Folk Religion: An Overview

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Peasant populations (i.e., sedentary agricultural groups forming part of larger, more complex societies) have probably existed since 6000 bce in southwestern Asia, since 3100 bce in Egypt, and since 1500 bce in southeastern Mexico. Unlike agricultural entrepreneurs who are active economic agents or semisubsistence cultivators practicing ritual exchange and barter, peasants are farmers whose surpluses are redistributed to urban centers by more powerful groups. In practice it is not always easy to decide who actually is or is not a peasant, especially in the case of farmers who hold factory jobs, modern European family farmers, contemporary North American small farmers, or cash crop slash-and-burn cultivators of South America and Africa. For the purposes of this article, this term applies to past and present-day sedentary cultivators and pastoralists of Asia, North Africa, southern Europe, and Latin America, and historically to sedentary cultivators in northern Europe and North America as well.

Because sedentary farming emerged independently at different times and in different parts of the world, taking radically different forms (including short-term fallowing with animal-drawn plows, alpine pastoralism, and permanent cultivation by means of hydraulic systems), the search for an original, universal religion based on agriculture seems doomed to wishful speculation. Attempts nevertheless have been made, concentrating on such notions as matriarchy, Earth Mother goddesses, and moon worship.

Yet peasant societies do, by definition, have features in common that set the requirements and limits on the kinds of religion that will serve their members: (1) peasants depend on a particular ecosystem; (2) most live in similar social environments (household-based, on dispersed farms or in small settlements); and (3) they depend on the larger society for which they produce food. Their religion usually provides them with ways to deal with the local natural and social world, as well as the wider social, economic, and political network of which they are a part.

To manage the ecosystem, peasants, like other people, mark the cycles of nature, day and night, the lunar cycle, the solar year, the life cycles of animals and plantsall hold particular importance for cultivators. Many peasant cultures have rituals and routines for transitions relating to equinoxes, planting, germination, and harvest. And because landscape and climate vary widely, peasants tend to establish locally distinct sacred places, times, and divinities. Whether it is at a spring, cave, mountaintop, riverbank, or a special tree, peasants come to pay homage to their divinities according to the calendar, and in times of crisis to seek solutions to such major agricultural threats as drought, hail, and insect plagues.

In terms of social relationships, peasant life is characterized by endemic disputes among households over such matters as inheritance, property boundaries, and irrigation; and yet as cultivators, peasants must normally undertake a certain amount of cooperative work with their neighbors (such as harvesting, herding, and maintaining roads and irrigation ditches), as well as provide mutual aid in time of crisis. To a lesser extent, these tensions and dependencies apply also between adjacent settlements, particularly when pasture or water rights are involved. In this context, religious devotion can facilitate the unity of households within a settlement (mutual fealty to a common divinity) and solidarity between settlements (worship at common shrines). On the other hand, religions also provide the source, pretext, or rallying cry for chronic and intractable conflict between settlements. With regard to patterns of authority and division of labor, the role of religion (through divine models of hierarchy, justice, and emotion) appears to be much the same in peasant as in nonpeasant societies.

Because the household is the critical social and economic unit, peasants pay special attention to consecrating the identity of household members at birth, the alliance of household economic units through marriage, and the reorganization of the household at death. In many peasant societies, elaborate care for the souls of deceased household members corresponds to the idea that the social personality of the house or farm endures beyond the lives of any particular inhabitants. Consequently, there are reasons why this relationship of religion and identity should be stronger with peasants than with others.

As a local phenomenon, peasant religion only rarely can be studied well from a distance, or by relying on surveys or written sources (aside from the rare documents of oral testimony). The ways that it consecrates relationships with nature, society, and identity must be lived to be understood. Context is crucial, for it gives meaning, often of a particularly local variety, to religious behavior that might otherwise appear to be universal.

Indeed, for most people, not just peasants, beliefs are more acted out (in the sense of worship or ritual) than they are thought out. Only when challenged are such beliefs formulated or declared by any but the religious specialist or exceptional devotee. Much of the study of religion as lived, therefore, is the study of that which is taken for granted, that which goes without saying. As a result students of peasant religion have adopted some of the methods used by anthropologists in studying tribal societies; they have stayed for extended periods in rural communities, paying special attention to public religious acts, local interpretation, individual biography, and the range of opinion and doubt.

But the religion of peasants does not address only local agricultural and human concerns, for by definition peasants are only specialists in a wider network of trade and power in which, given the vulnerability of agricultural life, they generally find themselves in a subordinate position. One of the vital tasks of government is to ensure an adequate food supply for its cities; peasant societies are geared for this purpose, for which they are both protected and exploited. Not coincidentally, there is always a major component of religion in peasant society that is held in common with city dwellers and that generally extends to even wider intersocietal or international exchange systems as well. Such religions include divine beings, sacred sites, rituals, and usually church organizations, all of which are common to peasant and nonpeasant alike.

One therefore can no more speak of a radical separateness of peasant religion than one can speak of a radical separateness of peasant society. Peasant religion is an integral part of wider religions, which provides a common frame of reference in the cosmic and ethical sense, a framework that sets the terms for regular social and economic interaction. Indeed, since peasants often do not experience the specifically agricultural features of their religion as something distinctly different or apart, it is usually incorrect to speak of peasant "religion" in any sense other than religiosity, for peasants are almost always Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Daoists, or of some other religion that transcends their immediate arena.

The presence in peasant society of religious specialists trained in a broader social context provides a never-ending source of new techniques, ideas, and images, which the peasant society may adapt for specifically local purposes. And much of what anthropologists following Robert Redfield have called the "little tradition" of the peasantry is what survived of a "great tradition" in the countryside long after it was rejected or forgotten by urban theologians and administrators.

Because of the long-term stability of the peasants' physical and social landscape, some aspects of their religions have had a remarkable and perhaps misleading permanence, although the peasants themselves and the greater political and religious systems affecting them have undergone many changes. For example, present-day cult paintings and statues throughout the world contain elements from earlier, now extinct religions; places of veneration are located at the same kinds of sites as earlier devotions; and in many areas, vows and votive offerings have not essentially changed in over two thousand years.

Such apparent permanence, however, is often superficial, masking major changes in attitude and identity. Say that one finds that a given group of peasants who are self-confessed, practicing Muslims also leave offerings to images of cows, contrary to the teachings of the Qurʾān. It would be a distortion to think of them as covert pagans. For empirical studies have broadened the notion of religion to include both what believers profess and what they actually do and feel. Thus Islamic religion, for instance, can only be fully understood as the sum of the religious acts and beliefs of Muslims. Or, put another way, major world religions are, in practice, coalitions or mosaics of widely differing local adaptations that share a common core of beliefs, rituals, and organization.

While peasant religion may be composed of what may appear to be different kinds of elements and survivals from different traditions, in practice these elements usually form an indivisible, functional whole for believers. Where the notion of survivals exists among peasants themselves, it is often the result of church efforts to stigmatize nonapproved behavior as superstitious, or because of the spread of findings of early folklorists bent on unraveling the different strands of peasant religion according to "high" or "low" origin. More recent scholarship has concentrated on seeing how these strands work together as a whole.

A problem facing students of peasant or folk religion has been finding something with which it can be compared. One tack has been to treat it as "popular" religion and to compare it with the prescribed norms of the larger church or doctrine, much as the "little" tradition is compared to the "great." But such comparisons have not always proved fruitful, for they involve comparing two very different thingson the one hand, a religion as lived and, on the other, a set of norms that hardly represents a way of life and that, in fact, may not be lived strictly by any kind of person, peasant or non-peasant.

A refinement on this method has involved observation of the practical impingement of the institutions of a central religion on the religious life of peasantsthe extent to which peasant religion is effectively regulated, updated, and revised from without. For Europe, this has been done through longitudinal studies using field-work, church visitation, and government records.

An alternate approach compares the peasant religion to that of lay nonpeasants in the larger society, as in Clifford Geertz's studies in Java and much of the recent work on China. As yet little is known about urban or nonpeasant lay religiosity, so it is difficult to be sure that the religion of peasants, apart from its attention to the natural landscape, was in a given time and society fundamentally different from that of urban laypersons. At least for some places and times, a distinction between peasant and nonpeasant religiosity has not proved particularly revealing.

For when studied with care and sufficient evidence, peasant religiosity has been found to share many of the characteristics hitherto considered the domain of the "civilized." For instance, peasant religion is not necessarily homogeneous. Even when there is a single religion practiced, there is likely to be a wide range of doubt, opinion, and speculation, whether in a thirteenth-century French village or a twentieth-century Chinese hamlet. Nor is peasant religion particularly fixed or stable. Throughout history peasants have converted, have been converted, or have attempted to convert from one religion to another. And peasants are not invariably and instinctively religious. There are areas where peasant religious indifference has long been common, and recently entire age and gender groups have been known to abandon religion enthusiastically under militantly atheist governments.

Indeed, radical changes in the world political economy since the mid-nineteenth century have affected the terms in which peasant religion can be studied. Urban and rural industrialization, as well as the growth of the service sector, has brought an increased homogeneity in peasant and urban lifestyles. As a result of socialist, communist, and anarchist movements, active, militant disbelief may be an overt or latent presence in rural areas. Seasonal migrations to the cities, increased visiting in the cities with relatives, peasant participation in the international workforce, and the tremendous growth in literacy, as well as the spread of radio and television, have all helped to diffuse new religious styles and cults more rapidly among the peasantry.

In most places this broadening of horizons has made peasants more aware of their "otherness" in religious matters, so that it is they themselves who internalize behavioral distinctions proposed by the dominant culture. Some scholars refer to this process as "biculturalism": acting in different ways at different levels (the local and the metropolitan), clearly distinguishing between the two, and segregating behavior appropriately.

As a corollary to this bicultural insecurity, there is intense religious and political competition for the allegiance of the peasants whose religion has been devalued or rendered impractical. There exists a global religious competition, in keeping with the global economy in which peasants are now involved, in which the competitors are missionaries, again both religious and political. Among Peru's Altiplano peasantry one finds several lifestyles based on models and aid from American and European religious organizations. Indeed, some of the class/clan factionalism that unitary religions once served to ease is now expressed with rival religions from the wider world.

Yet it is not that peasants must choose only from the great religions; on the contrary, as the anthropologist Eric Wolf pointed out, there have been many instances of peasant religious innovation, through creative imitation or the inspiration of visionaries and prophets. Some have taken the form of millenarian movements, others as radical purification sects. (Some religiously innovative groups, such as the Mormons and the Mennonites, created peasants as much as they were created by them.) And as tribespeople become peasants in African nation-states, new sects and cults spring up that speak to the new conditions, most of which, true to form, are not just local but national or international in scope.

In the context of the nation-state, peasant religion is quite easily politicized. Two overlapping factors are at work. First, human-divine relations serve to consecrate and are thereby tied up with personal identities in the family, village, and nation. Second, the year-in, year-out give-and-take that characterizes peasant devotions to divine figures accumulate great emotional power. Both the investment of identity and the emotional power are generally located in divinities with relatively bounded territories of grace, presenting a permanent temptation to governments, political parties, and to the churches themselves. And if effective channels of political action are blocked by authoritarian regimes the local religion, its shrines, divine protectors, and priests, can embody the entire peasant way of life. Thus through religion, peasant discontent finds a charismatic expression. By the same token, in the face of all-pervasive regimes such as China during the Cultural Revolution, early modern Spain, or Spanish-occupied Peru, private religious acts and beliefs provide some peasants with a margin of independent identity and action, a buffer against the politicization of private life.

Often peasant religion is mobilized or exploited by nonpeasant leaders. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, literary romanticists, folklorists, and nationalists alike have seen in local peasant religion a source of indigenous virtue, the survival of an earlier local culture and identity in the face of foreign domination. In Ireland, Brittany, Poland, the Basque country, Greece, Yugoslavia, Armenia, the Baltic states, as well as in many of Europe's colonial empires worldwide, independence and autonomy movements have fed on an exaltation of peasant religion that on a superficial level involves a kind of ruralization of the urban elite. An extreme but symptomatic example is Mohandas Gandhi's religious transformation from lawyer to peasant. In response to this kind of demand, rural gurus and seers circulate from city to city and nation to nation servicing devotees; they also spread their messages by the internet.

This type of idealization represents the obverse of metropolitan religious doctrines that long held much of peasant religiosity to be pagan superstition, an attitude shared by enlightened secularizers as well. For both clergy and sophisticates, peasant religion has represented an "other" against which both orthodoxy and civilization could be measured.

These seemingly contradictory points of view, by their emphasis on tradition, survivals, and stability, all draw attention to peasant religion's past rather than its dynamics of change or its present roles. Idealization and stigmatization both tend to attribute an integrity and homogeneity to this religion that it rarely possesses, and simplify a more complex, perhaps less manageable reality.

See Also

Agriculture; Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Dance, article on Popular and Folk Dance; Indo-European Religions, article on History of Study; Popular Religion.


The search for universal features of the religion of cultivators in keeping with the framework theory of religious evolution, as exemplified by the work of James G. Frazer and Wilhelm Schmidt, is reviewed by Mircea Eliade in his Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958).

A persuasive exposition of general characteristics of peasant life from an anthropological viewpoint is provided in Eric Wolf's Peasants (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966), following on Robert Redfield's Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago, 1956). A model study by Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (Glencoe, Ill., 1960), compares the religion of peasants with that of merchants and nobles, all under the wide mantle of Islam. For Buddhism, Stanley J. Tambiah in Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, 1970) shows how in practice the elements of different religious traditions function as a whole in the religion of a village. A number of scholars have produced excellent work on folk religion in China. Thomas DuBois, using primary written and oral sources has made a particularly thorough study of the different religious alternatives on the North China Plain in "The Sacred World of Cang County: Religious Belief, Organization and Practice in Rural North China During the Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." (Ph.D. diss., University of California in Los Angeles, 2001). For the religion of European peasantry, I describe Catholicism in northern Spain in its relation to the landscape and social relations in Person and God in a Spanish Valley (rev. ed. Princeton, N. J., 1989), and Lucy Rushton admirably relates Greek Orthodox theology to personal life in "Religion and Identity in a Rural Greek Community" (Ph.D. diss., University of Sussex, 1983).

Much of the early work on popular religion in Europe is discussed in P. Bolgioni's "Religione Popolare," Augustinianum 21 (1981): 775, with ample bibliographic notes. Richard F. Gombrich in Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon (Oxford, 1971) argues against the notion of popular religion, as does Jean-Claude Schmitt in "'Religion populaire' et culture folklorique," Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 31 (SeptemberOctober 1976): 941953. Unusual ethnographic information about peasant religion in the Friuli region of northeast Italy, gathered in the context of diocesan investigations, is provided by Carlo Ginzburg in I Benandanti: Richerche sulla stregoneria e culti agrari tra Cinquecento e Seicento (Turin, 1966), translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi as The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Baltimore, 1983). Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (New York, 1978) describes in detail village Catholicism in the Pyrenees and the villagers' conversion to Cathar beliefs. Similarly rich in detail, although not about a single community, is Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (New York, 1971). Campaigns to change peasant religion are described in Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 14001580 (New Haven, Conn., 1992), by the same author in The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven, Conn., 2001), and for Peru, in Kenneth Mills, Idolatry and its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 16401750 (Princeton, N.J., 1997). Nancy M. Farriss's Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (Princeton, 1984) and Victoria Reifler Bricker's The Indian Christ, the Indian King: The Historical Substrate of Maya Myth and Ritual (Austin, Tex., 1981) are historical studies of religious syncretism in the Yucatan, building on a long line of distinguished ethnographies. Peter Brown, in his elegant The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago, 1981), challenges a radical distinction between peasant and nonpeasant religion in the Mediterranean, as I do in Local Religion in Sixteenth Century Spain (Princeton, N.J., 1981).

Peasant millennial movements are studied in Millennial Dreams in Action, edited by Sylvia L. Thrupp (New York, 1970). Charles Tilly's The Vendée (Cambridge, Mass., 1964) asks important questions about the social and economic roots of a peasant uprising in the name of religion.

William A. Christian, Jr. (1987 and 2005)