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


As a child growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, it was my good fortune to experience the religious diversity of Appalachia firsthand. For me, worship alternated between the local United Methodist Church and my grandparents' Church of God. Influenced by both churches, my religious upbringing resulted in a deep appreciation for the religious culture of Appalachia and an intense curiosity to learn more about the people and the faiths they continue to practice.


"Leonard's introduction to the book is clear and informative. For those who are confused by the numerous churches in the region and how to identify them, he places the churches into categories based on whether they are considered mainline, evangelical, pentecostal, or mountain churches."

Until the 1970s, most of the literary and academic works on Appalachia failed to recognize the diversity of the region, religious or otherwise. The majority viewed Appalachia as a homogenous society, "a strange land and peculiar people" unified by geographic, social, and economic isolation. Henry D. Shapiro was one of the first to dispel these "myths of Appalachia" in Appalachia On Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920 (1978). In the last several decades, the research of Appalachian scholars such as Ronald L. Lewis, Dwight B. Billings, Wilma Dunaway, and others contributed to the deconstruction of numerous economic and social myths.

In Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism, editor Bill J. Leonard attempts to dispel the myth of religious homogeneity in Appalachia. Focusing on the Christian traditions found in central and southern Appalachia, numerous scholars examine the theology and religious doctrines of the various mountain, evangelical, pentecostal and mainline denominational churches throughout the region. The book is divided into three sections: one that focuses on the social and economic aspects of Appalachian religion and culture; another that identifies the specific elements found in Appalachian mountain religion; and one that examines the history and activities of certain denominations within the region.

Leonard's introduction to the book is clear and informative. For those who are confused by the numerous churches in the region and how to identify them, he places the churches into categories based on whether they are considered mainline, evangelical, pentecostal, or mountain churches. (xxi-xxii) However, the essays in the first section are not as strong as they could be. They do not support the main purpose of the book, nor do they compel the reader to look further. Except for Charles H. Lippy's essay on popular religiosity, the essays contribute little to the religious pluralism theme of the book. Lippy's essay is informative and easy to read, and his assertion that Appalachian religion is not a reflection of otherworldliness based on deprivation and the desire to escape, but based on the understanding that the world itself is a place of mystery and supernatural power, is a point that should not escape those studying the region.(48) The essays of Barbara Ellen Smith and Janet Bogess Welch appear to question attempts to demythologize Appalachia.

Smith suggests that, although sometimes liberating, the effort to dispel the myth of Appalachia's exceptionalism, is not necessarily a good thing if the people constructed the image themselves. (11-13) That is a valid argument. Welch, however, resurrects stereotypes from outside the region that scholars worked for thirty years to dispel. She maintains that the opinions, values, and attitudes in Appalachia "are different" and "peculiar to the region." She presents West Virginians, and Appalachians, as violent, fatalistic, pessimistic, and individualistic. In doing so, Welch ventures "to assume that since rural West Virginians and other Appalachian rural people share a past and a history, their current outlooks also overlap." (54) Not only does she tar all rural West Virginians with the same brush, she extends those assumptions throughout the region. She insults West Virginians by claiming that they are violent people who participate in drug running in the body of her essay, while hiding the fact that the state has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation in her endnotes. (55, 71) In many ways, Welch's statements parallel the "culture of poverty" and the stereotypes attributed to it that sociologist Rupert Vance and Jack Weller articulated in Weller's 1965 book titled Yesterday's People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia. Yes, West Virginia and Appalachia have problems; no, the majority of rural West Virginians do not live in "nondescript, unpainted" homes "in various states of disrepair, with mini junkyards surrounding them." (64)

The book actually begins with Loyal Jones's essay. As a lead essay, Jones's article could serve as an overview of the religious plurality in the region. Jones's familiarity and his ability to put his finger on the pulse of Appalachia, something most natives recognize, makes a good lead for the essays that follow. In this essay, Jones touches on two traits found among Appalachians that often are elusive. The first is that mountain religion is a search for meaning, and the second is the statement that humility is one of the cornerstones of Appalachian theology. That humility is tangible in the majority of mountain churches, and it is something natives rarely forget. (100) Jones's essay, if followed by Lippy's, would provide a good basis for the theme of the book.

The "second" section of the book examines the specific traits or elements of mountain religion. Authors Deborah McCauley, Howard Dorgan, and Mary Lee Daugherty respectively focus on mountain Holiness churches, Old-Time Baptists, and the serpant-handling churches located in the region. McCauley appears to have softened her view of denominational churches in Appalachia in comparison to her stance in Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History, which was a major contribution to the study of Appalachian religion. She points out characteristics of mountain churches that include an independent church, strong emotionalism, the primacy of the Bible, and an uneducated ministry. Worship practices include conversionist preaching and rituals such as footwashing and baptism by immersion. McCauley correctly maintains that denominational churches had, and continue to have, little impact on mountain churches. In contrast, mountain churches did have an impact on many rural denominational churches. Rural Methodists often had emotional services with conversionist preaching, testifying, and calls to the altar, baptism by immersion, an emphasis on the Bible, and uneducated ministers. Perhaps it was their very willingness to adopt traits of mountain religion that contributed to the success of the Methodist denomination in West Virginia. (104)

In his essay, Howard Dorgan explains the subdenominations of the Old-Time Baptists and the traditions associated with each one. The Baptist diversity in Appalachia is astounding and regardless of Dorgan's knowledge on the subject, most readers should expect to read his essay more than once in order to get a firm grasp on the subject. Daugherty's article sheds light on the serpant handling tradition in Appalachia, particularly since the media often distorts this tradition in an attempt to portray serpent-handling as a dominant religion in West Virginia or an example of Appalachian "peculiarity." For the most part, the essays in section two are informative and contribute to the theme of the book. However, James Session's article on the Commission on Religion in Appalachia seems to be out of place, and it is unclear exactly where it belongs.

The last part of the book focuses on the history and role of various denominational churches in Appalachia. Bill J. Leonard's article on the Southern Baptists and Melvin E. Dieter's article on Wesleyan-Holiness churches are exceptional. The importance of the Southern Baptist denomination and its impact on society, in the United States as well as in Appalachia, cannot be underestimated. Southern Baptist theology permeates the social identity and political culture of Southern Appalachia and the South. Dieter traces the roots of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, their relationship to each other, and their growth in the region. Understanding these movements is particularly important as more and more denominational churches retreat from rural areas due to the high cost of maintaining small churches, particularly as membership declines. For the most part, Holiness and Pentecostal churches emerge to fill the void.

In addition to those essays, Anthony Dunnavant's article on the Stone-Campbell tradition is informative because, despite its historical roots in the region, many Appalachians know very little about the movement's history or religious doctrines. The inclusion of Lou F. McNeil and Monica Kelly's essays is also refreshing. Many authors tend to ignore the role of Catholics and their influence in Appalachia because of the area's strong identification with Protestantism. McNeil's essay is particularly good, providing a broad understanding and history of Catholicism in Appalachia.

Leonard concludes the book with an essay written by Samuel S. Hill. It is an appropriate ending for a book that provides valuable insights and understandings of the religious faiths practiced in Appalachia. Hill compares "mountain" religion to the religious culture of the South as a whole. Although paradoxical to his view of the South as a distinct religious region, Hill recognizes that Appalachia has a common and distinct set of religious beliefs and practices that separate it from the rest of the South. He ends with these words from a hymn: "So near and yet so far." (297, 310)

This book suggests that Appalachian scholars may have gone too far in dispelling the idea of Appalachian exceptionalism, especially in areas where Appalachians deliberately and consciously have chosen their own path, such as religion. It also provides a valuable resource for the study of Appalachian religion, as no other comprehensive work on the subject exists. This book answers many questions about Appalachian mountain religion, including the question posed to Howard Dorgan, "Why can't a Baptist just stay a Baptist?"


Connie Rice, West Virginia University

 


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