“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”
– 2 Thessalonians 3:10 quoted by John Smith and Vladimir Lenin
Every prayer is a class prayer. Whether it is the “sigh of the oppressed creature” or a Sunday bourgeois chore, spirituality is a variant category across class boundaries. In the coal fields of Central Appalachia during the bloody peak of the region’s capitalist transformation the church played a multifaceted role as both a center of workers’ relief and a service to capital. The mountain church was at the same time a starting point for conscious revolutionary transformation, or attempt at such, and a hinderance to a fully developed revolutionary struggle in the service of the industrial capitalist. The church, in all denominations, enabled social struggle and stratification alike. In the end, the Protestant Ethic came to define the mountain homes like coal defines the hills.
Initially coined by pioneering sociologist Max Weber in his book, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the Protestant Work Ethic is the idea that the converted will live a frugal life of hard work and discipline. Emerging from Protestant reformer John Calvin’s theology, the Protestant Ethic does not teach that salvation is obtained via work(s); rather, hard work is considered a sign of genuine regenerative conversion experience. Whereas Catholics believe that good works help them earn their salvation, Calvinism teaches that humans have no role in their salvation, and that only those predestined by God will be saved through no merit of their own. The idea developed that it may be possible to discern who was predestined to salvation (or one of the elect) by observing their lifestyle.
Consequently, the virtues of self-reliance, thriftiness, and above all, a capacity for manual labor began to be admired and cultivated in the emerging Protestant culture. This idea, with (nominally) different theological justifications, took root even among non-Calvinist Protestant denominations. Even John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church and vociferous opponent of the doctrine of Calvinist predestination, observed 100 years before Weber that their “diligence and frugality” allowed Methodists to grow wealthy. As the “princes and masters” of Martin Luther’s day were more than willing to use the new gospel to allow them to cement their power in a rapidly changing social landscape, so the capitalists were more than willing to use the legacy of Protestantism, not always anchored to religion, as either a carrot or a stick in a rapidly industrializing Appalachia.
As Christianity at the root began with what Nietzsche termed a “slave revolt in morals,” but assumed its familiar institutional character beginning with the emperor Constantine’s edict of toleration, so Protestantism at its beginning contained something at least potentially subversive. Though much of the Protestant Reformation sowed the seeds for the Protestant Ethic, radical denominations were scattered across the European continent. Some, such as the Anabaptists, refused to take oaths, perform military service, or participate in civil government. The influence of the Anabaptists was so strong that the label was often used as a generic name for the various radical Protestant currents. These offshoots of Protestantism played an active part in many insurrections, the most famous being the German Peasants’ War.
Thus, in coal fields of Central Appalachia, the Protestant Ethic and its spirit also provided the toiling miner a sense of vindication against the operators and capitalists. The capitalist class, in spite of the miners’ endless commitment to labor, was negligent of the needs of the workers in the face of mental and physical degradation and widespread extreme poverty. Belief in the redemptive power of Christ became necessary to clear oneself not only of sin and spiritual affliction, but also of the constant pressures brought to Appalachia by industrial capitalism. In a similar vein, the advent of industrial capitalism transformed the Appalachian settler into a wage laborer, which in turn redeemed the already established Protestant Work Ethic. In this sense, the “genuine regenerative conversion experience” became the backbone to Appalachian consciousness in the face of grinding wage-labor.
The Pentecostal Christian, reserved and solemn during the week, would exit their repression on Sunday unknowingly in the service of reaction. The United Methodist workers could throw the duress of coal mining off their shoulders for one Sunday morning, eventually rising to transform their social conditions. The pious preacher would then take it upon himself to preach hard work at the bosses demands. All of this in the backdrop of the greater orchestra of class struggle.
Though mainstream Protestant denominations surely took a strong foothold in the region, many smaller denominations which no longer find themselves in the greater United States still latch on in Appalachian isolation, each of which is a reflection of Appalachian life and hardship. Much of Appalachian religious life, helped by the geographical isolation of the region, has a somewhat anti-organizational and anti-institutional outlook that is antagonistic toward institutional denominationalism. (This anti-organizational outlook also may partially explain the success of the many Baptist splinter groups in the region, with their strong emphasis on congregational autonomy.) Deborah McCauley, author of Appalachian Mountain Religion, uses this as a point of contrast between “mountain religion” and mainstream American Protestantism, with institutional denominations such as the Southern Baptists and United Methodists being encouraged to spread by Appalachian industrialists as part of what she inappropriately refers to as “colonizing” forces.1
Among the denominations embedded in Appalachia prior to industrialization, most subscribe to Baptist or Methodist doctrine. When “old-time Appalachian religion” is mentioned, the images conjured in most heads are probably reminiscent of a Pentecostal or Holiness service. With historical ties to Methodism, these are chiefly characterized by their ecstatic, “spirit-led” form of worship; a typical service features “dancing in the Holy Ghost” (carefully distinguished from worldly or “carnal” dancing, which is forbidden), “falling out in the spirit” (fainting), glossolalia or talking in tongues, going into trances, and (occasionally) handling snakes. Services typically last between one and three hours but can continue as long as four or five if “the spirit intervenes.”
Most Baptist denominations adhere to a Calvinist soteriology, though some, such as the Free-Will Baptists, adhere to an Arminian soteriology which states that, contrary to the Calvinist belief in unconditional predestination to either salvation or damnation, anyone can be saved. Interestingly, the Primitive Baptist Universalists, colloquially called No-Hellers, press Calvinism so far that they believe that God will eventually save everyone. There is no Hell per se; rather, Hell is a temporal punishment for sins in mortal life experienced as a state of more and more profound separation from God. They also reject the idea of the Devil or Satan as a personal being; rather Satan is a manifestation of “natural man” or “the flesh” warring against “spiritual man.”2 An often-repeated Primitive Baptist Universalist saying is, “It’s Hell enough down here,”3 a remark that the drudgery of subsistence farming or a rapidly industrializing Appalachia proved to be no exaggeration.
The above denominations fall under the umbrella of what regional religious scholar Loyal Jones refers to as “Old Time Baptists,” which McCauley contrasts with the institutional Southern Baptist Convention.4 Founded in 1845 in a split with Northern Baptists over slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Baptist denomination in the United States and the largest Protestant denomination. Historian Lynn Dickerson is worth quoting at length in his assessment of the influx of the Southern Baptists into the Appalachian region:
[The Southern Baptist Convention] inculcated the values of the planter aristocracy. Thus, when it sent missionary preachers into the mountains at the close of the nineteenth century, the General Association came to the area as an outsider. It came as part of a larger movement to colonize [sic] the people of the Southern Appalachians. Along with the development of mines, coke furnaces, and railroads, came the educated minister, the church budget, Sunday schools, and missionary societies.5
Methodism on the other hand preaches John Wesley’s doctrine of “Christian perfection”. That is to say that the Christian, following a second work of grace, will no longer commit intentional sins. The believer will then continue in perfection, gradually achieving total “perfection in love.” The Methodist church, along with the Southern Baptists, eventually became what Dickerson terms “colonizing forces.” (We have noted the inappropriate use of the term “colonizing” earlier in this paper and wish to stress it is purely the terminology of the authors cited.) The United Methodists and Southern Baptists are the two largest denominations in Appalachia today, but remain apart from the broad Appalachian mountain religious tradition. As Dickerson says, they are outsiders not from a lack of presence but due to their particular values. Both churches had long moved on from their tradition of common-people, revivalist religion of the Great Awakenings, which centered personal spiritual experience, to a more institutional style. Methodist churches were the most common churches in company towns and coal camps; as the Methodist church had been the church of slave-owners in the antebellum South, it was the church of capitalists in newly industrialized Appalachia. While many proletarians and other common people of course belonged to the Methodist church, the owners, managers, and supervisors found Methodism particularly compatible with their own values and intended it to serve their spiritual needs, not especially those of their congregation.6
William Livingston, a Presbyterian scholar, found in his study of coal miners and religion in Logan County, WV that the Methodist church was the denomination that most often supplied ministers to the non-denominational “community churches” sponsored by coal operators in company towns.7 It would be difficult to exaggerate the control coal bosses exercised over the community churches; celebrated West Virginia author Homer Hickam recalls in his memoir The Coalwood Way that the church in his native Coalwood, WV changed denominations at least three times according to who the coal company chose to hire. As Livingston observed, “The coal companies supply the house, the building, the upkeep, and guarantee the Minister’s salary.” 8
However, the shepherds of these company flocks found their sheep unwilling to be easily sheared. As Livingston said, “The miners express themselves as opposed to community churches because these churches…. are the churches of the bosses and non-union personnel….” Eventually miners expressed doubt over the genuine character of these company preachers’ religion. Though Methodist ministers were by far the most prevalent in the region, it proved difficult for them to get miners to attend their services, particularly Sunday morning worship.9
With the various outsider doctrines at hand in an industrializing Appalachia, mountain religion retained several distinct characteristics of its own. For one, salvation was the be an individual affair. No force took higher precedent than that of the holy spirit and its affinity to the individual consciousness. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord” is a scripture frequently quoted in the Appalachian church, and certain morally ambiguous but not expressly forbidden practices are “between a person and God.” In this regard the Puritan and Calvinist doctrine of “self-reliance” is clearly evident.
Another tenet of mountain religion is that of “other-worldliness”. With this, the spiritual and material world are completely separate. Suffering and hardship are simply natural facts of the world, something to endure which are nothing in comparison to the kingdom of heaven. Tied in with this is reluctance to become socially involved. If the spiritual supersedes the secular and hardship can be redeemed through the heavenly promise, there is a subsequent lack of emphasis on secular social issues. One writer has described the uniqueness of the Appalachian church as the “churches of the stationary poor.”10
It then makes sense that religion often took the place of any form of radical politics. In many ways the bloody struggles of the labor-movement, which finds much of its roots in Appalachia, simply took on the struggle for better working conditions, but not often to abolish the present socioeconomic conditions at hand. Rather, with the Protestant Ethic long dominant in the region prior to the rise of industrial capitalism the struggle directly against wage-labor was halted by the appeal to the Protestant Ethic for the labor movements legitimacy. Sara Ogan Gunning, a folk singer from the Kentucky coalfields, expressed her rage at the “rich and greedy capitalists” responsible for the death of her husband in her self-penned song “I Hate the Capitalist System.” Gunning concluded her song by calling for the capitalist system (and presumably the company bosses) to be destroyed in the fires of Hell, but still felt at pains to ensure her listeners her husband had not shunned his Christian duty to toil for the sweat of his brow:
I guess you’ll say he’s lazy
and did not want to work
But I must say you’re crazy,
for work he did not shirk.11
The Protestant Ethic then provides a pious excuse to bear any exploitation carried in Appalachia’s bloody industrialization which now comprises its regional mythology in the Appalachian consciousness. The church, a social center of Appalachian proletarian life, did as much to increase proletarian social cohesion as it did to solidify industrial capitalist power in the region. When Appalachian religion and class-struggle are used in the same sentence, the scene from John Sale’s Matewan, in which a young union preacher proclaims that Christ himself would join the union to a disapproving audience, could easily come to mind. The relationship between the two calls for us to look more critically at mountain religion, a conclusion that many anti-capitalists today seem apprehensive to draw. But in another sense, though it often replaced or hindered the development of radical politics, religion also enabled a sense of righteousness in the fight for social transformation in the region.
Many questions of the history of Appalachia cannot be answered solely through investigation into this topic, but they can certainly be found there. Among what is often called the “Bible Belt”, the role that religion had played in daily life cannot be underestimated as another force of a superstructure. Even in the wake and ruin of the industrial past, as much of capitalist society secularizes, most in Appalachia still rely on a prayer, a class prayer nonetheless. For this, its nature must be unveiled and reckoned with free of any workerist mythology.
1 McCauley, Deborah. Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History. (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 143
2 Howard Dorgan, The Primitive Baptist Universalists of Central Appalachia, known in the Mountains as No-Hellers” Unpaginated.
3 Norman Jameson, “Baptist Scholar Says Remember Appalachia Before it Disappears” (The Christian Century, 2011)
4 Ibid. 145
5 Lynn Dickerson. The Baptists of the Cumberland Mountains. Appalachian Heritage 3, no. 2 (Spring 1975). 64-65.
6 McCauley, 238-239
7 Ibid. 181-184.
8 Ibid. 179
9 William John Bryant Livingston, Coal Miners and Religion: A Study of Logan County. Th.D. diss., (Richmond: Union Theological Seminary, 1951), 201-202.
10 Nathan Gerard, “Churches of the Stationary Poor in Appalachia.” In Change in Rural Appalachia: Implications for Action Programs, edited by John D. Photiadis and Harry Schwarzwellar. 99-114. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971).
11 Richard Callahan Jr. Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coalfields: Subject to Dust. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009). 175-176.