Bay of the Holy Spirit: Imagining What Was and What Could Be

This article is from the summer edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by William Stickland | Photo by Charith Denson

Mobile Bay and its tributaries are perhaps the most vital part of our region’s history and culture. But did you know the Bay was previously named the “Bay of the Holy Spirit”? The origins of the name can be traced back to the religious beliefs and practices of Spanish explorers who first arrived in the New World in the early 16th century. These explorers were deeply religious, and they saw their voyages as a way of spreading the Christian faith to new lands and peoples. 

For these explorers, the discovery of new places was a religious experience as they looked for the presence of God in the places they encountered. 

I asked Father Warren Wall, formerly of St. Mary Parish in Mobile, about what he thought of the name Bay of the Holy Spirit. With a grin, he replied, “Are you advocating that we change it back to that?” 

I told him I was not advocating that but exploring the subject as I find the name emblematic of other cultural shifts. 

He replied, “Calling our Bay the Bay of the Holy Spirit gives a sense of the supernatural and natural coming together. In the same way, we know that God is not just ‘out there’ but with us as well.” 

Pneumatology (The Study of the Spirit) 

The Holy Spirit is an important concept in Christian theology. It is associated with the third person of the Holy Trinity, along with God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. The Holy Spirit is an unseen manifestation of God’s presence in the world. It is often depicted in the primal elements of wind, water, or fire. 

There is a particular depiction of the Holy Spirit that has been stuck in my mind since learning what our Bay was originally called. It is the second line in the book of Genesis and is probably familiar to most readers: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2)

The image of the Spirit of God hovering over our waters deepens my imagination for what once was and what could be. I wondered, “Why did they choose our Bay as the one God was present in?” 

Spanish Conquest 

When Spanish explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda first sailed into what is now Mobile Bay in 1519, he was struck by the abundant fish and wildlife. To Pineda, this richness of life was evidence of God’s presence in the “New World,” and he named the Bay “Bahía del Espíritu Santo” (Bay of the Holy Spirit) to acknowledge this. 

Pineda’s naming of the Bay was not an isolated event. Other Spanish explorers also used religious language to name the places they discovered. For example, Juan Ponce de León named Florida “La Florida” (Land of Flowers), while Hernando de Soto named the Mississippi River “Río de la Espíritu Santo” (River of the Holy Spirit). 

The use of religious language to name new places was not limited to Spanish explorers on the Gulf Coast. It is a long-held practice for explorers to name places in the name of their religious leanings, while not perfectly representing the tenants of peace of that religion. The Spanish operated no differently. 

However, the Spanish were not the first people in Coastal Alabama to see a spiritual connection with our waters. 

The Mobile Indians 

The Mobile Indians are a Native American tribe that inhabited the region around Mobile Bay in what is now Alabama. The tribe was one of several groups that belonged to the larger Choctaw-speaking Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Mobile Indians were skilled farmers and fishermen who lived in large villages along the rivers and streams that flowed into Mobile Bay. 

It’s important to note that specific beliefs and practices can vary among individuals and communities within the Muscogee Nation. However, research indicates that the Creek or Muscogee religion and the relationship between the Muscogee people and the water is multifaceted and deeply spiritual. 

The Muscogee believe that water is a sacred and life-giving element that is essential for the survival of all living beings. Water is seen as a gift from the Creator and a symbol of the Creator’s power and generosity. 

Water is also viewed as a powerful spiritual cleanser that can purify the body, mind, and spirit. Many Muscogee ceremonies and rituals involve the use of water, such as the “going-to-water” ceremony, which is a traditional purification rite. 

Water is believed to be imbued with spiritual power, and many Muscogee people believe that water can provide spiritual guidance, healing, and protection. In particular, rivers and springs are considered to be especially powerful sources of spiritual energy. 

The Muscogee believe that water has much to teach us about life and the natural world. By observing the movements and patterns of water, we can learn important lessons about the cycles of life and the interconnectedness of all things. 

The Muscogee view their relationship with water as one of profound spiritual significance. Through their connection to the water, the Muscogee are reminded of the sacredness of the natural world and their responsibility to care for and protect it. 

French Colonization 

In 1702, the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded the settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile. The settlement was named after the Mobile Indians. The tribe was initially receptive to the French, but tensions soon arose between the two groups over issues such as trade disputes and territorial claims. 

Over time, the Mobile Indians were gradually displaced from their ancestral lands as more Europeans arrived in the region. Today, the Mobile Indians no longer function as a distinct tribe, but their legacy can be seen in the place names and cultural traditions of the region, which continue to be shaped by the diverse peoples who have inhabited the area over the centuries. 

Our Separation from the Water 

“The change of the name of our Bay can be marked by the transition of our area from French Catholic to the newly shaping American culture with its English ancestry,” says Father Wall. 

As broader cultural forces entered into American values, the idea that humans were separate from the rest of creation became popular. Nature was now considered “out there,” and a barrier went up between our communities and our ecosystem. 

The Industrial Revolution accelerated this idea as the majority of the population could live comfortable lives apart from the land and water for the first time. 

The Christian faith, practiced by the French and English who led Mobile at the time, also began to adopt some of the Enlightenment trends, including the lack of concern for stewarding the rest of creation. I believe we see that shift represented by the name of the Bay changing from the Bay of the Holy Spirit to Mobile Bay, after the name of the settlement. By the early 19th century, the name Mobile Bay had become the standard name for the body of water. 

Our Challenge Today 

Overall, the idea of the Bay of the Holy Spirit reflects the Christian beliefs of Spanish explorers. The Spanish saw that our waters created life and said “God must be present in this place.” They were not far off from the beliefs of the Muscogee, who understood that water brings life, cleanses, offers strength, and teaches. The name was a way of acknowledging the presence of God in the natural world. 

As the advent of industrialization separated mankind, ideologically and physically, from the land and water, the health of our waters declined, along with the religious responsibility to honor the natural world. Today, the name Mobile Bay is used, but, I believe, the Holy Spirit still lingers over the Bay, reminding us of the area’s rich history and the many cultures that have left their mark on this unique and beautiful part of the world. 

Religious leaders in our community are attempting to regain our connection with the water and the life it gives. 

Father Wall sees a path of hope: “God is in those waters today as much as any day in our past. We have not been faithful in protecting them. I’m just glad to see some people today with enough courage to do what is right, even in the face of those willing to give up long-term health for short-term profit.” 

This question remains for our faith communities: Will we accept our role in protecting the Earth or continue to distance ourselves from it?


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