October 26, 2015

Half of all church fires in past 20 years were arsons

Deacon Clinton McMiller (left) and Pastor David Triggs carry a cabinet back into New Life Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis on Oct. 18. An outdoor service had been held there because of a fire at the church that was believed to be intentionally set. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
Deacon Clinton McMiller (left) and Pastor David Triggs carry a cabinet back into New Life Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis on Oct. 18. An outdoor service had been held because of a fire there over the weekend. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

A spate of arsons this month at six predominately black churches in the St. Louis area has raised concerns that these incidents could be racially motivated. But they are by no means the first arsons at places of worship this year.

As of July 14, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had ruled 29 of 79 fires at houses of worship in 2015 to be arson, although some investigations were ongoing.

Indeed, about half of all the fires at houses of worship in the past 20 years were intentionally set, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the ATF. Of the 4,705 reported fire incidents at houses of worship between 1996 and 2015, 2,378, or 51%, had been ruled intentional as of July.

Church Fires Declining, but Many Still Intentionally Set

Date Undetermined cause/other Accidental fires Arson/bombings
1996 23 111 296
1997 43 127 209
1998 80 107 168
1999 75 87 147
2000 129 71 136
2001 59 62 117
2002 78 55 93
2003 68 62 128
2004 59 44 107
2005 66 65 139
2006 63 55 146
2007 61 65 122
2008 44 52 85
2009 51 31 87
2010 39 33 119
2011 31 38 75
2012 47 24 73
2013 54 33 60
2014 57 28 42
2015 29 21 29

Pew Research Center

While the share of church fires caused by arson has remained relatively stable over the years, the number of intentional church fires (including both arson and bombing incidents) has been dropping, as have church fires overall. Between 1996 and 2000, an average of 191 intentional fires were reported each year, accounting for 52% of all church fires. That average dropped to 74 intentional fires per year between 2010 and 2014, or 48% of all church fires.

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.

Church arson was common during the civil rights movement, with sometimes devastating consequences. In 1963, for instance, four young girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., after members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite beneath the front steps of the church.

Congress was prompted to take action when church arsons began to increase in the 1990s. A House Judiciary Committee report from 1996 found that an outsize percentage of church arsons were at black churches in the South.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Church Arson Prevention Act and established the National Church Arson Task Force in response to concerns about the increased “incidence of arson at places of religious worship,” especially those that serve predominantly black congregants.

Since the law was enacted, ATF has been charged with investigating the origin of all reported fires at houses of worship and classifying them into one of several categories: accidental, bombing, incendiary (i.e. arson), undetermined or other (attempted arson, hoaxes and threats).

Note: This post was originally published on July 24 and updated on Oct. 26. 

Topics: Religion and Society, Restrictions on Religion, Discrimination and Prejudice

  1. Photo of Aleksandra Sandstrom

    is a copy editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Faylinn Byrne1 year ago

    Although I am glad that the amount of churches that are set on fire by arsonists have declined, I still find it a sad situation that people would actually do that. Every year, there are a few of my faith’s churches burned down and it really impacts our communities as we struggle to have faith in the rest of humanity. Do you whether or not all church arson incidents are charged as a hate crime? I’m curious about that, because when our buildings were burned, it sure felt like persecution of some sort. northernfire.com.au

  2. Diogeneis2 years ago

    No revisiting of this story since your lede of seven church fires at “predominantly black churches” in St. Louis turned out to be a black male arsonist?

  3. Alex2 years ago

    For the ATF statistics, why are the overall numbers much lower, and the arson percentage much higher, than the numbers kept by the US Fire Administration (nfa.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/s…) and the National Fire Protection Association (vox.com/2015/7/1/8876667/black-c…)? Is this only including fires for which a federal investigation resulted?

    1. Diog2 years ago

      The Vox piece is terrible excuse for journalism. Right there in the NFPA piece is “Three out of five reported fires in these properties were confined to the object of origin.”

      Meaning the pot of grease that starts smoking or flames and is taken outside while someone call the fire department.

      Less than 20% of the fires are structural. 1/3 are from cooking.Calls to fire departments are not the same as structural fires. In fact many calls to fire departments, which is what the NFPA counted as their baseline large number are in fact false alarms.

      Vox really spins it given that if you count that upper range numbers the numbers of intentional fires are in the single digits. Vox is also aggregating fires in funeral homes with churches. Funeral homes are very often small high debt family business under enormous pressure from industry consolidation and at very high relative risk for fire insurance fraud related arson.