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  • Church Fans:Tradition, Modernity, and Mortality*
  • Charles Reagan Wilson (bio)

Church fans used to be among the most prominent items in Southern religious culture. The original hand-held fans that worshipers used to move the air in Southern churches were palm fans, common in hot climates and used in residences and businesses as well as sacred spaces. In the early twentieth century, printers began producing inexpensive cardboard fans on wood handles for businesses to purchase and distribute with information on the back. Funeral homes and insurance companies—businesses dealing with death—most typically used the fans to get their message out to congregants hoping for the rewards of an afterlife that would surely be cooler than hot Southern Sunday mornings. Indeed, the images on the fans suggested peaceful Southern images of heaven—cool mountain scenes, peaceful pastoral settings, steepled churches with trees whose leaves were turning golden autumn colors (Figures 1 & 2).

The fans are an example of religious ephemera that has been common in the South, an important part of a Southern religious visual culture that is often overlooked in our focus on the strong oral orientation of religion in the South. To be sure, the South is an oral culture, with the Gospel Word passed on through songs, prayers, and sermons that often energize congregants. The religious visual culture, though, includes roadside signs with their evangelical messages—“Get Right with God,” “Jesus Saves,” “Prepare to Meet Your God.” It includes painted baptismal scenes, often with images of Jesus’s burial in the River Jordan. The images on church fans also illustrate important points about Southern religiosity.

Evangelical Protestantism has been the faith that has dominated the South since the early nineteenth century, and its scenes of revivals, baptisms, inspired preaching, and prayerful kneeling reflect an orientation toward [End Page 220]

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Figure 1.

Village Chapel. Fan from Hale Funeral Home in Water Valley, Mississippi.

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Figure 2.

High Country. Fan from Peoples Undertaking Company in Canton, Mississippi.

[End Page 221]

conversion. It is a religion of sin and salvation, valuing religious experience. The faithful prioritize Christ’s Great Commission of going into the world to preach the need for redemption, with the resulting tendency to witness for the faith, to testify, to proselytize, resulting not only in oral transmission of the Gospel imperative but also in the production of religious signs, placards, leaflets, brochures, and church fans. Southern Protestants did inherit traditional Protestant suspicions of graven images, but this sentiment did not prevent appreciation of sacred images and artifacts in homes, businesses, and other spaces. Women after the Civil War embroidered pious sayings on perforated cardboard, a medium that encouraged modest, clean designs. Aniline dyes made the mottoes more colorful than earlier embroidered samplers. Homes were awash with mottoes of simple faith and devotional imagery, claiming domestic space as Christian.

In the late nineteenth century, lithography and chromolithography resulted in mass-produced engraved prints, and photomechanical processes in the early twentieth century made inexpensive reproductions of sacred paintings and photographs easily available. Images of Christ were among the most reproduced. Paintings of a winged guardian angel leading children across a bridge or hovering lovingly over a crib were also popular religious images on prints, including fans. The one reprinted here, “Heavenly Guardian,” was painted by Mabel Rollins Harris (Figure 3), one of the leading illustrators of the Art Deco era, an artistic movement whose designs were popular ones on many church fans.

Church fans embody a pronounced traditionalism that has long characterized the Southern religious culture. This sentiment is seen, for example, in the prominence of biblical scenes. Jesus is central, portrayed as the comforting Savior, with specific biblical images from the Gospel story most common. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper must have been among the earliest and most often reproduced scenes on the fans (Figure 4), with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Figure 5) and Jesus knocking at the door also well known. One of the fans reproduced here (Figure 6) shows Jesus with his followers; he is Christ the Protector, reaching his arm benevolently toward them, as they stand in...


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pp. 220-240
Launched on MUSE
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