Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Samuel Barnwell

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Samuel Barnwell
BornJuly 1, 1874
Alamance County, North Carolina
DiedFebruary 10, 1960 (Age 85)
Graham, North Carolina
OccupationCasket Maker, Interior Decorator, Painter


Samuel B. Barnwell was a casket maker, interior decorator, and painter in Gastonia, North Carolina also known for his fundamentalist religious beliefs. He was interviewed by John H. Abner for the Federal Writer’s Project on December 27, 1938[1].


Early Life[edit]

Samuel B. Barnwell was born on July 1, 1874 in Alamance County, North Carolina. He was the son of a tobacco farmer and harness maker. At home, Barnwell’s mother taught him basic education such as the alphabet, but he soon took advantage of the two free months of elementary and middle school education offered in North Carolina. When not in school, he was put to work on his father’s farm and harness shop. However, his father later paid for Barnwell to attend high school full-time at Rosewood Academy. He earned his high school degree, but Barnwell believed a college education was too expensive and unnecessary for the trade work he planned to pursue. Therefore, he returned home to work at his father’s farm and harness shop once again.[2]

Early Career and Marriage[edit]

At age eighteen, Barnwell began working as a casket maker at the Rosewood Casket Company. In 1885, after four years at Rosewood, he was offered a job as a finishing foreman at the Beaumont Casket Company in Gastonia, North Carolina for $2.50 a day. With room, board, and laundry at $2.50 a week, he began to save money to start a family. Then in 1886 he married Amy Forbes, and the couple moved in with Amy’s parents to save on rent money. One year later in 1887, Barnwell moved to Atlanta to pursue a better job offer. However, he and Amy left after six months because they did not like the city or the new job, and he was able to return to his old job in Gastonia. Three years later in 1901, the Beaumont Casket Company was sold to the Charlotte Casket Company, and Barnwell had to move to Charlotte to continue working. There, he started making $3.50 a day. He and Amy did not like Charlotte either, but stayed for Barnwell's good salary.[3]

Self-Employment and Family[edit]

In 1902, Barnwell had saved enough money to start his own business and move back to Gastonia. His father-in-law gave the couple a large house and Barnwell opened a contract painting and interior decorating business. The business was very successful having as many as twelve workers at one time. In 1938 Barnwell takes credit for painting half of Gastonia’s businesses, the town hall, the Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church of which he was a member. His first child Geroline was born in 1903. Eight years later, his second daughter Alva was born. They both received college educations and one had a career as a secretary.[4] Barnwell died in North Carolina on February 10, 1960 at the age of 85.[5]

Religious Beliefs[edit]

Barnwell was a prolific Bible-quoting evangelical during the Great Depression and in the aftermath of the Roaring Twenties. He felt that his religious beliefs were being undermined by younger generations and the liberal mass media. He believed that immorality was at the core of advertisements, radio, concerts, literature, and film declaring that he was disgusted with every motion picture. Even at his church, he believed sermons were being softened and modernized, and he wished to hear preachers like Billy Sunday instead. Overall, Barnwell believed that his church and his beliefs were dying out with a younger generation void of morals. He went as far as to question if the younger generation had a moral standard at all.[6]

Social Issues[edit]

Religion During the Great Depression[edit]

The Great Depression had a complicated effect on religion in America. Overall, it strengthened existing religious beliefs. Scholars attest this strengthening of religion to the spiritual fulfillment it provided when Americans were experiencing hardship without a solution in sight. For example, many religious individuals believed the failing economic and financial recessions were spiritual tests. This made it easier to sacrifice old luxuries, and pastors preached that to donate to Church funds during the Depression years was to prove one’s faith. In fact, donations to many churches and missionary funds like Assemblies of God increased exponentially through 1931 and often did not begin to decrease until 1933.[7]

At the same time, Americans’ religious devotion did not increase in a uniform way. This led to new religious sects appearing after the 1930s and divisions such as the split of evangelicals into fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals. Scholars such as Liston Pope agree that poor-white southern religion was reactionary. Some evangelicals responded to the modernizing culture and social structure with increased Biblicism.[8] This became the foundation for fundamentalism which believes in “the inerrancy of Scripture.”[9] With a strict reading of the Bible, these fundamentalists felt victimized by the more liberal culture that seemed to attack what they believed in.[10] With this evolution into a more rigid form of Christianity, the “young evangelicals” wished to distance themselves from the “cultic aspects of fundamentalist militancy” and embrace the modernity fundamentalists passionately opposed. This became the neo-evangelical movement which rebranded itself as “closer to the heartland” than their fundamentalist relatives.[11]

Film During the Interwar Period[edit]

When the Great Depression hit, Hollywood discovered that films involving racy themes and main characters as social deviants drew the most crowds and sold the most tickets. In an attempt to stay in business, films catered towards this public interest.[12] At the same time, the emergence of “talkies” added a new dimension to cinema that allowed filmmakers to be more explicit in their aberrant content to greater indulge the public. For example, the depiction of homosexuals in silent films were subtle and had to be inferred based on clothing, mannerisms, and intangible evidence such as a man being a hen-pecked husband. With talkies, queer characters could have cross-gendered vocal inflections or even use explicit phrases to insinuate homosexuality such as Greta Garbo declaring she will “die a bachelor” in Queen Christina (1933).[13]

This industry-wide divergence from conservative norms garnered increasing criticism from groups across the nation such as the Catholic Church. With millions declared to boycott films that encroached on their moral beliefs, film industry leader Will Hays created the Production Code Administration in 1934 within the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America. Despite the existence of a film code since 1920, phrases like “suggest” and “should” allowed for very little censorship intervention. Therefore, the PCA’s task was to rewrite and enforce the censorship code, also known as the Hays Code, but their most important power was a seal of approval. Every motion picture needed this approval in order to be released in the United States.[14]


  1. John H. Adler, Edwin Massengill, and W. J. Sadler, “A Quiz Kit? A Casket?” Federal Writers’ Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection 3709 (27 December 1938) : 1-5, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid,. 2-13.
  3. Ibid,. 14-17.
  4. Ibid,. 4, 18-21.
  5. North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates, Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  6. John H. Adler et al., “A Quiz Kit? A Casket?” 3-20.
  7. Heather D. Curtis, ""God Is Not Affected by the Depression" Pentecostal Missions during the 1930s,” Church History 80, no. 3 (2011): 579-589, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41240638.
  8. Wayne Flint, "Religion for the Blues: Evangelicalism, Poor Whites, and the Great Depression,” The Journal of Southern History 71, no. 1 (2005): 7, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27648650.
  9. Conrad Hackett and D. Michael Lindsay, "Measuring Evangelicalism: Consequences of Different Operationalization Strategies,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47, no. 3 (2008): 503, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20486937.
  10. Wayne Flint, "Religion for the Blues: Evangelicalism, Poor Whites, and the Great Depression,” 7.
  11. Douglas A. Sweeney, "The Essential Evangelicalism Dialectic: The Historiography of the Early Neo-Evangelical Movement and the Observer-Participant Dilemma,” Church History 60, no. 1 (1991): 72, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3168523.
  12. Gregory D. Black, "Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Film Industry, 1930-1940,” Film History 3, no. 3 (1989): 167-174, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814976.
  13. David M. Lugowski, "Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood's Production Code,” Cinema Journal 38, no. 2 (1999): 3-12, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225622.
  14. Gregory D. Black. “Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Film Industry,” 167-169.