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Home » Cultural Geography, GeoNotes, North America, Northern California, Religion

Religious Diversity in Northern California

Submitted by on February 23, 2012 – 8:09 pm 5 Comments |  
Most detailed maps of religion in the United States depict the leading denomination of each country, as in the first map here. Here one can see a Baptist belt in the southeast, a Mormon region in the central part of the west, a Lutheran Zone in the center-north, and a vast area of Roman Catholicism spread over most of the rest of the country. California here appears solidly Catholic, with only its two most sparsely populated counties, Alpine and Sierra, having a different “leading church body.”

If Roman Catholics are removed from the picture and only Protestants are considered, a very different map emerges. Note that the Mormon region as well as the Catholic zone disappears from this map, as Mormons generally do not consider themselves to be Protestants. Although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the map, the patterns that it shows are intriguing. Note that most of Southern California, along with most of the Southwest, joins the Southern Baptist region. Clear Methodist and United Church of Christ zones appear as well. But what is most striking is the area of pronounced county-level diversity, which stretches from Northern California through the Pacific Northwest, including Colorado as well. I find it striking that in this relatively secular area, the leading denomination of many counties is the Assemblies of God, a conservative Pentecostal sect noted for its practice of “speaking in tongues.” California’s Central Valley in particular shows a distinct concentration of Assemblies of God adherents.


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  • I am not surprised by the diversity of the Pacific coast, since settlement there was so recent.  What does surprise me is the solidly Baptist mountain state region.  When I was first looking at California on this map, I had thought that the population of African Americans in Southern California might have tipped the scales toward the Baptists.  I now am wondering whether it is that the Baptists have been peculiarly successful with Hispanic populations who have left the Roman Catholic Church.  Otherwise, I would have a hard time understanding a solidly Baptist Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.  Does anyone have any data on Hispanic Baptists?

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Good questions, which I can’t answer very well. Many of these Western counties marked on the map as Baptist are actually quite diverse, with Baptism edging out several other sects. I suspect that it is mostly linked to the earlier migration of White southerners. Southerners were well represented in California and southern Oregon at the time of the Gold Rush, and many more moved in during the Dust Bowl. But I would not be surprised by widespread Hispanic conversion either.  By the way, the Southern Baptist Convention just decided not to vote on whether to drop “Southern” from its name. See

  • As an Episcopalian myself, it is interesting to note the little patches of Episcopal majorities.  In the East, there are, of course, a few suburbs of New York and, more surprisingly, a patch of eastern Massachusetts.  In the West, I would suggest that the patches of Episcopalianism in South Dakota and Alaska might represent some successful missions in American Indian reservations.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Interesting observations. I think that you are right about Alaska and South Dakota. Others western countries marked the same way, such as Teton County Wyoming, Blain County Idaho, and Marin County California, are relatively wealthy, marking the fact that Episcopalianism was once associated with the WASP elite.  

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  • Lorraine McLane

    I am an Episcopalian and my husbands family attends the oldest Methodist Church here in Staten Island where we reside. It is interesting to see little pieces of where my fellow Episcopalians are grouped but more interesting is the large number of Methodist followers in my home state of New York.