Civil Rights / Cold War
CWCR Religion 01 Baptism in Lexington Religion ??? 01 The Ten Religion ??? 02 Buddhist CWCR Religion 02 Special Effects Religion ??? 03 Prayer Rally Religion ??? 04 Bellevue Baptist Religion ??? 05 Jewish Comm Center CWCR Religion 05 Tent revival meeting CWCR Religion 06 Loyston Church CWCR Religion 07 Cleveland Episcopal Religion ??? 07 Family Prayer


After 1930, religion continued to play a significant role in the lives of Tennesseans. Most people belonged to some church denomination.

Religious membership in churches was seen as important, although attendance began to fall in the latter part of the century.
During this period the state became a leading publisher of religious literature. In 1939, regional branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church reunited, choosing Nashville as the site for its joint publishing facility. 
Today the United Methodist Publishing House is the official publisher for the United Methodist Church, producing books and multimedia resources for Methodist schools and churches throughout the country.
The Southern Baptist Convention is also headquartered in Nashville. Its Sunday School Board is the largest publisher of religious materials in the world. Other religious publishers include the National Baptist Publishing Board, which produces 15 million books and periodicals annually, and Thomas Nelson Publishers, which is the world’s largest Bible publisher.
Religious institutions in Tennessee were extremely important to African Americans and the Civil Rights movement. Kelly Miller Smith was dedicated to racial equality and attracted a large following as pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, in Nashville. He worked with Rev. James Lawson on strategies to fight segregation by conducting workshops on nonviolence at First Baptist Church.
In 1945 the Mason Temple in Memphis became the largest meeting place for African Americans in the city and the largest black-owned church in the United States. The building was named after the founder of the Church of God in Christ denomination, Charles Harrison Mason. In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple during the sanitation workers strike the night before he was killed.
Pentecostal denominations are also widely represented throughout the state. The Church of God in Christ, founded in West Tennessee, and the Church of God, founded in East Tennessee, both spread rapidly throughout the country beginning with the Pentecostal and Holiness movements of the early 1900s. 
Some Tennesseans were disturbed by the major social and cultural changes taking place during the 1960s. They, along with a large portion of the country, began to advocate more conservative religious behavior. In 1970 the Rev. Billy Graham hosted a religious service at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, in which more than 70,000 people including Richard Nixon attended. 
During this time Christians in Tennessee and the United States began taking a more active role in politics and voicing their opinions on social issues.  The religious right and the moral majority became new cultural idioms during the 1970s for Christians who were also politically-minded.
The debate over separation between church and state also divided some residents. Issues such as prayer in schools and the public display of the Ten Commandments were intensely debated in state and national politics. The Tennessee General Assembly even approved a resolution that urged homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship to display the Ten Commandments.
Throughout the 20th century, religion in Tennessee continued to diversify. The state has an especially significant role in the development of Protestantism during this time. It has one of the highest percentages of Protestant church members in the country. Although the majority of Christians living in the state identify themselves with the Baptist Church, both the United Methodist Church and the Churches of Christ also have large memberships. 
Churches throughout Tennessee continued to grow in membership and size of the building. These large-building denominations, called mega churches, are home to congregations consisting of thousands of members. Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tennessee, has over 30,000 members and is the largest church in Tennessee.
Today some churches are very active in their local communities, sponsoring charity events, outreach programs for people in need, and community building activities. Many churches also coordinate Sunday school, Bible study, and Vacation Bible School programs, which offer children and adults a chance to participate in fun group activities while receiving religious instruction.
Other religions not affiliated with Christianity are also represented in the state. Jewish communities established in the state during the 19th century continue to thrive. Numerous congregations are represented within the state including the Reform, Orthodox and Conservative traditions.
More recently, the state has also seen an increase in Muslim residents and those adhering to Eastern philosophical religions in its urban centers. Religious centers for these religions have been established in cities such as Nashville and Memphis which have significant Middle Eastern and Asian populations. In 2009 the United States Army recognized its first Buddhist chaplain, Thomas Dyer, a Tennessee National Guardsman and native of Memphis. 

Picture Credits:
  • Rev. Walter Moody, the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Lexington, baptizes a man in a pond in 1950 following a tent revival meeting.  Published in the 2005 Henderson County, Tennessee Connections: A Pictorial History by Brenda Kirk Fiddler, photograph courtesy of Guy Roberts.
  • Some churches are extremely large with special effects capability.  Here visiting pastor Luis Palau is in the center of spotlights as he preaches at Two Rivers Baptist Church in 2007.  Photo by Jeff Adkins, Courtesy of The Tennessean
  • Leaders of several Churches of Christ talk over plans for an East Nashville tent revival in 1970.  It was sponsored by 21 church congregations.  According to newspaper accounts, the revival averaged more than 1,000 people a night.  Photo by Bruce Cooter, courtesy of The Tennessean
  • Photograph taken by Lewis Hine during a church service at Sharps Station Methodist Episcopal Church near Loyston, Tennessee, in Union County on October 29, 1933. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 89.12.3
  • A watercolor painting of St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County painted by Susan Cassidy Wilhoit. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 1999.192.15
  • A photograph taken by George H. Anderson of Nashville capturing a group of African-American men, women, and children in front of what appears to be the brick wall of a church.  Tennessee State Museum Collection, 95.19.24
  • Photograph showing a display of the Ten Commandments at the Fentress County Sheriff’s Department in Jamestown, Tennessee. This photo was taken in 2009 by photographers,“Brent and MariLynn.”

  • Photograph of Buddhist retreat.   This photo was taken in May 2005 at a retreat at the Magnolia Village Mindfulness Practice Center in Batesville, Mississippi. The local Buddhist center serves residents living near Memphis. The photo shows numerous people meditating. Courtesy of
  • Photograph of a prayer rally. This photo was taken in 2007 by photographer, “thoughquotient” in Nashville at LP Field. It shows hundreds of Christians praying.
  • Photograph of Bellevue Baptist Church. This photo was taken in 2006 in near Memphis by photographer, “MightyBoyBrian.” It shows worshipers inside the large sanctuary.
  • Photograph of an Arnstein Jewish Community Center preschool class. This photo was taken in the 1980s and shows a teacher singing along with several children dressed in paper costumes. Archives of the Knoxville Jewish Alliance.
  • Photograph of the Islamic Center of Nashville. This photo was taken in 2007 at an open house event provided by the Muslim Student Association at Vanderbilt University.
  • Photograph of a family prayer. This photo was taken in 1974 near Chattanooga, Tennessee. It shows a family praying before eating dinner. United States Archives.

   Civil Rights / Cold War >>  Everyday Life >>  How They Lived >>  Religion

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