[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. 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. 
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 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”:
- 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.
 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.”
 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.
 The Oxford English Dictionary is wrong here: its first usage does come from the American Mercury, but cites a February 1926 article.
 Nearly all of these references come from the “Americana” feature, which collected clippings purporting to demonstrate idiocy, prudery, and hypocrisy around the US.