Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Podcast Appalachia: "Mountain Religion"
Hello, you’re listening to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.
Before we begin, I want to let you know that I am now using a new microphone which I hope will improve the sound quality of this podcast. If you have any trouble with this episode, please let me know.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to business.
Religion is a key ingredient of most cultures, and Appalachian culture is no exception. In most societies, including Appalachia, it is difficult to seriously discuss culture without at least some discussion of religion. Faith has always been and remains very important to most of the people of Appalachia, and anyone who wishes to understand the Appalachian people should take a serious look at the various churches of the region.
An honest examination of the churches of Appalachia will indicate much more diversity than many might assume. Appalachian religion in the popular imagination reveals images of tent revivals, circuit riding preachers, fire and brimstone sermons, and serpent handlers. All of these exist, but they are only part of the picture.
Almost every religious group in the United States is represented in the Appalachian religion. According to data from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the three largest denominations in the area are Baptists, who comprise 21% of Appalachians, Catholics, who comprise 13%, and Methodists, who make up 9%. Even these designations are misleading, however, as there are numerous different Baptist churches, including the Southern, Old-Time, Primitive, and American Baptists, each with different beliefs. Thus denominational differences do not necessarily tell us much about Appalachian religion.
According to Howard Dorgan, there are three widely held assumptions about Appalachian religion. The first is the assumption that many 18th and 19th century religious practices have survived relatively in tact in mountain churches. This is partially true, especially in Old-Time Baptist Churches, but we should be careful not to read too much into this; the members of these churches are generally just as modern and everyone else, and are certainly not living in the 18th century!
The second assumption is that Appalachians are far more religious than the rest of the nation. This may or may not be true; it is very difficult to find reliable data about religious observance. Even if such data existed, it would also be difficult to measure levels of religious belief.
The third and final assumption is that worship customs in Appalachia have been largely a response to the poverty and hardships if the region. This assumption is difficult to prove or disprove, but it certainly is a simplification and seems a bit condescending, as it may question the sincerity of religious believers by suggesting their faith is only a crutch.
When the first settlers came to Appalachia, Presbyterianism was the dominant faith, a direct result of the influence of the then overwhelmingly Presbyterian Scots-Irish. However, Presbyterianism in the mountains would eventually decline, due to the church’s insistence on seminary-trained clergy. A few Presbyterian off-shoots appeared, such as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, that did not have this requirement, but they were not enough to maintain Presbyterian dominance in the region. Even so, Calvinism, the doctrine on which Presbyterianism was based, remains strong in Appalachia.
Although highly diverse, a few generalizations can be made about most Appalachian churches. They tend to be characterized by a strong sense of independence which favors congregational autonomy over religious hierarchies, a belief in personal redemption, highly emotional and joyous worship services, and a belief that God is a controlling force in life. They also tend to believe in a very personal God whim is very much involved in day-to-day events.
The term “fundamentalism” is often employed to describe Appalachian churches. This term is somewhat vague and is often used as a pejorative. Even among churches that might be considered fundamentalist, there are key differences in the degree of fundamentalism, as well as Biblical interpretation. Therefore, in order to better understand Appalachian Christianity, it is best to move beyond this term.
It would be impossible to provide a comprehensive overview of all the different faiths represented in Appalachia in this episode. Indeed, such a task would be nearly impossible in any format since every church—and every religious person—is different in some way. Therefore, in this episode I will examine three denominations most often associated with Appalachia—Baptists, Methodism, and Pentecostal-Holiness. Other prominent faiths will be examined in future episodes.
Baptists, as previously noted, are a very large and diverse group. In fact, there are over 1,100 different Baptist categories! Baptists are strongly represented in the mountains; many of these churches are unaffiliated with any nationally based denomination, but four national Baptist designations are represented in the region: the American Baptists, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, the National Baptists, and the Southern Baptist Churches. Among the numerous other Baptist Churches are the Primitive Baptists, Missionary Baptists, the various Old-Time Baptists, and Free Will Baptists.
The Free Will and Missionary Baptists are strongly independent and do not fit well into the Old-Time or the Mainline designation. Both were heavily influenced by the General Baptists, a group that is now almost completely extinct in Appalachia, save for a small group of Six-Principle Baptists of Pennsylvania.
Free Will Baptists comprise a significant number of Appalachians but it is impossible to find a precise number. They emerged largely from the efforts a North Carolina General Baptist preacher named Paul Palmer. The movement Palmer began would merge with another movement, began by Benjamin Randall, in 1935. It was Palmer’s activism that was most influential in Appalachian Free Will Baptists, however.
Missionary Baptists, also a major religious group in the region, remain highly traditional. They tend to be highly traditional, favoring creek Baptism and oftentimes foot washing. They usually select non-seminary trained preachers, often from within their churches.
Missionary Baptists arose from the pro-Evangelism faction of the missionary/anti-missionary controversy of the early 19th century. In the 1820s a great debate arose among Baptist Churches in central and southern Appalachia over the biblical authority of intercongregational organizations, especially as they relate to the bibical validity of missionary programs. At the root of the controversy was a division between those who held to the Calvinist belief in individual atonement, or the belief that Christ died only for those elect individuals chosen by God, and general atonement, the belief that Chris died for all humanity’s sins and thus salvation was possible for everyone. This split is still evident in Baptist churches today, with some, such as most Primitive Baptist Churches, remaining anti-missionary.
Old-Time Baptists are direct descendents of the first Baptists to settle in Appalachia in the 18th century and still maintain many of the traditions present at that time, including impromptu preaching, congressional shouting, foot washing, natural baptism, traditional gender roles, and opposition to divorce and remarriage. They tend to favor the King James Version over other translations of the Bible, lack the missionary zeal of Missionary Baptists, and have non-professional clergy.
Old-Time Baptists can be traced back to the Separate and Regular Baptists who settled in Appalachia during the late 1700s and early 1800s. From a 1775 settlement in present-day Randolph County, NC, Separate Baptists spread into southwestern Virginia, east Tennessee, and eastern Kentucky. Originally staunch Calvinists, they would gradually come to embrace the concept of free will and evangelism, in contrast to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Regular Baptists settled further north, in Pennsylvania and near Baltimore, and would spread south into the Shenandoah Valley, eventually into eastern Kentucky, east Tennessee, and North Carolina.
The second denomination I will discuss is Methodism, which began in England in 1729. Based on the teachings of John Wesley, the evangelical, revivalist nature of the faith meshed well with those on the Appalachian frontier, and soon become one of the largest denominations in the region.
The spread of Methodism in Appalachia was aided very much by the efforts of Bishop Francis Asbury and the hundreds of Methodist preachers he enlisted to travel circuits on horseback to the remote settlements and cabins on the Appalachian frontier. Asbury himself is said to have transited the Appalachian range 60 times during the course of his preaching. Years later, these circuits would become networks of actual churches, thus giving rise to the famous image of circuit riding preachers. Many of these preachers, especially in North Carolina, would become known as Republican Methodists, as they became staunch opponents of slavery, even going so far as to bar slave owners from their churches.
In 1783 the Holston Circuit in southwest Virginia and east Tennessee became one of the earliest of these circuits. This route linked remote settlements in present day Sullivan, Carter, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson and Washington Counties in Tennessee with Lee, Russell, Smyth, Scott, and Washington Counties in Virginia.
Two other evangelists influential in the spread of Methodism in Appalachia are Robert Strawbridge and Robert Williams. Strawbridge was an Irish immigrant to America who came around 1760. He built a log meetinghouse in western Maryland which was the first American Methodist church building. His fellow Methodist, Robert Williams, became the first itinerant Methodist preacher in America by 1769, spreading the faith from the Appalachian counties of New York all the way south to North Carolina.
Methodism stressed Bible-based individualism and the doctrine of free will, which found sympathetic audiences in Appalachia. Like the Baptists, Methodism would split into various branches, including the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Primitive Methodist Church, the Free Methodist Church of North America, and the largest branch, the United Methodist Church.
The third denomination I will discuss is the Holiness-Pentecostalism movement. The Holiness and Pentecostal churches are separate denomination, but the seem to have informally fused, particularly in Appalachia. These churches are characterized by ecstatic and highly emotional worship that often involves Baptism in the Holy Spirit, often associated with speaking in tongues. They also have a revivalist tradition similar to that which has existed in Appalachia for centuries.
Both the Holiness and Pentecostal movements emerged in the early 20th century. The Holiness movement originated from the Wesleyan concept of sanctification—purity of heart, mind, and deed. The Pentecostal movement had similar beginnings but also involved Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which led to such spiritual gifts as glossolalia—speaking in tongues. The largest Pentecostal denomination is the Assemblies of God, and the largest Holiness denomination is the Church of the Nazerene.
These churches are very committed to evangelism and have sent thousands of missionaries out, at home and abroad. As a result, Pentecostalism has a strong following in many parts of the world, including Latin America, Africa, and Asia. They may comprise the largest religious tradition in Appalachia, although precise numbers are again difficult to obtain.
Appalachian Holiness churches are often independent of any denomination. They generally meet in one room church buildings. They usually have no official membership roles, centralized structure, and very little money. They do have lots of prayer, singing, revivalism, and ecstatic worship styles. They believe in a personal God. Mountain Holiness churches are often held more than one night a week and usually for more than three hours.
Perhaps the most well known segment of the Holiness tradition are snake handlers, or serpent handlers as they prefer to be called. Although virtually all serpent handlers are affiliated with the Holiness tradition, they comprise only a very tiny fraction of Holiness churches. In total, it is estimated that there are no more than 3,000 members of serpent handling churches. I will discuss serpent handling in greater detail in a future episode.
There are countless religious traditions in Appalachia and it would be impossible to do them all justice. But they have contributed in immeasurable ways to the culture of Appalachia, and will continue to do so for years to come. Generally, Appalachian churches tend to be highly independent, strongly emotional, and skeptical of religious hierarchy. However, there are many exceptions to this rule. An honest and open-minded study of these various churches is crucial to understanding Appalachian culture.
The sources for this episode were the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell and A Handbook to Appalachia, edited by Grace Toney Edwards, JoAnn Aust Asbury, and Ricky L. Cox.
That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. I greatly appreciate all of the feedback I’ve received, as well as all the webmasters and bloggers who have linked to this podcast. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at podcastappalachia.blogspot.com. If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.