Religious tour groups will find a wealth of faith-based attractions and entertainment throughout the American South. Here is a sampling of five popular destinations that abound with both religious and secular sights:
Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens in Gatlinburg features representations of important scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. With life-size figures and dramatic lighting as well as music and special effects, the museum offers visitors the experience of walking through the Biblical world of 2,000 years ago. Included in tours are ancient coins, precious gems and a sculpture of Christ.
Gatlinburg’s rustic log wedding chapel, the Chapel in the Glen, is nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains and is considered a perfect place for a wedding with its soft candlelight and beautiful floral arrangements. The secluded chapel can accommodate 50 people, including the wedding party, and is worth visiting even if you’re not getting married.
If you’re up for a deep-sea adventure, visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which houses exotic aquatic life from around the world. Featuring 10,000 sea creatures and more than 350 individual species, the facility is comprised of 10 galleries including a simulated tropical rainforest, coral reef, penguin playhouse and a stingray bay where visitors can touch the stingrays.
At Star Cars Museum, over 40 vehicles featured in movies and television shows are on display. Included are the 1981 DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future and the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard.
In Pigeon Forge, Smoky Mountain Christian Village is a ministry space set aside for Christian families and groups of all sizes to enjoy the presence of God and fellowship with one another. This secluded 44-acre woodland includes chalets suitable for small, medium and large groups. The village features pastors on staff, fully equipped kitchens, gas fireplaces and grills, paintball, basketball, ropes courses and horseshoes, pools, hiking and other activities.
For a day’s worth of fun, visit Dollywood. Conceived and operated by Dolly Parton, Dollywood is a 150-acre theme park offering entertainment, five seasonal festivals, and over 40 rides and attractions. Popular rides include the Mystery Mine steel coaster, the Thunderhead wooden coaster and a coal-fired steam train ride called the Skyzip. The park’s Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame relates the origins of Southern Gospel music and its most influential songwriters and performers. Special events include the Festival of Nations, held from late March to May; Barbecue and Bluegrass in September; the National Gospel and Harvest Celebration, from October to early November; and Smoky Mountain Christmas, from mid-November to late December.
Black Bear Jamboree and Dinner Show is a theatrical spectacle that includes extraordinary sets, intricate costumes, colorful lighting and lasers, combining Broadway-style entertainment with a four-course dinner. Visitors will enjoy a country feast while watching actors, singers, dancers and musicians perform bluegrass, gospel, and country music as well as tunes from the 1950s ’60s and ’70s.
WonderWorks features over 100 interactive science-related exhibits like an anti-gravity tunnel, a simulated earthquake experience, a space exploration zone and a virtual roller coaster ride. Also available are laser tag and an arcade.
In Sevierville, another Tennessee Smokies town, the enigmatic Forbidden Caverns were once used as a hideout for making moonshine. Visitors can tour sparkling formations, ancient waterfalls, mysterious grottos and a crystal-clear stream.
Rainforest Adventures Zoo features more than 600 animals including water dragons, capuchin monkeys and cockatoos. Tennessee Museum of Aviation features vintage military aircraft and vehicles.
Cirque De Chine features skilled gymnasts and dancers performing in a dazzling display of color, costumes and artistry. Floyd Garret’s Muscle Car Museum houses American muscle cars from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in a 90-vehicle collection.
St. John’s Church, an Episcopalian church, dates back to 1741 and is a living memorial to American liberty. In March of 1775, over 100 colonial leaders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, met here at the Second Virginia Convention. The church was the only suitable building to hold all the delegates and is the location of Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in favor of independence.
Another important landmark in American history is the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, which contains the most comprehensive collection of artifacts, manuscripts and photographs from the Confederate States of America. Learn about the lives of common soldiers, life on the homefront and the Confederate Navy. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived for four years in the White House of the Confederacy, a stately mansion.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is where Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee worshipped. Almost everything in the church, including the windows honoring Lee, is a memorial. The Science Museum of Virginia, a former a train station built in 1919, offers over 250 hands-on exhibits and demonstrations as well as a planetarium with an IMAX theater. Other Richmond attractions include Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Valentine Richmond History Center, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia State Capitol.
The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site is a must-see in Atlanta. This 39-acre site holds the birthplace, church and grave of Nobel Peace Prize winner and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His wife, Coretta, who carried on his work after his assassination, is buried beside her husband. The visitor center features exhibits and video presentations of King’s work in the civil rights movement.
Also in Atlanta is the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. This Roman Catholic contemplative religious community belongs to the worldwide Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as Trappists. The community of 40 monks dedicates itself to the worship of God under the Rule of St. Benedict in the Cistercian tradition in a hidden life inside the monastery. The monastic heritage center has exhibits detailing the history of monasticism, a theater room, a bonsai garden and a gift shop.
Another important religious attraction in Atlanta is the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum. Exhibits include the Absence of Humanity, where the story of the Holocaust is told through photographs and documents of those who survived and eventually settled in Atlanta. The Creating Community exhibit depicts the story of Jewish emigrants who came to call Atlanta home.
Just outside of Birmingham, in Irondale, groups can tour the studios of Eternal World Television Network (EWTN). Started in 1981 on the grounds of a monastery, it’s now a global network that broadcasts 24 hours a day to 140 countries and territories. The force behind EWTN is Mother Angelica, a woman from Ohio who promised to start a monastery in the South if she recovered from a serious illness. After a miraculous healing, she moved to Alabama and with a few nuns founded a monastery. Mother Angelica had dreams of getting involved in broadcasting and eventually became known for her devotional writings and videos. Today, visitors can join the audience of an EWTN show, or attend the televised Mass or spiritual talk.
At the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, four young girls were killed in a Sunday morning bombing that became a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Exhibits in the church depict the horrific crime that buried the girls in rubble and injured over 20 other people. Now a designated National Historic Landmark, the church had been an epicenter of the 1960s civil rights movement. It is open for tours and welcomes visitors who come to see the “Angels of Change” video that depicts the bombing and aftermath, and the stained-glass Wales Window, a memorial gift from the people of Wales.
On a lighter note, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Alabama’s largest living museum, consists of nearly 68 acres of flowers, trees and shrubs. It has more than 230 species of birds, over 12,000 different plants, over 30 works of outdoor sculpture and miles of paths. Picnicking is permitted in designated locations.
Other notable places of interest in Birmingham include the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, which highlights great jazz musicians from Alabama and artifacts belonging to jazz legends like Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. The Birmingham Museum of Art features a collection of over 24,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings from a wide variety of cultures and artistic styles.
Rock Hill/York County, South Carolina
In Fort Mill, Narroway Productions, considered the “Broadway of Christian entertainment,” offers theatrical presentations of biblical concepts. Productions include Lord of Light, an action-packed portrayal of warfare in the heavenly realms, and The Fourth Cross, which investigates the crucifixion of Jesus. The theater has special productions for Christmas and Easter.
The Museum of York County in Rock Hill features a planetarium, a collection of mounted animals from Africa and natural history exhibits. A few miles west in McConnells is Historic Brattonsville, a 775-acre Revolutionary War site. Built between 1776 and 1855 by the Brattons, a prominent family of York County, it is one of the most important and extensively visited cultural attractions in South Carolina. Visitors will see the development of Southern culture and architecture as they tour more than 30 historic structures from the 1760s to the late 19th century.
North of York County, just outside of Charlotte, N.C., is the Billy Graham Library, which features memorabilia from the life of evangelist Billy Graham, a North Carolina native.
—By Manny Vega