I’ve long been fascinated by the many and various religious factions and fault-lines in American religiosity, not from an intellectual or theological point of view but mainly because of the sheer diversity–and occasional bat-shit craziness–therein. One of my favourite writers, introduced to me by Nick Cave in the early 1980s, is Flannery O’Connor, who, as a Catholic, wrote from an intrigued outsider’s perspective on the darker threads of religiosity in the deep south of the USA. A good start is her novel (though she was a great short story writer), Wise Blood, which in 1979 was made into one of the great films of John Huston’s long and varied career.

On previous trips through the south, particularly in and around the Mississippi Delta country, I’ve concentrated on the many and various permutations of the fundamentalist Baptist churches and their kin–see some links below.

I’ve also long been aware of the local iterations of Baptism, closely related to a southern fundamentalist stream, that took firm root in the western desert Warlpiri language group townships of Yuendumu and Lajamanu to the north-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Baptists caught that patch through a bizarre–and little studied–divvy-up of the mission stations around the NT after the second world war. But that is another story.

So I couldn’t help but stop to take some snaps  of a double-sided billboard outside of California City yesterday afternoon. What caught my eye was the repeated reference to blood. When I got back to my hotel room down the road in Mojave I did a little research on these matters.

The Baptists have always been enthusiastic at arguing the theological merits of various fine-grained intra-religious doctrinal arguments through the preparation of what are best known as “tracts.” (Just Google “Baptist Church tracts” and you’ll see what I mean) In the mid-1980’s I recall that a breakaway sect of the “mainstream” Baptist Church at Yuendumu set up at an outstation called Nyirripi.

The breakaway was supported by a lengthy tract that was soon countered by an equally densely-argued response from the mainstream church at Yuendumu. This wouldn’t have been of much more than local interest apart from the fact that at Lajamanu–900 kilometres by rotten dirt roads to the north–the breakaway movement–as vigorously resisted by the same mainstream faction there as at Yuendumu, was seen, as put to me by at least one local, as a “stealer of souls.”

More of that another time, but for now, back to the billboards outside California City, a dust-blown speck of a town at the tail-end of the Tehachapi Mountains. As best I can tell, there are two streams of bloods that run through Baptist doctrine.

The first is the so-called successionist” view first promoted by J. M. Carroll’s 1931 tract, The Trail of Blood, and has had a remarkable impact on Baptists in the United States and around the world. Today there have been nearly three million copies of The Trail of Blood sold. The Trail of Blood is based on this chart that illustrates Carroll’s thesis that the Baptist Church was founded by Jesus Christ and has survived intact, through many existential threats, to date.

In an article published in The Journal of Baptist Studies entitled “The Successionism View of Baptist History“, James R. Duvall says that The Trail of Blood:

… describes in a brief outline form what successionist historians had written for nearly two centuries. They believed there had been a succession of churches that held the basic doctrines of Baptists, and they were not associated in any way with the Roman Catholic institution. The Trail of Blood does not claim to be a complete history as such, but what might be called a “Baptist Manifesto.”

Duvall also points to a contemporary crisis in Baptism that I have seen reflected in the myriad of “pop-up” practices that have operated from my own observations at Yuendumu and most likely elsewhere in the Baptist country in the NT. There it seemed all you needed was a vehicle, a speaker system and a patch of open ground to run–and receive funding for–a church of your own design.

There is an identity problem among present-day Baptists and the gulf seems to be widening. As some so-called Baptist churches are being constituted under differen names (often without the term “church” or “Baptist” in their name), it makes identity more difficult, and it will be a great burden for future historians to tell today’s Baptist story.

 The other sanguine stream that runs through Baptism is more visceral. Larry Ray Hafley wrote a 1973 article in Truth Magazine entitled “Baptists and Salvation by the Blood,” noting an earlier article by Mr. L. D. Foreman where Foreman discusses the delivery of Israel from Egypt. Under a subheading, “Saved by the Blood,” Foreman wrote:

“Baptists have always held the Bible doctrine that blood must be shed for the remission of sin. Hebrews 9:22 tells its that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission … The fact of the blood shed by an innocent lamb plus the fact that it was literally applied to the doorposts and lintels produced the ‘Passover’ of judgment. ‘When I see the blood, I will pass over you. The fact that Jesus’ blood was shed by whipping, thorns, nails and spear will not save any soul until that blood is applied. The blood cannot be applied except by the individual’s repentance of sin and faith into Jesus. The denominations believe in the blood plus good works, church membership, baptism, etc. Baptists believe in the blood.”

I could go on, but won’t. I don’t pretend to be a religious scholar and I’m not being disrespectful of Baptism in particular or religion in general.

I’m just interested in the stories behind the pictures.

The billboards above were erected by the AV Bible Baptist Ministry based in California City.

You can see more of their highway billboards of the Billboard Ministry here.

You can see a rendition of “This Blood” by the Bethel Baptist Church Choir here.

For earlier posts on (mainly) southern churches in the USA see:

“Disturbed”, “All Around Cowboy” churches and an East Texas foggy highway;

Mississippi Delta rural churches; and

The Church with the Hand Pointing Heavenward – Port Gibson Mississippi.