Books: Appalachian Religion(s)


Albanese, Catherine L. America: Religions and Religion. Wadsworth Publishing Company. Belmont, CA. 1981.

In chapter nine of this book Albanese uses the Appalachian situation as a case study of what she terms "regional religion." The chapter itself is not particularly revolutionary in its assessment of mountain religion, but its placement in a book on America provides context. However, Albanese’s definition of "regional religion" is problematic for the Appalachian case. She claims that the region is defined by its geographical boundaries, which "follow the contour of the land" (222). Yet this assessment ignores the generations of Appalachians (such as myself) who have migrated to urban centers but continue to maintain cultural identification with the mountains. Furthermore, Appalachia's geographical boundaries are also ambiguous. Insofar as Appalachia fits her definition of a regional religion, Albanese’s description of mountain ethnicities, growth patterns, character, and religious life is adequate and informative. Yet the reader must beware that the equation of Appalachia with a discreet region is limiting and inaccurate.

Boles, John B. Religion in Antebellum Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky. Lexington, KY. 1976.

Another example of a regional focus which attributes disproportionate attention to "those religious groups sizable enough to have a significant impact on Kentucky" (ix). Boles begins with the first settlers in the early eighteenth century and traces development of the region's Protestant organizations. Focusing primarily on Kentucky Baptists, Catholic missionaries, and black Christianity, the book ends with the denominational reaction to the Civil War. In the process, Boles discusses the Great Revival of 1800 - 1805, the region's tradition of anti-slavery, and how Kentucky Christianity differed and differs from that of the Deep South. More descriptive than interpretive, the book is nonetheless intriguing because of its regional specificity and because I'm from Kentucky.

Burton, T. 1993. Serpent Handling Believers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Carden, Karen W. and Robert Pelton. The Persecuted Prophets. A.S. Barnes and Company. Cranbury, New Jersey. 1976.

Carrier, Alfred. The Flight of the Dove: Roots of Pentecost in Eastern Kentucky. unpublished manuscript. Husronville, Kentucky. 1988.

Collins, J.B. 1947. Tennessee Snake Handlers. Chattanooga: Chattanooga Magazine Company.

Covington, Dennis. Salvation on Sand Mountain. New York: Addison-Wesley. 1995.

Dennis Covington writes on the South for the New York Times. He is assigned to cover the trial of Glenn Summerford, a serpent-handling preacher who is accused of attempting to murder his wife by forcing her to handle a rattlesnake at gunpoint. A fine piece of historical literature and a wonderful portrait of Appalachian life, Covington's book is simultaneously academic and literary. Covington himself is of Scotch-Irish Appalachian descent, and in the course of uncovering materials for his article, he decides to take up serpents himself.

Crissman, James K. Death and Dying in Central Appalachia: Changing Attitudes and Practices. University of Illinois Press. Urbana and Chicago. 1994.

Crissman drew his information for this book from four sources: 1) his personal experience growing up and dealing with death in Appalachia; 2) books and journals, primarily from archives at the University of Kentucky and Berea College; 3) almost four hundred interviews with native Appalachians over the age of sixty-five, and 4) data from over one thousand musical recordings. In short, he's done his homework. This book is engrossing and important because it describes beliefs and practices surrounding a phenomenon with which all Appalachians must deal. It also presents several gruesome photographs of bodies, mortuaries, coffins, tombstones, and funerary rites. The rituals used in the dying and funerary processes show us how death functions and is reconciled in Appalachia. Crissman concludes by positing that death's centrality and importance has diminished in recent years. I love this book.

Dorgan, Howard. The Airwaves of Zion: Radio and Religion in Appalachia. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN. 1993.

If you’ve ever driven through Appalachia and gotten a kick out of small production mountain radio, this book is for you. Dorgan provides an overview and examples of “plain folk religion” of lower and upland Southern Appalachia. The introductory first chapter, as well as Chapter 6 (“Common Threads”) are of special interest. Dorgan presents mountain radio as a contemporary mode of communication, free from institutionalization. The programs are not smooth and polished, but are “led by the Spirit” in a improvisational blend of highly autonomous sub-denominations. “Airwaves of Zion” is comprised of Holiness -Pentecostals, Churches of God, Freewill Baptists, Independent Baptists, Full Gospel Pentecostals, Churches of the Signs, and Churches of Prophecy, among others. Dorgan’s work demonstrates the fiercely independent nature of Appalachian religions, and shows how radio has been a part of Appalachian experience.

Dorgan, Howard. In the Hands of a Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia. UT Press. Knoxville, TN. 1997.

A continuation of Dorgan’s fieldwork, this work is a recent study of the Primitive Baptist Universalist Churches of central Appalachia. The book is valuable not so much because of the subject matter it covers, but because of the thematic and methodological issues it addresses. The book is a detailed account of a three year field study complete with photographs and an enlightening discussion of the research process conducted through Appalachian State University.

Dorgan, Howard. Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN. 1987.

This book is a detailed study of six Appalachian Baptist churches: the Southern Appalachian , Missionary, Freewill, Primitive, Regular, and Old Regular Baptists. The work presents the region’s vastly diverse beliefs and practices, while confronting many of the field’s fundamental issues. Dorgan addresses the issue of “ice-breaking” at the outset of his field study. His work wrestles with the problem of stereotypes commonly found among scholars and Appalachians. These issues remain crucial for scholars (like me) wishing to do research in the region.

Dorough, C. Dwight. The Bible Belt Mystique. Philadelphia, PA. Westminster Press. 1974.

Goodykoontz, Colin Brummitt. Home Missions on the American Frontier: With Particular Reference to the American Home Missionary Society. Caxton Printers. Caldwell, Idaho. 1939.

One of the earliest classic works to question the motives of the home mission movement. The book discusses New England's conceited tendency to see itself as the purest form of Protestantism and explores the internal colonialization of religious groups in the United States.

Hooker, Elizabeth R. Religion in the Highlands: Native Churches and Missionary Enterprises in the Southern Appalachian Area; With a Section on Missionary and Philanthropic Schools by Fannie Dunn. Home Missions Council. New York. 1933.

This work contrasts "native" religious life and traditions in Appalachia with the home mission efforts of major Protestant denominations in the area. Hooker's project was commissioned by the Federal Council of Churches, with the goal of finding more effective means of missionizing. The study begins with the premise that missionary efforts could not continue to ignore "native" traditions. It concludes by recognizing differences regarding basic conceptions as to the nature of religion which she says is "an almost insurmountable barrier."

Holliday, Robert K. Tests of Faith. Oakhill, West Virginia,. Fayette Tribune Publishing. 1966.

Johnson, Curtis D. Islands of Holiness: Rural Religion in Upstate New York, 1790 - 1860. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY and London. 1989.

Pushing the geographical boundaries of my field, this book covers religious experience in a region adjacent to what has commonly been understood as "Appalachia." However, the issues examined in this work are identical to those facing the Southern Highlanders of Central Appalachia: outmigration, cultural preservation and identity, industrialization, and revivalism. This book is valuable to the field because it demonstrates the elusiveness of boundaries. The history of New York evangelism mirrors that of the Southern Highlands. Johnson claims that the bulk of scholarship in this region has tended to focus on cities. The same is true of the Appalachian Mountains. The book provides a point of comparison at which broader issues of Appalachian religion can be examined.

Kimbrough, David L. 1995. Taking Up Serpents: Snake handlers of Eastern Kentucky. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kimbrough's is THE book on the practice of serpent-handling. Based on participant-observation in over three hundred of these rituals, Kimbrough's work traces the history of snake-handling from its mythologized origin in the person of George Hensley to its modern manifestations in churches throughout the region. He outlines the social and economic conditions in which the handlers have lived for decades, and theorizes that the practice may be seen as a reaction to the threat of a hostile, dominant, external culture. The book is authoritative and convincing, presenting extensive citations and transcripts of interviews and events in which Kimbrough participated. It is a highly interesting read, in part because in the course of his field study, Kimbrough decides to take up serpents himself. Photographs of legendary snake handlers as well as of contemporary practices add to this impressive work. Meticulous and exhaustive research, years of participant observation, sympathetic authorship, and stunning photography easily establish this work as the best in its field.

La Barre, Weston. 1969 (1962). They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern Snake-handling Cult. New York. Schocken Books. 1969 (1962).

Psychologist of religion Weston La Barre's sneeringly condescending "psycho-analysis" of the snake-handling movement. La Barre presents heavily jaded descriptions of the ritual, yet it becomes apparent that he has never witnessed it. The analysis of serpent-handling presented in this book attributes the practice to a fulfillment of hidden psychosexual desires. The serpent is associated with the penis and its handling with orgiastic sexuality (of course, this fails to explain why poisonous snakes are used). La Barre even goes further to judge the practice "unhealthy" and "neurotic." Unfortunately, it seems that this work is fairly popular, and it remains a standard.

Lawless, Elaine J. God's Peculiar People: Women's Voices & Folk Tradition in a Pentecostal Church. University of Kentucky Press. Lexington, KY. 1988.

A study of the religious traditions of one congregation of a particular Pentecostal sect - the "Jesus Only" or "Oneness" Pentecostals. It is a close ethnographic examination of one church, presented in the hope that the jump from particular to general can be made in a way that preserves the fanatic individualism of Pentecostal churches. Since she is a folklorist, Lawless views the oral religious context as that of tradition, that is, it reflects an inherited worldview and a set of beliefs and rituals. Lawless focuses on women because her experience indicates that in this particular region (southern Missouri), women tend to participate in greater numbers than men. Not only that, but their participation tends to be more enthusiastic and intense. An interesting example of a well-focused field study done by a folklorist.

Lawless, Elaine J. Handmaidens of the Lord: Pentecostal Women Preachers and Traditional Religion. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia, PA. 1988.

Lawless' book follows the life of white female Pentecostal preachers in rural Missouri. It focuses primarily on one woman, Sister Anna Walters, who pastored an Assembly of God church in Centerville, Missouri for eighteen years. Lawless allows Sister Anna's story to become representative of a more general population. Of special interest in this book is the introduction in which Lawless discusses the process leading her to a doctoral dissertation on Pentecostal women at Indiana University. Also in the introduction is a general overview and brief description of American Pentecostalism.

Lewis, Helen M., S. Maxine Waller, and Mary Ann Hinsdale. It Comes From the People: Community Development and Local Theology. Temple University Press. Philadelphia, PA. 1995.

This book is a case study of a small rural town in southwestern Virginia called Ivanhoe. It describes how deindustrialization in the wake of the coal industry's departure created the need for a reorganization of local communities and theology. The area developed a local liberation theology that fostered social action and involvement. These women describe the process from three different perspectives. Maxine Waller is a local community leader who became "Ivanhoe's preheat and local theologian" (viii). Helen Lewis is a sociologist and community educator, who lived and worked among the community for over two years. Mary Ann Hinsdale is a feminist theologian and a Catholic sister who conducted a series of Bible studies intended to explore the local theology. Their essays attempt to share rather than explain Ivanhoe's experience. This town has been hailed as an example of mountain communal development, especially by the American Ministries Education Resource Center (AMERC) at Berea College. A familiarity with Ivanhoe is important for understanding the complex of issues currently plaguing Appalachia.

Lippy, Charles H. Ed. Religion in South Carolina. University of South Carolina Press. Columbia, SC. 1993.

A collection of essays begins with an overview by Lewis Jones, then outlines the white Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and African-American traditions in South Carolina. The second of the book discusses the Holiness-Pentecostal movements and the relationship of South Carolina religions to pluralism and to the established social order. From the coastal lowlands to the western mountains, South Carolina is a hotbed for Holiness. A valuable book in that the issues it addresses are symptomatic of the entire Appalachian and Southern regions.

McCauley, Deborah Vansau. Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

This is perhaps the best book ever written on Appalachian religion. It is an impressive combination of field study and primary and secondary sources. In David Kimbrough's glowing review, the work is praised as "comprehensive, exhaustive, copiously footnoted, and a testimonial to the high level of scholarship that has recently characterized Appalachian religious history." He further claims that McCauley's book "will reign for a thousand years as the definitive work on Appalachian religion." She attempts to find a definition of mountain religion and to describe the historical forces that have shaped it. McCauley traces the diverse Appalachian religious movements, highlighting the historical bonds they share. She investigates a comprehensive array of Appalachian denominations and how they have developed into distinct forms of American Protestantism. She attacks Protestant missionaries, whose efforts, she claims, have contributed to cultural hegemony. Interestingly, she particularly focuses her criticisms on the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center (AMERC) at Berea College, where McCauley studied and taught. This book is a critical, in-depth examination of the history of Appalachian religion and culture.

McNeil, W.K. ed. Appalachian Images in Folk and Popular Culture. University of Tennessee Press. Knoxville, TN. 1995.

McNeil is an academic folklorist. His collection of essays presents a history of Appalachian folklore scholarship. Dating from 1860 to the present the articles demonstrate the region's diversity. In Loyal Jones' forward, he claims that the collection points out five erroneous assumptions: 1) that Appalachia is a monolithic region, 2) that Appalachia is synonymous with poverty, 3) that all Appalachians speak Elizabethan English, 4) that all are Scotch-Irish, and 5) that all Appalachians worship in the same way.

Norton, Herman A. Religion in Tennessee 1777-1945. University of Tennessee Press. Knoxville, TN. 1981.

This book presents a general history of organized religion in Tennessee, from 1777, the date of the first resident minister in the state, to the end of WWII. It begins with the first scattered Protestant settlers in the Holston and Watauga valleys and follows the progression to a population of Protestants, Roman Catholic, and Jews. Certain denominations, however, receive disproportionate attention, due to Norton's judgment of their relative importance to Tennessee life. Whether this approach denies inclusion of the region's diversity is a question Norton ignores. However, the book remains valuable for its specific focus on the state and for its "sketches" of notable ministers.

Peacock, James L.; and Tyson, Ruel W. Pilgrims of Paradox: Calvinism and Experience among the Primitive Baptists of the Blue Ridge. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington and London. 1989.

An ethnography of a specific denomination in a specific region (eastern Virginia and North Carolina). Tyson and Peacock address fundamental issues of field study, including an enlightening preface in which they discuss the ideas of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Henry James. The preface provides a nice theoretical grounding for the book and for subsequent ethnography. This work is an important read for anyone planning on conducting a field study in the region. The book, which reads as a story, describes the dispersion, doctrines, modes of communication, paradoxes (incongruities!), detailed case studies, photographs, and demography of the Primitive Baptists. Chapter eight, "Theory and Ethnography," is an introspective study of Durkheim, Weber, and Geertz, and of how these theorists relate to Calvinism in general and to the Primitive Baptists in particular. Another jewel from Peacock and Tyson.

Schermerhorn, John F. and Samuel J. Mills. A Correct View of That Part of the United States Which Lies West of the Allegheny Mountains, With Regard to Religion and Morals. Massachusetts Missionary Society and the Missionary Society of Connecticut. 1814.

The first and most influential home mission report. John F. Schermerhorn and Samuel J. Mills were home missionaries sent to the region by the Massachusetts Missionary Society and the Missionary Society of Connecticut, the oldest two missionary societies in the nation. This survey sketched the religious life of the "Old Southwest" (Appalachia) and the lower Mississippi Valley. The summary presented in this work outlined worship practices and belief systems that became normative to mountain religious life.

Shapiro, Henry D. Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill. 1978.

This work confronts the history of the idea of Appalachia. It examines some of the origins and consequences of the idea of a uniform Appalachian region, people, religion, and culture. It traces the history of the construction of Appalachia in America, an idea which emerged around 1870 and has endured until the present. It deals with Appalachia's "otherness," its "discovery," invention, and naming. Shapiro shows how the idea of Appalachia has developed and endured throughout modernization, urbanization, industrialization, regionalism, revival, and finally, pluralism. It is a history of how America has dealt with the "strange mountaineers, and, more generally, how otherness is confronted.

Thomas, Jean. Blue Ridge Country. Duell, Sloan, and Pearce. New York. 1942.

Thomas' classic work provides a portrait of Blue Ridge Country, a region congruous with Southern Appalachia. Unlike most surveys of the region, this work is relevant to religion. Chapters devoted to "Tradition," "Religious Customs," "Superstition," and "Legend" provide an early insight into scholastic views of Appalachian religion and culture.

Tyson, Ruel Jr.; Peacock, James L.; and Patterson, Daniel W. eds. Diversities of Gifts: Field Studies in Southern Religion. Univesity of Illinois Press. Urbana and Chicago, IL. 1988.

This collection of essays presents an account of what the editors have termed "independent Protestants," with a geographical focus in North Carolina. The essays are meant to suggest the region's diversity of religious experience without attempting a comprehensive survey. The editors claim that "if individually the congregations are small, in the aggregate they compose a significant wing of Southern - and American - religion. This is an important book because it describes many of the forms of religious experience which are typically overlooked in the field - preaching styles, body gestures, music, and speech patterns are examples. Any work with Ruel Tyson or James Peacock on the spine is valuable, and this one is no exception.

Weatherford, Willis D., and Earl D.C. Brewer. Life and Religion in Southern Appalachia: an Interpretation of Selected Data from the Southern Appalachian Studies. New York. Friendship Press. 1962.

Whisnant, David E. All That is Native and Fine: the Politics of Culture in an American Region. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill and London. 1983.

Whisnant's is a book about "cultural otherness." It is about class boundaries, social and economic change, survival and revival, images, and cultural translation and manipulation. Whisnant relates the middle and upper class projection of poor, rural Appalachia in the media and in scholarship. His work focuses on the period between 1890 and 1940, but the issues he discusses continue to confound Appalachian scholarship in particular and the academic study of religion and culture in general. The book is about how "culture workers" assessed and presented the problems and solutions for Appalachian culture, and how these projections, intended to help, forced an "insidious reciprocity." Whisnant presents two images which he feels express what the book is all about. The first is that of "Lucy Furman's portrait of a hell-raising mountain boy ("Fighting Fult Fallon"), tamed and stuffed into a purple plumed hat and velvet knee britches, playing the title role in a dramatized version of "Lord Lovel" at a mountain settlement school. The other might be of a talented mountain girl, a reluctant scholarship student at a mission school, hitching a ride across the river on a ferry and striking out back across the mountains on foot - home to her folks" (Preface, p.1).

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