Encyclopedia of Appalachia
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Old-Time Religion

Religion in Appalachia evokes images from tent revivals and serpent handlers to fire-and-brimstone preachers, from living water baptisms to "the little chapel in the pines." Popular recording artists such as Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, and Loretta Lynn started with and often returned to mountain gospel music, making modern America aware of faith in the mountains. In Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Parton has placed at the center of her Appalachian theme park a restored one-room mountain church. Stereotypes of mountain religion that came to the fore during the 1960s had been created over a century and a half through outside observations of religious practices in Appalachia, mostly by home missionaries or people seeking exotic experiences or local color. These stereotypes are epitomized by snake handling, the best-known and most notorious and sensational image of religion in Appalachia since the 1940s, even though serpent-handling churches and communities are rare.

Appalachia’s regional religious tradition is made up of many church traditions and religious cultures. It bears the common image of being an old-time religion that remains unchanging and frozen in the past. It is stereotyped as hyper-Calvinist, trapped in a fatalism and passivity that strips Appalachia’s people of power over their own destinies. Mountain people are perceived by outsiders as embracing a Bible-thumping, literal fundamentalism: Christianity at its worst. Their religion is deemed the product of illiteracy, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance. It is called a "hillbilly religion," clannishly sectarian and individualistic, prone to internal conflicts in an endless epidemic of split congregations that create even more small, peculiar, and uncooperative churches.

Most recently, religion in Appalachia has been characterized as "the religion of the poor." It is hyped as the religion of an oppressed people who are voiceless victims in need of others more powerful than they to speak and act on their behalf in a struggle for justice that they are unable to wage for themselves. This label is based on the efforts of present-day social activists whose motivations are little different from those of home missionaries to Appalachia over the past two centuries who came to the region to "evangelize and uplift." Under the mantle of liberation theology, both modern mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics have since the 1970s embraced the romantic view of Appalachia as a Third World enclave in the United States. They declare Appalachia’s "voiceless victims" to be disempowered by defeatist attitudes promoted by the pie-in-the-sky theology of their do-nothing religion that keeps them locked in oppression and poverty.

Religion is targeted for censure and condemnation more than any of Appalachia’s other cultural realities. Its stereotyping has usually come out of the struggle for religious and secular power in the region. As a result, Appalachia’s religious faithful are not seen as peers to be treated with mutual respect and may be willfully ignored as inconsequential. Images often focus on the quaint, thus trivializing religion in Appalachia. Religious practice is portrayed as retrograde and devolving, not viable. Its demise is assumed to be not only inevitable but also imminent. Home missionaries first sounded the death knell for Appalachian religion in the mid-1850s, as many others do today.

Throughout history, mountain preachers have been identified as the crux of "the mountain problem." Mountain people commonly reject seminary education for credentialing and equipping their preachers and pastors. They know it is no substitute for spiritual inspiration and insight. They also reject a paid ministry and always have. Preachers and pastors must make their own way in the world and do not expect their churches to support them. As a result, another common image portrays the people of Appalachia as "unwilling to support the Gospel." Historically, mountain people looked to ministers hired by coal camps and mill towns as an example of "whoever pays you, owns you," and this has reinforced suspicion of paid preachers.

The fire-and-brimstone image represents mountain preachers as condemning the innate sinfulness of humanity and harping on immorality. Such preaching is not prevalent in the mountains. The preachers so labeled are usually independent or loosely affiliated Holiness-Pentecostals and Baptists, especially Old-Time Baptists. Together they represent the churches distinctive to Appalachia as a regional religious tradition. Their preaching is inspired by the Holy Spirit and lively. Appalachia’s social fabric is very delicate, especially in small rural communities. It does not mend quickly or well when damaged. There is much tolerance for personal needs and quirks in the preaching and worship life of mountain church communities. Apart from uncommon exceptions, the images of clannish sectarianism and divisive individualism do not represent these churches’ actual conduct with each other.

Fatalism and passivity are not compatible with religion in Appalachia, either. It is true that mountain preachers rarely use their pulpits to incite social change or political action; that is not the calling they understand for themselves. They may encourage people outside the church-house doors to vote or run for elected office, as even preachers themselves may do. People in Appalachia often use a church house for union meetings and political organizing and other purposes related to matters of social justice and quality of life. But church meetings themselves are not for politics. Appalachia’s faith communities are formed by people who want to meet together as often as possible for renewal of the Holy Spirit: to preach, pray, sing, testify, and praise God. This reality stands in stark contrast and is a sign of radical contradiction to the works-righteousness orientation of direct, programmatic social action that has defined most of church life for American Protestant denominations and American Catholicism since the early nineteenth century.

Appalachia’s people make a clear distinction between religion and faith. They have always understood that theology, words about God, is controlled and manipulated by human institutions far more easily than is Spirit-led faith. Inevitably, most mountain church communities operate almost entirely outside of denominational frameworks. They are largely self-determining and without denominational allegiances or agendas, believing that "each church holds the key to its own door." These churches are prevalent and widespread yet remain unnoted and uncounted in any census of church life in the United States. As a result, Appalachia has a prominent and false image of a region that is largely "unchurched." This image serves some denominations’ justifications for maintaining mission work in Appalachia.

Many of the city and town dwellers in Appalachia have chosen to disdain as "hillbilly religion" the region’s distinctive religious tradition that makes it a national treasure. Because many have handed over to others the power to determine and name what is "real religion," their fear of being outside the national norm has caused them to reject the richness and integrity of mountain religious life that flourishes in their midst. See also: GREAT WESTERN REVIVAL AND CAMP-MEETING MOVEMENT (RELIGION); SECTION OVERVIEW (RELIGION); SERPENT HANDLING (RELIGION).

—Deborah Vansau McCauley, East Orange, New Jersey Loyal Jones, Faith and Meaning in the Southern Uplands (1999); Bill J. Leonard, ed., Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism (1999); Deborah V. McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (1995).

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