
As a consequence, outcast blacks did not have enough education to read the Bible. Usually not welcome at the white churches, they began their own services, which, at first, consisted of little more than talking and singing. They made up their own songs, the ‘religious spirituals.’ Any sermon that was delivered was often no more than a Bible story that had been handed down from father to son and greatly embellished in the process.
But even if whites would have allowed the Negroes to join their churches, few would have obliged. As the author of the book Deep South says: “Since Christianity as personified by the Anglo-Saxon Baptist and Methodist was the only religion known to them, and that was so definitely associated with the white boss and landlord, there was fear that they would be compelled to spend eternity where the white-race-God would continue to force upon them the same cruelty and injustice they had always known.”
United States history shows that the Negro has wanted little to do with a white racist God. Most, instead, have preferred their own brand of fundamentalist religion.
Effects of Modern Changes on Southern Churches
Then, dramatically, in 1954, the whole complexion of events started changing in the South. The United States Supreme Court struck down school segregation. Since that time blacks have churned up “the Bible Belt.” Walls that enslaved black minds and spirits for a hundred years are crumbling and a college-bred generation of Negroes is emerging, speaking out and demanding equality with whites.
The old southern white-supremist religious arguments have lost their grip before the onrush of Federal legislation and nationally supported protest movements. Many people have forsaken the churches that formerly held racist views. However, in the radical changes of the past few years, black churches in the South have not been left unscathed.
Rather, black churches have become meeting places to organize protests and demonstrations. Black preachers, prominent in the fight for social justice, even seek political office all the way from city councilman to the Senate.
Further, the average Negro has become more materialistic as a result of the demands for equality. U.S. News & World Report says: “Black clergymen are sensing a rise in religious indifference among people for whom the black church was once a mainstay of life.” (September 25, 1972) True, many blacks in the South remain deeply religious and respect the Bible. But the sudden changes in the social and religious picture are causing a new mood to develop. As one white observed, the Negro in the South now “has little feeling of guilt if he should decide to abandon the church and become an agnostic or an atheist.”
The appearance of integration and the rise of black power have been instrumental in fundamentalist religion, “white” and “black,” losing ground in “the Bible Belt.” But what other factors have also served to drive wedges into the Southland’s heretofore solid religious front?
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THE BIBLE BELT