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Alabama Religion in the
19th Century

Religion in Alabama came primarily from three traditions: Native American, European, and African. Native Americans believed in a well-ordered universe with which one should live in harmony. They built special dwellings, sometimes on the top of mounds, for religious ceremonies. They had many representations of deity—the sun, the moon, thunder. They believed in an afterlife as evidenced by sometimes elaborate burials, including artifacts used in this life, that were buried with an individual for use in the next life.

The most important Alabama religious traditions came from Europe and Africa. Christian denominations (Anglican/Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist) predominated among Anglo settlers, who brought them from England to New England, the Middle Colonies, and the Southern Colonies, thence along migration routes to Alabama. Spanish-French-Irish-Italian settlement brought Catholicism to Alabama, where it was centered in the cosmopolitan port city of Mobile and by the end of the nineteenth century in the Birmingham district, and was closely tied to immigration. Jews came mainly from Germany, and settled in towns where they often became prominent merchants, businessmen, and civic leaders (several Jews served as mayors of Mobile). Orthodox Christians came to Alabama mainly from Germany and Eastern Europe.

African-American slaves brought their own religious traditions, and though African animism did not long survive in the New World, slaves left their imprint on Southern evangelicalism in the form of greater emotion, more audience participation and less structured worship, and belief in a spirit world corresponding to the physical world. Most churches contained both black and white members before 1865.

Alabama was a frontier state for most of the nineteenth century, and religion reflected that fact. Churches met infrequently and tended to be small, rural, and male-dominated—though an estimated 65 percent of members were female. Ministers who earned a full-time living by preaching were extremely rare, especially among Baptists and Methodists. Few settlers were orthodox, church-going Christians—a much smaller percentage of the population belonged to churches than in New England at the same time. These settlers had to be converted from what was universally described as religiously illiterate, wicked, violent, and drunken ways of life.

Conversion, then, was the primary aim of Christian denominations. The primary method for this conversion was revivalism. Beginning in 1800, revivals swept the South. Institutionalized in the form of camp meetings and "protracted meetings" that usually occurred in August after crops were "laid by," these revivals accounted for most conversions. Because regular church services were usually conducted only once a month except in the largest urban congregations, conversions were largely a phenomenon of the annual revival.

Those denominations that grew fastest tended to be the most evangelical (forcefully confronting people with the question, "Are you saved?"), the most democratic (closest to the people), and the most individualistic (every person interpreted scripture for himself and was responsible for his own salvation, and any male, believing himself called to preach, could do so). These characteristics favored Methodists and Baptists over Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who imposed rigorous educational requirements on their ministers. By 1900 Christians of both races in Alabama were overwhelmingly Baptists and Methodists.

Another characteristic feature of evangelicalism was sectarian strife. Denominations were constantly fighting each other within the same groups, and splitting into new sects. Examples are the Primitive Baptists, Southern Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Presbyterians USA, Cumberland Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregational Methodists, Holiness, Church

of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Pentecostals. The major causes of this sectarian strife were also the chief strengths and attractions of the denominations: extreme individualism, democracy, bivocationalism, revivalism, egalitarianism (at least of all whites), strict Biblical authority, and emotionalism (although this can easily be stereotyped and exaggerated).

Although often accused of being otherworldly, white Alabama evangelicals, in fact, were this-worldly as well as otherworldly, imprinting their society in numerous ways. In fact, they used scripture to rationalize much of their conduct in this world: the establishment of a hierarchical, male-dominated society, and the defense of slavery, secession, the moral superiority of the Confederacy, and racial segregation. But at the same time, both women and blacks influenced evangelicalism profoundly.