Leonard, Bill J., ed. Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), xxxii, 328.
This collection of twenty essays reflects the output at the 1997 conference of the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center (AMIERC) at Berea College, which drew upon the expertise of Appalachian scholars and religion in Appalachia writers to create a cross disciplinary collection on the current state of studies in this region.
|"Given the dearth of broad texts on religion in Appalachia, this volume fills a somewhat glaring gap for students in Appalachian studies."|
Editor Bill Leonard’s introduction demonstrates the wide variety of approaches to the study of regional religion. There have been sociological tomes like that of West Virginia University scholar John Photiadis, a long line of works by those sensitive to the upland religious folk from John Campbell through Loyal Jones’ Faith and Meaning in the Southern Highlands, and studies of various denominational traditions. This work demonstrates that Appalachian Christianity is becoming an emerging discipline involving groups from mainline churches to native congregations outside of the denominational structures, which were the focus of Deborah Vansau McCauley’s recent history. This volume has tried to be inclusive in its breadth. Surprisingly the only omission is the United Methodist Church, which is ubiquitous in Northern Appalachia.
The most valuable chapter for a student of Appalachia would have to be Barbara Ellen Smith’s phenomenological account of a century of life of her family in the Blue Ridge as context for a discussion of historiographical approaches to the study of Appalachia. These approaches vary from the view of preindustrial region as an Eden exemplifying the Jeffersonian agrarian vision found in the writings of Ron Eller, to the complex view of lived human experience offered up by David Whisnant, to the community studies like Dwight Billings’ on going Beech Creek work that takes us further back in time to study pre-capitalist subsistence modes of production, even as the studies go forward, to the internal colony and world systems approach of Wilma Dunaway. All these are to counter the traditional views of exceptionalism, familialism and fatalism, or worst of all Arnold Toynbee’s assessment of acquired civilization lost. In this larger economic and sociological study of the region, the diversity of religion has loomed more and more important.
Among the other non-denominational chapters, the missionary work to develop church colleges (in the central region covered by ARC) by Ira Read is highly informative. This chapter provides a clearer analysis of time and space as to when inroads were made and the spatial location and distribution of these colleges and particularly the relationship between church and colleges. This article cries out for expansion into a larger work.
Charles Lippy argues against the position of religious exceptionalism in Appalachia, finding the difference to be one of intensity. Gary Farley and Leonard approach the traditions behind the ministry in sympathetic fashion describing the typology of generally unpaid people’s preachers from the Baptist farmer - preacher to the women of the Holiness-Pentecostal movement to the structural career tracking of Methodists. Each minister devoted his other life, whether paid or unpaid, in towns or rural areas. Loyal Jones lets his correspondents speak about key concepts of God, Satan, World and Salvation in a brief but vivid chapter.
On the other hand, Janet Welch’s look at the negative aspects of religious traditions is a shallow one and Bennett Poage’s take on the family farm ministry, while it is empirical, focuses on the burley tobacco region with its commitment to a single highly subsidized crop to the detriment of agricultural diversity, and with no regard for the health implications. These two essays are a distinct disappointment.
The articles on various denominations and traditions include several excellent portrayals including Howard Dorgan on Old-Time Baptists followed by Leonard’s later Baptist typology; the Wesleyan - Holiness tradition by Melvin Dieter, and a balanced assessment of the Stone-Campbell tradition and its divisions by Disciples historian Anthony Dunnavant.
There are several problems with the book that mostly reflect omissions. The polarity between rural Appalachians who perceive their plight as one of failure to achieve pure aspirations vs. The mainline Protestant concepts of Social Gospel uplift and the disbelief in sin is largely ignored. The dichotomy between Calvin’s predestination and Jacob Arminius’ free will as to individual actions has been slighted with only casual mention by Dorgan and Hill. There is also a bias in favor of outsider missions, agencies like Committee on Religion in Appalachia and Catholic missions described by Lou F. McNeil, and against the authors, who perceive that these are intrusive, semi-elitist enterprises, although McCauley, who has pointed this out, is included. Discerning scholars since the 1970s have recognized and posited the role of missions as culturally imperialistic structures, despite the good intention of home missionaries and the attempts to empower the oppressed like the Glenmary Mission at Big Stone Gap, Virginia.
These objections aside, the compendium demonstrates the pluralism of religion in Southern Appalachia, the mainline churches relations, the locally informed independent churches and how broader culture impacts religion in traditional, but only relatively isolated regions.
Given the dearth of broad texts on religion in Appalachia, this volume fills a somewhat glaring gap for students in Appalachian studies. It also provides a look at how Appalachian historiography has been evolving for those who seek to study the diverse traditions of Appalachian religion. The final nine chapters are effective portraits denominations and traditions, wrapped by Samuel Hill’s analysis of theologies, and ultimate assessment of religious authenticity as being worthy of preservation.
Therefore, this volume will have a long lasting use as a guide to religion in Appalachia. It covers commendably, if imperfectly, a gap in scholarship that would require several works to fully satisfy. It makes a useful teaching text and more effectively deals with more varied themes than any other volume with which I am familiar.
William K. Bunner, West Virginia University
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