Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Morning Church: History of Religion in Mississippi

This is my FIRST post for Sunday Morning Church.  Using this meme, I plan to write articles related to church history and religion in the South, the religious movements during the life and times of our ancestors and family stories related to church.

Today I am writing a brief history of religion in the state of Mississippi, just touching on some of the highlights.  Because most of my relatives have resided or now reside in Mississippi,  I think this is a good starting point.

In the 17th century, the few Europeans in what is now Mississippi were Roman Catholics living under French and Spanish rule.  After the growth of the cotton culture in 1815, thousands of European-Americans began arriving into Mississippi, most of whom were Protestants from Southeastern states.  The migrations brought rapid growth in Protestant churches, particularly Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, revivals of the Great Awakening initially attracted the "plain folk" by reaching out to all members of society, including women and blacks.  Plain folk refers to the middle class of white farmers in the southern United States before the civil war.  Also called "yeomen", they owned land and had either no slaves or only a few slaves.  Most of them were Scotch-Irish Americans or English Americans.

The  "Great Awakenings" brought widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers, a sharp increase of interest in religion, a profound sense of conviction and redemption on the part of those affected, a jump in evangelical church membership, and the formation of new religious movements and denominations.  Three "waves" of the Great Awakenings are identified by historians and theologians:
The first wave began in 1720.  In the late colonial period, most pastors read their sermons and engaged their parishioners' minds with a particular theological argument or interpretation.  Leaders of the Great Awakenings wanted more than that.  They wanted to elicit an emotional response from their audience.  They hoped that, in response, their parishioners may display the works and evidence of saving grace.  Eventually the religious movements ushered in the development of democratic thought and a belief of free press.  This helped create a demand for religious freedom.
The second wave (1800's) of the Great Awakenings was strongest in the western states but brought about new denominations such as Seventh-Day Adventists, Church of Christ and the Latter-Day Saints movement.  
The third wave (1880-early 1900's) was characterized by new denominations, active missionary work and the Social Gospel approach to social issues. The social gospel movement provided a religious rationale for action to address concerns of many Americans who were affected by poverty and their poor quality of living. Activists in the Social Gospel movement hoped that by public health measures as well as enforced schooling so the poor could develop talents and skills, the quality of their moral lives would begin to improve. Important concerns of the Social Gospel movement were labor reforms, such as abolishing child labor and regulating the hours of work by mothers.

After the Civil War era, religion became even more influential as the South became known as the "Bible Belt".  Christian church attendance across the denominations is higher in the South than other areas of the United States.  In Mississippi, many associated with the Baptist denomination and as of today, the state has the highest number of Baptists in the country at 55% of the state population.

Other percentages: 
Religion in Mississippi: 86.7% Christian (82% Protestant, 4.7% Catholic), 10.8% No Religion, 2% Other Religions, 0.5% LDS

According to a poll conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Mississippi was ranked the most religious state in the country.  The forum states that "The state comes in No. 1 across all categories evaluated: the importance of religion in the lives of residents, frequency of attendance at worship services, frequency of prayer and belief in God."  The complete article can be read here.


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