A 2000 survey of religious life in America helps identify a few of the most important features of Mississippi religion. Using a variety of methods, the North America Religious Atlas (NARA) did its best to count religious affiliation, and though statistics and religious life do not always mesh easily, the NARA data help outline the major features of church affiliation and introduce some of the differences in different parts of the state. Above all, Mississippi, even more than much of the American South, is a land of evangelical Protestants. Baptists dominate numerically, followed by Methodists and other evangelical groups. Of all the religious groups in Mississippi, largest by far are two groups of Baptists, the Missionary Baptists and the Southern Baptists. Historically, white Baptists, primarily the Southern Baptists, made up 41 percent of all religious adherents. The NARA survey awkwardly gathered several groups into a category it called “Historically African American Protestant,” and in Mississippi Missionary Baptists, African Methodist Episcopal, and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches were the primary groups in the category. Historically, African American Protestants made up 34 percent of all religious adherents. United Methodists made up another 10 percent of the state’s religious adherents, and combinations of groups called “Other Conservative Christian” (primarily, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and nondenominational Christian churches) and “Holiness/Wesleyan/Pentecostal” made up 2.5 percent and 3.1 percent. Added together, those groups, all of which fall into categories of evangelical Protestantism, made up more than 90 percent of the state’s religious adherents.
In almost all regions of Mississippi, the historically African American Protestants made up a substantial part of religious life. The groups in that category constituted more than a quarter of all religious adherents in all parts of Mississippi except the northeastern corner of the state and seven counties on the Gulf Coast. Those groups make up more than half of all religious adherents in 22 of Mississippi’s 82 counties, primarily in the Mississippi Delta. The historically white Baptist groups, primarily the Southern Baptists, are important throughout the state. More than half of all church adherents in northeastern Mississippi and in several counties in south-central Mississippi are part of historically white Baptist groups.
An intriguing statistical comparison shows that while United Methodists make up about 10 percent of all religious adherents, about twice the percentage of Catholics, who make up 4.8 percent, the United Methodists are spread widely throughout the state, present almost everywhere and dominant nowhere, while Mississippi Catholics tend to congregate only in areas with substantial numbers of Catholics. Hancock, Harrison, and Jefferson Counties, the counties along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, were home to the majority of the state’s Catholics. In each county, Catholics made up more than 10 percent of all religious adherents, and Hancock County was one of the few counties in the entire South where Catholics made up more than half of all religious adherents. By contrast, in 44 Mississippi counties in 2000, Catholics made up less than 1 percent of all religious adherents.
The other statistical feature distinguishing Mississippi religious life was the relatively small number of people outside these groups. Presbyterians had churches throughout the state but relatively small numbers of members. Jews made up tiny numbers—there were no counties in Mississippi in which Jews made up half of 1 percent of all religious adherents. Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus appeared in NARA data in even smaller numbers, and most Mississippi counties reported none of those groups. Mormons were small in number, congregating more in areas with larger towns and cities than rural areas.
Religion has played significant, even crucial, roles in almost all of the major issues in Mississippi history. From missionaries to Native Americans to frontier church and school-building, to the growth of African American Christianity and the elaboration of a proslavery argument, religious beliefs and practices were central to many parts of life in colonial and antebellum Mississippi. Beginning in the late 1600s, Catholic missionaries were part of the first permanent European settlers to the area, and both Jesuits and Capuchins faced the challenges of being a minority religion in a struggling colony. Beginning in the early 1800s and operating well into the antebellum period, Christian missionaries tried with varying success to convert Native Americans to Christianity with a combination of education and religious inspiration. Baptists with roots in New England started in the Mississippi Society for Baptist Missions Foreign and Domestic in 1817, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, run by Presbyterians and Congregationalists, began building missionary settlements in Mississippi in the 1820s.
Many of the first attempts to establish permanent churches of different Protestant denominations began in southwestern Mississippi. The first Baptist church began services in 1791 in the area that became Jefferson County, and Methodist circuit riders were leading camp meetings and Presbyterians were starting churches soon after that. All three groups were well established by the 1820s. Episcopalians and the state’s first Jewish congregation had roots in antebellum Natchez.
By mid- and late antebellum period, many of those groups had educational institutions, some of them colleges and some of them schools for younger students, especially young women. At the same time, other Protestant groups were challenging their authority, often by calling on some version of a simpler worship style and a rejection of what they saw as worldliness. Primitive Baptists critiqued Regular Baptists for their willingness to form missionary societies, and restorationist groups in the Stone-Campbell tradition came to Mississippi in the later antebellum period, having much of their early success in eastern parts of the state.
The majority of Mississippians in the late antebellum period had at best an uncertain position in the white-run churches. Slaves worked to control their own religious lives and found that they were often welcomed in white-run churches but only in limited ways. Many slaves adapted Christianity to their own purposes, mixing different West African and syncretic worship traditions and often emphasizing the religious goal of liberty. White-run church leaders, many of whom had some reservations about slavery and its impact on southern society in the early 1800s, joined the proslavery movement by the late antebellum period. Mississippi ministers such as Presbyterian James Smylie and Methodist William Winans became leading spokesmen for a form of Christianity that emphasized paternalism, evangelizing the slaves, and social order.
Emancipation brought dramatic changes in church life, with many African Americans interpreting emancipation as part of deliverance from slavery into the Promised Land and leaving the white-run churches in large numbers to establish their own institutions. Missionaries brought church organizations to form Missionary Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, Zion congregations, and Colored Methodist Episcopal CME churches stood out as having southern roots in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Many of those churches took on a wide range of roles, with hands in education and political activity. Several colleges for African Americans, including Rust College and Tougaloo College, grew out of new efforts to educate African American teachers and ministers in the late 1800s. White Mississippians likewise used religious language to interpret the consequences of the Civil War, emphasizing that God was testing them with a period of difficulty and holding up Confederate soldiers as exemplars of good behavior.
Two trends in the late 1800s and early 1900s challenged the centrality of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in Mississippi religion. Immigration brought a wider range of ethnicities to the state, with growing numbers of Catholic immigrants, especially on the Gulf Coast, and smaller increases in Jewish immigrants to the Mississippi Delta. Also significant was the rise of two new Pentecostal denominations, the Church of God in Christ and the Church of Christ (Holiness). Both grew out of African American Baptist groups seeking the deeper religious experience of sanctification, complete with the potential for healing, speaking in tongues, and other gifts. The Church of God in Christ had its first services in Lexington, where leader Charles Harrison Mason, an Arkansas native, helped lead the group to prominence. Beginning in 1926, COGIC started Saints Industrial and Literary School in Lexington under the long direction of Arenia Mallory, and the denomination has long had headquarters in Memphis. Another former Baptist, Charles P. Jones of Jackson, was a COGIC leader before a split led to the Church of Christ (Holiness) in 1915.
The rise of the Prohibition movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s added some new political dimensions to Mississippi religious life. Several church leaders and church-related groups shifted from calls for sobriety and temperate behavior to demands for laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol. Women’s Christian Temperance Union leader Harriet B. Kells, Methodist leader Charles B. Galloway, and Baptist J. H. Gambrell had success demanding local option laws and then statewide Prohibition. Mississippi was the first state to ratify the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, making the sale of alcohol illegal.
Religion has played crucial roles in Mississippi’s musical and literary traditions, whether as inspiration or sometimes as the subject of frustration. Churches have long been one of the places Mississippians hear and learn to play music, and spirituals, hymns, and shape-note singing date to the antebellum period. Christian music of many kinds has led to the importance of the Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Blackwood Brothers (both bands with roots in the 1930s), to the inspirational music of Pops Staples and the Staples Singers, to more recent performers such as the Jackson Southernaires, the Mississippi Mass Choir, and Ann Downing. Blues singers long had a pained relationship with organized religion, as some had to choose between sacred and secular music while others felt the blues was the best way to confront the devil. Singers as different as Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley learned musical lessons in church, and often returned to religious traditions as the source of their inspiration. Many of the state’s most powerful literary figures brought religious issues to life in memorable ways, from Richard Wright’s rejection of his grandmother’s religion in Black Boy to the characters of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams who wrestled with Christian demands for self-control, and Anne Moody’s critique of calls for religious nonviolence in Coming of Age in Mississippi, to Will Campbell’s memoirs of farm life, race, and the search for redemption.
For many but far from all people in the civil rights movement, religion was central to the inspiration, language, and organizing strategies for their activism. Many churches were important as meeting sites, and for a few months in 1963, Jackson churches became challenges to desegregation, as integrated groups of visitors attended all-white churches. For activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, religious life and civil rights activism were part of the same experience, and she used religious language and music throughout her work. Ministers such as Aaron Johnson and R. L. T. Smith balanced their public role as ministers with voting rights and desegregation work, and Belzoni minister George Lee was killed for his public role. Many ministers worked more quietly, and young civil rights activists sometimes grew frustrated when older ministers did not take leadership roles. A number of white activists such as Jackson rabbi Perry Nussbaum, Tougaloo chaplain Ed King, and Christian maverick speaker and writer Will Campbell lived out their religious inspiration through civil rights work, and in 1963 a group of Methodist ministers clarified their opposition to segregation and hatred through the Born of Conviction statement.
White opponents of civil rights called on religion in multiple ways. Some tried to avoid civil rights concerns, saying the role of the church involved spiritual issues and not everyday secular questions. Others developed biblical justifications for racial segregation and encouraged the burning of churches that harbored activists.
Religious changes since the 1960s include the growing importance of religious media, a range of religious efforts at racial reconciliation, and the rise of conservative political groups with strong religious ties. Racial reconciliation efforts through church groups have operated on numerous fronts. Mississippian John Perkins moved Voice of Calvary Ministries to Jackson, with the goals of overcoming poverty and hatred. Mission Mississippi began in Jackson in 1992 with the specific goal of bringing together African American and white Christians. The group’s slogan is “Changing Mississippi one relationship at a time.” The expansion of church activities to offer services to Latino immigrants and the rise of Spanish-language church groups have been among the visible changes in Mississippi church life. Another has been the growth of groups such as the American Family Association, founded in Tupelo in the 1980s, with interests in fighting what they see as the widespread acceptance of secularism, pornography, abortion, and homosexuality. Mississippi religion continues to evolve in the 21st century, with calls for old-time religion existing at the same time as new religious groups, interests, and forms of worship emerge.
University of Mississippi
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
- Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (1977)
- Michael V. Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984: A History (1998)
- Mark F. Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)
- Ted Ownby, in Religion and Public Life in the South: In the Evangelical Mode, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and Mark Silk (2005)
- Randy J. Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773–1876 (1994)
- Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (2001)
- Calvin White Jr., The Rise to Respectability: Race, Religion, and the Church of God in Christ (2012)