How Common Are Church Arsons?

More common than you probably think, less common than they used to be


'Cause when we kiss, oooooooh…
Kim Newberg

Shortly after a white supremacist murdered nine people at a Charleston church in June, the Southern Poverty Law Center sounded an alarm: A rash of fires was breaking out at black churches. Word of the apparent epidemic spread through the media, but then a counternarrative started to emerge. After describing one of the blazes that had attracted the public's attention, a Washington Post piece pointed out that the fire in question

wasn't arson, and there have been a number of fires at non-black churches since June 20, too—including arsons. It seems that the reported trend is more a function of our habit of seeking out patterns than any abnormal targeting of black churches.

"Abnormal" is an important word there. A 2000 investigation into church arsons found 945 examples between January 1995 and that August—an average of 14 a month. In the South, those fires were disproportionately at churches with black congregations. Other data suggests that arsons at churches could occur as often as five times a week.

The story went on the make a good case that what we were witnessing was not a wave of arsonists attempting to follow in the footsteps of the Charleston killer, but a wave of press attention for a sort of event that happens more frequently than most people suspected. While this was reassuring as far as fears of copycat assaults were concerned, it did leave us with a depressing thought: Holy crap. Just how common are church arsons?

The Pew Research Center has now offered a broader answer to that question, analyzing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives:


In the last two decades, apparently, the number of fires at churches and other houses of worship has strongly declined, but the share of those fires attributed to arsonists or bombers has been fairly stable. (Though obviously, we don't know how many fires with undetermined causes were set on purpose.) Totalling all of these fires from 1996 to 2015, Pew reports that 51 percent have been ruled intentional. That's an unusually high proportion:

Fires caused by arson are far more common at houses of worship than in most other kinds of structures. For instance, in 2013, only about 10% of all nonresidential fires and 5% of residential fires were intentionally set, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

One question these data do not address is how many of those church arsons can be classified as hate crimes, as opposed to being driven by revenge, insurance fraud, the concealment of a burglary, or some other motive.

If you look at all fires, by the way, the news is good. According to FEMA, the total number of fires fell 19.5 percent from 2002 to 2011, and the number of people killed in those incidents declined 20.6 percent—though the death numbers jumped for a few years early in the decade before coming down later on. For more FEMA fire stats, go here.

NEXT: What It's Like to Explain Jury Nullification to a Sitting Judge

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  1. I was going to make a joke about distinguishing between houses of worship and Church’s Chicken, but then I saw those fuckers already made that distinction on the graph. Goddammit guys, you couldn’t give me that one joke, could you?

  2. Man, some graphics just suck.
    Example, year 1996:
    Were there 430 ‘undetermined’, added to 400 ‘accidental’ and the 300 ‘bombings’, for a total of 1130?
    Or were there 300 bombings’ added to 100 ‘accidentals’, etc.
    HORRIBLE piece of work.

    1. It’s 430 total, not 1130.

      In Pew’s defense, the chart was part of an interactive graphic that let you break out the more specific data. Unfortunately, the fully interactive version wouldn’t embed in this post.

      If you click through to Pew’s page you should be able to see the full version & find more info.

    2. I’ve been seeing that type of graph a fair bit lately and I hate it.

    3. This is a really common type of graph…

  3. If church fires are this common, perhaps there needs to be a re-think about not taxing the property. They seem to use a lot of government services.

  4. There are churches and synagogues being burned all around world as we speak. Holy places of worship, you know, attended by women and children, you know.

    “Well geez, think about the crusades, will ya” – Obama and his lib friends.

    And of course, if the churches that are burned by arsonists have mostly white congregants, the left and the media wouldn’t care. Not ONE bit. If American synagogues were regularly burned by Islamists, then we’d be warned about Islamophobia.

    What’s it like to be someone who can’t perceive injustice that’s plain to everyone with functioning eyes, but will conjure up epidemics and hate crimes if it involved some kind of protected group?

  5. The church I attended in my youth was torched in the early 1970s. The neighborhood was going downhill, and the church had opened itself on Friday nights to the teens in the area. It was believed at the time that someone didn’t like having a safe haven in the neighborhood. It was an inner-city church that was predominately white, but by no means exclusively so.

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