America's Religious Life from the Roadside

A former Methodist and now professing Catholic has snapped photos of religious signs across nearly the entire American terrain, showing that Americans' personal expression of faith is not a thing of the past.

Sam Fentress captured spray painted, professionally printed and scratched words and images of faith in every state except Hawaii over the past 25 years and collected nearly 150 of the thousands of images in his book Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape.

"You need Jesus" reads one sign in Detroit, Mich., written on a piece of wood posted on a wooden traffic light pole, making the shape of a cross. "Obey God or Burn" was scratched onto a rock in Harlem.

Below a red stop sign in Washington, D.C., was a sign that read "Hell has no exit" printed in the fashion of a black and white speed limit sign. The sign was located in a drug area near the Potomac River.

Fentress says he respects the gutsiness of the people behind the public signs.

"People [are] taking big risks putting something out there in public – something that's considered not right to talk about," he said on National Public Radio.

The photographer found that Americans will use anything, from a pedestrian crossing sign to a beauty salon window to an entire barn, to express their faith whether it be to proclaim the good news or for a sales pitch.

Fentress began taking snapshots of religious signs when a student brought him a photograph of a barn covered in Scripture verses. At that time, he had picked up interest in religion and had begun reading the Bible again after having fallen away from his Methodist faith during his college years at Princeton University.

After noticing faith expressions all over the American landscape and not just the barn, Fentress began to photograph thousands of such images and also became a Catholic.

Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, notes the signs demonstrate the prominence of religious life in America today.

"Fentress's fencepost proverbs and exhortations are at the side of the road, but they are at the center of our religious life today, not at the margins," Elie writes in the foreword of Bible Road. "They are not the work of primitives or regionalists. They don't carry the evidence of a prior way of life; they don't pronounce judgment on our society. Rather, they express the fierce Christian belief, the mood of end-times fear and dread, that is in uneasy coexistence with our bustle and optimism."

Fentress did not indicate any intention to use the book as a tool of evangelism but hopes it will interest both believers and non-believers.

He simply states, "Here's something that goes on in America in a certain subset of our culture."