Leonard, Bill J., ed. Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), xxxii, 328.

An afternoon drive on a typical winding road in rural Appalachia reveals the remnants of religious expression. One will travel past many small, white-clapboard churches of an amazing variety of denominations, mainline and independent. Most drivers do not notice this, and roll past without venturing a guess at the form of worship or theology practiced within those walls. A new book of essays, Christianity in Appalachia, provides a glimpse into the sanctuaries and theologies of Appalachia, and considers how and why religion takes the form it does.

" The most creative chapter, Barbara Ellen Smith’s survey of the economic and geographic realities of Appalachia, is a curious combination of scholarship and personal history. "

Bill Leonard, Dean of The Divinity School at Wake Forest University, undertook the thankless task as editor of Christianity in Appalachia. Little consensus on the taxonomy of religious expression exists among scholars of Appalachian history and culture. Any editor of a general work on Christianity in the region realizing that he or she accepts a in a thankless position. When one adds to this the lack of agreement on the boundaries of Appalachia, the reader quickly notes that this venture skates across such thin ice and requires a deep conviction about the final product and its importance in future research efforts. Practically every reader of these essays could compose a list of other topics, denominations, or theologies for another edition. For such bravery, Leonard deserves "the right hand of fellowship" from Appalachia’s religion scholars for his efforts.

Christianity in Appalachia has a great set of book ends, with the introductory chapter written by Leonard and the concluding chapter by Samuel S. Hill. Leonard’s clear, concise introduction surveys the varying approaches to the study of Appalachian religion and deliberates on the theological concerns of the region. He reveals a polarity of theological concerns over the authority of scripture and the Holy Ghost, the nature of leadership in the church and the notion of ritual. Essentially, Leonard insightfully portrays the range of Appalachian religious experience, a range rarely noticed within the region, much less outside. The book concludes with Hill’s ruminations on Appalachia within its Southern context. Hill, the high priest (in the spirit of ecumenicalism, please feel free to add whatever religious leadership position here) of southern religious history, offers an engaging benediction by considering the interplay of southern conversionist Evangelicalism and Appalachian Calvinism. For Hill, the brand of Calvinism found in Appalachia has roots in Scottish Calvinism — a heritage of pulpit and no altar, a minister and no priest, and the Lord’s (emphasis on Lord) Table as an experience of community among believers. Contrasted with the larger South’s "intensely personal" Wesleyanism, Hill considers the Appalachian religion to be a "(sub)region" of the South’s distinctive religious culture. Between the twin pillars of Leonard and Hill, the remainder of the book considers the region’s religious experience overall and profiles selected communities of faith in Appalachia.

The most insightful chapters feature the elements of mountain religion. No doubt, this is the result of copious research by the scholars writing the chapters. Loyal Jones’ chapter introducing mountain religion is a work of art. Jones claims mountain religion is a search for meaning — one that asks big questions — and he has the good sense to state his point clearly, reinforcing it by the quotations of mountain preachers and laypersons. One wishes the book included a cassette tape of the interviews. Mary Lee Daugherty’s chapter on Appalachia’s most famous religious expression, snake handling, is a most intriguing thesis. Daugherty guides the reader through a typical worship service, provides historical background, and portrays snake handling as a form of living sacrament. The chapters on the Holiness tradition and Old-Time Baptists, by Deborah Vansau McCauley and Howard Dorgan respectively, continue the high level of scholarship readers expect from these talented scholars. McCauley views the Holiness tradition as a unique American contribution to Protestantism. These unique traditions also left their mark on the form and function of the overall religious character of Appalachia. The Holiness tradition, for McCauley, is "part of a long-lived, organic religious movement [her emphasis] in the mountains" (p. 107). Dorgan describes the general traditions of many Old-Time Baptists, such as the Union Baptists, Separate Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists and the Primitive Baptist Universalists, and he conveys the theological tenents and Calvinistic variations found among mountain Baptists. Topping off this section, Gary Farley and Bill Leonard carefully consider the mountain preacher and minister, featuring the "call" to the ministry as the critical aspect. The primary focus of the chapter is the native Appalachian, bi-vocational minister, the staple of the Appalachian small church. Quality chapters on mountain religion are the strongly beating heart of this volume.

The chapters on specific denominations are of uneven quality. For example, Donald N. Bowdle’s chapter profiling the Church of God raises several significant points, such as the "disarming pluralism" found in services and the Appalachian roots of this oldest organized Pentecostal denomination in America. However, the writing is convoluted and at times resembles a proselytizing tract. Other chapters profile programs supported and developed by mainline denominations. One example, written by a former Glenmary Sister, Monica Kelly Appleby, documents the struggle of ministering in Appalachia within the confines of the Catholic Church, a conflict so significant that many Glenmary Sisters left the order while they continued to serve the Appalachian region. Appelby’s chapter reveals the conflict over the role of women in the Catholic Church and sheds light on mission work in Appalachia. Other chapters, good models for future research, consider the impact of Appalachia on a denomination and vis versa. Melvin Deiter’s chapter on Wesleyan/Holiness churches and Anthony Dunnavant’s chapter on the Stone-Campbell traditions are excellent explanations of the Appalachian region’s influence on national religious movements. Lou F. McNeill’s well-written, informative chapter on Catholicism and Bill Leonard’s chapter on Southern Baptists are outstanding portraits of well-established denomination’s attempts to move into the region. McNeill stresses the impact upon Appalachia of Catholicism’s history in the South. For example, the denomination’s criteria for establishing churches led to the creation of few Catholic parishes in Appalachia. Interestingly, Catholic parishes in Appalachia actively participated in the town life, which greatly contrasts with parishes in the North where immigrants created large separate enclaves. Leonard’s work on the various adaptations among Appalachia’s Southern Baptists is a good starting point for future research.

The essays on the general religion and culture of the region — perhaps the most difficult to write — are the most diverse in their quality. Charles Lippy’s "Popular Religiosity in Central Appalachia" is insightful, providing the reader with information that illuminates later chapters. The most creative chapter, Barbara Ellen Smith’s survey of the economic and geographic realities of Appalachia, is a curious combination of scholarship and personal history. In many ways, this essay creatively reveals the large issues in Appalachian history by pondering the struggles of individuals to place personal experience within the complex interpretive schemes. Other chapters, however, fall short of the mark. Bennett Poage’s chapter on the family farm ministry in Appalachia is chock full of information, but, unfortunately, is more of an agricultural history that lightly touches a religious topic. Ira Reed’s chapter on church colleges in central Appalachia is an interesting recitation on facts that adds little to the overall consideration of religion in the mountains. Janet Boggess Welsh’s article on the cultural, moral, and religious standards is simply infuriating, a work of journalistic tripe. The article trivializes the complexity of religious belief in Appalachia. Based on very little documentation in the endnotes (a favorite citation of which is the two Charleston, WV newspapers), the editor should exorcize Welsh’s chapter from this collection.

Despite its limitations, Christianity in Appalachia is a solid starting point for those interested in Appalachian religion. In addition, the collection of essays should help guide future research and become a focal point for discussion and disagreement. One area that should be considered for another edition, assuming someone will be "called" to the task, is how Appalachia is a middle ground between North and South. For example, the West Virginia Baptists, affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA (formerly Northern Baptists), are a diverse association of churches, with large urban congregations led by seminary-educated ministers, and many smaller, rural congregations pastored by bi-vocational ministers without formal training. Many medium-sized congregations fall within these extremes. The experiences of American Baptists are fertile ground for considering the influence of the Appalachian religion on the denomination, as well as the denomination’s influence on the local church. Another possible chapter might consider the contrast between "country" and "urban" churches. Such suggestions reveal how much work remains for scholars of Appalachian religion, and demonstrates that another edition would be welcome.

John Hicks, West Virginia University

homeReturn to the American Religious Experience Main Page