William Winans was not a native Mississippian, but he moved to the territory in 1810 and became one of the most influential ministers at a time when the region’s predominant religious culture was emerging.
Born in Chestnut Ridge, Pennsylvania, on 3 November 1788, Winans served as a Methodist minister in Kentucky and Indiana before moving to Mississippi, where he became secretary of the Mississippi Conference in 1813. Winans arrived before statehood, when much of the area was still frontier, and one newspaper described him as having “a rough manner” and “long shaggy hair” and seeming more “like some lawless backwoodsman than the able and devoted minister.” He served as a circuit rider, requiring four weeks to make the rounds of the churches in his territory. He participated in camp meetings and revivals that helped Methodists emerge as a leading denomination. In 1823 he estimated that one camp meeting attracted between four thousand and six thousand people, including many slaves. He had little formal education, criticized anyone who called for calm and polite expressions of religion, and was a leading opponent of educational requirements for ministers.
Winans’s attitudes toward African Americans to whom he ministered were complex, reflecting the spread of both evangelicalism and proslavery ideology during the antebellum period. He preached to and baptized blacks at separate services and protested 1820s efforts to restrict slaves’ right to worship among themselves without white oversight. He wrote admiringly of African Americans’ spirituality, viewing their “deep and ardent piety” as representing “the highest attainment to which man can aspire.” He continued, “Among the most deeply pious Christians who I have known, have been many black people who, ignorant in other matters . . . were children of God by Faith.” At the same time, he was a Mississippi leader of the American Colonization Society, working with some of the state’s wealthiest men to transport free blacks to Africa in the 1830s. In the 1840s he was a leading clerical proslavery advocate, referring to abolitionists as “fanatics-lunatics.”
Winans supported the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, after growing numbers of ministers of the Methodist Episcopal Church began to support abolition. He then sought election as one of the first bishops in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1846, but lost. He subsequently became less active in denominational affairs but remained one of the most prominent antebellum Mississippi ministers. He died on 31 August 1857.
- Ray Holder, William Winans, Methodist Leader in Antebellum Mississippi (1976)
- Randy J. Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773–1876 (1994)
- Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (2001)
- William Winans Papers, J. B. Cain Archives, Millsaps College