Just What Exactly is the Bible Belt?

Religion across the years – there have been many terms defining religion and spiritual experiences across this land and one such term is the “Bible Belt” which is a slang term used for a geographical region in the midsection of the United States. This region compromises groups of fundamentalists Christians. So how do I know if I’m in the Bible Belt you might ask? The easiest way is watch the road signs because over Ã?¾ of them are religious in nature. Or when you turn on the TV and 15 of the 20 channels are TV Evangelists or American conservative news commentators. Or Country music and Southern Gospel music overrides the airwaves. To be a true Bible Belt resident you must also have a good understanding of the things you don’t do such as, smoking, dancing, going to the pool hall, drinking and making a public display of yourself without a Bible in hand. Religion though has always been a staple of American life. Since the 1600’s over 85 % of the population attended some type of church activity. Towards the end of the 17th Century America was beginning to experience its first great revival.

The Great awakening, which had swept the countries of England, Wales and Scotland, was now infiltrating the American Colonies. The southern states seemed to be receiving this “new birth” with fervor. Many say it was because of the great population of blacks, others say it was because the southerner was just closer to God than other people were. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s a movement of God began to overtake the south. There were preachers scattered across the country healing, raising the dead, and collecting money. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and others were in a great revival. The Holy Spirit was moving and so was the human spirit. Many revivals were bogus, scam artists and frauds, but not all of the revival meetings were a ruse. There was a strong moving of the Holy Spirit. “In Finis Ewing’s lecture on sanctification he uses many strong expressions on this subjectâÂ?¦An anecdote of Ewing illustrates the truth that these men had abiding spiritual power. A gentleman went with some wicked associates to hear Ewing preach. As he had never heard Ewing, his comrades offered to bet him twenty dollars that he could not go into the church and sit through the sermon without going to the mourner’s bench when Ewing made the inevitable call for mourners. He took the bet, sat through the sermon, resisted the call for mourners, going, instead out to his comrades, saying, “Gentlemen, I have won the bet, but I want none of your money. From this hour on, as long as I live, I shall not rest till I find salvation.” It was not long until he was among the happy converts, and he long ornamented the church in which he cast his lot.”

Another incident from Reverend Thomas Calhoun: “He was at a camp-meeting at Rock Spring camp-ground, in Overton County, Tennessee. On Sabbath morning at breakfast some one told him that two desperate young men had bound themselves by a solemn oath to break up the meeting that day. Calhoun replied, “We’ll see.” Immediately after breakfast he went to his usual retreat, the woods, and there remained in prayer till time to commence the eleven o’clock sermon. Then he entered the rustic pulpit and announced his text. Then he stated what had been told him at breakfast, adding: “I am a preacher called and sent from God. You shall this day see, and know, and acknowledge that God is with me, and is able to give me the victory over all the opposition of men and devils.” At that moment the two desperate young men before spoken of rose to their feet, and, with loud oaths, began cursing the preacher and the meeting, and moving through the crowd with noisy efforts at disturbance. Calhoun went on with his sermon. No human voice could keep his from being heard. The piercing power of his sentences made people forget all disturbances. That eagle eye of his held the eyes of the congregation. People were weeping. Hearts were lifted to God in prayer. The poor, silly young men who were trying to disturb the worship could not help hearing those wonderful sentences. No one could hear them without feeling the burning fire of God’s Spirit which was in them. Presently one, then the other, of these two would-be disturbers of God’s worship fell, like Saul of Tarsus, prostrate to the earth. They both were converted that day, and one of them became a minister of the gospel, and died proclaiming salvation to the lost.” http://www.cumberland.org/hfcpc/mcdonold/1-9.htm

Camp meetings were common through the south. These meetings consisted of singing, preaching and eating sometimes all day long. Many were honest open movements of the Spirit of God. Others were tricks of the trade to deceive. From Presbyterians to Shouting Methodists to Holy Rollers religion was taking the south by storm. Many sermons came as hell fire and brimstone preaching. “âÂ?¦Congregations responded with muscular spasms known as the “jerks.” They leaped and crawled and rolled on the groundâÂ?¦wept, moaned, and screamed in gibberish as they wrestled with the Devil. “Presently,” wrote Peter Cartwright, one of the foremost evangelists, “the gloom would lift, a smile of heavenly peace would break forth, and conversion always followed.”” http://newdeal.feri.org/guides/tnguide/ch11.htm

Humor rested in religion also. “One day a young minister from Missouri was late getting to church on Sunday morning. As he came in the back door of the old Church building the deacons called him aside and asked him what had happened. Why was he so late? He looked at them and said, “Well when I got up this morning and went outside my fast foot, (which is the name for an early 1860’s bicycle) was missing from in front of my house. Some one stole it.” He said with humility. Well this caused the deacons to think a bit and they looked at him and said, “listen you go out there and preach the Ten Commandments, when you get to “thou shalt not steal” stop and pause a bit, slowly look at all the folk sitting there and you should be able to tell which one is the guilty one if he’s here.” So the minister agreed and began his sermon. He preached right on without stopping once. Soon as church was over the deacons grabbed him and asked him why he didn’t stop. The young minister looked at them with conviction in his eyes and said, “well when I got to “thou shalt not commit adultery” I remembered where I left my fast foot.” This was told to me by a southern evangelist when I was about 9 years old.

Another anecdote about a young preacher in Georgia recounts how this young preacher went to a camp meeting and questioned an elderly preacher about his congregation falling asleep. The elderly preacher said, “you just stop preaching, raise your voice and say, ‘you know the best years of my life were spent in the arms of another woman.’ Then pause a bit lookin’ ’round to make sure they all be on the edge of the bench, then repeat it, and then say, ‘yes the best years of my life were spent in the arms of another woman and that woman was my mother.’ This will get them awake and listening every time.” A few months later this he noticed some sleeping so he spoke with passion, “YOU KNOW, the best years of my life were spent in the ARMS OF ANOTHER WOMAN.” Looking around he saw everyone sitting wide eyed. He repeated the line twice, paused and said, “yes the best years of my life were spent in the arms of another woman and for the life of me I can’t remember her name.”

Preachers have given us joy, sorrow, life, health and humor and one such preacher was Samuel Porter Jones, born in Alabama. He studied law and was accepted to the Georgia bar in 1868. He was known as humorous lawyer and as a great public speaker. In 1878 his life took a change and he began a preaching ministry. He had told his father on his deathbed that he would convert from his life of sin and drinking and six years after his father died, he converted.

Jones was only one of a great number of evangelists that turned the south around during the great awakening period. He was a man that preached to crowds of 20,000 plus people. It was because of a sermon by Jones that a riverboat captain, T. G. Ryman, repented and donated money to build Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. (http://www.georgiajournal.com/site/roselawn.html)

A fervor for religion had caused the southerners to flock to church meetings where many movements of the Lord happened. Preachers delivered hell fire and brimstone sermons causing people to shout, flail their arms, jump and dance around. Many felt a strange power causing them to fall and sometimes remain that way for hours. This was named a “falling exercise” http://www.grmi.org/churches/ncfknox/tnrev1.htm and later became known as slain in the Spirit.

Reverend James Finley one of the more well known ministers of that era told a congregation in Tennessee one time that “as many as five hundred people at a time had “the jerks.” These people would bend their bodies backward, then forward, so far that their heads almost touched the ground — back and forth, back and forth.” http://roadsidegeorgia.com/site/roselawn.html

Many people felt these exercises or happenings were faked but after many northern Ministers had traveled the south circuit preaching in the different churches they came to the conclusion that the majority of these people that fell down or waved there arms around were seriously feeling something that was controlling the movement. From staged side show type meetings to genuine I have no other explanation other than God did it meetings religion has been an integral part of society. The Great Awakening that swept through the Bible belt area of the Southern United States spilled into the rest of the United States during the remainder of the 18th century and into the our present day creating again the desire for camp meetings, singing and eating on the grounds.

References:
(http://www.georgiajournal.com/site/roselawn.html)
(http://newdeal.feri.org/guides/tnguide/ch11.htm)
(http://www.cumberland.org/hfcpc/mcdonold/1-9.htm)

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