Florence, S.C. — Because South Carolina is tucked firmly in the Bible Belt, it should come as no surprise that the main religion in the state is Christianity. However, results from a study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies on the second most prevalent religion in the 50 states might make surprise some South Carolinians.
Islam, Judaism and Buddhism were the religions that registered the highest in 49 states. South Carolina was the solitary state whose second largest religion is the Bahá'í Faith, a monotheistic religion founded in 1844 in Iran.
Florence seems to have a church on every corner, but is there a Bahá'í congregation? As a matter of fact, there is.
Three members recently sat down with the Morning News to share what their faith entails and how they came to be a part of it.
Annette Reynolds has been a Bahá'í since the 1970s. She first encountered the ideas of the faith while leading a 4-H group.
“I was leading the group right after South Carolina integrated, so we had blacks and whites in the group,” Reynolds said. “Still, blacks would sit at one table and whites at the other, except one little white girl. She could sit with both. She told me it was because she was Bahá'í.”
Reynolds said that she later talked with the girl’s parents and asked what Bahá'í was. What she remembers most from that conversation is the fact that they treated her like their equal.
“That was the first time I had talked with white people and they didn’t seem to think I was inferior,” Reynolds said. “Even when I worked with well-meaning Christian people who were white, they all acted like I was inferior. At the point it became a matter of what do I do, not do I believe. If these people have been change this much by this, what do I do to be a part of it.”
Followers of the Bahá'í Faith believe that world peace is achievable by having equality for all races and genders, universal education and unity, among other things.
One of the main beliefs of the faith is Progressive Revelation. That idea states that the great teachers of all major religions throughout history point to the same God. The teachings of the Bible and the Quran, as well as holy writings from Hinduism and Buddhism, are considered sacred texts alongside the writings of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith.
“We believe that all of humanity’s religious heritages belong to them,” said Dr. Louis Venters, a history professor at Francis Marion University and a Bahá'í. “We don’t put anyone in the position of having to choose on manifestation or the other; we chose them all. We believe that God gave revelation to all of these teachers at different times.”
Venters has written about the religion’s roots in South Carolina in his book “Most Great Reconstruction: The Bahá'í Faith in Jim Crow South Carolina, 1898-1965.” He said the faith has been here for roughly 100 years, and there are several notable members from South Carolina’s past, including jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie from Cheraw.
According to member Nancy Thomas, the Bahá'í Faith is decentralized, with no pastors or clerical hierarchy.
“This religion is very grassroots,” Thomas said. “There are leaders for the body, but they are voted on by everyone. There are no priests or anything like that. We are all lay people.”
Venters and Thomas said that while they embrace many religions, differences often are the result of interpretation.
For example, while some Christian teaching purports that heaven and hell are literal places in the afterlife, Bahá'í s believe that they are best used to describe proximity to God. Sin is anything that works against world unity and peace.
Another difference for the Bahá'í s is when they meet, which is based on their calendar. Instead of a following the typical Gregorian calendar, Bahá'í s follow a 19-month calendar, with 19 days in each month. One the first day of each month, they meet for a feast that includes a time of devotional, a business meeting and fellowship.
The group in Florence meets in the homes of its members, instead of in a central building location. Venters said that there are several dozen members that are active participants. There is also a Bahá'í radio station broadcast out of Hemingway. Listeners can tune in at 90.9 FM .