‘More popular than Jesus’?… Um, not in these parts

“Lennon’s comment [that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’], in context, was an observation about religion losing its connection to youth. But it was taken, especially in the South, as an anti-Christian boast.

“ ‘Anyone making a sacrilegious remark like that has no place on our station,’ George Nelson of WRNB in New Bern, North Carolina, told  Raleigh’s News and Observer (Aug. 5, 1966).

“Bobby Dark of WYNA of Raleigh reported that his station had a Beatles bonfire scheduled. Among others banning Beatles music were WPET of Greensboro, WBBB of Burlington, WVCB of Shallotte, WRKB of Kannapolis and WTYN of Tryon….”

— From Bigger Than Jesus? ‘Burn The Beatles’ ” by Jack Doyle at Pop History Dig (Oct. 11, 2017)


NC rejected New England’s state-supported religion

“Except in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, both founded as islands of religious tolerance, the colonies had all maintained religious ‘establishments’ in which taxes on the whole population supported the local majority Christian church, usually the Church of England in the South and the Congregational churches in New England….

“Over the course of the Revolution…regional religious contrasts yawned wider as the southern states largely abandoned their church establishments, led by North Carolina and Virginia. North Carolina’s 1776 constitution forbade religious taxes and made contributing to or attending church a purely private and voluntary act….”

— From “The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy” by Jeffrey L. Pasley (2013)

Also prohibited by the 1776 constitution: clergy holding political office.


‘Great Agnostic’ set high standard for miracles

“When I say I want a miracle, I mean by that, I want a good one. All the miracles recorded in the New Testament could have been simulated. A fellow could have pretended to be dead, or blind, or dumb, or deaf….

“I would like to see a miracle like that performed in North Carolina. Two men were disputing about the relative merits of the salve they had for sale.

“One of the men, in order to demonstrate that his salve was better than any other, cut off a dog’s tail and applied a little of the salve to the stump, and, in the presence of the spectators, a new TAIL grew out.

“But the other man, who also had salve for sale, took up the piece of tail that had been cast away, put a little salve at the end of that, and a new DOG grew out, and the last heard of those parties they were quarreling as to who owned the second dog.

“Something like that is what I call a miracle.”

— From an interview with Robert Ingersoll in the Pittsburgh Dispatch (Dec. 11, 1880)

Susan Jacoby notes in her recent biography, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought,” that “Between 1874 and his death in 1899, Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.”


‘A rich repository of religious dissent’ indeed

“By 1750 Baptists had built more churches [in North Carolina] than Anglicans, and they joined with Quakers and Presbyterians, with Moravians and German Reformed, to make that colony a rich repository of religious dissent….

“One especially acerbic Anglican cleric, Charles Woodmason (c. 1720-1776)…  found himself in something of a guerrilla war with backcountry dissenters. They mocked him, stole his horse and noisily disrupted his preaching, ‘halloing and whooping’ outside the church doors. They tore down the handbills announcing the places and times of his worship services and sometimes even put up fake ones to misdirect the Anglican faithful. At one point some hooligans broke into one of his churches and placed a pile of ‘their Excrements on the Communion Table.’…

“Woodmason’s sense of true religious order was doomed. Baptists, spurred by the ongoing simmering of evangelical revival and the gathering strength of revolutionary politics, raced all across North Carolina and eventually through all of the South.”

— From “The Religious History of America” by Edwin Scott Gaustad and Leigh Eric Schmidt (2002)

Gaustad, who died March 24 at age 87, is remembered by Bill Leonard, professor of church history at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.