Appalachia, Religions of

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Appalachia, Religions of

West Virginia put John F. Kennedy over the top in the presidential primaries of 1960. West Virginia saw hard, on-site campaigning by both Kennedy and his principal challenger, Hubert H. Humphrey. The Bostonian Kennedy encountered living conditions in parts of West Virginia he had never known existed in the United States. With the ascendency of Kennedy to the presidency in 1961, the War on Poverty was born with Appalachia as its beginnings and its nexus at that time. At the height of institutionalization of the War on Poverty in the Johnson administration, Jack E. Weller, a United Presbyterian minister who had served as a home missionary in the coalfields of West Virginia since the early 1950s, published a small book, Yesterday's People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia (1965). From its first day to the present, this book has served as the defining statement of Appalachia in the collective American consciousness, and in particular of religious life distinctive to the mountain regions of Appalachia. Yesterday's People is still in print, with nearly one hundred thousand copies sold.

Along with the publication of Weller's book, 1965 marked the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which was federally mandated to promote regional redevelopment. To achieve this goal, the ARC took the step of establishing for the first time a political definition of Appalachia based on boundaries by counties, which soon expanded well beyond the areas commonly and historically understood to make up the Appalachian region. For the ARC, Appalachia now ranged as far north as Coharie County in New York State and south to Kemper County in Mississippi. State legislatures pushed to the limits the mandate's boundaries for inclusion, so that more of their states' counties would be eligible for federal funds. Many counties did resist being included in this new Appalachia. Appalachia, after all, meant poverty, "yesterday's people."

The more commonly perceived Appalachia is a region that has shrunk in upon itself over two centuries, concentrated today in the mountains and plateaus of east Kentucky, southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and western North Carolina. The implications for Appalachia as a now federally delineated political entity often compel an artificial inclusiveness that obscures people's historical and ongoing perceptions of the region. In its most literal and comprehensive sense, for instance, the religions of Appalachia range in West Virginia alone from a large, national center for the Hare Krishna movement to the Antiochian Orthodox Church. But these are not the traditions people commonly have in mind when thinking about what is special and unique, or at least distinctive about Appalachia's religious cultures, especially in its mountain regions, which largely shape much of its people's history and character.

Two defining features set off Appalachia's religious life. It has, first, the largest regional religious tradition in the United States. This status stands apart from the expanded regional boundaries so recently established by the ARC. It is delimited instead by Appalachia's long-established but never rigid historical boundaries. In addition, its historical breadth makes Appalachia second only to New England as having the nation's oldest regional religious tradition in terms of Christianity in general and American Protestantism in particular. In this article, American Protestantism is broadly understood in terms of denominational categories that historically made up the nation's dominant religious culture with regard to its social, political, economic, and cultural influences until the mid-twentieth century.

The more commonly held perceptions of what is distinctive to religious life in Appalachia and the geographic areas where that distinctiveness is found are what Weller wrote about. And he wrote about it in the context of more than a century of white home missionaries being sent to provide social uplift and to evangelize Appalachia's people. Largely white and already long established in their own Protestant religious cultures, Appalachia's people shared the same earlier heritages as that of the home missionaries sent to help and evangelize them, an anomaly unique in the history of American home missions.

Weller wrote about religion in Appalachia from the point of view of a highly institutionalized and influential national religious culture that was seeing the long, inevitable dissolution of its collective purposes understood in the nineteenth century as American benevolence and in the twentieth as ecumenism and the imperative of the social gospel. For these defining movements of American Protestantism, Appalachia's religious cultures had served and continued as a sign of radical contradiction. They were an affront to a powerful national religious culture that was neither tolerant nor forgiving of the image it saw in the mirror that mountain religious life held up to it. Weller's indictment of the varied yet cohesive religious heritage and culture so vital to the identity of a majority of Appalachia's people was harsh and simplistic, frustrated and exasperated, and above all, uncomprehending.

But Weller was not uncaring. He cared very much. After the publication of Yesterday's People, Weller went on to found the Coalition for Appalachian Ministry (CAM), an organization of Reformed-tradition denominations, from various Presbyterian bodies to the Reformed Church in America. CAM sought to train clergy and church workers new to Appalachia about its characteristics that have direct impact on denominations' abilities to be effective in their ministerial efforts in the region. CAM continues in its purpose as of this writing. But through Weller, we hear in the voice of a single individual the national religious culture's historical perceptions of Appalachia, its people, and their religious identity that have continued to prevail to no lesser extent up to the present. The national preeminence of American Protestantism, especially in the guise of denominationalism and all it entailed, had never truly taken hold among an intensely religious people living in the small valleys, mountain regions, and plateaus of Appalachia. Nor does it today.

If Weller summed up the denominational perspective of Appalachia persisting today, so did Rupert B. Vance sum up the perspective of the academic study of religion toward mountain religious life in his introductory note to Weller's Yesterday's People. A sociologist of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Vance gave voice to the preeminent indictment of Appalachia's religious life current throughout its history and up to the present, that of fatalism. Early nineteenth-century Baptist church historians such as David Benedict had intoned the same charge against the Old School Primitive Baptists, who were predominant principally in the areas historically identified with Appalachia. In the mid-twentieth century, scholars of religion continued the pattern, now including the breadth of mountain religious cultures, especially Old Time Baptists, who consist of a large number of nondenominational or subdenominational traditions that go by a variety of names (Primitive Baptists, Primitive Baptist Universalists, Regular and Old Regular Baptists, Regular Predestinarian, Regular Primitive, United Baptists, Separate Baptists in Christ, and Free Will or Freewill Baptists, to name some but certainly not all).

Most of Appalachia's Old Time Baptist traditions have little to no significant history or presence elsewhere in the United States, except through outmigration. All of them continue today in a Calvinist tradition emphasizing grace and the Holy Spirit, which separated them from what became the dominant religious culture of American Protestantism by the second decade of the nineteenth century, including clear separation from the Southern Baptist Convention when it formed in 1845. This separation persists today in Appalachia over theology, missions, and a hierarchical institutionalism that intrudes into the autonomy and integrity of local church communities. Critics such as Vance explain this form of resistance to the dominant culture as the result of Appalachia's historical isolation, a phenomenon of topography that led to "mental and cultural isolation" summed up in the attitude or condition of fatalism embodied foremost by the religions of Appalachia.

In concert with Appalachia's Old Time Baptists—instead of in opposition to them—are its independent Holiness churches, which are as varied in name and history as the Old Time Baptist groups and which probably make up Appalachia's single largest tradition. It is a tradition that remains unnoted and uncounted in any census of church life in the United States because of a general absence of formal institutional structures and written church records. The religions of Appalachia are largely oral cultures, apart from the notable literacy beyond the functional level of a significant number of its people. Appalachia's independent Holiness churches arose out of the great revival on the Appalachian frontier toward the turn of the nineteenth century. They preceded the clear differentiation of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements not so much in name as in the worship practices and beliefs that became institutionalized through these movements' denominational developments that took place mostly outside of Appalachia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Like their Calvinist counterparts among the Old Time Baptists, today Appalachian Holiness people continue to reject a works-righteousness emphasis that arose early in U.S. church life and theology, largely at the expense of an emphasis on grace and the Holy Spirit as it is given voice especially through expressive and ecstatic worship practices, many of which Appalachia's Old Time Baptists share. But in the national consciousness, in popular culture, the fatalism attributed primarily to religious life specific to Appalachia came to be embodied by one small Holiness group that had also, for much of the twentieth century, become synonymous with Appalachia more than any other—what mountain people call serpent handlers and outlanders usually call snake handlers.

See alsoBaptist Tradition; Belonging, Religious; Denomination; Holiness Movement; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Practice; Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Snake Handling; Sociology of Religion.


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Deborah Vansau McCauley