In the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the foot-washing baptists seem to be painted by Miss Maudie to be evil and to have a strict adherence to the "cleanliness of the soul."

When Scout asks Miss Maudie if she is a "foot-washing baptist," Miss Maudie replies with "my shell's not that hard." To me, that means that being a foot-washing baptist has negative connotations, as Miss Maudie does not want to associate herself with such a group. Am I right in inferring that a "foot-washing baptist" is dissimilar from a baptist that practices foot-washing?

What are the connotations of "foot-washing baptists" outside the context of the book?

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    This isn't a question about the English language but about the practices of the Baptist Church. – Chenmunka Feb 17 '16 at 12:16
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    Ronikos It's still cultural history / Lit Crit. I assume Miss Maudie's "My shell's not that hard, child. I'm just a Baptist." is a "tongue-in-cheek" way of saying I'm not that much of a religious nut. But if you wanted to take a harder line, you could read the entire extended allusion as claiming people who indulge in such "extreme" religious practices are metaphorically "hard-shelled", and care more about rituals than people. – FumbleFingers Feb 17 '16 at 12:46
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    "OK, Google ... Foot-washing Baptist." – Stu W Feb 17 '16 at 13:03
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    The ceremony of foot washing is generally considered a positive thing. If it's a negative thing in TKAMB then that's a peculiarity of American culture. Cultural questions are usually not considered on-topic here sorry. – curiousdannii Feb 22 '16 at 21:39
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    @FumbleFingers What do these two questions have in common if anything? This one about feet is about cultural references, and the one about cleanliness is about the source of the common proverb. The latter was judged to be on-topic here. – Mitch Feb 23 '16 at 13:02

Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951) has this entry for "foot washing Baptist":

foot, n. ... 3. In comb[ination]s: ... (13) [foot] washing, an occasion upon which Primitive Baptists wash each other's feet as a religious memorial; (14) [foot] washing Baptist, a member of any one of several sects of Baptists who practice foot washing;

Also of note is Mathews's entry for "Primitive Baptist":

Primitive Baptist, a Hard Shell or Old School Baptist. Also attrib. [First citation is to Polly Peablossom (1851)].

And for "Hard-shell Baptist":

Hard-Shell Baptist, a member of the Primitive Baptist Church, or Old-School or Antimissionary Baptist. [First citation is to Knickerbocker magazine (1845).]

Hard-shell has the transferred sense of "A severe or strait-laced person," according to Mathews.

One early Google Books match for "foot-washing Baptists" is from Annual Session of the Baptist Congress (1899), in an address to the congress by Rev. Emory Hunt, of Toledo, Ohio:

In the records of the Miami Baptist Association, the first formed in the northwest territory, we find that in 1807 a query came up from the Union church on Indian Creek, "whether the washing of saints' feet be an example left on record for the professed followers of Christ to be continued in his church." The association laid it over for one year and then replied, "we consider every church independent, and if the church on Indian Creek, or any other, agree among themselves on this point it will not affect their fellowship with their sister churches." We may doubt whether a foot-washing Baptist church would be made comfortable in a Baptist association to-day.

It thus appears that "foot-washing Baptists" were a category of Baptists who believed in emulating the biblical ritual of washing the feet of holy persons in some of their ceremonies. Further, when Miss Maudie says in To Kill a Mockingbird that she doesn't have as hard a shell as that, she simply means that her religious beliefs are not so straitlaced and severe as those of Hard-Shell or Primitive Baptists (who evidently consider foot washing to be an appropriate religious ritual).


Contrary to the people who feel that they can take the word at its face value may be wrong.

My interpretation is, with the context of the book in mind, a foot-washing Baptist is a person who takes the Bible literally with a very crude interpretation, for example, they believe that women are a sin by definition as Eve was the first to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, disobeying God.

This is why Miss Maudie says, "my shell's not that hard." A "foot-washing Baptist" may be Baptist who practises in the washing of feet, but it may also mean a Christian believer who takes the Bible literally, with parallels to a creationist.

I will not make any judgements on any sort of denomination of Christianity, I'll let every finish the interpretation with their own thoughts.

  • There likely is some truth to what you say, though I don't think the literal interpretation (of, ironically, biblical literalists) should be ignored. The two kind of go hand-in-hand. – Hot Licks Feb 17 '16 at 21:24

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