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Burning Faith

Church Arson in the American South

Christopher B. Strain

Publication Year: 2008

In the 1990s, churches across the southeastern United States were targeted and set ablaze. These arsonists predominately targeted African American congregations and captured the attention of the media nationwide. Using oral histories, newspaper accounts, and governmental reports, Christopher Strain gives a chronological account of the series of church fires.

Burning Faith considers the various forces at work, including government responses, civil rights groups, religious forces, and media coverage, in providing a thorough, comprehensive analysis of the events and their fallout. Arguing that these church fires symbolize the breakdown of communal bonds in the nation, Strain appeals for the revitalization of united Americans and the return to a sense of community.

Combining scholarly sophistication with popular readability, Strain has produced one of the first histories of the last decade that demonstrates that the increasing fragmentation of community in America runs deeper than race relations or prejudice.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Series: Southern Dissent


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Series List

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Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

It is a fact that churches burn, accidentally and otherwise. Most often the cause is an untended candle, an errant space heater, or faulty wiring; like other old buildings, many churches have outdated and outmoded electrical systems, supporting the unprecedented needs of an increasingly electronic age. ...

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1. Fire

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pp. 1-24

In the mid-1990s, a number of churches, many of them predominantly African- American, burned in a series of arsons across the nation. Initially treated as a chain of unrelated incidents, the fires signaled a resurgence in churches as targets of hate crime. ...

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2. Fear

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pp. 25-42

The fires recalled darker days in American history, harkening back to the days of Jim Crow segregation, when white southerners perfected the finer points of racial terror in keeping black folks “in their place” and hooded Klansmen destroyed property and lives at will. Like similar attacks in the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the fires of the 1990s created terror, as intended. ...

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3. Faith

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pp. 43-58

Churches, synagogues, national denominations, and religious organizations reacted swiftly and proactively to denounce the violence. Uniformly, national denominations issued denunciations of the arsonists and pledged their support to victimized congregations. Local churches also united behind those affected. ...

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4. Doubt

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pp. 59-75

A number of people claimed that the story of churches burning across the nation was not what it appeared to be. Some people saw in the fires a coordinated, conspiratorial effort by white supremacists to terrorize black churches. Others proclaimed that the spike in arsons did not represent a conspiracy, and some believed that the arsons were in fact a “hoax.” ...

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5. Law

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pp. 76-98

Th e government responded vigorously to allegations of white racists burning black churches in the South. When publicity about the church burnings reached a peak in June 1996, President Clinton created the National Church Arson Task Force. ...

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6. Strength

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pp. 99-124

Some of the churches were rebuilt quickly; others took longer. Friends, neighbors, and relatives pitched in to help victims rebuild as aid poured in from other parts of the nation and from other countries. Volunteers traveled thousands of miles to help victims rebuild. ...

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7. Hope

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pp. 125-144

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the 1990s was its violence. As particularly ugly examples of this violence, the church burnings of the mid- to late 1990s and the way the nation responded symbolized a search for community at the beginning of a new millennium. ...

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pp. 145-158

Church arson again dominated national headlines in early 2006, when a series of fires scorched six rural churches in a single night in central Alabama. All but one were in Bibb County, south of Birmingham. The sixth church, New Harmony Holiness Baptist in Chilton County, had been under construction when it was destroyed. ...


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pp. 159-176

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 177-180


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pp. 181-184

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About the Author

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Christopher Strain is an associate professor of history and American studies at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era (2005).

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045252
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813032399
Print-ISBN-10: 0813032393

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 30 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Southern Dissent
Series Editor Byline: Stanley Harrold and Randall M. Miller See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 608736159
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Burning Faith

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Southern States -- Race relations.
  • African American churches -- Fires and fire prevention -- Southern States.
  • Hate crimes -- Southern States.
  • African Americans -- Crimes against -- Southern States.
  • Church buildings -- Fires and fire prevention -- Southern States.
  • Arson -- Southern States.
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