David S. Williams. From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia’s Religious Heritage. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008. x + 219 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-3175-1. ISBN-10: 0-8203-3175-9. Reviewed by Daniel C. Dillard, for the Journal of Southern Religion

Near the end of his From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia’s Religious Heritage, David S. Williams recalls a line Jimmy Carter delivered during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2002: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles” (150). This admonition provides a fitting summation for Williams’ book. From the state’s first inhabitants of the pre-contact era to modern-day residents such as American Muslims, Baha’is, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus, this remarkable work chronicles the long-term changes in Georgia’s religious history while highlighting its continuities and recurring themes.

Early on, Williams – director of the Honors Program and Meigs Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia – confirms his project is not merely denominational history, but an exploration of how religion has shaped and defined Georgia and its sundry denizens. In effect, he is able to trace many of the major problems in America’s larger religious history within this delimited geographic region. For one example, race and racism are constant presences in this book. From the forced conversion and relocation of Creeks and Cherokees through the “crucible of slavery” to the continuing de facto segregation seen in most present-day places of worship, Georgia has been a central battleground in the nation’s history of racism.

Another key theme is the near-domination of evangelicalism since the eighteenth century. Focusing on biographical data (such as journals, letters, and sermons) combined with statistical analysis (the book relies heavily on demographical information such as institutional and congregational numbers), Williams provides an absorbing account of the state’s evangelicals commencing with George Whitefield and the Wesleys and concluding with some of the fundamental dilemmas facing today’s Southern Baptist Convention.

"Williams argues, moreover, that most white Georgians - regardless of denominational affiliation - often worshipped together in the civil religion of the Lost Cause."  


The primary theme in From Mounds to Megachurches, though, is an almost dialectic movement between consensus and conflict, or unity and diversity. On the one hand, Baptists have composed the single largest religious group among white Georgians for roughly two hundred years. Thus whites as a whole have tended historically to agree upon such issues as slavery, abortion, and homosexuality. Williams argues, moreover, that most white Georgians – regardless of denominational affiliation – often worshipped together in the civil religion of the Lost Cause. Yet, the chronological record is punctuated by oppositional voices of religious liberals and moderates – such as those in favor of abolition, women’s rights, and religious pluralism – as well as incidents of religious hatred and violence. In fact, Williams’ consideration of religious intolerance is quite good, above all in his handling of anti-Semitic acts such as the lynching of Leo Frank (which helped instigate the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan) and the bombing of Atlanta’s The Temple in 1958.

Scholars have regularly turned their attention to specific religious groups within specific states; Wayne Flynt’s 1998 Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie (reviewed previously for JSR by Walter Shurden) is particularly good. Less common are those scholars who endeavor to tackle a single state’s entire religious history. For example, Walter Conser’s 2006 A Coat of Many Colors: Religion and Society Along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina (reviewed previously for JSR by Luke Harlow) comes to mind. An unfortunate and perhaps inherent weakness in books such as these is that, with such a broad subject, authors tend toward one of two approaches: either they omit important actors and events in the advancement of theory or depth, or they strive for inclusivity and never scratch below their topic’s surface. Attempting a comprehensive religious narration of a state as large and historically significant as Georgia is an equally difficult task, and a bold one at that. Not surprisingly, in the name of concision Williams has left out or glossed over certain parts of the story.

There are many things this reviewer wishes Williams had included here. For just one case in point, the section on Georgia’s Native Americans feels especially brief. This chapter, in addition, is more a history of European contact – of Catholic missions and proselytizing – than it is a description and explanation of Native American religions themselves. Still, to criticize an author for what he or she did not write is commonly unmerited, and the fact Williams included this chapter at all is admirable, as well as indicative of his prevailing intent to go beyond standard church history. Thus the principal strength of From Mounds to Megachurches is its ability to condense such an expansive history into 150 (excluding endnotes, bibliography, and index) interesting and highly readable pages. As Williams himself writes in the prologue, “The scope of the book is meant to be representative and balanced, rather than comprehensive and encyclopedic” (3).

In short, Williams has written the definitive work on Georgia’s religious history.  Throughout, Williams supplies sufficient groundwork for key events, figures, and ideas – as well as a number of black-and-white photographs and plenty of fascinating anecdotes – to compel the general reader. As a result, the book is unquestionably suitable for undergraduate and popular audiences. Still, because of its attention to theory and method in the study of religion, to the interdisciplinary question of how scholars can describe and explain religion in history (that is, in particular times and regions), and to the more specific issues of race and racism as well as religious intolerance, scholars in a wide range of fields – including religious studies, history, and American studies – will find this book important and refreshing.

Daniel C. Dillard
Doctoral Student in Religion
Florida State University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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