U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Adjusting the Bible Belt (Guest Post by Andrew Seal)

[Editor’s Note:  This is the third of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal — Ben Alpers]

With some frustration, I have found that it is rather difficult to track the origins of various “Menckenisms,” especially “booboisie” and “boobus Americanus.” (If you have any leads on their first usages, please let me know!)

One Menckenism for which it is not hard to establish an original usage, however, is “Bible Belt,” despite the fact that most people who use the term probably no longer trace it to Mencken. That’s not a complaint, exactly, but as we’ll see, the distance from Mencken’s sense of the term to the sense which has become most common today makes quite a difference.

The use of a “Belt” to describe a subregion is by now so common that we seldom stop to consider the convention of Belting: we have Corn and Wheat and Cotton Belts from of old, and new Belts are invented all the time. For instance, the “Mormon corridor,” consisting of Utah and parts of all its neighboring states, has humorously been dubbed the “Jell-O Belt” thanks to the Saints’ much higher per capita Jell-O consumption. The oldest usages of “Belts” were all agricultural, having to do with soil conditions, rainfall, and topography, such that certain stretches of land were considered especially well-suited to one specific crop, an assumption that still to some extent governs the newer, non-agricultural “Belts.”

Academics have been especially fond of the Belt system, even occasionally exporting it beyond the US: there’s The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (1991) and Ching Kwan Lee’s astonishing Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt (2007), not to mention Darren Dochuk’s monumental From Bible Belt to Sunbelt (2011). But Dochuk and other American religious historians, most prominently Christine Leigh Heyrman, have used the term without a great deal of reflection; both quote Mencken, but not as the coiner of the term.

While Dochuk’s book takes place entirely after Mencken’s coinage, Heyrman’s work writes onto an 18th and 19th century map a term that postdates her period considerably. But the effect is somewhat the same: because neither historicizes the term, their maps of the Bible Belt are not significantly different from the term’s almost exclusively Southern compass today.[1] That slip in historicism leaves “the Bible Belt” appearing naturalized, static and rooted, with that trailing sense of geographic determinism or autocthony that comes from the “Belt” idea’s agricultural origins. [2]

Why worry? Well, for one thing, when Mencken introduced the term briefly in an October 1924 feature and then expanded on it in a November 1924 editorial[3] in the American Mercury, he didn’t seem to have a very specific geography in mind. In his editorial, the Bible Belt was defined by the presence of the Klan, the Anti-Saloon League, Methodism, and Chautauqua. If Mencken’s assumption that these institutions were all of one piece was questionable, to say the least, they were genuinely national, not regional, institutions, which Mencken acknowledges: “For example, there is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Superficially, it appears to indicate that whole areas of the Republic have gone over to Methodist voodooism with a bang” (emphasis added). He does mention Little Rock and Nashville as Bible Belt cities, but emphasizes at a number of points a much more national scope. In fact, one of his primary arguments is that Southern exceptionalism is fatuous:

Even in the most barbarous reaches of the South, where every village is bossed by a Baptist dervish, it [the Klan] met with vigorous challenge from the start, and there are not three Confederate States today in which, on a fair plebiscite, it could hope to prevail. The fact that huge hordes of Southern politicians jumped into night-shirts when it began is no proof that it was actually mighty; it is only proof that politicians are cowards and idiots… One glances at such a State as Arkansas or such a town as Atlanta and sees only a swarm of bawling Methodists; only too easily one overlooks the fact that the bawling is far from unanimous.

Furthermore, Mencken uses not just place names to define the Bible Belt, but also people, and the people he references are none of them Southern: William Jennings Bryan (Nebraskan), Billy Sunday (Iowan), Dwight L. Moody (from Massachusetts and Chicago), and John Roach Straton (Hoosier and New Yorker).

But let’s expand beyond this one editorial and look at all the references to “belts” in 1924 and 1925 in The American Mercury. At the end of this post is a(n exhaustive) list of all the times “Belt” was used in a geographic sense during these years, and the results are, as Mencken might say, sehr interessant.

Our current Bible Belt map runs East-West and resides in the Solid South, but here we get a much more North-South flavor, from Minnesota down to Texas. And, apart from Tennessee, which becomes an exception due to the Scopes Trial of 1925, all but a couple of these 1924-1925 “Belts” are trans-Mississippian. With a couple exceptions, where the cis-Mississippi South does appear, the Belts referred to are not religious.

There’s a lot I’m leaving out here. For one thing, the Bible Belt Mencken imagines is lily-white, one might even say ethnically cleansed, which is interesting given that African-American Christianity has had a great deal to do with historical perceptions of both the kind of religiosity to be found in the South and with Southern exceptionalism more generally; the Southern Bible Belt can only be imagined bi-racially. For another thing, the Western-ness of this geography could be unpacked further: this is primarily a post-frontier Bible Belt, not a post-Confederacy Bible Belt—what does that change?

More generally, I throw it to you: what other things are connected to our ideas of a nearly timeless Southern Bible Belt that we could take a second look at given these data?

Uses of “Belt,” American Mercury 1924-1925. I’ve bolded the religious “Belts”[4]:

  • Alabama: “Cotton Belt” and “Black Belt,” September 1925;
  • Arkansas: “Ku Klux Klan and Necator Americanus [hookworm] Belt,” December 1925;
  • Iowa: “Bible Belt,” October 1924; Chautauqua Belt,” January 1925; the “Missions Belt,” April 1925; “Booster Belt,” June 1925; “Bonus Belt,” July 1925; “Bible Belt,” September 1925;
  • Kansas: the Epworth League Belt” (a Methodist youth association), January 1925;
  • Louisiana: the Ku Klux Klan and total immersion belt,” May 1924; “paphian [prostitute] belt,” August 1925;
  • Minnesota: Christian Endeavor belt,” February 1924; “Bible Belt,” February 1925; “Ole Oleson [sic—Olsen, a Norwegian-American vaudevillian] Belt,” September 1925;
  • Mississippi: “Cotton Belt,” July 1924; “Bible Belt,” December 1924; “Hookworm Belt,” May 1925;
  • Missouri (specifically Farmington, MO): “in the heart of the mid-western Bible Belt,” February 1925;
  • Nebraska: Chautauqua Belt,” March 1924; “Foreign Missions Belt,” December 1924;
  • North Carolina: “Malaria Belt,” August 1925;
  • Ohio: “Corn Belt,” March 1924;
  • Tennessee: “Genesis Belt,” October 1925; “Jennings-Genesis Belt” December 1925;
  • Texas: the Baptist he-man belt,” May 1924; “Bible Belt,” February 1925; Baptist-Methodist Belt,” March 1925; “pork and pie belt,” May 1925;
  • Wisconsin: “La Follette Belt,” December 1924; Revival Belt,” May 1925;
  • Midwest or indeterminate interior: “wheat belt,” May 1924; “wheat belt,” June 1924; “Corn Belt,” July 1924; “back country farm belt,” July 1924; “Corn Belt,” May 1925; “Bryan Belt,” November 1925; “silo belt,” October 1925;
  • Deep South (general): “Malaria Belt,” November 1924; “Black Belt,” November 1924; “Black Belt,” February 1925; “Black Belt,” November 1925.

[1] Dochuk’s Bible Belt is primarily the Texarkana region, rather than the Deep South, and he does an epically admirable job of historicizing the religious culture specific to that region, dubbing it “plain folk religion.”

[2] Though as my colleague Shari Rabin pointed out to me, one shouldn’t let the sartorial implications of the term slip: belts are supposed to hold things up and remain in place—another factor in the tendency to use the term statically.

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary is wrong here: its first usage does come from the American Mercury, but cites a February 1926 article.

[4] Nearly all of these references come from the “Americana” feature, which collected clippings purporting to demonstrate idiocy, prudery, and hypocrisy around the US.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a fantastic, fantastic post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    It’s interesting to think about the American South and the 1920s during this era. Mencken making the issue of religiosity national doesn’t surprise me, any more than the divorcing of the term Bible Belt from its original, trans-regional meaning doesn’t surprise me either.

    It might, to answer your question, be interesting to think about Catholicism and Judaism in the South at this time. To be more precise, are commentators outside the South talking about how those two groups are doing in the former Confederacy? Considering it’s the 1920s and we traditionally teach this as an era of renewed Nativism, examining further commentary (especially from folks who would be considered antagonistic to the South, such as Progressive and Liberal commentators) would be a fascinating exercise.

    Further, I wonder if there are any Southern intellectuals talking about the “Bible Belt” or ideas like it? This is really intriguing stuff!

  2. Just a quick check in the OED indicates that the idea of a “belt” as a geographic entity defined by a specific “product or characteristic” is an American nineteenth-century invention. The idea of the cotton belt, for instance, appears to gain traction in the 1850s and 60s. W.E.B. DuBois refers to the black belt in Souls of Black Folk, and the usage to refer to race (and not black soil) appears to be a late nineteenth century one. But most of the nineteenth-century usages indicate economic or geographical features, rather than cultural or behavioral ones such as “bible belt,” so the move seems to be not only away from physical contiguity in the definition of a “belt,” but also from material to cultural. Interestingly, the OED in its 1926 cite to the American Mercury, I think, references a passage that says “bible belt or lynching belt”. Did Mencken also originate the idea that Nashville (or Kansas City, or any other city) represented the “buckle” on the bible belt?

  3. Most interesting.

    There’s another sense of the word “belt” that (per the OED) also emerged in the U.S. around the late 19th/early 20th century, and I am wondering if it factors in here: the belt as conveyer. In many of the usages above, pulling from earlier geographic/agricultural connotations, you can read “belt” as a descriptor of something static, a feature of the (cultural) landscape, a strip/stripe/girdle of some homogenous entity, so that the “belt” is the place/region in which such things are found — Methodism, Chautauqua, the Klan.

    But the “belt” idea could also be the place (or means) by or through which such things “circulate.” The Bible doesn’t stay in the “Bible Belt” (wherever that is), but is conveyed via the Bible Belt to other (figurative? geographical?) points in American culture. In other words, these are not merely “static” (cultural) regions, but places in which and from which particular ideas are set in motion.

    But this reading may be just a quirk of my own experience. The connection of the idea of “Cotton Belt” and “conveyance” is one that I used to see reinforced on a daily basis growing up three doors down from the railroad tracks. I used to count all those rust-brown “Cotton Belt” freight cars rumbling past on the old SP line. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I thought the “cotton belt” was a rail line (and it was) before I knew it was a geographic region in which cotton had been the predominant crop.

    In any case, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to see some of those instances above as referring to these places/spaces/cultures as points of origin or means of (cultural) conveyance.

  4. Thank you so much, Robert, Dan, and L. D., for your comments. A lot to think on here.
    Robert, your question about other intellectuals picking up the term “Bible Belt” is one I can’t really answer: I know that Mencken’s editorial coining the term was reprinted not long after in the Chicago Tribune, and he certainly was working to make it stick through 1925 (if I had the time, I would have continued searching for the term at least another couple of years), but I can’t really trace the dispersion of it, unfortunately.
    Your point about nativism w/r/t Catholics and Jews is also really important, but cutting across these specific religious lines are also the questions of ethnicity and Prohibition: Mencken had very little patience for the kind of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism that had produced (in his eyes) Comstock, Prohibition, and the Watch and Ward Society, holding up instead his idealized Teutonic culture that had a more mature attitude about alcohol, etc. That doesn’t really answer your question, though!

    I don’t know about the origins of the “buckle”–I’d have to look over some more of his books and the American Mercury. And I had meant to mention the 1926 Am Mercury “Bible and lynching Belt” comment–it comes from a national overview of the Baptists by a James D. Bernard, but does refer specifically in that context to Jackson, MS. But it is notable that most of the largest race riots of the period just before Mencken coined “Bible Belt” were in that North-South strip I’m identifying: Houston, Omaha, Tulsa, East St. Louis. If race played any part in Mencken’s idea of the Bible Belt, I’d assume that would be it.

    That’s really brilliant–it’s certain that Mencken was thinking of the Bible Belt as a circuit–the 19th c. heritage of circuit-riders (most often Methodist, his favorite target here) and the late 19th/early 20th Chautauqua circuit, as well as the famed speaking tours of Moody, Bryan, and Sunday–three of the figures he targets in his editorial. Thanks for calling this to mind!

  5. Andrew, you made my day. I guess even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while!

    But I’ve been pondering this whole matter of “belt” as an encircling/bounded strip of land and belt as a means of conveyance — and of course it’s less either/or than both/and.

    Here in the Dallas area, there is this thing called “Belt Line Road.” It’s not one road exactly, but it kind of is — not a highway, but a road that passes through many different municipalities in the Dallas area and encircles the whole city. When I first moved here I’d see an advertisement for a business on “Belt Line Road” and not realize (until I had driven forever and a day) that the address I was looking for might be forty miles and five towns over. Anyway, it’s the “belt line” because it girdles the whole metropolitan area — but it’s also a “belt line” because it is a through road that provides a route around the whole area. It is a boundary, and something that binds disparate communities together, and also a circuit for (very circuitous) travel.

    • (And sorry to go way off the rails into the connotation of “belt” at this very moment in my life in the suburbs of Dallas! So much for historical thinking/context. However, I do think the “circuit” connotation may be hovering in Mencken’s usage, especially given — as you say — the many particular people/movements he located in the “belt.”)

  6. That Mencken is tricky, so it’s entirely possible he meant both.

    As for belt as an encircling area of land, in the 1930s (I think) there was a great deal of talk about the “green belt” that surrounded DC. Rexford Tugwell spoke about what we’d today call “sustainability” in the context of his Brain Trust work.

    On the geographical boundaries of the Bible Belt (so-called), who says, today, that it goes east-west and resides in the South? As a native Missourian, many in (and out of) that state referred to MO and KS as solid parts of the Bible Belt—per Dan’s comment. And Kansas City has never, in my knowledge, ever been considered part of The South. – TL

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