Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South

Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South

Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South

Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South


In this fresh and fascinating chronicle of Christianity in the contemporary South, historian and minister James Hudnut-Beumler draws on extensive interviews and his own personal journeys throughout the region over the past decade to present a comprehensive portrait of the South's long-dominant religion. Hudnut-Beumler traveled to both rural and urban communities, listening to the faithful talk about their lives and beliefs. What he heard pushes hard against prevailing notions of southern Christianity as an evangelical Protestant monolith so predominant as to be unremarkable.

True, outside of a few spots, no non-Christian group forms more than six-tenths of one percent of a state's population in what Hudnut-Beumler calls the Now South. Drilling deeper, however, he discovers an unexpected, blossoming diversity in theology, practice, and outlook among southern Christians. He finds, alongside traditional Baptists, black and white, growing numbers of Christians exemplifying changes that no one could have predicted even just forty years ago, from congregations of LGBT-supportive evangelicals and Spanish-language church services to a Christian homeschooling movement so robust in some places that it may rival public education in terms of acceptance. He also finds sharp struggles and political divisions among those trying to reconcile such Christian values as morality and forgiveness--the aftermath of the mass shooting at Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church in 2015 forming just one example. This book makes clear that understanding the twenty-first-century South means recognizing many kinds of southern Christianities.


I have been studying to write this book my entire life. My mother was from New England stock and my father from Appalachian. Every time we traveled down from Michigan to see our relatives along the Ohio River in tiny South Webster, Ohio, my brothers and I marveled at their twanging accents. We would get back in the car to head north and try for days to talk that way ourselves until we crossed the line from affection into mockery and were corrected. We also asked questions, lots of questions—why did the little church need a song leader, a piano player, and an organist? Why were there so many churches on the same little main street? Why did people go to church at night on Sundays and Wednesdays, with each church’s bell ringing at a slightly different time? And unsurprisingly, I asked most of those questions.

As much as I thought that I knew something about the upper rural South, I still had a lot to learn when, in 1993, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, called on me to be dean of its faculty. Early on in my tenure, I again became a somewhat bewildered student of southern religion and culture when a colleague who hailed originally from Mississippi visited me and soon left me baffled. For a full two minutes, he proclaimed his close friendship with a person he had gone to seminary with, including the detail that said person had been best man at his wedding. He then stated, however, that he disagreed with what his friend had recently said in public regarding urban ministry. For a full six months after that, I was under the impression that our conversation had been all about how much my colleague loved and admired his seminary classmate. But a half-year later, it occurred to me that all of his protestations of love and fealty were just so much boilerplate before the real message—that he sharply disagreed with his associate—and that I was to ignore everything up to the “however.”

Not until two years into my southern sojourn did I begin to get a proper feel for the common rhetoric of “So and so is my closest friend and the dearest person in the world, but …” and to realize that disagreement was being . . .

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