I spent quite a few hours of the last week or so driving around the backroads of the Mississippi Delta. The Delta is a leaf-shaped region in western Mississippi, bounded by the Mississippi River and Arkansas state border to the west, a line of bluffs to the east and runs from Vicksburg in southern Mississippi to just outside of Memphis in Tennessee to the north.
The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University has some excellent resources on life in the Delta and provides, in part, the following information about the history of Black religious practice in the delta:
The Delta is overwhelmingly Protestant, with considerable diversity among congregations and sects. Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches are commonly represented in Delta towns, but so are various evangelical beliefs, ranging from Primitive Baptist through Church of the End Times.
…The older churches in the Black community include the Missionary Baptists (MB) and African Methodist Episcopalians (AME) who trace their origin back to 1788 when they were founded by Freedmen. The Delta also played a critical role in the origin of a derivative of the black Baptist church. Charles Harrison Mason, after meetings on courthouse steps in Jackson and in private homes, established the Church of God in Christ in a gin house in Lexington, Mississippi, Holmes County, in 1897. A small but permanent church was built later that year. Mason had originally been ordained a Missionary Baptist.
The Delta has a rich religious heritage, and is a land where faith- in God, in the future, in grace, and in ultimate redemption – unify all people.
The website USA Church lists 1,182 Missionary baptist churches in rural Mississippi and we found quite a few of those while driving the backroads.
Identifying the denomination, or fact of their function as a church, is only often possible by small signs or foundation stones. Some have more elaborate signage, which can often be quaintly mispelt.
Most are black-only churches and they are often modest buildings surrounded by cotton or corn fields right up to the boundaries of the church yard or the nearby cemetery. Often they represent all that remains of small hamlets and townships that have long gone – whether though the spread of large scale mechanised farming or population shifts away from rural areas to the larger cities and towns.
Other Delta churches are larger and have particular attractions, i.e. they have famous people buried there. One of the best examples of a disputed burial in the Delta is of the legendary, in the truest sense of that word, blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson.
Three Mississippi Delta churches, the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church outside of Greenwood, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City and the Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Quito have all been claimed as Johnson’s final resting place. Common consensus is that the Missionary Baptist Church at Little Zion is where his remains lie.
In terms of modesty, at least with regard to exterior appearance, I can’t go past that of the True Living Word Temple of Deliverance in downtown Cleveland, where I stayed with friends. It is housed in what must have been an industrial building of some kind or other in a past life and is all car park, faded paint and barred windows. I do like that they have a Prophet though.
Many churches are so modest in their upkeep and appointment that they appear abandoned, though even if regular services are no longer held, if there is a graveyard near these are kept in good condition.