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The South

The frontier spirit and wide open spaces of the American South fostered an explosion of religious devotion. Evangelical revivals brought the faithful out of their churches and into fields and forests, while non-Christian beliefs endured quietly or out of sight.

The revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening transformed the nation from the 1790s to the 1830s. In the southern states, Evangelical Christianity expanded via Methodist circuit riders and Baptist farmer preachers, attracting multitudes of all races, while older traditions adapted. Anglicans, prominent before the Revolution, broke ties with England to become Episcopalians, while traditions the enslaved carried with them or adopted—including Islam, Christianity, and many African traditions—became sources of solace.

St. James Parish, Goose Creek, South Carolina, around 1800 

St. James Parish, Goose Creek, South Carolina, around 1800 

Courtesy of Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association 

Religion at Home

Religion in early America was practiced not only in houses of worship but also at home, often with clergymen presiding over improvised ritual objects. This blending of the domestic and the sacred was typical of a time in which faith was expected by many to play a role in every aspect of life.

George Washington became a member of the Anglican Church with his christening on April 5, 1732, during which he was wrapped in this brocade silk blanket. While many infants at the time were baptized in churches, gentry families like the Washingtons often performed this ritual at home.

George Washington’s Christening Blanket, around 1732

George Washington’s Christening Blanket, around 1732

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

This silver monteith, or bowl for chilling wine glasses, doubled as patriot George Mason’s christening basin. It was in the Mason family for generations. Noting that all his children had been christened in the bowl, Mason’s will requested that it “remain in the family unaltered for that purpose.”

George Mason’s Monteith, around 1700

George Mason’s Monteith, around 1700

Loan from Board of Regents, Gunston Hall 

Resistant Rites

Among the Cherokee and other Native American peoples, the game known as stickball (also known as A-ne-jo-di, “Little Brother of War”) was no mere athletic pastime but a ritual. Played with the guidance of medicine men, the game settled disputes between tribes and was thought to give pleasure to the Creator.

Caddos and Choctaws Play Baggataway, Now Known as Lacrosse

Caddos and Choctaws Play Baggataway, Now Known as Lacrosse

Courtesy of Bettmann/gettyimages

Stickball Sticks, around 1880–1888

Stickball Sticks, around 1880–1888

The suppressed religions of the enslaved—Islam, Yoruba, and other African traditions—endured through adaptation and blending with Christianity. On Sapelo Island, Georgia, the enslaved Muslim Bilali Muhammad composed this Islamic text in the 19th century. Elsewhere in the South, enslaved men and women kept polished beads for spiritual protection.

Bilali Document, around 1829

Bilali Document, around 1829

Loan from Francis R. Goulding Papers, MS2807, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia

Protection Beads, 1800–1840

Protection Beads, 1800–1840

Loan from Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism:  Louisiana Division of Archaeology and Louisiana State Museum 

Image of Sapelo Island Map, 1846

Image of Sapelo Island Map, 1846

With churches prevented from receiving state funds, the regular request for financial support from the congregation became its own religious ritual. This handmade collection basket received congregants’ weekly offerings, helping to maintain a Virginia Baptist church.

Collection Basket, 19th Century 

Collection Basket, 19th Century 

Loan from Virginia Baptist Historical Society

Bible Stories in America

From the beginning, Americans interpreted scripture through their own experiences. In this embroidered silk depiction of the Exodus story of Moses found in the bulrushes by the Pharaoh’s daughter and her attendants, the three women are shown in dresses popular in the 1830s.

Moses in the Bulrush Silk Embroidery, 1825–1835

Moses in the Bulrush Silk Embroidery, 1825–1835

Religion in the Growing Nation

Camp meetings were a popular form of Protestant worship throughout the 19th century. Lasting several days, these open-air events often involved ecstatic communal prayer. Hundreds and even thousands came from miles around for preaching and worship, and to enjoy the festival-like atmosphere.

Methodist Camp Meeting, 1836

Methodist Camp Meeting, 1836

Courtesy of Harry T. Peters "America on Stone" Lithography Collection

Distributing Bibles, tracts, and hymnals, Methodist circuit riders spread literacy along with religion as the country expanded. One of the first two Methodist bishops in America, Francis Asbury (1745–1816), rode more than 130,000 miles, often carrying this trunk and powder horn. He visited nearly every state once a year.

The Circuit Preacher, by A. R. Waud, 1867

The Circuit Preacher, by A. R. Waud, 1867

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Trunk, 1775–1816

Trunk, 1775–1816

Loan from World Methodist Museum

Early Methodist Hymnal, 1742

Early Methodist Hymnal, 1742

Loan from World Methodist Museum

Powder Horn, 1790

Powder Horn, 1790

Loan from The General Commission on Archives and History, The United Methodist Church 

George Whitefield

George Whitefield (1714–1770) was an important figure of the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening. Traveling throughout the colonies, he preached open-air sermons from portable pulpits, including this one he used perhaps two thousand times. Benjamin Franklin once calculated that Whitefield’s voice was loud enough to be heard by a crowd of 30,000. 

George Whitefield Preaching

George Whitefield Preaching

Courtesy of Bridgeman Images

George Whitefield’s Pulpit

George Whitefield’s Pulpit

Loan from Texas Baptist Historical Collection, Waco, Texas