Winner 1999 Sam Hill Award for best student essay

Continued Captivity: Religion in Bartow County Georgia

Mark R. Bell/Oxford University 

This project was funded by a Chappell-Lougee Fellowship and is taken from a larger examination and discussion of religion in Bartow. In compliance with the Stanford University Protocol on Human subjects, the names of all persons and institutions are pseudonymous.

1. Introduction
So you've come to find out what real religion is all about?" asked a minister when I first arrived in Bartow County, Georgia.  Indeed, I had come to Bartow to find out what was "real religion" for the people there. That was in 1996, thirty years after Samuel Hill had written Southern Churches in Crisis. As the international spotlight turned toward Atlanta and  the Olympics, I headed for a county an hour's drive north to determine what was left of the "southern church" and to ascertain if it was still in crisis. Initially my research was confined to one humid summer among the churches of Bartow.  In the intervening time I have been back three times to gather more information and update my findings, but the following narrative comes primarily from three months of field work in 1996.


"Religious homogeneity does not mean the absolute absence of diversity, and few scholars argue that the 'solid South' was ever completely solidified."

My work was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of Samuel S. Hill Jr.'s Southern Churches in Crisis.  The aim of my research was to examine how southern religion had changed in the generation after Hill's book was first released in 1966. During the preparation for my fieldwork, I came across a book recently published by the Southern Anthropological Society. This anthropological society organized around the same time as the publication of Hill's seminal work, and on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of Southern Churches in Crisis, the society published a volume titled Religion in the Contemporary South: Diversity, Community, and Identity.  Editors Daryl White and O. Kendall White Jr. invoke Samuel Hill's name in the opening line of introduction. They note that when Hill wrote in 1966, he observed that "'no single feature' of the southern religious scene was 'more revealing than the absence of pluralism and diversity from popular denominations.'"1  Homogeneity was one of the distinctive features of religion in the South. White and White's introduction makes it clear that they envision their collection as a challenge to Hill's picture of a homogenous South.  In their opinion, "today's South" is marked by ever "greater religious diversity."2    They further claim that "Hill is wrong" in his argument that Will Herberg's theory on how American society incorporates religious pluralism is not applicable to the South, since--in their opinion--the contemporary southern religious scene is becoming increasingly diverse. 3

Interestingly, in their effort to discuss diversity, the essays in White and White's collection actually point out the persistence of a high degree of homogeneity.  Religious homogeneity does not mean the absolute absence of diversity, and few scholars argue that the "solid South" was ever completely solidified.  Diversity, to some degree, is to be expected. As Hill himself commented, "needless to say, the South is no monolith. Variety prevails everywhere and on all levels."
4   Moreover, some changes and increase in diversity are to be expected after thirty years.  What is surprising about the essays in White and White's collection is that they describe so little diversity in the region.  Their examination of small pockets of diversity and pluralism does not challenge Hill's thesis.  In fact, the isolated Hindu or Yorba temples in urban areas like Orlando and Atlanta touched on in White and White's collection serve only to highlight the extent to which diversity is absent in other areas.  By putting the spotlight on these rare examples of diversity, the essays in White and White's collection actually demonstrate how little things have changed since 1966.

In response to the urban focus found in the articles on diversity in White and White and among some contemporary scholars of American religion more generally, I decided to examine a rural area. A rural study seemed particularly important in light of the rural nature of traditional southern culture.  As Hill commented, "southern culture is essentially rural."
5   In an effort to examine the roots of southern culture, I selected the rural county of Bartow Georgia as a case study.

2. The Setting: Bartow County
Photo of a Bartow County Church
Small fundamentalist churches supplement the larger churches in rural Bartow.
Bartow is not a "pure" rural community for two reasons. First, it is only about an hour's drive from Atlanta and many of Bartow's residents journey into the city.  Second, approximately one fifth of Bartow's 70,000 residents live in the small city of Cartersville.  The presence of Cartersville was however part of the reason for the selection of Bartow County, since this large town allowed my study to incorporate a semi-urban area in addition to the predominately rural remainder of the county.  In many ways the presence of Cartersville makes Bartow representative of the urbanizing rural South in microcosm.  Bartow's position amidst the "ABC Triangle" (Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga) has forced this once predominately farming and mining area to modernize in ways that many of its residents can still scarcely believe.  Bartow in general, and Cartersville in particular, has encountered the mixed blessing of industrialization and post-industrialization.  Today carpet and apparel industries are the largest employers where farming and mineral mining previously comprised most of the economic base.  Recently Anheuser-Busch opened a plant outside of Cartersville, bringing the first Fortune 500 company to Bartow. The arrival of this beer-maker in the heart of Baptist country has helped to place Bartow on the map of other large corporations, and plans for further development are underway.

Cartersville is large enough to support its own daily newspaper, and the headlines during the summer of 1996 revealed the process by which a large town was developing into a small city. Articles about new services, such as garbage collection, frequently appeared on the paper's front-page.  Other articles discussed the need for revisions in Cartersville's civil administration. Still others announced the arrival of new shopping centers and new school buildings.  Piece by piece, new water and electric facilities were being built and additional infrastructure debated. The title of one front-page article on new property taxes succinctly expressed the impact of these changes: "Residents Feel Pinch of City Lifestyle."

Nevertheless, outside of Cartersville, Bartow is rural. The majority of Bartow's residents live outside of the six towns of Adairsville, Cartersville, Emerson, Eurharlee, Kingston and White. When one arrives in Bartow it seems hard to imagine that the metropolis of Atlanta is so close.  Ironically, a growing number of former miners and farmers are making a living by joining Bartow's fastest growing service industry, tourism, which caters primarily to Atlantans who want to escape the city for a taste of country life.  The motto of the Cartersville/Bartow County Convention and Visitors Bureau
is "Just 45 minutes north, but 100 years away from Atlanta."7

"In the intervening thirty years the southern church has not radically changed, but it also has not suffered as Hill predicted it would if change was not forthcoming."

About 10% of Bartow's population are African Americans and another 2% are Hispanic and Native peoples.  Bartow is relatively young with 20% of its population below the age of 18 and only 10% over the age of 65.  The median white person in Bartow is 32 years old and the median African American in Bartow is 29.  The county is almost fifty-fifty male/female.
8   There are approximately 120 registered religious institutions (i.e. churches) in Bartow.  In the course of my research I encountered a number of home-style churches that did not appear to be registered, so the total number of churches is somewhat higher.  For the purposes of the study, Bartow was divided into six sections corresponding to the locations of the six towns.  A minimum of a dozen churches were slated for examination in each of these sections. Cartersville received special consideration since it had a disproportionately greater number of churches.  The study relied on participant observation at church worship services and revivals. In addition, I solicited information through questionnaires, interviews (including formal interviews with church leaders and informal interviews with members of their congregations), and in general by living in Bartow, reading Bartow's newspaper, and visiting Bartow's schools, factories and shopping areas. In this way, I hoped to gain a sense of the religious and cultural life in Bartow as it was experienced by the residents in 1996.9

3. The "Southernization" of American Religion

Thirty years earlier Hill had identified the central characteristics of southern religion in Southern Churches in Crisis.  Based on his observations, Hill warned that the "southern church" had become largely irrelevant to the broader culture around it.  The crisis that Hill saw in the southern churches was that the old-time religion had encountered a new time in which it was woefully out of date.  He maintained that historical forces had shaped southern evangelicalism in such a way that it was incapable of transcending and critiquing itself.  Consequently, there was little possibility for innovation and little hope that the church in its current form would be able to make the changes necessary to speak with relevance to the culture which it had helped to engender.  Hill feared that any form of Christianity that failed to innovate would fail to grow and thus stagnate, wither and die.

The accelerated rate of social change in the 1960s forced this crisis. The time had "come when the southern church must either reconceive its ministry in terms of the social change swirling all about it, or abdicate its responsibility, except in terms of limited short-run tasks.  The relationship of the southern church to the persons and society it aspires to serve is being drastically recast."
10   Hill believed that even as modernity was ending, the southern church was still essentially "medieval."  If southern churches did not awaken from their slumber, he argued they would be relegated to the periphery of southern society.

In the intervening thirty years the southern church has not radically changed, but it also has not suffered as Hill predicted it would if change was not forthcoming.  Therefore, Hill's prediction that southern evangelicalism would become irrelevant if it failed to change was misguided.  Hill wanted southern evangelicalism to change so that it could continue to flourish.  Yet the style of evangelicalism that Hill saw as out of place in 1966 has continued to flourish despite limited change.  Hill's dire prediction was partly predicated on his desire for the southern church to "do well," that is to continue to thrive.  As a result, Hill underestimated southern conservative evangelicalism's ability to make cosmetic changes bringing it in line with society.  At the same time, Hill overestimated the progressiveness of the nation as a whole.  While conservative evangelicalism in the South made rhetorical concessions to progressive elements in the larger culture, American culture itself became more conservative.

"[W]hen I asked one Methodist churchgoer about his opinions of Catholics in Bartow, he replied thoughtfully, 'well, we certainly do have enough of them around here now a-days, don't we? . . . '"

The conservative trend which Hill failed to see in 1966 was partly engendered by the very forms of conservative evangelicalism which Hill believed to be obsolete.  As communication and migration increased, the southern-style of conservative evangelicalism spread beyond the Mason-Dixon to such an extent that today it has become central to many aspects of American religion outside of the South.  Several scholars have observed this "southernization of American religion."  In his 1993 dissertation and subsequent book, Mark Shibley argued that "the most visible development in American religion over the past two decades has been the resurgence of born-again Christianity,"  and moreover, that "the kind of Protestantism on the rise nationally is precisely the style of Christianity that has dominated the American South for almost two centuries."11  Shibley's work builds on John Egerton's observations on American religion in the mid-1970s.  Egerton described Billy Graham as the central figure who transferred southern-style religion into mainstream America.  In Egerton's opinion, Billy Graham took "the old-time religion of his native South out into the nation and the world, in doing so, he has firmly established himself as the single most influential figure in what can fairly be called the Southernization of American religion."12    Similarly, D. E. Harrell Jr. offered a concise explanation of this process when he observed that the "southernization of American religion," by explaining that "the South was a reservoir where the old-time message had remained intact amid the challenges of the twentieth century.  Threatened by an intensified modernity in the postwar years, Americans looked for religious answers and Southerners had them."13    As a result of a growing conservative climate in America during the 1970s and 1980s and this "southernization of American religion," southern evangelicalism found itself in a much more comfortable environment than Hill had predicted in 1966.

Photo of a Bartow County Church
"Revival structures" are a common feature of the churches in Bartow County.
Hill himself was one of the first to recognize the new climate of the 1970s.  He later commented that, "I think about what I wrote in the mid-1960s.  I was carried along by the prevailing tide.  The prevailing tide was that a 'new world is coming, it's just around the bend,' and that new world never got here, in many respects anyway, and that mood certainly did not prevail very long."
14    Since writing Southern Churches in Crisis, Hill has displayed fearless self-criticism and has continuously revised his assessment of southern religion.  Consequently, he continues to be one of the foremost observers of religion in the South.  Hill's primary mistake was not his assessment of southern religion, but rather his understanding of American culture.  Therefore, while it is necessary to recognize the shortcomings of Hill's thesis, too much should not be made of his failed prediction concerning the southern church's possible irrelevance.  For despite this failure, Hill's description of the nature of southern evangelicalism remains highly relevant.  My research in Bartow county concluded that Hill's initial observations on the nature of southern religion were still applicable a generation later.  Thus, thirty years later, Hill's Southern Churches in Crisis remains highly useful for understanding religion in places like Bartow County, Georgia.

Hill observed that at the foundation of southern religion is the "central theme" of individual salvation.  Historical circumstances had placed the individual's salvation at the center of the southerner's cosmology.  Hill saw this central theme permeating every aspect of southern Christianity.  "The Southern Church 'makes all of individual Christianity' and regards conversion of men as virtually the whole task of the church . . . Affirmations of popular southern Protestantism grew out of one concern, the salvation of the individual . . . this is the very foundation upon which assumptions are made, doctrinal systems are constructed, and church programs are based . . . Overriding everything else is consideration of the ancient question, 'What must I do to be saved?'"

Closely related to the idea of being saved is the idea of assurance. "It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of assurance to popular southern theology," Hill explained. "Whereas this concern has never lain far from the center of Christianity as practiced, perhaps it has nowhere been so determinative for faith and life as in the southern Protestant community."
16    The southern Protestant knows that he or she is saved because of an emotional individual experience of being born again.  Since in the southern cosmology the individual has direct access to the divine, the experience of salvation provides its own assurance.  In an instant the individual is saved and knows it for a lifetime.  As a result, southern religion has a distinctively vertical (God to individual, individual to God) theology.

After the individual's primary goal of salvation in a born again experience, the secondary concern is evangelizing society at large.  Once the individual is converted, the goal is to turn to the conversion of others.  This focus on soul winning allows for a nineteenth-century style revivalism to persist in the churches of the South.  But saving one's neighbor is often the extent of the southern Protestant's social ethic.  Particularly disturbing to Hill was what he observed to be a lack of social concern among southern Protestants.  Hill argued that the individual focus and the vertical theology stemming from the central theme prevented a social ethic from developing in the southern church.  This was one of the greatest obstacles to change and at the same time it was the very thing which Hill believed most urgently needed changing.  Related to this lack of a social ethic, and again growing out of the central theme, was the lack of concern the southern church exhibited toward changes occurring in the South in the 1960s, especially in terms of racial structures.

Another characteristic that Hill identified in the southern evangelical was a bible-centeredness that generally prevented critical thinking about the nature of the divine.  This bible-centeredness also gave southern evangelicals the impression that their rituals reflected the original, and therefore the only acceptable, form of worship.  The result was that there was little urgency to innovate and little space for acceptance and integration of alternative perspectives.  Hill observed that southern evangelicals displayed yet another peculiarity in their bible-centeredness inasmuch as the Old Testament received the greater emphasis.  Consequently, the New Testament message of Christian love was by-passed in favor of an emphasis on the tribal image of the more judging and jealous God of the ancient Israelites.

4. Religion in Bartow: A Profile

These observations are useful in examining Bartow County.  Overall, Bartow is today as Hill might have expected to find it in 1966.  Overwhelmingly, the churches of Bartow are Baptist, and taken together the Baptist and Methodist churches account for over 60% of the places of worship in Bartow.  A number of non-denominational conservative evangelical churches of a fierce fundamentalist variety make up another 15%.  Pentecostal and Holiness churches represent an additional 10%.   There is some diversity in the remaining dozen or so churches. There are two Lutheran and four Presbyterian churches as well as an Episcopal church.  There are also two Catholic churches, two Mormon chapels and two Jehovah's Witness Kindom Halls in Bartow.  In downtown Cartersville there is also a Seventh-Day Adventist Church and a chapter of the Salvation Army.  Some Bartow residents greeted the arrival of these non-Baptists/Methodist churches with suspicion and regret.  One interviewee told me that she remembered when there was "nothing but Baptists here, but now it seems to have all changed."

Photo of a Bartow County Church
The small churches that punctuate the Bartow County landscape offer an intimate environment.
This apparent diversity is, however, deceptive.  A conservative style of evangelicalism resides even within the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches of Cartersville.  The tone and flavor of religion in these places of worship matched many aspects of Hill's description, including bible-centeredness, an emphasis on the "Old Testament" God, a primarily vertical theology, a revivalist and emotional form of worship, and a deep concern with assurance.  Even the Episcopal church retains certain aspects of the old-time religion.  Thus, these half dozen churches could be characterized more by their similarity than their variance with those churches surrounding them.  The two Catholic churches certainly present a different form of worship from most of the other churches in Bartow;  nevertheless, one homily I attended presented a theology that bore striking similarities to Hill's description of the southern church's ethics of influence.  The services were also characterized by a degree of informality and "hospitality" often absent from urban Catholic masses.  Most of Bartow's Catholics are among the thousand plus Hispanics who reside in the county.  As a result of both their Catholicism and their non-Caucasian origins, many Hispanics are the object of a residual naivism.  For example, when I asked one Methodist churchgoer about his opinions of Catholics in Bartow, he replied thoughtfully, "well, we certainly do have enough of them around here now a-days, don't we? . . . Folks no longer think that the Pope is Antichrist, like we did when I was younger . . . [But] I do believe that they are idol worshipers, with their saints and their praying to Mary . . ."  While such opinions are not often so overt, Catholics did not appear to be well integrated into society in Bartow.

"The Baptists have the best cooking, the Methodists are a close second [but] I never knew a Presbyterian [who] could cook."

Beyond these dozen churches, diversity rapidly evaporates.  A striking similarity is present in the overwhelming majority of Bartow's religious institutions.  I asked one man to explain the differences between the churches in his area of Bartow County. "Cooking," he replied.  "The Baptists have the best cooking, the Methodists are a close second, [but] I never knew a Presbyterian [who] could cook. That's about the only difference."  The churches are in general strongly resistant to change. When I asked one preacher about the possibilities of changing the service, he responded, "We worship the Lord in the way they have since the earliest times." "Since the first Christians?" I asked. "Since Adam and Eve" he replied.  This comment  indicates much about the intellectual climate in Bartow.  The conservative evangelicals consider their style of worship as "primitive" and in every respect superior to rituals found in more formal urban churches.  If Adam and Eve worshiped God in such a manner in the Garden of Eden, why change?  When I suggested to another pastor that his apparent decline in members might be an indication of a need for change, he was not convinced. "No, the Bible says there will be a great falling away.  I feel bad for those that have fallen away, but that is the way God has planned it. We are now entering that time."17

There is, however, a strong impression among a minority of church leaders that their message is not reaching the younger generation, and that increasing numbers of middle-aged people (largely males) are attending church less frequently.  A few churches have responded by updating and modernizing their Sunday service.  The Good Life non-denominational church has started adding guitars and other instruments to accompany the singing in their worship service in an effort to make it more appealing for teens.  The church also decided to push back its worship time in the hopes that more would attend if they could have the morning to sleep.  One Methodist church in central Cartersville began a new "style" of worship near the end of the summer of 1996.  The idea was to have an "upbeat, lively, [and] causal worship celebration" where the whole community was invited to "come as you are."  The minister in charge of organizing this "9 AWAKE!" campaign explained that it was conceived primarily to encourage middle-aged people to come back to church.  Too many people, he explained, had complained that they were "not comfortable with the formality and ritual of church worship services." At the same time it was hoped that the "casual and contemporary" atmosphere would appeal to teenagers as well.  It quickly became apparent, however, that "9 AWAKE" was a new wrapping for the old-time religion.  While the congregates were causal in their dress (no ties and a few pairs of jeans) the service was a high-energy version of the usual Bartow fare.  A few upbeat songs were followed by a discursive sermon emphasizing humanity's fallen state and the need for salvation, rounded out by a call for those to come forward who needed prayers and healing.  While many of the attendants may have previously complained that they were "not comfortable with the . . . ritual" of some services, they were undoubtedly participating in a ritual all the same.

Besides a revivalist tone, the common element that ties the churches of Bartow together is a continued focus on the "central theme" of salvation.  In Bartow (and increasingly in other parts of America) the question "Are you a Christian?" is specifically concerned with the concept of personal salvation.  The most important thing is to be a Christian, that is, to be saved, to be born again.  Only then does it matter if the person is "churched" or not; there is little concern for what type of church the Christian attended as long as he or she is born again.   For most churchgoers in Bartow, salvation is still considered to take place in a single datable experience.  One respondent, in reply to my questions about salvation and assurance, explained to me that "some of my cousins that live in Atlanta don't believe 'once saved, always saved,' but we do."    The individual explained her born-again experience and remarked that once you are saved "you just know that you are for life."  Most interviewees gave similar responses, and many also experienced salvation early in life.  The exception was largely confined to those who had stayed away from or "shunned" the church for most of their life.  Few adults had attended church for more than eighteen months without being saved.  The salvation experience is independent of church or community.  Once it is experienced, it is portable in that the individual can move from one denomination to another without questioning the validity of his or her born-again experience.  At best, scripture, life's blessings, good works, self-reform, spiritual gifts, repentance, piety or proximity to spiritual leaders can only confirm salvation, but such things can never bestow it.

"On the other hand, the black Christians of Bartow are not eager for membership in the white churches, and there is consensus that the two groups should worship separately."

This individualism is much as Hill would have expected in 1966. However, the observer of religion in Bartow quickly becomes aware that religious practice is not solely about individuality.  For while the theology of the Protestants in Bartow is vertical, the function of religion in Bartow has a further social purpose.  The terms of public piety are generally respected and, consequently, individuals can easily enter into the wider community through religion.  At the same time, long-time members of the community derive self-worth from continued participation in expected acts of public piety.  Bartow's summer revivals also provide space for the communities problems to be aired and resolved.  During a late-night revival, one man stood up and explained, "I don't need to tell any of you what it is that I have done to Mr. Smith, you all know it.  But I do need to say before you all and before the Lord that I am always a sinner and that I am always in need of forgiveness . . . While I know the Lord forgives me, I hope that [all of] you will too." Similar comments and testimonials made it clear that the seasonal revivals offered an environment in which social tension could be resolved.  And while individuals go forward at the altar call, they always return to a congregation ready to embrace and accept them.

Photo of a Bartow County Church
Modern roads now connect many of the churches of Bartow, a number of which are older than the county itself.
Within this community there is still very little concern for theological education.  Only two pastors had reservations about the questionnaire statement that "A minister who is called is better than a minister who is trained." A "Paul didn't go to seminary" attitude is common.  This is true despite the fact that some 30% of Bartow's ministers and pastors have received some theological education--defined as at least three months of structured instruction. (Such individuals were primarily concentrated in Cartersville).  Such instruction is, however, understood as an ancillary benefit by most and outright dangerous by some.  Many congregations frown upon the use of Bible commentaries or preaching guides because such materials may present a "hindrance to the Spirit."   The aim is to have the message come to the preacher directly from God without the interference of "earthly aides."  Too often, however, the result is that the preacher returns to a handful of familiar verses and themes.  Nevertheless, it is the Spirit that moves most Bartow preachers to preach.  Three times in the course of my research preachers declined to preach because the Spirit failed to move them.  The congregations sang songs, listened to announcements, but never received a sermon.  On several occasions I arrived at a preacher's home for an interview before an evening revival.  When I asked how they intended to prepare for the night's event, they frequently commented that they would "meditate," "listen to the Lord," or "think through this week's events."  Most often preachers seemed content to wait and see what the Lord would say to them when they arrived at church.

During such church services it becomes clear that the God of Bartow is the stereotypical God of the Old Testament.  God is male, jealous, and judging.  Sermons focus on passages from the Old Testament that illustrate God's dread and reinforce the need for obedience and salvation.  The primary emphasis in these sermons is soteriological rather than ethical; that is their message is that the individual needs to be saved by Christ rather than strive to emulate the historical Jesus.  The God of Bartow is described in patriarchal terms, and the style of ministry that fills the churches is likewise patriarchal.  In many of the churches of the Baptist variety, women are not allowed to speak during the business part of congregational meetings.  There is wide agreement with the statement that "it is not right for a women to be a preacher/pastor."  Women can testify, bear witness, shout amen, but not preach.  "No," a leading Bartow Baptist preacher explained,  "scripture teaches us that it should be a man.  It says that no woman should be head over a man, or should teach over a man."  The minister's wife agreed.

5. Religion, Race, and Social Ethics

The Protestant churches of Bartow are almost completely divided along racial lines.  My research indicates that the majority of whites feel that "they got their church, we got our church."  Whites universally agree that blacks are people and that Jesus died for them too. "The Christian message is available to all that have ears and will come to hear it," one preacher responded in regards to my questioning about race.  Every single survey returned affirmed the statement that "qualified people should be allowed into the church of their choice regardless of race." Nevertheless, one is hard pressed to find a mixed congregation.  When a large group of revival attendants were asked before the evening's events if they believed that African American people were their equals and worthy of inclusion in their church and in their ministry, they responded almost immediately in the affirmative.  But when asked if there were any minorities in their own congregations, an awkward silence followed.  On another occasion a man eagerly answered that his congregation did in fact have a black member.  His wife, however, corrected him and said that a member of their congregation was a foster parent for a black girl, but the girl did not come to church.

On the other hand, the black Christians of Bartow are not eager for membership in the white churches, and there is consensus that the two groups should worship separately.  "Why would we want to go over there to their church anyway?" one African American Baptist responded. Blacks are generally well aware that the whites do not welcome them in their congregations.  One African-American preacher summed up this sentiment when he observed, "They would have us, but they don't want us."  A casual observer would not expect to find the de facto segregation that persists in the churches of Bartow.  People of different races seem to mix causally in most common spaces.  They go in and out of the offices and factories together and can be seen sharing tables at the restaurants and bars in Cartersville.  My first impression was that Bartow--or at least Cartersville--was well integrated.  A discussion with some local residents about real-estate prices, however, informed me that there were separate "black and white" neighborhoods.  Thus, while segregation is not publicly supported, it nevertheless persists in Bartow County, both inside and outside of the churches.

The personal ethics of influence discussed by Hill in Southern Churches in Crisis is still dominant in the churches of Bartow.  For example, in one sermon in a church outside of Taylorsville, the preacher said, "Now Tim Smith said to me the other day, he said, 'preacher, I ain't coming down to your church no more. Y'all lying and cursing just as bad as the rest of 'em, and I can get all of that I need elsewhere.'  And do you know what?  I think sometimes he's right.  We have got to do better, we have got to, or ain't no one gonna be coming to the knowledge of the Lord."  The comments of this preacher and numerous others throughout Bartow reveals that the motivation for behaving in a certain way is because of the influence that such behavior has on others--namely those who are not saved.  The ultimate goal of such influence is soul winning.  Visitors to Bartow churches will soon encounter countless similar instances of this pragmatic social ethic.  For example, one pastor preached on how the congregation needed to improve the appearance of the church, not for the sake of the members, but in the hopes that visitors might stop in and find the Lord.

Photo of a Bartow County Church
Churchgoers arrive early on a summer morning at a Methodist church in Bartow.
A glance at Bartow's daily newspaper, The Daily Tribune News, reveals the continued homogeneity of religion in Bartow.  No issue is published without some talk of religious matters.  But the religion that is discussed is always the same.  The numerous articles on religious themes assume that the reader and the author have a common understanding of religion.  There is never the need to justify or explain their religious paradigm, and diversity is conspicuously absent.  One article in the "Bartow Profile" section highlighting local musical talent begins: "Bartow's Steve Hilton began playing bluegrass in his teens, years before he became born-again. After he was saved, Hilton quit bluegrass and began playing gospel. . . ."
20  Just a glance through the Sunday 18 August 1996 edition of the paper demonstrates the degree to which southern style evangelicalism permeates Bartow's culture.  In addition to a paid advertisement warning against the evils of astrology, there is an article explaining in simple terms the differences between Islam and Christianity; a woman's testimony about her experience as an evangelical missionary; and the weekly book column by "Rev. Curtis Rivers of the Douglas Street Methodist Church."  In another edition, a letter to the editor concerning abortion begins and ends its argumentation based on what "God said" in different biblical passages.21   Regular columnist Fred Eister recommends that his readers keep the Bible in mind when voting for politicians.22    Other columns highlight various evangelists preaching in Bartow.23   Listings of weekly events during the summer time are dominated by announcements of various revivals and evangelical church meetings.  The tone of such articles and announcements reveals that there is little public space available for entertaining the possibility of alternative religious perspectives.

6. Conclusions

Overall, my research concluded that the taste, the essence of religion in Bartow County remains similar to the style of evangelicalism that Hill described thirty years ago.  The diversity described by other observers of religion in America is absent from Bartow, which is a county characterized more by its homogeneity than its religious pluralism.  The "central theme" still dominates, often with the same results that Hill saw in 1966, namely a personal ethic prevailing over a wider social concern.  Just outside the perimeter of Atlanta, rural Bartow retains the homogeneity and style of religion in such a fashion that Hill's description of the southern church is still applicable.

Photo of a Bartow County Church
Signs point the traveller to the churches of Bartow.
In the concluding essay of White and White's collection, Scott Lee Thumma affirms that in the South "a regional church does still exist," but questions whether "its now-deceased relatives recognize it."
24   My research has led me to conclude that in the instance of Bartow County, the answer to Thmma's query is a resounding "yes."  This is not to say that southern culture or religion has not changed.  Indeed, in some ways they have.  As the South becomes increasingly integrated into the nation, southern-style evangelical conservatism has come to define an ever-greater part of American morality.  The same technological innovations that allowed Billy Graham's message to spread to the world beyond the South also allows the outside world into the heart of Dixie.  Few preachers' homes were without cable boxes or satellite dishes.  In some religious institutions in Cartersville, such as the Catholic churches, few traces of the old-time religion can be found.  Some Protestants also express ambivalence about the all-importance of the "central theme."  "Sometimes I think that most of the problems of the world come from not enough people doing their share of good works," one churchgoer told me.  His pastor asked me "if someone doesn't have enough to eat, if their material needs aren't met, then how are they going to know God?  How can a woman be expected to get saved if her babies need food?"  Nevertheless, the central message, the main forms of worship and the primary ways for talking about religious experience are still captivated by the old-time religion.

Thumma's concluding piece ends White and White's collection on a note of hope.  His investigation of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Atlanta led him to conclude that "the church's vision not only includes personal salvation and evangelical outreach but also addresses political affairs, economic decisions, and social activism."  The church's mission is "not only to convert southern souls but also to transform southern society."
25   While this is a powerful sentiment, my research in Bartow indicates that it will be some time before this style of evangelism reaches rural areas outside of Atlanta, let alone forms of non-evangelical worship.  Accordingly, it is still premature to talk of the birth of a new southern church.  Indeed, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit's goal of "transform[ing] southern society" still has a long way to go.

Finally, some wider observations can be offered concerning religion in the South on the eve of the millennium.  First, homogeneity is the norm in Bartow County Georgia, which is an area still characterized by the conservative style of Protestant evangelicalism Samuel S. Hill described in his 1966 Southern Churches in Crisis.  While this conclusion may not necessarily be surprising for some observers of southern religion, it is nevertheless important to bear in mind, particularly in light of recent studies' focus on pockets of urban religious diversity and pluralism.  A related point is that given the lack of self-criticism or competition in the churches of Bartow County, there is little indication of future change.  The conservative evangelicalism of Bartow is so dominant that it is safe to predict that it will continue to have a strong presence into the next millennium.

A further observation is more tenuous.  This examination of a small rural community was conceived as a counter-balance to studies that look particularly at urban areas.  There is also a further justification for looking at rural areas when examining southern religion.  Given the traditionally rural nature of southern culture and the importance of ruralism in the development of southern regionalism, rural areas cannot be ignored in discussions of  "the South."  Furthermore, rural areas like Bartow County continue to have a disproportionate influence within southern culture.  While urban areas such as Atlanta strive to be more cosmopolitan, they also try not to betray their rural past.  Often this effort takes a consumptive form as southern urbanities purchase designer boots and "southern rock" and folk music.  An obvious example of the southern urban centers' affinity for its former rural ways occurred during the opening ceremonies to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.  In addition to performances about southern history, the ceremony featured acts such as dozens of pick-up trucks pouring onto the Olympic field while various high school cheerleaders danced and cheered.  As it claimed its place as the capital of the New South, Atlanta directly appealed to southern rural ways.  More than any other region of the country, in the South rural is still right.  This is particularly true with respect to religion.  Atlanta urbanities may jest about Bartow's accent or quaintness, but they always respect Bartow's religion.  The religious tone in Bartow is still affectionately heard in Atlanta as the sound of true traditional southern culture.

The crisis that Hill foresaw in the southern church never materialized. But while the churches of Bartow today are not in crisis, they remain captive, both to their theology and their popularity. As a new millennium begins, my research has led me to conclude that in terms of religion, the future for Bartow County seems to offer more of the same.


This article was researched and written primarily in 1996 to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of Southern Churches in Crisis. Earlier this year Southern Churches in Crisis was republished along with two new essays by Samuel S. Hill Jr. under the title Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited. This republication also contains a bibliography of some of the works in the field since 1990. Thanks to the University of Alabama Press, I received a copy of this book prior to its UK release and just before the publication of the above article. As is to be expected Hill’s new essays are provocative and insightful. A full review of this republished book, however, is not within the scope of this article. I hope that the Journal of Southern Religion will use the re-issuing of this classic as an opportunity to widen the discussion of the meaning and significance of Hill’s work over the past three decades. I can think of no better place to publish such a debate than within the frames of this journal. That said, there are some brief comments that I would like to make with regard to Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited. The most distinctive feature within Hill’s two new essays is the discussion of a new “central theme.” Under the heading “Doctrinal Purity as Today’s Central Theme” Hill explains:

 Purity, I suggest, is the new driving force of the southern religious community. . . . that may be taken to mean, purity in practical living. Specifically, heaviest weight is assigned to monogamous marriage, to the sole legitimacy of heterosexual relationships, to personal integrity, and of course to the right of the fetus to live.26 

Hill maintains that “there is something new and distinctive about the recent accentuation of purity: its preeminence in the rational arena--purity understood as absolute insistence on absolute devotion to absolute truth.”27  In Hill’s view, this new central theme of doctrinal purity has replaced the old central theme of individual salvation. 

Hill argues:

If earlier the test of legitimacy had to do with the claim of having God’s presence and forgiveness known with certainty to be in one’s life, the evaluation now pertains to a claim of orthodoxy.28 

This emphasis on “rational purity” is the new hallmark of southern religion.29  “Within the past two decades or so . . . the dominant sensibility has become the rational . . . or even infallible truth of God.”30 

As these quotes indicate, Hill sees the two most powerful manifestations of this new central theme expressed in the issue of abortion and homosexuality. “In today’s climate . . . ethical purity identifies sex and gender related issues as the most pressing.”31  As I write, I am informed that for the first time in history the Georgia Baptist Convention has voted to expel member churches. The two churches are to be rejected over the issue of homosexuality. Once again, it would seem that Samuel Hill is right.32 

Nevertheless, my research in Bartow does not support Hill’s identification of a new central theme.33  While Hill’s new analysis suggests a way of understanding the Baptist battles of the past two decades, it does not describe Bartow County. Simply stated, the concerns described by Hill as characteristic of the new central theme were not prevalent enough in Bartow County to warrant recognition as central. Such concerns certainly did not replace the old central theme of individual salvation. Hill maintains that a strong emphasis on “monogamous marriage, . . . the sole legitimacy of heterosexual relationships, . . . personal integrity, and of course . . . the right of the fetus to live” are the telltale signs of the new central theme. If this is the case, then the new central theme has yet to reach Bartow, for such topics were seldom the focus of religious discussions. That is not to say that such themes were not present. Father’s Day presented the occasion for a number of sermons on the importance of the family and the monogamous heterosexual relationship as its essential center. Abortion was also a subject of discussion, as the newspaper article cited above demonstrates. Such discussions were, however, few and far between and their relative importance was dwarfed when compared to altar calls and the emphasis on personal salvation found among the sermons of Bartow County. Churches devote energy  to such issues as abortion, but it is hardly the “principal energy” of religious life in Bartow.34 

The issues identified by Hill as part of the new central theme were so conspicuously absent from my findings that I revisited my original notes and interviews. Two admissions arise from this reexamination of the sources for the above article. The first is that the questionnaire that served as the primary vehicle for examining ministers and practitioners failed to address the specific issues of homosexuality and abortion. Questions which sought to probe the place of these concerns within the cosmology of the Bartow Christian would certainly have helped to clarify this situation. Nevertheless, when asked, respondents overwhelmingly identified the mission of the church as saving souls. It is my belief that if a question was posed “what is more important for the church today: resisting the sins of society such as abortion and homosexual marriage or getting people saved,” the latter would be the overwhelming choice. Unfortunately such a question was not included. Hopefully research will be forthcoming which tests the perceived shift in southern religion where Hill believes that “rationalism has replaced experimentialism [sic].35 ”

Aside from deficiencies in the questionnaire, another limitation that I identified was the season in which I conducted my research. Summer in Bartow is revival season. As a result, the period in which I conducted my research coincide with a time when Bartow’s Protestant community is especially concerned with the central theme of individual conversion. That said, the persistence of the revivals themselves demonstrates the continued importance and centrality of the “old” central theme.  Moreover, the fact that issues like abortion and homosexuality (touchstones of the new emphasis on rational purity) were largely absent during this critical season in the churches’ yearly calendar further demonstrates that these are not the issues which are most pressing for Bartow’s Protestants.

I would suggest two possible reasons for why the new central theme has not supplanted the old central theme in Bartow County. The first is the possibility that the hegemony of the old-time religion and way of life is not sufficiently threatened in Bartow County to evoke the “cry of the heart for the loss of the bond that for so long linked evangelical Christianity to the culture.36 ” This suggestion is not altogether acceptable. Bartow has certainly had to give up many of its traditional customs and lose much of its traditional way of life. Moreover, the Protestants of Bartow County certainly perceive that they are everywhere under siege. Nevertheless, the fact that the relatively homogenous religious situation persists could be a possible explanation.

Another possibility is that the new central theme is central only for the South’s religious elite (or for that matter the nation’s religious elite). Hill writes, “to sum up, then, purity is the aim of the new ruling party among the Southern Baptist leadership, some Presbyterians, and a good many others.37 ” Much of Hill’s argument for a new central theme is also specific to the Southern Baptist Convention in general and the convention's new leadership in particular.38  Thus the new central theme might best apply to the leaders, the party rulers, who direct (or try to direct) the machinery of their respective religious organizations. Such issues would probably also be more pertinent in urban areas where a large number of seminary-trained clergy are competing to be the most orthodox in an effort to win congregates. This is not the case in Bartow. The issues Hill identifies as the new central theme are certainly more pressing for those ministers recently trained on the front-lines of the Baptist battles.

In Bartow County, experimentalism continues to prevail. The aim of the preachers is not absolutist orthodoxy, but the conversion experience of each individual in society. This remains the central theme of Protestantism in Bartow and it is the nexus to which all other concerns are connected. The individual Protestant in Bartow shares the concern of the preacher. A genuine heart-felt experience of God’s mercy and salvation is the true touchstone of religious life. Nothing can approach it. Getting people saved: this was the mandate of the hot summer-afternoon services and the humid evening revivals. This mandate is still the driving force, the primary energy, of religion in Bartow.


1.  Daryl White and O. Kendall White,  Religion in the Contemporary South: Diversity, Community and Identity. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1995.  1  Samuel S. Hill's Southern Churches in Crisis. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, p. xvii. Return

2.  White and White,  Religion in the Contemporary South  9. Return

3. Ibid. 2.  Cf. Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1960. The specific criticisms that White and White offer with regards to Hill and Herberg are slightly convoluted.  It is my reading of Southern Churches in Crisis that Hill would not necessarily disagree with their points, i.e. that religious identity is important in the South, that religion in the South provides a link to national unity, that "the southern identification of religion with nationalism functioned more as an attempt to legitimate southern claims vis-à-vis those of the nation than as a mechanism of social integration" ( 3), etc. Return

4.  Hill, Southern Churches, 21. Return

5.  Ibid, 37. Return

6.  Sean Ireland. "Residents Feel Pinch of City Lifestyle," The Daily Tribune News 23 August 1996, 1A. Return

7.  See   Return

8.  These demographic statistics are for 1996 and are taken from the Housing and Demographic Research Center at the University of Georgia. These figures compare well with the U.S. census data and statistics from Georgia Institute of Technology. Grateful thanks to these institutions for their assistance. Information from the Housing and Demographic Research Center at the University Georgia can now be received on the internet at Return

9.  It should be noted that no effort was made to seek out and interview individuals who did not attend a church of any kind. While the churches of Bartow appeared full for the most part, the disproportionate number of older people indicated that certain sectors of the community were staying away. This was confirmed by my interviews with various preachers, many of whom expressed concern at the decline in baptisms, which for Baptists is an indication of the number of people who are being born again. Return

10.  Hill, Southern Churches, 175. Return

11.  Mark Andrew Shibley, "The Southernization of American Religion: Understanding the Resurgence of Evangelicalism, 1970-1990".  Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1993,  vi-2. cf. Mark A. Shibley, Resurgent Evangelicalism in the United States: Mapping Cultural Change Since 1970. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. Return

12.  John Egerton, The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America. New York: Harper and Row, 1974, 195. Return

13.  David Edwim Harrell Jr. ed., Varieties of Southern Evangelicalism. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1981, 3. Return

14.  Quoted in Gene McLean Adams, An Analytical Study of Southern Religion of the 1970s as Based on Samuel S. Hill Jr.'s Southern Culture-Religion Thesis. Dissertation, Florida State University, 1980. (Appendix I, Interview with Samuel S. Hill Jr.),  257. Return

15.  Hill, Southern Churches, 73, 76-7. Return

16.  Ibid, 84. Return

17.  In my opinion, the reason that the membership in this particular congregation had declined was not because of the preacher. Rather, the area had undergone a population shift. For example, a number of small homes (which presumably might have supplied congregates for the church) had been bought and transformed into a large vacation farm/ranch. Return

18.  It should be noted that in the African-American churches of Bartow the emphasis on a judging God is still present but is not as great as in the white churches. The message in the African-American churches centers more on the need to triumph, particularly the need to triumph over sin. The patriarchal element is however equally strong, if not stronger, within the African-American churches as among the white churches of Bartow. Return

19.  In relation to rural racial tension, several articles appeared in The Daily Tribune News concerning racial problems. For example in Bartow one headline read "Attacks may be gang-related, motivated by drugs, race" 25 August 1996, 1A. On Wednesday 21 August 1996 an article on "Renaming Efforts Stalled" concerning the naming of a street after Martin Luther King Jr. ( 2A), and on the following day another article explained that the "Thomasville Welcome Service Shunned For Catering to Whites" ( A2). Return

20.  Lisa K. Folsom, "Third Generation Minister Strumming Along at 70," The Daily Tribune News 25 August 1996,  8A. Return

21.  "Taking Innocent Lives," The Daily Tribune News 25 August 1996,  4A. Return

22.  Fred Eister, "It's your choice," The Daily Tribune News 21 August 1996,  4A. Return

23.  "Evangelist Hipp to speak at Cartersville Church of God," The Daily Tribune News 9 August, 1996, 6A. Return

24.  Scott Lee Thumma, "Rising Out of the Ashes: An Exploration of One Congregation's Use of Southern Symbolism," in White and White's Religion in the Contemporary South, 150. Return

25.  Ibid, 158. Return

26. Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1999, xxxviii. xxxviii. , 158. Return

27.  Hill, Revisited, xxxviii. , 158. Return

28.  Ibid, xl., 158. Return

29.  Ibid, xxxviii., 158. Return

30.  Ibid, xxix., 158. Return

31.  Ibid, xlv., 158. Return

32.  Justin Bachman, "Georgia Baptists Say No to Gays" 16 November 1999, Associated Press; idem, "Baptists Expel Churches With Gays" 17 November 1999, Associated Press. Return

33.  Hill, Revisited, xxxviii., 158. Return

34.  Ibid, xxxv., 158. Return

35.  Ibid, xlvii., 158. Return

36.  Ibid, lx., 158. Return

37.  Ibid, xliv., 158. Return

38.  Ibid, xliii., 158. Return

This article published 12/10/99
© 1998-99 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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